International calls can be made from cell phones depending on your service provider.

Photographer: Alexsander Bochenok | Agency: Dreamstime

Making International Calls from a Cell Phone

Making an international call from a cell phone is the most expensive calling option, but it's not as difficult as it sounds. Many cellular services are available for international calling.

For example, if your cell phone service provider is Verizon Wireless you'll pay 49 cents a minute to call Mexico, or $1.49 a minute to call France [source: Verizon Wireless]. Companies like Verizon do offer international calling plans that provide discounted rates for an extra monthly fee.

Similar to making international calls from a landline, you can get better rates by buying international calling cards that work with cell phones. Just dial a local access number, enter the PIN on the card and dial the number following the standard international format.

International travelers who try to use their U.S. cell phone in another country will find themselves paying extremely expensive rates, even when dialing numbers in the local country. That's because the U.S. phone is roaming on a foreign cellular network and is being charged at international roaming rates.

One way around paying international roaming charges is to buy an unlocked GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) cell phone. GSM phones are the standard in Europe, but are harder to find in the United States. Even harder to find in the United States is an unlocked GSM phone. Most American GSM phones are "locked" by the cellular service provider, meaning the phone will only work with one service like Verizon [source: The Travel Insider]. Unlocked GSM phones allow you to remove the phone's SIM card (Subscriber Information Module) and replace it with another SIM card from a different cellular provider.

There are many Web sites that offer cell-phone unlocking services. The process usually requires that you enter a special code into your phone.

What does this mean for international travelers who want to make local or international calls? If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can buy a new SIM card for each country in which you're traveling and making calls. When you're in Germany, you can go to a local cellular store and buy a $20 SIM card and some prepaid minutes. Put the German SIM card in your phone and now you're being charged like a local subscriber without having to buy a new phone.

There are even some new international cell-phone services like MaxRoam that work like VoIP for cell phones. Here's how it works:

  • You buy a special SIM card from MaxRoam and choose a phone number in the United States, France, England or Ireland for free.
  • You can also pay for up to 50 more local cell-phone numbers in over 40 other countries that will call your same cell phone. That allows your international friends and colleagues to call you for cheap.
  • When you dial a number and press "send" the MaxRoam system finds the cheapest way to route the call (over the Internet) and calls you back a few seconds later once a connection is made.

A service like MaxRoam is essentially an international callback service, which we'll talk about next.