Using a mobile phone abroad - 'roaming'

by Colin Bryant, TelecomsAdvice

One of the best things about the worldwide adoption of GSM digital phones is the ease with which they let you make calls while travelling abroad. Customers and colleagues can ring you on your usual number, and you don't have to worry about expensive hotel call charges. However, calls are not generally included in your inclusive minutes, rates are generally higher than at home and you have to pay to recieve calls. The networks have been reducing charges but not fast enough for the EU regulators so a directive in may 2007 will enforce price reductions across Europe.

There are a few simple practical steps you should take before you go.

Step 1

Handsets usually come with an international call bar in place, so if you haven't already used it abroad, ring your service or network provider to get the block lifted before you go. At the same time it is worth asking for the full number of your voicemail box. The short dial number you use in the UK to retrieve messagesmay be recognised by the foreign network but may not - you need to know your own box number. Just program it into the phone's memory, prefixed by the UK international dialling code, and then you won't need to worry about it again.

Step 2

Do remember that you will be charged for calls you receive when you are abroad - you will pick up the international "leg" of any calls. This may seem unreasonable, but callers may not know you are overseas or not be prepared to pay an international call charge. If you want to avoid being charged in this way, you can set your phone to divert to voicemail and retrieve messages later. Alternatively, some networks offer a service that will divert your calls to an operator at a bureau. Calls are answered with your customised greeting and the message comes to you as a text message.

Step 3

So now you're ready to roam. The world is your oyster - well nearly! Most UK networks have agreements to let their customers use multiple GSM networks around the world. The coverage, services and charges offered are those of the foreign network.


It comes as a surprise to many that the US has in the past presented us with roaming problems, the main reason being that the frequencies used by the rest of the world for GSM are those used by the US military. However, there is now a simple solution - the tri-band and quad-band phones, which nimbly switch to the US frequency. There is now a wide choice of handsets but these phones can be expensive for one-off travellers, so if you don't need to phone often from the US, you might consider hiring a phone for your trip.

In flight

Don't forget to switch your phone off while on the plane - but if you can't wait until you get there, help is at hand as many airlines now offer satellite phone facilities and with some service providers you can use a Skyphone card, which you just swipe through the slot in your armrest. You are billed in the usual way on your mobile phone bill - making expense claims easier.

Remote areas

And just in case you are going somewhere particularly remote, where there is patchy or no GSM coverage - there is another way of keeping in touch. A  system called Globalstar uses a combination of GSM and satellite technology. It has compact phones, and keeps the satellite part of the call to a bare minimum, keeping costs down to around $2.50 per minute. Again, phones can be hired for occasional use.

For detailed information on roaming and to get the low down on specific countries and their operators see GSM World.

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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