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Want to travel and don’t really know how things are going to work with your cell phone?  I have done so much research on this topic that I now carry two cell phones with me overseas to be prepared for making international calls.

We are going to cover some of the basics of things you need to know about using your cell phone overseas and how NOT to get a $1,000 bill when you get back home.  If you’re interested in using your BBM overseas FOR NO CHARGE scroll down.

First thing you have to understand is cell phones work on two different technologies, CDMA and GSM.  The only difference you need to know between the two is that GSM is the popular one and the CDMA is the red headed step child (simply put).

The vast majority of countries around the world use GSM and CDMA is mainly popular in North America and some parts of Asia.  If you have a “world phone” that simply means that your cell phone is equipped to work in most countries around the world.

If you have a smart phone (Android, Iphone, or Blackberry) and are on a CDMA connection, those phones are still going to work on GSM, you just have to get them unlocked (GSM uses sim cards, CDMA does not).

United States Carriers:

Verizon Wireless: CDMA                               ATTWS: GSM

Sprint Wireless: CDMA                                  TMOBILE: GSM

The second thing you need to know is that in the United States most phones “are locked” to the carrier and need to be unlocked so that you won’t get charged roaming fees and ridiculous extra charges for “international roaming”.  T-mobile is the best in terms of unlocking phones for customers while Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint are bit more difficult.

In many cases all you have to tell them is that you want your phone unlocked so that you can use it overseas.  They will try to pitch you the “international roaming” sale but tell them no that you want it unlocked since you are opening an account overseas.

3g frequencies

GSM frequencies around the world – Photo from WorldTimeZone.com

Unlocking an Iphone is a bit more difficult but there are vendors out there that are able to unlock them.  In Canada, Roger’s wireless actually sells the new Iphone 4 unlocked (I am not an Iphone expert).  Blackberry’s and Android’s can be unlocked with various vendors as well (search on Ebay or on crackberry.com) and you can find someone to do it for pennies if your carrier won’t do it for you.

The real issue comes with data, specifically 3g.  If you don’t have the same 3g frequency then you will be limited by the dreaded EDGE speeds which are grandmother slow.  If you don’t plan on opening a data plan then you can just use WI-FI for the internet.

If you are going to a specific country just Google the name of the wireless operators and 3g frequency together (if you’re going to South America for example you would search Claro 3g frequency and make sure they match).  If they match you are good to go, if they don’t then I regretfully inform you that you are out of luck.  (Click here to see a brief list of 3g frequencies around world)


Many people ask can I use BBM on Wi-fi?  The answer is no… if you dont have a data plan (I’ll explain).  When it comes to data there are two different types of data, internet data and bbm data.

You can use the internet on your blackberry from any Wi-Fi connection around the world but not your BBM. You have to have an active data connection with your wireless carrier in order to use BBM over Wi-Fi.

If you take your phone overseas and you don’t want to get nailed with overage charges you can turn off you’r wireless network and turn on your Wi-Fi.  This means that you will be able to use your BBM over Wi-FI with no overage charges, because your mobile network is off.  The key to this is having a data plan with your wireless plan.  No data plan means no BBM over Wi-Fi.  (Click here for a quick video showing how to use BBM over Wi-Fi with no roaming charges)


    1. Yeah Keith thats the only exception! The problem is the Iphone 4, they haven’t figured it out completely. Have you tried speaking with an outsource vendor (one of those fix cell phone stores). I”d recommend you buying an old iphone 3g so you can hack it easily or did you already buy a 4g?

  1. Yes, only reason to unlock it would be to be able to use the data networks (3g and edge) overseas. But you can make calls with skype and other services through the blackberry. So if you keep your network OFF, no overage charges at all, and the bbm you can use as much as you want (as long as you have a BB data active with any carrier around the world). I like to use the data service to get google maps wherever I go thats why I have mine unlocked

  2. Really great suggestions especially for the non tech types like me. I don’t have a smart phone yet so will reread this before purchasing too.

  3. I generally go with 2 phones. I’ll take my smartphone but only to use for Wifi, it comes in handy if your lost or something, you can hook up to any available Wifi spots around and Google map the area. The second phone is an old unlocked throwaway POS that cost literally about $20. This is my constant companion especially during any drinking sessions you may find yourself partaking in. I’ll grab a local carriers sim or in Europe an generic EU one.

  4. Hi Marcello,
    I am in the process of emulating your lifestyle and the first thing I am doing is reducing all of my expenses. I live in CA and my AT&T phone bill is $90 a month and I am out of contract. I have recently set-up Google Voice and Skype to reduce my phone usage. Do you recommend switching to T-Mobile to hopefully cut my bill in half or more? Great blog – thanks!

    1. Steve.. you can actually get a prepaid Tmobile plan that you reload monthly… why dont you just go with that? I wouldn’t pay more than $50 or $60 a month for a cell phone plan.. anything above that is an absolute rip off for me

  5. I agree and thanks for the response. My only concern is that the service quality might suck i.e. dropped calls and poor data coverage. I would literally be stranded with out the GPS. Do you know anything about this? On a side note, is it possible to subscribe to comments on your posts so I don’t have to check to see if there is a response?

  6. I am still wondering if I should be an Iphone or not when travelling. I know that nowadays all travellers have iPhones and they tweet regularly whenever they are and post some photos on Facebook being in touch with their readers but when I go travelling I don’t feel like being so close with technology. I enjoy myself more when my phone’s off. I think that having your phone with you while travelling distracts you a lot and you can easily lose your point of travelling. What do you think guys?

    1. I would agree and disagree with you Agness… it is a distraction but at the same time it helps a lot when you have gps and being able to know exactly where to go, etc

  7. Hi so I am in a trip in The US and I discovered I can use bbm with only wifi. I turned off all my mobile network and connected to the hotel’s hotspot. I used it for about 2 days and then my friend told me it costs a huge amount of money because it uses data too. Is it true that if only my wifi is on that it will charge my data too? PLEASE HELP

  8. Do you know if I can use a locked CDMA android overseas for wifi use only? I do not need to make calls or use 3G internet. Only wifi. Help?

    1. Really would depend on the phone Cynthia. I would try and get it unlocked. Also, the older phones that are CDMA do not have GSM world capabilities. Most of the companies around the world use GSM and not CDMA but if your phone is locked it won’t work.

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