Exactly what do I get with an "unlocked" quad band GSM phone

I'm considering upgrading my regular old analog outdated but still serviceable domestic cell phone with Verizon, regardless of European travel considerations. But I'm also thinking about an extended trip to Europe next summer. During that time, I would need reliable text msg and voice communication capabilities with the US. I understand that an "unlocked" quad band phone should give me what I need. But I don't actually understand exactly what capabilities I get with an unlocked phone. Also, I've read that it's possible to get fooled into buying an "unlocked" quad band phone here in the US that winds up only being "unlocked" for the service provider (e.g., T Mobile) you happen to have a service plan with. Hardly the capability I think I want or need! Help me out here, experts! What do I really need and how do I find out for sure if I'd be getting it with any particular piece of hardware esp if I upgrade through Verizon.

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
648 posts

Tom , A quad band phone operates on the four frequencies ( 850 ; 900 ; 1800 ; 1900 ) that are in common usage today enabling you to use the phone pretty much anywhere in the world . For more detailed technical info you can find all you need by searching the web . To keep this response reasonably concise , I'll only check in with my own experience . Buying a phone from a provider who will not unlock it will mean that you must use that provider's plan exclusively . An unlocked phone will enable you to swap out the phone's SIM card ,which is the devices guts and personality , if you will , for an aftermarket SIM card which is likely to get you better calling rates . When I started to travel , several years ago , I upgraded my Verizon phone to a quad band world capable smartphone . Verizon was perfectly willing to unlock the device so I would have the option of switching sim cards . I also take an international calling plan while I'm in Europe for data , text . and somewhat better price on calls . However I have been successful in flipping SIM cards on my trips , allowing me rates as low as 8 cents/ minute for calls. The phone gives me internet access and serves as a pocket sized computer which handles all my needs . In nearly four months in Europe it has performed pretty much perfectly . Needless to say there is much more information out there , just do your homework . Travel well !!

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
648 posts

Tom . one other point . Not all Verizon phones will suit these specific needs . You'll need to filter through the available phones to find what suits you . Take your time . with your trip months away you can really do this right .

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
7670 posts

I don't really understand what Steven was saying about having an unlocked phone but also having an international calling plan. There is really no need for both. An unlocked quad band phone will, as he said, allow you to switch out the SIM card that your phone usually uses (not every US phone uses SIM cards). That gives you a local phone number, and cheaper calls (even home to the States). The data use of a smartphone can be expensive. In order to avoid that, we often recommend using wifi instead. Wifi is usually free, or available at a small charge. It is widely available. You might choose an international calling plan if you do not take an unlocked phone. I don't see any advantage to paying for that if you have one. When you switch the SIM you are now "local". For my trip this past May, I took my regular, non-GSM smartphone and used its apps constantly on wifi. I also had a basic, non-smart unlocked GSM phone for which I bought a local SIM when I arrived in Spain. The SIM came with 9 euro of talk time on it. I used it for local calls and three lengthy calls to the States, and I did not use up all of the credit in the three weeks I was there.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17716 posts

Tom, I'm surprised that ANY network is still providing analogue service! We haven't had any AMPS towers here for at least five years (or more). To answer your questions.... Many cellular networks in North America provide phones at a subsidized cost, which are "locked" to their network. That restricts their customers from buying a SIM card from a competing network and using it in that phone. A phone which is SIM-unlocked can be used with a SIM card from any GSM network, whether from North American or European carrier, or with a "travel SIM" obtained here. Of course, the phone must also be a quad-band model, having the two frequency bands used in North America and the two used in Europe (and much of the rest of the world). This becomes a bit more complicated with phones having data capability, as different frequency bands are required for that. U.S.-based cellular companies have different policies on unlocking, and there's often a charge for it. You'll have to check with Verizon regarding their policies. Rather than obtaining a phone from your cell network, you could of course also buy an unlocked quad-band phone from E-Bay or other sites. Most of the E-Bay sellers seem to be reliable, and I've bought unlocked phones from there in the past. At the moment, I'm using an iPhone which I purchased directly from Apple, as it was supplied "unlocked". One other important point is that Verizon operates a CDMA system as well as GSM. Make sure the phone you choose can operate on both technologies. The bottom line - check with Verizon regarding phone unlocking. If you decide to buy a phone from them, they should be willing to unlock it after a specific time. Good luck!

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

When you buy an unlocked phone, it means that it will work with any GSM operator in the world that operates a service on a frequency that is compatible with your phone. When you have a quad band, you have basically all of the frequencies in one phone, which means that you have your choice of operator anywhere in the world. That's the advantage: Choice. When you travel to Europe, you stop off at 7-11, buy a prepaid card and instantly you have a local number to call, SMS, e-mail, whatever with. You put the SIM card in your phone, and you are done. Your carrier in the states is completely out of the picture, at least until you put your old SIM card back in. Then you have your US number. For traveling in Europe, it means that you never need to pay for expensive international calling. Wherever you are, when you run out of money on your pre-paid card, you toss it and buy a new one. Right now, the best deal for an unlocked phone is, without a doubt, the Nexus 4. T-Mobile is also really, really good about unlocking phones. For example, I have a 8 month old Galaxy S2 from them and when I went abroad, I called them asked and asked them to unlock the phone. They sent me the code the next day. I've unlocked at least 5 phones with them (I've been with them since 1998 when they were Voicestream!). Once your T-mobile phone is unlocked, it's the same thing: Whatever SIM card you put in, it will work.

Posted by Gary
Reeds Spring, Missouri, USA
120 posts

Go to this site: http://worldtravelsim.com/. You can buy a card, a non-smart phone or both. With the One World card there are no roaming charges and you needn't buy a card for each country you visit. I bought a card to use in my unlocked quad-band phone for an upcoming three-country European trip. $4.95 for the card plus $25.00 in call time.

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

Steven, I would have to disagree with you. I think that using any American SIM card in Europe is the most expensive option (albeit convenient... that's what you pay for) possible. $37 in Sweden, for example, will get you unlimited talk, text, and web for 31 days as a prepaid card. Or, you can buy Kompis Surf, which comes with 1GB of data and has cheap rates inside of Sweden for a whopping $10. Or, for $30 you can get the Amigo plan that comes with 200MB and cheap international calls/SMS ($0.075 per SMS or $0.0375 per minute, plus $0.15 to connect the call). Other countries in Europe have plans that have similar prices and are readily available. If you have an unlocked phone, there is really no point in using your US SIM, unless you specifically plan not to use it all (leave it on airplane mode, just use wifi for internet/email) except as a last I-don't-care-how-much-this-call-is-going-to-cost resort in an emergency. If you intend to use it as a phone, then a prepaid card is almost always going to be the less expensive option.

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Tom, you said you only wanted to use the phone for calling and text messaging so go for a really inexpensive "dumb" (or feature) phone and stay away from smartphones that will cost many hundreds of dollars. You can get an unlocked new phone from amazon.com or companies such as tigerdirect.com. These are more uniformly reliable than one from ebay where you may be dealing with an unknown seller on a used item (although I've also successfully bought my share of phones off ebay, I must admit). Or just buy an unlocked phone when you get to Europe. It may only have bands that work over there, but that is where you'll want to use it. You can get a phone and a bit of calling credit for around $30 or $40. Most phone shops (such as carphone warehouse in the U.K.) sell unlocked phones. You can search for their web site on the Internet and see what current prices are. At the risk of making your head hurt, be warned that at some point in the not too distant future there is a real likelihood that the four GSM frequencies used in most of the world outside of Asia will not always work with an older technology phone. The phone carriers are using different frequencies for data and when they run out of capacity some are repurposing some of the GSM frequencies for data instead. For example, T-Mobile, which has a more limited amount of radio frequencies than AT&T and Verizon, is converting its 1900 band from the GSM standard to a 3G or 4G standard in many places (T-Mobile also wants to snag unlocked iPhone users who've left AT&T). I recently discovered a GSM-only phone didn't work in at least one area, but a phone with the 3G technology did.

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
648 posts

@ Nancy , Sorry for the confusion , allow me to explain . I certainly agree with all of your comments , so why take a plan from Verizon ? Cost is one factor . The calling component costs $5 per month which provides a rate on all calls of $1 per minute . This is useful in an emergency and mostly because the sim cards I've used don't always allow access to my home phone voicemail . The other component is Data . I haven't been successful in finding a data sim and while I do use wifi most of the time , having data access via Verizon ( $30 per month for 100 MB ) is a relativly low priced option . Texts are 50 cents per , I recall . The other main reason for these , is redundancy .During a 5 - 8 week journey the additional cost ( largely data charges ) is worth it to me . During our first trip several years ago to the UK for 5 weeks , I swapped out the SIM for a Lebara SIM which performed flawlessly ( easy to top too ,even at a Tesco's ) and used my Verizon SIM for data and text , What I do is , I will admit , not neccessary but it worked well and the minimal cost was useful and provided a certain level of peace of mind. By the way , the 100MB data package was more than adequate , As long as you don't use it in a profligate manner i.e. streaming video or such . The other advantage to the data plan is that when in transit either by car or rail ,wifi is not an option and the verizon data component solved that issue . Hope this helped to provide a little more clarity and appreciate your raising your questions. I think it helps Tom make a more informed choice , Thanks , Steve !

Posted by Tom
Easley, SC, USA
268 posts

Hey thanks everyone. As of Sunday morning, I can see a lot of great info here, and I really appreciate it! I'll keep checking back for more later...for now, this is exactly the kind of info and advice I wanted!

Posted by Robert
Portland
629 posts

There's too much info in the answers here to read, but I did see this: "Right now, the best deal for an unlocked phone is, without a doubt, the Nexus 4." From what I can see of the Nexus 4 specs, that's definitely true. So if you want a smartphone, I don't see how it can be beat. But if you just want a simple phone phone that you can also use for calls while in Europe, you can get a quad band unlocked phone on Amazon or a site like Tigerdirect for cheap (I paid about $35 earlier this year for a BLU), then buy a SIM card when you arrive.

Posted by Tom
Easley, SC, USA
268 posts

Hey. Great info, as usual! Only question I have now is: If I'm bopping around Europe "collecting countries", which is what this trip next summer is all about (I'm working on Europe; I want to collect the whole set!), would I need to but a new sim card in every country?

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17716 posts

Tom, Regarding your last question, if you buy a SIM card in one country, it will work in other countries. However, outside the country where the card was issued, you'll be "roaming" so the rates will be higher. That means if you're using a pre-paid card, your minutes (money) will deplete faster. Also, in some cases it might be an issue to top-up cards outside of the country of issue. If you're using a travel SIM, these generally operate in "zones". Rates will be the same for all countries in each zone. Zone 1 includes most of the countries in western Europe, so the rates would be the same. Many of the travel SIM's operate with post-paid plans, with calls billed to a credit card, so topping-up is not an issue. I've been using a travel SIM for the last few years and so far it's worked well. However, this is something that I constantly review and "fine tune". My trips usually cover a number of different countries, so I prefer not to use a one-country SIM. Also, the travel SIM provides the option of a local number, so that if anyone at home needs to call me, it's as simple as dialing a local number. Cheers!

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8726 posts

If I'm bopping around Europe "collecting countries", which is what this trip next summer is all about In your "bopping around Europe" collecting all the countries, if you exceed a cumulative 90 days in the Schengen area during your stay you have your long stay visa organized before you travel. I'm making an assumption that you are a US citizen.

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Tom, I have successfully used a SIM card from T-Mobile U.K. in France, Italy, and Germany. I've been able to add credit to the card by buying vouchers on ebay. Here is a link where my post talks about this: Cell phones in Europe for extended trip. In other words, you don't have to buy a new SIM in every country, at least if you buy a U.K. prepaid SIM. I think this will be true for other countries, too. Local carriers have an interest in making it easy for their customers to use their phones as they travel around Europe. One other option: T-Mobile U.S. is letting its prepaid phones roam in Europe. Check out this thread: Has anyone used T-mobile no contract svc in Europe? The cost isn't cheap, but it is very, very convenient. It may satisfy your needs.