Cell-phone Confidential

What your wireless carrier doesn't want you to know when you go international.

Traveling abroad is expensive enough without your cell-phone carrier adding insult to injury. Roaming charges in London, for example, typically cost at least 99 cents per minute—and that's assuming you have a phone that works there. You can rent a "world phone," but that's even pricier. What if you could trim your cost to 25 cents per minute—and use your own phone? If you have a handset that operates on the popular worldwide cellular network known as GSM, that's a good start. Now all you have to do is temporarily dump your expensive American carrier and hook up with a local carrier. And that's where the trouble begins.

Every cell phone is tied to its carrier with a small card known as a SIM. Before you can use a new SIM card, which you can buy locally (in most places, but notably, not in Japan), you'll need to get rid of the lock that your carrier placed on your phone. Apparently, they don't trust stellar customer service to create loyalty.

Carriers don't publicize that you can do this, but often all you need to do is ask. Sometimes repeatedly. T-Mobile, for example, will unlock your phone, provided you've been a customer in good standing for at least 90 days. Cingular's policy is a bit hazier. "We do unlock phones," said Cingular spokesman Ritch Blasi, "but it's on a case-by-case basis." "Case-by-case" seems to mean "keep calling until you get someone who will do it for you," with the exception being former AT&T Wireless customers, who, at least for now, are just flat out of luck.

If taking on your carrier is more than you can stomach, you can buy an unlocked phone at the outset (which typically adds at least $100 to the price) or pick up a used one on eBay. You can also try one of the myriad unlocking services (also found on eBay) that advertise for as little as $10. Or you can wait it out. As more people unlock their phones, wireless companies will be forced to cut international roaming rates. Now if we could just do something about the price of a martini at the hotel bar.

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