One clear benefit of renting a phone is that you will likely pay a lower per-minute rate than if you roam with your home carrier. For example, Cellhire charges $.84 per minute for local calls in the UK, while most U.S. operators charge around $1.30 or more per minute for a local call. You'll pay long-distance charges on top of those rates. When you rent, though, you'll also pay a daily rental fee of around $5 to $8 a day or $29 to $56 per week.
Another plus to renting: you won't pay for incoming calls, assuming that's the policy of the network operator you're using. With a U.S.-based international service plan, you'll pay that same high rate for incoming and outgoing calls, in addition to international calling fees.
Also, renting doesn't lock you into a single phone. This is important if you travel all over the world, because no international phone works absolutely everywhere. Japan, for example, uses a different standard than other parts of the world, so you'd need a specific phone to travel there.
The downside to renting a phone is that you won't keep your home cell phone number. Cellhire now offers a service that allows you to forward your home cell phone calls to your rental phone, but then you'll pay for incoming calls. Some customers choose that offering, however, to catch unexpected but potentially important calls while distributing the lower-cost rental phone number to regular co-workers and business partners, said a spokeswoman for Cellhire.
Some enterprises prefer buying their own handsets and paying for roaming charges rather than renting phones because it simplifies administration. However, because most U.S. operators offer rental services, it's possible to receive the rental fee as part of the regular mobile phone billing cycle, minimizing billing hassles.
Use Your Own Phone
I've recently stumbled on one of the most low-cost ways to use your cell phone internationally. Armed with a GSM phone from the U.S. that operates on international frequencies, you can simply buy a new SIM card from an operator in the country you're traveling to. A SIM card is a small chip that stores the phone's number and account information and correlates to the operator's network. They can easily be removed and swapped in GSM phones.
Some operators offer the SIM card for free, knowing that it means you'll be buying airtime on their network. Vodafone in the UK charges 5 pounds (US $9) for a SIM card but includes 5 pounds' worth of airtime on the card. Travelers can simply buy that Vodafone SIM card once arriving in London, insert it in their phone and pay regular local rates using the same handset. Vodafone's pay-as-you-go plans range from 5 pence to 35 pence (US 9 to 65 cents) per minute for local calls -- significantly cheaper than the rates offered by U.S. operators or rental companies.
You can also buy an international SIM card in advance through a company called TextBay. They'll send you the SIM card before you go so you'll know your phone number and can distribute it to co-workers and family. The Web site has good information about how the whole process works.
The catch is that most operators "lock" their phones so that you can only use their networks. You must have your phone unlocked before another operator's SIM card will work in the phone. Some operators will unlock the phone for no charge if you've been a customer for a certain amount of time or if your credit with them is good.
However, if you're up for an adventure, in many countries you can simply pay an industrious small businessperson to unlock the phone for you -- for a small fee. Locals from Shanghai to Sao Paulo know how this works, so chances are your concierge desk can tell you where to have your phone unlocked. A friendly customer service representative at Meteor, a cell phone operator in Ireland, said that this practice isn't necessarily illegal, but it does breach the manufacturer's contract.
Regardless of which method you choose for using a cell phone abroad, you may find that simply placing calls can be complicated. Discovering when and where to use country and city codes can be challenging. It's worth asking your operator or the rental company a few basic questions about how to dial before you go.
Now that you're armed with all the details about how to power up, get online and phone home, all that's left is to convince the boss or family it's your turn for the next trip abroad. For that, you're on your own.
Nancy Gohring has been writing about technology for more than ten years and travels frequently for business. She's from Seattle but now lives in Ireland.