Subject: GSM Phones

Thanks, Linda, for your excellent summary of the cell phone situation. May I add some comments on cell phone strategy for those of us in the US who travel abroad?

Past trips from US to UK/Europe, we'd relied on phone cards for local calls and to call home. We'd use whatever minutes and either give the card to a local person or allow the unused time to expire.

Last trip, a family medical situation required that we carry a cell phone with us. We knew that most pay phones now will accept a credit card in lieu of a phone card, but where we would be traveling, there'd not be many pay phones. Plus any medical reports would have to come by e-mail, and netcafes or local public libraries for internet access were sparse.

So we obtained a free refurbished Nokia Euro phone from Prime benefit was that it had a pre-assigned permanent phone number for anyone in the US who needed to call us. The minutes that we used were charged to our credit card @ $US 1.50 per minute. No monthly fee, no expiration of service, no phone cards or prepaid SIM cards, unused balances which expire, just payment for actual usage. And we get to keep the phone forever. Actually, we lend it to traveling friends who reimburse us for the charges.

Before we left, we shopped locally for a Euro phone. Unlike the US, Europe's cell phones operate on the GSM protocol in the 900 and 1800 megaHertz frequency bands. In contrast, the US has four protocols--CDMA (Verizon and Sprint), TDMA (old ATT Wireless), GSM (Cingular/ATT Wireless and T-Mobile), and original Analog, all operating on the 800 and 1900 megaHertz bands. That's why your USA GSM phone cannot work in the rest of the world and your rest-of-the-world GSM phones won't operate in the USA.

That's why Linda suggested that a tri-band (800/1900/1800 mHz) or quad-band (800/1900/900/1800 mHz) phone could be used anywhere in the world. And if it were "unlocked" (meaning that you could buy and insert a country-specific pre-paid SIM card), you could call at minimum cost.

The rub comes if you want to buy a multi-band GSM phone and use it as your primary phone in the USA. US phones operate via the provider's protocol and when you pass outside of your basic coverage area, the phone either "roams" to a counterpart digital carrier or defaults to the original Analog mode. Published coverage patterns indicate that Verizon (CDMA) has the greatest coverage in the US, and Cingular and T-Mobile (GSM) the smallest. The latter's coverage areas tend to be the big cities and along the major Interstate highways. Indeed, T-Mobile doesn't pretend to cover us here in Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains; won't even sell us a GSM phone!

Cingular/ATT Wireless and T-Mobile are just getting started in the US, so their GSM coverage areas are quite sparse. Cingular GSM coverage map is at and T-Mobile is at

Should you be in a GSM uncovered area, your phone must be able to revert to Analog mode. If not, you are out of luck. Recent Consumer Reports articles have dealt with this at length.

All of the multi-band GSM phones that we found on the net and at local dealers have one to four GSM bands but none offered default Analog. So buy one from, say, Cingular, and forget about using it in Denver, Albuquerque, or Mexico City, according to the Cingular coverage map. And with T-Mobile, stay out of the Smokies or the Outer Banks, not to mention Wyoming, Montana, or either of the Dakotas.

Nitty-gritty for the Eurotraveler:

If you can find a four-band GSM phone with an unlocked SIM card and US default Analog, go for it. You've the best of all worlds.

Otherwise, the Mobalphone is the best deal that we (and for that matter, Frommers) have found for Europe travel so far, $US 1.50 per minute of actual usage. Your Cingular GSM phone will roam, but you will pay $US 1.29/minute in Western Europe, $US 1.69 in Australia, and $US 1.99 to 3.99 in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

I hope that this is useful. I have a big file of stuff and will be happy to try to answer further questions.

Jerry in E TN, USA