Mobile Phone International Roaming Tips

I had the pleasure to visit Moscow to work with my Strategic Emerging Business Team (SEBT) counterparts, partners and startups. It took only a tiny bit of research to discover that Moscow is the most expensive city in the world for a business traveler .. mobile phone roaming is only the start.

How expensive? $5.99 per roaming minute through my carrier. Wowza!

Thanks to my connection to a friend in the phone biz (who did the bulk of the work so I can enjoy this blogging moment of glory), I have some high-level tips (details and use cases below):

  • Obtain an unlocked mobile phone. Either advise your SIM-based carrier you’re traveling overseas and get the code from them, or buy a new unlocked phone on EBay. An unlocked phone lets you insert a SIM card that is seen as local to the country you are visiting.
  • Obtain a local pay-as-you-go SIM card for the countries you are visiting. You can do this in advance (links below), or once you arrive. With a local SIM, inbound calls are dirt cheap and outbound local calls are charged at local rates (which will vary by provider). Both are far less expensive than an international roaming rate in ALL cases. Also, with pay-as-you-go, you can add minutes at kiosks and know exactly how much you are spending .. no nasty surprises on your credit card statement.
  • If you are a PDA / Smartphone user, be prepared to carry two phones; one for data (even if by tether) and one for calls.
  • If you simply cannot live without data (I can’t), use your regular US-based phone for data, BUT:
    • Consider tethering your phone to your laptop and using the data connection from your laptop to synchronize your phone. This way, your calendar will be up-to-date.
    • Ask your provider to block international calls on your US-based phone while you’re traveling. Carrier terminology is “voice restrict” (just in case you get a newbie on the support line). Restricting overseas voice calls prevents the minimum one-minute charge for an incoming call (even if ignored and sent to voice mail).
    • Sign up for an unlimited international data plan with your cell phone provider rather than buying pay-as-you-go packages (which expire at the end of each month). Some due diligence on this is in order, of course.
  • I use AT&T as my mobile provider. While there are other SIM-based carriers out there, AT&T has done a glorious job of connecting all their (partner) networks for a seamless experience.
  • If your home-based business contacts (or loved ones, for that matter) are keen to reach you, obtain an US-based international forwarding number you can update on the Web. There are nominal costs to set up, and an annual charge to have this service, but it means you will always have a US number you can share. Note: do not forward your home or office phone as you’ll pay international charges for the call. Caveat: your company may have a service; check with them first. I like to use the service because it is a predictable cost; no surprises on my credit card. As you change countries and buy local SIM cards, update the forwarding service on the Web.
  • If you’re going to participate in conference calls, obtain the local number for the dial-in if your company or provider has one. With your local SIM, it’s a local call at outbound rates.
  • If you’re going to make a lot of out-of-country calls while traveling abroad, consider a local bounce-back service depending on the inbound-versus-outbound rates in the country you are visiting. In Russia, it’s a slam dunk ($5.99 per roaming minute); in some other countries, it may not matter as much. To use a bounce-back, you you dial the local bounce-back service number (local outbound call at local outbound rates) and hang up. The service calls you back (inbound call at local inbound rates) and asks you to dial the international number you want to reach. End result: you’re able to make an international call at local inbound rates. Note: the bounce-back service typically has a per-minute charge. However, this charge will be much lower than international rates.

I acquired an unlocked GSM phone and selected InTouch to arrange my international roaming. For my Moscow trip, I purchased:

  • A Russian SIM from MegaFon (Russia-local cellular provider) featuring:
    • Inbound calls at $0.01 per minute for MegaFon-Moscow network numbers and federal numbers subscribed to BeeLine, MTS and MSS Moscow (926 area code).
    • Other inbound calls at $0.09 per minute (including international).
    • Outbound calls at $0.03 per minute for MegaFon-Moscow network and federal numbers subscribed to BeeLine, MTS and MSS Moscow (926 area code).
    • Other outbound calls at $0.19 per minute.
    • Inbound SMS is free. Help your folks learn to send you texts prior to calling.
    • Outbound SMS at $0.03 per message.
      For other details, please see the InTouch SIM home page.
      Note: be sure to keep your SIM topped off; you’ll find kiosks all over Moscow.
      Note: if traveling outside Moscow, be sure to check the InTouch SIM home page for rates and other details.
  • The InTouch SmartForward service (US-based forwarding), featuring:
    • A US-based number (800 / 866 numbers are available) that forwards to a foreign SIM card.
    • Pay-as-you-go pricing at VOIP rates (quoted at the beginning of each call).
    • Automatic reload at $50 increments (despite the number of calls I was making, I never hit this).
  • The InTouch Bounce Back Plus service (callback service), featuring:
    • Trigger callbacks by local phone call, email or text messages.
    • Low-cost inbound calls from the system attendant.
    • Low-cost international calls via VOIP.
  • Unlimited international data roaming from AT&T. For my Microsoft phone, the domestic roaming service costs $45 / month. Adding the international brought the total monthly cost to $65. We get a discount from these retail prices, so this was a slam-dunk to keep me connected.
  • InTouch also sells / rents unlocked mobile phones if you want something new with a warranty.

Clearly a lot of information herein. Please let me know how I may clarify or expand.

About Michael Coates
I am a pragmatic evangelist. The products, services and solutions I write about fulfill real-world expectations and use cases. I stay up-to-date on real products I use and review, and share my thoughts here. I apply the same lens when designing an architecture, product or when writing papers. I am always looking for ways that technology can create or enhance a business opportunity .. not just technology for technology's sake. My CV says: Seasoned technology executive, leveraging years of experience with enterprise and integration architectural patterns, executed with healthy doses of business acumen and pragmatism. That's me. My web site says: Technology innovations provide a myriad of opportunities for businesses. That said, having the "latest and greatest" for its own sake isn't always a recipe for success. Business successes gained through exploiting innovation relies on analysis of how the new features will enhance your business followed by effective implementation. Goals vary far and wide: streamlining operations, improving customer experience, extending brand, and many more. In all cases, you must identify and collect the metrics you can apply to measure your success. Analysis must be holistic and balanced: business and operational needs must be considered when capitalizing on a new technology asset or opportunity.

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