Why your cellphone will likely stay home

When Barbara Klausner was planning a trip to Italy, keeping in touch with relatives back in the United States was a priority.

"My father was elderly and not in good health," she said. "We needed to be able to be reached."

She scouted the Internet for international cellphone rentals and went with WorldCell, a Maryland-based company.

"It made me feel really secure," said Klausner, of Washington, D.C. "It was so much easier for my father, knowing he could call me directly rather than going through European hotel staff who may not speak English well."

On a subsequent trip to Paris, she and her husband rented an international cellphone from the Rent-a-Cellular kiosk at Washington Dulles airport.

Using cellphones to keep in touch isn't a new concept. But U.S. travelers, concerned over the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorist attacks, increasingly want the ability to communicate instantly when traveling abroad. While there are no firm figures on tourists' use of cellphones, companies that rent international cellphones say business is good.

Klausner lucked out, finding reputable firms that rented her a complete kit that included the right phone, an extra battery, an electrical adapter, detailed instructions, a clear and easy delivery system and even a car charger.

But others have been, at best, confused by the myriad choices and, at worst, stuck with an expensive phone that doesn't work.

"It's sort of crazy," said Joni Blecher, who writes an online column called "Ask the Cell Phone Diva" at www.cnet.com. "There are a lot of choices."

Why can't you just take your cellphone to another country and use it there?

Simply stated, because most U.S. phones don't work in most other countries. Without getting too techno-geeky, the United States doesn't have a technology standard, so wireless companies use many different formats, including TDMA (AT&T and Cingular), CDMA (Sprint and Verizon) and I-den (Nextel). Most of the rest of the world, including Europe, Australia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, uses a standard technology called GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications).

The GSM Association estimates that about 1 billion people in more than 190 countries use the GSM standard. GSM is also used in the United States by T-Mobile, and to a lesser extent by AT&T and Cingular, but the frequency is different than elsewhere. Digital U.S. cellphones that are not GSM are not always useless outside the borders, although older analog phones won't work.

There are countries, mostly in South and Central America and the Caribbean, that also don't subscribe to the GSM format. And some U.S. carriers have agreements with network providers in those countries that allow you to use your standard digital phone there — for a fee. Nextel phones, for example, can be used in all or portions of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines. AT&T digital phones can be used in 26 countries, including 15 Caribbean islands, Argentina, Bermuda, Brazil and Venezuela. AT&T Next Generation phones can be used in 150 countries, including in Europe, but subscribers must first notify the company of their travel plans.

Three options

But using your own cellphone isn't an option in most of the world. For the traveler who wants to stay in touch while overseas, there are three options:

• Buy or rent a multiband phone through your regular cellphone provider.

• Rent a multiband phone through one of the many companies dedicated to providing this service.

• Rent a phone once you get to your destination.

How to choose? Much depends on such variables as how often you'll use the phone and how frequently you travel. Generally speaking, going through one of the big cellphone providers is convenient, but pricier — call rates typically range from about $1.30 to $1.60 per minute.

Overseas providers are often the cheapest way to go — phone rentals are usually fairly inexpensive and rates back home can go as low as 40 cents a minute — but there are often hidden land mines, like minimum per-day charges.

For the leisure traveler who goes abroad only occasionally, renting through a specialized U.S. company is a good bet. Phones usually rent for $20 to $50 a week and rates are often below $1 a minute, plus delivery is simple and customer support is readily available — but there are large price variables.

What to ask?

"Start by asking all the questions you would normally ask when getting any cell service," columnist Blecher said. Such as:

• How much will the phone cost to buy/rent?

• What technology standard does the phone use, which countries does it work in and what is the coverage area? (A good independent resource is www.gsmworld.com, the nonprofit Global System for Mobile Communications that represents more than 190 countries.)

• Do I have to use the SIM card that comes with the phone or can I use an independent SIM card (known in the business as unlocked vs. locked)? The SIM card (Subscriber Information Module) is the "smart card" that holds the subscriber's information and phone settings.

• What are the calling rates? Is there a possibility extra roaming fees will be assessed by a local carrier in Europe?

• Will you place an "authorization" hold on my credit card until my bill is paid and, if so, for what amount? Is there a minimum charge that will be assessed regardless of how much I use the phone?

• Are adapters, chargers and other accessories included in the price? If renting, is delivery included?

• Do you have a 24-hour customer-care number and is it toll-free?

• Are voice mail and text messaging included?