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!
Three cheers for cheap bastards (I’m one myself, so I’m allowed to say that). Thanks for these good tips. We haven’t quite figured out if we’ll carry a cell phone or not on our RTW, but if we do, this is very good information to know.
It won’t hurt to toss in a small (cheap) unlocked cell phone in your bag. You never know if you might need it. Dealing with foreign pay phones or calling cards can be a real hassle!
Renee in BC says
Hi, Jason. This is great info, thanks. I have no idea whether my iPhone is locked or not. (Canada, Fido). Hopefully it can come with us to Europe.
Thanks for spelling it all out.
It probably is locked. You can contact Fido about getting the unlock code. And if that does work, there are companies that can assist in unlocking it, for a fee.
Good post. I bought an unlocked cellphone online a few years ago, right before I left for South Africa. I have been continuously traveling with it for three years now, and it has been indispensable. We just buy a SIM card every time we enter a new country and get a local number. Especially useful for finding housing and making friends for our daughter. Glad I found your site, looking forward to reading more of your adventures.
Hi Chaya. I am glad you enjoyed the post. That is a great point you make about using the phone for setting up play dates for children as you travel. I am sure we will be using ours for the same thing!
Talon (1Dad1Kid) says
Useful info. When I went to Paris, my international data plan worked just fine, but that was pre Twitter & Facebook which are apps that use up data. So for our RTW I’m planning on unlocking my T-mobile phone. However, since I’m looking at a different type of phone, am also considering just buying one already unlocked. Thankfully the locked phones are cheaper than most of the unlocked ones I’m seeing for Android phones, so will probably go that route.
Please excuse my technology-challenged brain…we are going to the Cancun, Mexico area in 3 wks. If I buy a T-Mobile phone, will it come unlocked? If not, will they unlock it for me? If I’m flying into Cancun International Airport, is there a place there I can buy a local SIM card? (I ask because you state earlier that you were there). We are being transported to our remote resort with no opportunity to detour to some local store so we would have to be able to buy it at the airport.
Thanks for the help…
The phone that you get from T-Mobile will most likely be locked, unless you buy one that is specifically stated as being unlocked. For them to unlock it would depend on how long you have been a customer and which phone it is. I contacted At&t to request the unlock code on my previous phone and they emailed the code to me a few days later at no charge. So, you never know unless you ask. As for buying SIM’s in Mexico, I have no idea if the airport carries them. The arrival area of the Cancun International Airport does not have much for shopping and I don’t remember seeing any SIM vending machines. In Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Cozumel you should be able to find one easily. If you cannot unlock your phone, your best bet may be to talk to T-Mobile about getting an international roaming plan for this trip.
I just came back from a cruise around the carribean, brought 3 prepaid phones with (straighttalk-verizon and tmobile) only tm would work sometimes for txt only, which I do most of and send photos, I bought a digicell simm card on one of the islands, and found out it wouldn’t work in my tm-garmin, Do you have any better ideas? ps: the other two phones show a map of their coverage in some parts of the carribean, but none of them had a signal, not even in st. thomas or portirico.
Prepaid phones are not unlocked, usually. If the islands you visited did not have Straighttalk, Verizon, or T-Mobile service, you would not be able to use them. At least not without roaming. Here is a list of cell phone companies for the Caribbean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Caribbean_mobile_phone_companies
thanks for the information, jason. i need to know if is it safe to carry an unlock iphone through international airport? cause the unlock iphone must be jailbroken right?is it considered illegal or is it okay to carry it through international airport? thanks
I am not sure about all countries, but jailbreaking an iPhone in the USA and EU is legal. Plus, I don’t think anyone is going to check your iPhone anyways.
amy v says
What’s the WiFi like in Costa Rica and Nicaragua? Trying to figure out if a sim will be enough for my smartphone, or if I need to try and get some sort of data card. Thanks!!
Every place we stayed in Costa Rica had high speed Wi-Fi, so you should not have a problem. We even had it way up in the mountains. Costa Rica is a very modern country. As for Nicaragua, I ma sure you can find Wi-Fi there, as well. But, we were only there for one day and did not need internet. We were too busy admiring all of the wonderful things in that country.
Great post THANKS. I stumbled here as I was searching for an International rental for an upcoming Turkey trip. Now I am convinced that I am just going to buy one as we do travel a decent amount internationally. Do you have any recommendations for sim cards?
For Turkey, just pick up an unlocked GSM phone from Amazon (link above) before going and once you get there bring your phone and passport into the shop of a Turkish network operator (Avea, Turkcell, or Vodaphone) and they will register your phone and provide you with a sim card. The phone registration in Turkey is mandatory due to terrorist activities, but is supposed to be free. If you don’t register your phone they will block your phone from their networks and it is hard to get it reactivated for use in Turkey. Have a great trip!
Wow, GREAT info. Thanks a million.
San Jose says
We are on our way to Paris in less than 2 weeks and trying to find the right cell phone to buy before we leave. Are you still using your samsung i5500 corby galaxy 5 android smartphone? Is that still the best option or do you have other recommendations? Also, do the over the counter sim cards provide data service too or they are just for making and receiving phone calls.
I am still using the Samsung i5500 Galaxy and it is still a great phone. The battery life is amazing, which is rare for a smartphone. As for it being the best phone, that depends on what you want to use it for. If you are just looking for calls only, you might check out the cheap Blu phones. My wife had one and it worked really well for calls only. If you are wanting a smartphone, there are a lot to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with the i5500. The screen may be a bit small for some people, but it doesn’t look like you have a brick in your pocket. As for the data plans, Lycamobile does offer mobile data plans and you can check their website for pricing. But you may not need it, as most parks and Metro stations in Paris have free wi-fi, so any phone with wi-fi (like the i5500) will be able to connect at these locations.
Have a great trip to Paris, and if you have any questions about the city, feel free to ask. We have been here for a month and have had a great time!
I am going to Ethiopia in 4 months, what kind of unlocked mobile should I take please?
Any unlocked GSM phone should work fine in Ethiopia. There are lots of models to choose from.
Have a great trip to Ethiopia!
Thanks Jason 🙂
I travel to about 7-10 countries a year. I use an MX-12 or an MX-29. The MX-12 is GSM, unlocked and works in over 200 countries and holds 2 SIM cards. The MX-29 holds 4 SIM cards and also works anywhere in the world.
I can keep my US SIM card in the phones and pop in any SIM card from whatever country I happen to be in.
lots of good info here.. I am from usa leaving for cancun and have a samsung galaxy s III in which I have scheduled to “turn off” because the roaming charges are outrageous. Since I will be gone for 16 days there the tmobile tech emailed me instructions to “unlock my phone” he too said that I could buy a “sim card” in cancun the popular store there is Telcel .. I have never done this before.. I really didn’t want to use the phone for “voice calls” as I do have a laptop and can do “skype” for free but was wondering if I could just get the internet like my facebook on there.. thats really the only thing I wanted to use it for.. not sure if you know if this is do-able or not.
thanks for your time.
If you pull out your T-Mobile sim card out and turn on wifi, you can use Facebook and any app requiring internet without the risk of international roaming charges. That is if you have a wifi network that you can login to. If you are just out walking around without a wifi connection and still need internet, you will need to purchase a data plan in Cancun. Just pop into a cell phone store when you are there and they can give you prices for pay as you go data plans.
Have a great time in Cancun!!!
Funny you should mention Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I’m going to be buying SIMs before I go, and was wondering if there is a telco that has service in both countries. I’d prefer to buy one SIM for three months than two SIMs for two months each.
Also, you mentioned that the iPhone can not be unlocked. I’m planning on using a iPhone 4s (world phone), and Verizon says that they don’t lock them. You know anything about that? I might buy a cheap US SIM (maybe tmobile), and test it. 🙂
You should probably wait until you get to Costa Rica or Nicaragua before buying pre-paid SIM’s. You might be able to find a great deal down there that is not advertised online and they are usually available all over. As for a telco that would work in both countries, best to ask the companies down there, or buy the SIM for the country that you will be in the most and just pay roaming charges in the other. I am currently doing that in Spain with a pre-paid SIM from France until I use up the rest of my balance.
As for the unlocking of iPhones, you can purchase iPhones that are factory unlocked and at one time AT&T would not unlock an iPhone. Now that Verizon is offering competition, I do not know if that is still the case and will need to look into it. If you have a world phone, it should be unlocked. If you want to test it, just borrow a friend’s SIM card that has service with AT&T or T-Mobile and pop it into your phone and see if your phone works with their phone number. If it does, it’s unlocked! If it is locked, it will usually have a message stating so.
Enjoy your trip to Central America!
Hi Jason! Thanks for the great tips. Does your Samsung phone have a camera, and how is it? I’m hoping to get an unlocked smartphone that can also serve as a decent camera.
The camera on my Samsung is not the best, but it works. If you are looking for a phone with better camera and video, check the specs and reviews of the different phones on Amazon. There are lots of newer models that have exceptional cameras.
I am looking into the Samsung i5500 Corby Galaxy 5 Android Smartphone with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Touch Screen – No Warranty – Black as you recommended. I am wondering however how I know whether or not the phone is UNLOCKED. If I ruck up to any cell phone place, will they be able to just provide a SIM card that works with this phone? I just dont know how to tell, when lookin on Amazon, that a phone is in fact able to take on foreign or even domestic pre paid cards from any given company. Thanks
The best way to tell on Amazon if the phone is in fact unlocked is to read everything in the description. If it says AT&T or T-Mobile, it won’t be unlocked. Most of the unlocked ones are legit, but you can be sure by reading the reviews. Also, once you get an unlocked phone, just borrow a SIM card from a friend if you don’t already have one and if it works, it’s unlocked.
I am going to Costa Rica for 9 months and I need to get an unlocked cell phone that has good reception and built in Wifi. My Costa Rican friends tell me that I have to check and make sure that the phone I bring will work in Costa Rica. I see that your article says that most of the world uses the GSM network. Is that true of Costa Rica? What about the UMTS? Did you have any problems with your Samsung i5500 Corby Galaxy 5 in Costa Rica? Do you remember which carrier you used? (ICE/Kolbi/Claro/Movistar) And do you have any recommendations for an unlocked phone? Thanks for the help! I don’t want to spend money on a phone and then have it not work when I get there…
When we went to Costa Rica we found every hotel we stayed at had a phone and we ended up not getting a SIM card there for our phone. Any of the companies offering prepaid SIM cards will work fine with an unlocked GSM cell phone, it just depends on what services you need and how much you want to pay. Best to price the different plans once you arrive, or if you really need a phone as soon as you arrive, there is a kiosk in the baggage area in the San Jose airport where you can pick one up. The Samsung i5500 Galaxy 5 will work fine as a basic phone, but if you are planning to use it for navigation and lots of internet use, I would recommend getting a phone with a larger screen. The i5500 is a great phone, but it is very compact.
Hope this helps and have a great time in Costa Rica. Staying there for 9 months sounds great!
Very helpful – thanks for the Samsung recommendation too. Any recommendations for getting a SIM card for use in Italy? I will only be using the phone for emergency calls & GPS when hopelessly lost. 🙂
This blog has been tremendously helpful as I am educating myself on the whole “unlocked” phone issue. I may be moving to Mexico for two years and I am a current US Verizon customer. My contract is up this month and since I now know that I need to purchase an unlocked phone to use in Mexico I could use some advice on how to proceed. I have only done a cursory look on Amazon and it is a bit overwhelming! Thank you Jason for providing specific models and suggestions because the prices are quite high!!! If I break my Verizon contract now and purchase a new unlocked phone to use until I leave the US (end of July 2014) I am assuming that I will have to get an entirely new phone number, manually enter all my contacts, and get some type of month to month plan in the US until arriving in Mexico… is that correct?
Also, once in Mexico, a SIM card will allow for local calls.. not international back to the US is that correct???
Gerri, just don’t renew your Verizon contract just keep paying your bill till you leave, my recommendation would to buy the newest version of a factory unlocked GSM iPhone 5C/5S from the Apple Store here in the US before you leave, (and the iPhone is not cheaper in Mexico once the exchange rate is compared.) Once you are in Mexico, get a prepaid TELCEL SIM card and activate it, with that, you’ll get a local number and you can also set it up with data, you will be able to call local numbers and the US with your phone and any other place in the world, enter all your US contacts in your phone as +1(area code)number and your Mexican numbers with +52(area code)number so if you have to call from the US to Mexico you won’t have to dial any special prefix.
Can somebody clarify to me why didn’t they add a display for the black version??!!
Beth W says
My friend has upgraded her phone and has an old iPhone 4s (Verizon) How can I tell if it is unlocked and whether its GSM or CDMA? I’d like to take it to Vietnam and purchase a SIM card there for it.