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Will My Cell Phone Work for International Travel?


cell phones in Asia

Will your cell phone work in Asia?

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Question: Will My Cell Phone Work for International Travel?

If you're like many people, your smartphone has become an external extension of your brain; to live without it would just hurt. You aren't alone: much of Asia is diagnosed with nomophobia -- the feeling of anxiety without a smartphone within reach -- and in some countries the number of mobile devices nearly outnumber people!


The US uses a different standard and frequency range for cell phones than most of the rest of the world. While this doesn't pose a problem at home, traveling abroad with your cell phone can become more complex than it should be.

In a nutshell, you must meet these requirements to use your cell phone in Asia:

  • The phone must be the correct hardware standard for the country you are visiting.
  • Your phone must be multi-band or operate on the correct frequency.
  • You must have international roaming or unlock your phone to work with foreign SIM cards. If not roaming, you must purchase a local SIM card and prepaid credit.


Most of the world uses the Global System for Mobile Communications standard, better known as GSM. The most notable exceptions are the US, South Korea, and Japan -- all of which use the CDMA standard.

Having a phone that works on the correct standard is only half of the equation. American CDMA cell phones operate on the 850 and 1900 MHz frequency bands, while Japan and South Korea use the 2100 MHz band. Your cell phone will have to be tri-band or quad-band to work abroad -- check the phone's hardware specs.

The most popular cell providers in the US that are compatible with the GSM network are: T-Mobile and AT&T. Customers with Sprint and Verizon Wireless typically will not be able to join the local cell networks in much of Asia.

International Roaming in Asia

If your cell phone meets the hardware requirements, you'll have to decide between international roaming -- which can get very expensive -- or unlocking it to use a SIM card with local number and prepaid service.

International roaming allows you to keep your number from home, however, you'll pay each time that someone calls you.

Tip: Deactivate data roaming on your smartphone to avoid big, unexpected charges due to apps updating in the background.

How to Use Your Cell Phone in Asia

Step 1: Unlock Your Phone

First, your phone must be 'unlocked' to work with SIM cards on other networks. Your mobile provider may do this for free if you contact tech support. Alternatively, cell phone shops around Asia will often unlock your phone for a small fee.

You will need to provide the IMEI number of your phone to tech support; the number can be found in the settings, possibly beneath the battery, or you can dial *#06# on many smartphones to retrieve the IMEI. You should store the unique IMEI number somewhere secure; if your phone is ever stolen, many providers will blacklist your phone so that it cannot be used.

You should only have to unlock your cell phone once for international travel.

Step 2: Purchase a local SIM card

A SIM card provides you with a local number for the country you are visiting. Carefully replace your current SIM card with the new one by turning off your phone and removing the battery. Keep your old SIM card somewhere safe -- they are fragile! New SIM cards need to be activated to join the local network; methods vary so refer to the instructions included or ask the shop for help.

SIM cards contain your local phone number, settings, and even contacts; they are interchangeable and can be moved to other phones should you swap or purchase a new one. Your SIM card will expire after a set amount of time to free up the phone number. Purchasing credit regularly will keep the card from expiring.

SIM cards can be purchased in shops, 7-11s, minimarts, and in cell phone stores around Asia. Sometimes the friendly staff will install and activate the card for free.

Step 3: Purchase credit

Known around the world as 'top up', your new SIM card may come with a small amount of credit or none at all. Unlike monthly cell phone plans in the US, you'll need to purchase prepaid credit to make calls and send texts with your phone.

You can purchase top-up cards at minimarts, kiosks, and in shops across Asia. Top-up cards come with a number that you enter into your phone. You can check the remaining balance on your phone by entering a special code.

Other Ways to Call Home

Smartphone users on shorter trips can avoid the entire ordeal of getting onto the local cell network simply by just taking advantage of free Wi-Fi to make VoIP calls using software such as Skype. You can call other Skype users for free or dial landlines and mobile phones for a small fee.

Localphone.com is a popular alternative to Skype with a slightly different setup and no connection fees. Compare prices for using localphone.com to call abroad.

Wi-Fi is widespread throughout Asia and internet speeds often rival those in the US and Europe. South Korea was even declared the most connected country in the world and enjoys more internet bandwidth than anywhere else. You won't have any problems finding Wi-Fi in cities and tourist areas.

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