Cell phones and Latin America travel

by Aguirre on August 12, 2011

Cell phone for travelers in Latin AmericaSIM cards for travelers in Latin AmericaAs the use of mobile phones becomes more widespread, so does the natural desire to remain in contact whilst you travel in Latin America. So the question is, what is possible and best for travelers to Latin America? And do smart phones work here?

The answers depend on budget, convenience, what communications are needed, and the country being visited. Latin America is right along with the rest of the world in mobile phone growth, but smart phones are still a relative novelty athough this too is growing fast. In the last decades, as waves of privatisation washed over the continent, cellular phone service was one of the first successful business areas for the private sector as a result of neglect and mismanagement by the state telephone monopolies. Country after country saw international players like Telmex, Telefónica and Cable & Wireless move in and offer fast cellular service, leapfrogging technologies in the process. But again, much depends on the country – Costa Rica is only this year finally opening up its cellular service to the private sector.

Here are the basic options you can consider for the Latin American country or countries you are travelling to:-

1) Use your normal cell phone on a roaming basis
This may prove technically out of the question, and will prove to be the most expensive route due to roaming charges. You first need to check carefully in advance if your phone will work. Basically this boils down to having an unlocked GSM phone that works on the right frequency. Most of the world use GSM networks on 2 frequencies,  900 MHz and 1800 MHz – whilst the USA, for example, uses different frequencies (850 MHz and 1900 MHz ). And then there are the costs. Even if you sign up for a roaming plan with your carrier, expect this to be pretty expensive.

2) Use your normal cell phone with an international SIM card
As 1) you first need to check whether the phone will work. If so, you can buy an international SIM card on a prepaid basis from vendors like OneSimCard and Telestial, or on a post-paid basis from brightroam and others. The advantage of post-paid is that you don’t need to look for top-ups or risk your service being cut. International cards can cover up to 200 countries on a varying basis, or be regional (for example, Telestial offers a South America card). They usually provide you with one number you use for all the countries.

3) Use your normal cell phone with a local SIM card
As 1) you first need to check whether the phone will work. And then you need to check the ease and availability of buying prepaid SIM cards in the country(ies) you are visiting. Operators in most Latin American countries offer prepaid cards, sold in a wide number of outlets usually including airports, and this solution should prove the cheapest. The risk is you find out that, despite all the research, this doesn’t work on the spot.  www.prepaidgsm.net  is a website with details of prepaid SIM cards offered by local operators in most (9) but not all Latin American countries. For example, Costa Rica and most countries in Central America are not covered.

4) Use your normal cell phone with Wi-Fi and Skype
Your cell phone must obviously work with wi-fi, so this mainly applies to smartphones. There are an increasing number of wi-fi zones, free and paid, in Latin America, including many hotels, and you can check in advance where these wi-fi spots are at www.jiwire.com.  This website locates paid and free wifi places around the world, and also download apps for iphone and Android that enable you to locate these online or offline. Their Wi-Fi Finder works both on a search basis, entering the desired location, and on a map basis. (We recommend the former as much faster). And If you have Skype on your mobile, you can make cheap or free international calls from these wi-fi zones.

5) Buy an international phone, with international or local SIM card
Here you buy the phone in advance and are assured it will work. Choose whether to buy an international SIM card in advance, or local SIM cards on arrival (slightly riskier, but cheaper). As this alternative involves buying a relatively expensive quad-band GSM phone, it all depends on your expected travelling and volume of calls you expect.

6) Rent a cell phone locally
Rental car companies in many Latin countries are offering this; otherwise you will probably need to arrange this in advance as outlets may be hard to find on the spot.

Which option to select?
What you select depends particularly on what you want to use the cell phone for. If it’s mainly for local calls from time to time, a local SIM card is the best if you want the ability to phone at any time (assuming coverage), or don’t want to use the local system of public phones  (that usually require you to work your way through Spanish instructions) or phone from the hotel. You can of course use an international SIM card, but pricing often is the same whether you are calling within the country or internationally.

Will your current phone work?
How can you check whether your phone will work as it is, for options 1-3) above? The first requirement is that the phone is be unlocked. This depends on the contract you have with your carrier. To check if your phone can be unlocked (for USA, UK and Australian operators), try www.unlockingcodesforphones.com. Also www.unlocking.com works on a cell phone model basis and can sell unlock codes.

Although 3G is being rolled out progressively in Latin America, GSM remains the most likely solution. More than 200 countries around the world use GSM and it is an international standard, with only a very few countries not having it (for example Japan). A GSM cell phone is compatible with any GSM local operator that is running on the same frequency. Your account information is encoded into the SIM card. If you check either www.prepaidgsm.net or OneSimCard  for the country you are visiting, you should be able to find out what frequencies the local operator(s) are using. Your travel company or agent can help you research this too.

What to buy, where?
If you decide to buy an international SIM card or a phone, both available from vendors like OneSimCard, Telestial, or brightroam, we suggest you check Amazon first. Not only do they sell many cellphones and SIM cards for international use, including from these vendors, but the customer feedback should prove very useful in your decision-making. For example,  National Geographic  offers an international SIM card, Talk Abroad SIM, but there are many negative comments by dissatisfied purchasers.



We will be checking out in more detail individual country’s cell phone situation for travelers. As a specialist in arranging Latin America tours, we believe that matters like cell phone connectivity will increasingly prove an important element of any trip and we will be glad to help you make the right choice. Let us know what you need!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

RICK CHARLES June 25, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Interesting article & if you are frequent flyer, it can really help you. Telestial launched the first ever Dual Number US / UK SIM card with its Passport range of services! Now we can get sim for usa at low price and the quality is better than most of the other services.

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