What Kind of Phone?
A Simple Explanation:
Not an iPhone newer than a 4S.
A More Complicated but Much Better Explanation:
An unlocked, inexpensive, world compatible phone that uses a regular or micro-sim card. Are all these features absolutely necessary?
No not really. World compatible is all but a necessity, and you can bring your own phone, expensive or not, if you want, but we do not recommend bringing a nano-sim phone, which is the reason for the iPhone 5 hate above. Read on about specific requirements below.
This is a big one. Some phones simply won’t work in a lot of the world. Chances are pretty good your newer smartphone will meet this requirement, with one very large exception, if you are a United States resident that and you don’t use AT&T, you might be out of luck. AT&T, and most of the world use the Global System for Mobile Communications or GSM standard and operate on one or more of the following frequencies:
2G (Voice, SMS, Data): 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
3G (Data): 850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz
Phones that are compatible with these frequencies are what we consider “World Phone Compatible”. You will see it noted simply as “World Phone Compatible” or GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100 throughout the site. You can probably get away without the 1800MHz compatibility most places, but if your phone supports the other standard GSM frequencies it will likely support 1800 MHz regardless.
You will want to bring a GSM phone that has these specifications. Generally if there is only one version of a phone made, it will one with these specifications. If you are with AT&T in the United States, one of the big three in Canada (Rogers, Telus, Bell and subsidiaries) and most major European/UK carriers your phone will be good to go in most of the world, and you can stop reading here.
If you have a T-mobile compatible phone in the USA, or a WIND or Mobilicity compatible phone in Canada, you will be able to use it in most of the rest of the world for voice, SMS and 2g (very slow) data but you will not be able to connect to 3G networks. We would not recommend bringing it with you, as 3G data is very useful. 2G can be painfully slow, sometimes to the point of not being usable for even the simplest of tasks. That said, some newer phones operating with these carriers will contain the extra radios to make 3G connections possible in the rest of the world, you’ll have to check your specific phone for the frequencies noted above.
And, Verizon. Oh Verizon. Verizon is one of the last (the last?) companies in the world to use the CDMA standard (instead of GSM). Weird that there would be a standard that still hangs on only in the US…right, no, not weird at all. Older Verizon phones don’t even have a sim card slot, and do not use GSM frequencies so using them on carriers in the rest of the world is not an option. Some newer Verizon phones do have a sim card slot that will contain a “roaming sim” that allows usage in the rest of the world (at high roaming rates). But, if your newer Verizon phone is unlocked, and contains this “roaming sim” it may be possible to swap it out with a foreign sim card.
LTE networks are another animal altogether with frequencies varying carrier by carrier and country by country all over the world (the parts of the world that even have LTE). We don’t recommend worrying about it unless you really need the speed, and in that case research the specific country, and carriers, before hand. On the standard 3G frequencies listed above, speeds up to HSPA+ are possible, and usually more than sufficient. Don’t tell your North American carrier we said that (really guys, up data caps first, upgrade your network speeds later). You can find a list here (that may or may not be up to date) of frequencies used around the world.
Any phone you bring cannot be locked to a carrier if you want to be able to use a local sim card and take advantage of much lower local rates, which is what this site is all about. You can get your current phone unlocked. The most straightforward way to do this is to ask your carrier to do it. In the United States AT&T will unlock your phone if you meet the requirements, generally meaning your phone needs to be paid off and your contract needs to be in good standing. If you aren’t with AT&T in the US, you probably don’t want to bring your phone with you (more on that in the world compatible section). In Canada most carriers will do it, with similar requirements, for a fee. Other areas? Post in the comments if you have information.
There are other ways to get your phone unlocked if the carrier won’t do it. Non-Apple phones can usually be done by a local shop that offers unlocking services without too much trouble. Apple phones can be a fair bit more complicated and may require jailbreaking your phone if you can’t get your carrier to do it.
Or you can buy an unlocked phone outright, there are several options covered in phones below. This may sound expensive, but in many cases it really isn’t. There are several options on the market now that start at a couple of hundred dollars for a very capable smartphone, and buying a used phone is always an option as well.
This requirement is, of course, highly dependent on where you are travelling to. If you’re heading backpacking in the developing world, just bring a cheap phone. It’s much better for peace of mind, but don’t go so cheap as to not have a useful device. Take a look at phones below if you’re looking for recommendations. In countries such as Brazil there is the perfect storm of very high petty theft rates, and very inflated electronics prices. Your iPhone 5 is going to be a very nice target for a pickpocket at it’s over $1000USD retail price there. That all said, theft is a possibility in many well developed parts of the world as well, so having an inexpensive phone can’t hurt.
Regular or Micro Sim Card, Not a Nano Sim Card:
Apple inc. sometime circa 2009 or 2010 decided that a regular size sim card was just too big to design their phone around, and so they used a micro sized sim card in the new iPhone 4. The whole world (yes the entire world, every man, woman and child) was angry that they would do such a thing, but not altogether surprised. Other manufacturers eventually followed suit, and micro-sim cards became the defacto standard for new smartphones. Not to worry, turns out a regular sized sim card can be cut down to a micro sized one with a simple tool, or even a pair of scissors in a pinch. While travelling with a phone that uses a regular size sim card would be ideal to avoid having to do this, it is not as practical anymore due to the lack of modern phones that use them.
However, the story does not end there. Apple, in designing the iPhone 5, decided that a micro-sim card was still just too big, and so the nano sized sim card was born. This, currently can be a real problem. While regular sized sim cards can universally be trimmed down to micro-sim cards, only some sim cards can be trimmed down to nano size. The chip on many sim cards is too big to be trimmed to a nano-size.
Since everyone (again, yes, everyone) in wealthier countries love the iPhone so much, using a nano-sim card based phone travelling through the developed world may work just fine. In the USA, AT&T Go Phone prepaid sim cards, for example, use a nano-sim and come with two adapters to use it in either a micro, or regular sim based phone. That said, for prepaid cards you still may run into trouble. And it will certainly cause you a headache in less developed parts of the world.
No really, what kind of Phone?:
A dual sim motorola Moto G, or the single sim version if you can’t get your hands on it.
The Motorola Moto G is NeedaSim’s current recommendation as it checks all the boxes above, with style. The first or second generation version will work. The Moto G is a very capable smartphone, for the low, unlocked retail price of about $200 USD. In addition to meeting all the above requirements it also has very good battery life (the first generation more so than the second unfortunately), and is quite difficult to break. It’s the old snap off plastic back design that most flagship smartphones have shunned in favor of metal, or much more fragile glass. And it is a removable plastic back, so sim cards can be accessed and changed without needing a tool (or a paper clip). You will find a Moto G at the top of any list of “affordable smartphones” generally with a note that it’s by a large margin. It’s easily capable enough to run most modern apps (high quality graphics gaming aside) and the latest version of Android. It’s currently one of our author’s only phone, even when at home and at work.
If you can buy the dual sim version, that’s even better as you can always have two sims active and in your phone. This is very useful if you want to remain in contact by your home country cellular number when needed. However, there are much cheaper ways to do this without continuing to pay your carrier at home, see our article on using VOIP. Beyond that, it will still allow you to store a couple of sims at a time when travelling country to country, or to use a data only sim in one and a prepaid phone/sms plan in the other (if you really want to get creative). A single sim phone will do the trick though, especially if you use a VOIP service for communicating with home, and, in North America it’s relatively difficult to buy the dual sim version.
Are you convinced? No? Maybe? Well, there are, of course, many other viable options. Our next picks for Android phones are the Google Nexus 4 or Nexus 5. They have one advantage over the Moto G in that they have a plethora of radios so they will allow you to connect to the 3G networks of strange carriers in strange countries (say T-Mobile in the United States of America, if you want to do that for some reason), i.e. non ‘world phone compatible’ carriers. The Nexus 5 even throws in a few LTE radios so you may even be able to connect to even faster networks in a few places. The main disadvantage is the price, though still very reasonable, you are looking at a bit more than the Moto G. A used one would bring it back down closer to the Moto G. They are also much more breakable, and do require you to find or keep around some sort of small sharp object (a paper clip) to swap sims.
Beyond that, if we’re ranking phones, the iPhone 4S would be next, and would rise quickly to the top if you know and love and use a version of the iPhone already. Carrier locked versions can be much trickier to unlock, but if you buy or have an unlocked version it will work just fine. As mentioned above the iPhone 5 (or 5s, 5c ,6 or 6 plus) is not recommended due to its use of a nano-sim card.
Many other Android phones, and older iPhones (if you can live with the speed) will work just fine as well. A phone that is popular worldwide, say a model from Apple or Samsung, can be worth considering if you are travelling long term in case you need to repair it. Nexus phones, for example, are not that common in parts of the world, South America being one example, where finding parts (even a new battery) is almost impossible. But several other manufacturers and models do have world wide market penetration, and you could always just buy a new, inexpensive phone (or as inexpensive as possible) wherever you are if you can’t get yours repaired. An off-brand Android phone is worth considering too, as they can be bought for as cheap as $100, with some being quite capable, depending where you are in the world.
Of course the phone you already have may be your most inexpensive option, especially if it meets the requirements and recommendations above. If you have a phone that’s non world compatible leave it at home. Verizon and T-mobile phones fall into this category in the USA.
What about not using a phone?
Well, you could use a tablet, or any other device with a sim card slot and a world compatible 3G or 4G radio. A phone is generally the simplest though. You can carry it with you, test if it works with new sim cards, and share the internet connection via a wi-fi hotspot or USB tethering with any other devices you may have with you (tethering is not restricted by carriers in most countries).