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Can I Use My Cell Phone Overseas?

U.S. carriers have international roaming, but buying a local phone may be a better deal

En español | Q. I'm going to Europe this summer. Can I use my U.S. cellphone there? What's the cheapest way to check in with the family back home?

A. The big carriers Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all have international roaming plans that let you pay a monthly fee, roughly $5, in return for discounts on calls made with your U.S. phone in covered foreign countries. Check with your carrier to see if the countries you'll visit are on its plan.

See also: Save money on your cell phone.

This is probably the most convenient way, but even with the discounts you may not like the prices — AT&T, for instance, charges 99 cents a minute for voice calls made in France and $3.99 in Russia.

Your best bet may be to do what the locals do. Once you've reached your destination, buy a new or used cellphone, suggests Darius Fisher of International Living magazine. You'll pay as little as $25 (airports typically have cellphone shops), plus about $10 for a local "SIM" card, the electronic device that gives the phone a number.

You talk away, using low-cost prepaid minutes. Make sure that any phone you buy is classified as "unlocked" so that you can use SIM cards in multiple countries to make calls at local rates.

Depending on its technical characteristics, your American phone may be convertible into a foreign phone by swapping out a SIM card (you replace the old one on returning). Going this route can be complicated.

You also might consider signing up with Skype, an online service that allows you to make calls from a computer. If you're calling another computer, it's free. If you're calling a phone, there will be a generally low per-minute charge. Many Internet cafes, anticipating people like you, have computers with Skype installed, as well as low-cost Internet calling on other services.

There are lots of choices, but whatever you do, don't just pick up your hotel room's phone and dial home! You can expect to be shocked at the rates.

You may also like: Is a no-contract cell phone right for you? >>

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.

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