What the heck is an unlocked cell phone?
When I first heard the term Unlocked cell phone mentioned a couple of years ago, I was clueless as to what it was or what the benefits were. But after researching the topic, I realized that this was a must have necessity for anyone traveling outside of their home country.
Most cell phone carriers in the United States (At&t, T-Mobile, etc) lock the free or discounted cell phones that you get when you sign a contract with them. These locked cell phones will only accept a SIM card from that carrier and you cannot switch carriers without unlocking it first. Many carriers will offer unlocked cell phones through their websites, but they charge top dollar for these phones.
Why would you want an unlocked phone for travel?
Last year when we landed at Mexico’s Cancun International Airport I saw something that made me cringe. Looking around as we waited in line for customs and immigration, I noticed fellow passengers pulling out their cell phones and turning them on. While this is a common practice after you land, this is a huge no-no when going to a different country as international roaming charges can quickly add up. But that is only when you make or receive a call, right? Not true if you have a data plan. Just having your iPhone or other smartphone turned on can rack up roaming data charges. I have heard of people coming back from a one week trip to Mexico and find a $500 cell phone bill for just having their iPhone turned on.
Even if your carrier offers international roaming plans, an unlocked cell phone can still be a better option. With an unlocked cell phone you can purchase a local pre-paid SIM card in whatever country you travel to and have a local phone number, plus cheap airtime. With an unlocked cell phone, you do not even need to have a contract with a carrier, as you can just use pre-paid SIM cards anywhere. This can be really beneficial if you are planning a round the world trip, like we are.
Which unlocked phone to buy?
Approximately 80% of the worldwide cellular network is GSM. So it would make sense to buy a phone that uses the GSM network. In the United States only At&t and T-Mobile use the GSM network so any of the phone models that they use will work. If you already have a phone from one of these carriers, you can contact them and ask for the unlock code. While they will not do this for an iPhone, they might for other phones. But if you are in the market for a new phone, searching Amazon.com will give you the best options for cheap unlocked cell phones. I recently purchased a new unlocked HTC S621 PDA smartphone for under $100 and plan to use it on our upcoming trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I chose this phone because it has built in Wi-Fi. So now I can skip the data plan charges and just find a free Wi-Fi spot to download emails and search the web.
Where to Buy an Unlocked Cell Phone
The best selection and prices that I have found for unlocked cell phones is Amazon.com
My HTC S621 just met with disaster on a recent crabbing trip. A bit of saltwater splashed on the phone and it no longer works. So, looking at phones on Amazon I thought I would try an unlocked smartphone running the Android operating system. One of the cheapest ones I could find with the best reviews is the Samsung i5500 Corby Galaxy 5 for around $110 USD. It has Wi-Fi, touchscreen, GPS, and it is not too big, which is perfect for travel. I have been using this phone for a couple of weeks now and I love it! It also makes for a great entertainment system, as my daughter wants to play Angry Birds all the time. And who needs to pay the extra money for a data plan when there are so many free Wi-Fi spots now. If you are looking for a great unlocked phone for travel, I highly recommend a smartphone running Android. You won’t be disappointed!