Saturday, April 16, 2016

Here’s some advice for using cell phones overseas - April 15, 2016

Before my wife left for Israel, and my son and I visited her, I had to figure out how we could use our cell phones outside the United States.

There are two kinds of cell phone technologies in the world. Here in the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM system while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. Most of the world outside the U.S. uses the GSM system – think Beta and VHS or AM and FM. They are similar systems, but different.

I checked the specs to our phones by googling the models online. Because my wife bought her iPhone at an Apple store, it was set up to work with both the CDMA and GSM systems. The Android phones my son and I have worked with both systems. Ask your cell company if your phone can work on GSM systems if you cannot find the information online.

Next, check with your provider for advice. Sprint told me it had an international roaming plan I could put on our phones for free. In Sprint’s case, it allowed for unlimited data roaming but at speeds from 10 years ago, 2G technology speeds. That’s pretty slow. It also allowed for phone calls at 20 cents a minute. I asked it to activate its international roaming for our phones so we at least have this capability when we first arrived in Israel.

I also asked it to unlock our phones. When you buy a phone from a provider like Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T, the phones come locked to its system. Phone companies are fearful people might subscribe to a two-year contract, receive a free phone, and then stop paying their bills and sell their phone on eBay. Phones cost well over $500 in most cases, with some close to $1,000. Phone companies subsidize the phone’s cost and we pay for them as part of our monthly charge over the life of our cell phone contracts, often two years.

While the phone is locked, you cannot use it on another carrier’s system.

However, most carriers will unlock your phone if you ask. Your payments need to be up-to-date and you have to have been a customer for a period of time, perhaps as little as 90 days.

By having our phones unlocked, and also able to support the GSM system common in Israel, we were able to buy new SIM cards for our phones. SIM cards are tiny electronic cards in a GSM phone that tell the phone how to access the local cell network. You will probably see kiosks and stores for SIM cards in the airport when you arrive. It is generally a good idea to pass those by and seek out lower-cost SIMs sold at many stores.

My wife found a SIM card provider at the university where she is studying that offers unlimited phone calls in Israel and unlimited data at modern, high speed 3G technology for only $15 a month. Ponder that for a minute and compare it to what you are paying for your cell plan.

Our first day in Tel Aviv we bought SIM cards for our phones and a data plan for a gigabyte of data. That would make our phones as if we’d purchased them from a cell phone provider in Israel, with an Israel-based phone number and all. The salesperson removed our U.S. SIM card and reminded us to save it for our return to the U.S.

The data didn’t come online right away, but we were assured it would recognize the system in about 20 minutes. By the time we returned to our AirBnB hours later, we still did not have data service.

I called tech support and they helpfully had an English-speaking tech call me back. He asked me to check various settings in my phone’s settings app. He kept asking me to find a setting on my phone for “APN Servers.” I could not find it, nor did I even know it existed. After we ended the call, I found out by googling that Sprint, for some reason, had removed that setting from many of its Android phones. I discovered an app in the Google Play store that put it back in. Tech support told me what settings I should enter for APN Servers, and I was soon up and running with fast 3G data.

Links for that app are in this week’s link post at

When I got home, it was a simply a matter of removing the SIM I’d purchased and reinstall the Sprint SIM the salesperson in Israel had removed. I was then back on Sprint in the U.S.

Had our phones not been GSM ready, or Sprint had refused to unlock the phone, many stores overseas will rent you a phone for the duration of your visit.

I didn’t worry about making international calls, or costs of texting. By using Facebook messenger and Whatsapp, we were able to make calls and text to each other, and friends and family back in the U.S., using just the data plan.

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