The Cell Phone Thing, Part V: Calling Plans

So, here we are, almost finished with our long journey through the intricacies of using a cellphone overseas. But there are still a few things to know before you start making calls from outside the United States.

Even if you are all set with a foreign prepaid SIM card and a quad-band or European phone, you need to understand the conditions of whatever plan comes with that SIM card.

Cellphone Series

I: Verizon
III: Using A SIM Card
IV: Finding A SIM Card
V: Calling Plans
VI: Tips & Miscellany

Remember, you haven’t signed a contract, so there won’t be any bill. But you have to keep the card charged up with minutes, sort of the way you have to keep your car filled up with gas. Usually you can buy the minutes on the Web or by punching a code into the phone itself.

The way those minutes are charged off as you make calls will vary. Some plans charge a flat per-minute rate for in-country calls and different rates for international calls. Others have rates that change according to the time of day. In Europe, especially, the cellphone user may be charged minutes for outgoing calls, but not incoming ones.

Some SIM cards may allow roaming (at a higher rate, naturally) outside the country of origin. Others, including the one I bought for $6 in Russia, don’t work outside the country where it was bought. Try to get all that information when you buy the SIM card.

My daughter bought a SIM card in Spain that has a lower per-minute rate after 4 p.m., which works for her because Spain is (usually) six hours ahead of the United States and she’s in class until late in the afternoon, anyway.

Mostly, we call her because she doesn’t have to pay for  incoming calls. But we don’t call directly from our land line, and here’s why.

In Spain, as in many countries with the free incoming calls on cellphones, phone companies charge the person who is making the call extra to reach a cellphone. So if I call Spain under my AT&T international calling plan, I pay 11 cents a minute to call a land line but 27 cents a minute to call a cellphone. That’s because AT&T is passing through a charge of 16 cents per minute from the local cellular company. (Of course, it’s not just AT&T. That charge is passed on to all phone companies – and their customers.)

It would be great if I could just call the kid on a land line in Spain and pay the 11-cent rate. Or, better, I’d use a calling card to get less than half that rate.  But the kid doesn’t have regular access to a land line.

So I bought a prepaid calling card especially for calling cellphones in Spain, with a rate of 12.5 cents a minute. (I used Nobelcom. There are others.) And calling card is a misnomer, by the way. It’s really just a code that you can buy almost instantly online.

To call us, the kid uses her cellphone and a calling card intended for calls from Spain to the United States. If we’re going to talk for a while, though, I call her back so as not to use up her minutes. (Remember, she gets incoming calls free.)

Does it make your head spin? Mine too. But if you take the time to figure all this out, it will save you money.

Next, we’ll wrap up this interminable screed with a few more tips about traveling abroad with a cell phone.


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