Replacing Your SIM Card for International Roaming

Woman texting on cell phone
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If you're traveling overseas with your cell phone, it's important to make sure you've thought about the different ways to save money before you go.

The first place to start is by making sure your cell phone will actually work in the country you're visiting. The next step is to make sure you've signed up for international roaming, and perhaps international data roaming plans offered by your cell phone service provider. Then you'll want to make sure you've considered some money-saving alternatives for international cell phone roaming charges. The first one to consider is purchasing a second phone specifically for international trips.

Going Native With Your Cell Phone

Another way to save money while traveling is by turning your cell phone into a "native" cell phone by replacing the SIM card on the phone.

Many travelers don't know they can replace their phone's SIM card (the little electronic memory card that identifies and configures the phone) with a local (or country-specific) SIM card. In general, when you do that, all incoming calls will be free, and outgoing calls (local or international) will be significantly cheaper.

"One of the least attractive ways to call the U.S. from overseas is by using your existing cell phone and standard services," said Philip Guarino, an international business consultant and founder of Elementi Consulting in Boston. "Even with an international roaming package on AT&T, it can cost 99 cents a minute or more for voice calls. The moral of the story is—dump your American SIM card and buy a local one instead."

For years, when Guarino travels, he has simply purchased SIM cards at the airport and used them for cheap local calls or calls to a free AT&T number for making international calls using a low-price calling card.

"In a pinch, even if I call directly from my phone using a foreign SIM card, the average direct-dial rates are about 60 cents U.S. per minute, which is cheaper than using my original U.S. SIM," said Guarino.

SIM Cards Change Your Number

You need to understand that when you replace your SIM card, you'll automatically be getting a new phone number since cell phone numbers are actually associated with the SIM cards and not the individual phones. You should hold on to your existing SIM and simply pop it back in when you get back home. If you end up putting in a new SIM card, make sure you share your new number with the people whom you want to be able to reach you, and/or forward the calls from your existing cell phone number to the new number (but check to see if that will incur long-distance charges).

If you're considering replacing the SIM card on your phone, you also need to make sure you have an unlocked phone. Most phones are restricted, or "locked," to only work the specific cell phone provider you originally signed up with. They essentially program the phone so that it won't work on other carriers' networks. In most cases, though, consumers can unlock their phones by typing in a special sequence of keystrokes so that the phone will work on other carriers' cell phone services and with other carriers' SIM cards.

Other Options

If replacing your SIM card is too complex or confusing, don't worry. You can also save money on your cell phone bill by using Internet calling services such as Skype.