Can I take my phone overseas? Check this before travelling

23 May 2017

One of the easiest ways to save money on your phone bill while travelling overseas is to buy a prepaid SIM at your destination. In most cases, this should be as simple as swapping out your Australian SIM for one a local one, but there are a few things you'll need to consider:

  • If your phone will work on the networks at your destination
  • If you can get a prepaid SIM where you're going
  • If your phone is unlocked 

1. Will my phone work over there?

Whether or not your phone will work overseas depends on whether it uses the same network standard as used by your provider at your destination, and whether it operates on the right frequencies. 

Keeping your standards

There are two basic global standards for 2G (Voice) and 3G (Voice and Data) mobile phone networks. Australia uses the most popular standard called GSM. The other standard is called CDMA. Very few phones work on both GSM and CDMA so chances are yours doesn't. Steer clear of CDMA networksyour phone probably won't work on one. 

Many countries, like Japan and the US, use a mixture of GSM and CDMA. For example, the largest provider in the US is Verizon, which uses CDMA. No GSM-only phone will be able to work on the Verizon network.

America’s second largest provider, AT&T, operates on a GSM network. Devices bought in Australia can work on AT&T, but only they support the right frequencies. Since there's a lot of frequencies and even more phones, this is something you'll need to look into yourself. However, newer flagship smartphone, like the latest couple of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S devices, tend to support enough frequencies to work almost anywhere. This is more of an issue when it comes to older phones. 

4G is a little bit easier: almost all countries, including Australia, use a single 4G standard called LTE. You'll still need to make sure your phone has support for the right LTE bands used in the country you're going to, but you don't have to worry about 

Almost all countries, including Australia, use a single standard for 4G called Long Term Evolution or LTE. Your phone will still need to support the right frequencies, but you don't need to worry about technology types.

It is however worth noting that even if a CDMA provider - such as Verizon - has 4G, you still won't be able to use a GSM smartphone for talk and text. 

Frequency of communication

Much like radio and TV stations, mobile networks operate on different bandwidth frequencies. These are measured in megahertz bands, such as 850MHz or 2100MHz.

This information is important, because your phone needs to have support for the specific frequencies on which a carrier operates. Look up the biggest carriers in the country you wish to travel to and check their network frequencies, then match them your device by looking up its specifications - the manufacturer's website is typically a good bet.

Generally, your device’s frequencies will appear something like this in a spec sheet: “GSM 850/900/1800/2100, LTE 700/2100”. In this example the phone would work on the GSM standard at 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 2100MHz. It would work on 4G LTE at 700MHz and 2100MHz.

We've listed the frequencies that popular US and UK carriers' networks operate on below: 

Popular US carriers:
Carrier Tech Voice (2G) 3G 4G
Verizon CDMA 850/1900 850/1900 700/1700/2100  
AT&T GSM 850/1900 850/1900 700/1700/2100
Sprint CDMA 800/1900 1900 800/2500
T-Mobile GSM 1700/1900/2100 1700/1900/2100 1700/1900/2100

Popular UK carriers:
Carrier Tech   Voice (2G) 3G 4G
EE GSM 1800 2100 800/1800/2600
O2 UK GSM 900/2100 900/2100 800
Vodafone UK GSM 900/1800
900/2100 800/2600
3 GSM 2100 2100 800/1800 

2. Choose a carrier and plan before you go

After you’ve figured out if your phone will work overseas (hopefully it's a yes!), it's not a bad idea to try and work out which prepaid provider you'll go with ahead of time. We'd typically recommend going with one of the bigger providers with better coverage; it may cost a little more, but you don’t want to find yourself lost in a foreign city with no mobile coverage.

In some cases, you can even buy a prepaid SIM card through inflight shopping on your way over. This can be a better option than waiting until you get to the airport. 

Requirements for buying a prepaid SIM overseas will vary from country to country, so be sure to look this up ahead of time. In some cases, you can literally get one out of a vending machine, in others, you'll need to have your passport on hand to prove your identity and all. 

If you're going to the US or UK, you can check out the local version of our site for that country to compare prepaid plans. 

3. Check if your phone is locked

Before you head overseas, you'll need to make sure you phone isn't locked to your provider's network. All phones sold on contracts in Australia are now unlocked, but if you've bought a cheaper handset with prepaid plan, there's a good chance its locked. 

If this the case, you'll need to get it unlocked before you can use it overseas. A network locked device will only work on the telco you bought it from, which makes them pretty useless overseas. 

The more reliably way to check whether your phone is locked is by going direct to your telco You can do this in store, online, or by calling tech support. To do this, you'll need to know your phone's IMEI number. This is easy to obtain and there is no fee for just checking if your phone is locked.

Dial *#06# (star, hash, zero, six, hash) and the IMEI number should pop up without you having to press anything else. The IMEI number is long, so be sure to write it down carefully. 

Depending on which provider you're with, the steps for unlocking can vary. Below are links to unlocking guides for the four big telcos: 

Unlocking your phone may incur a fee. This typically depends on how long you've had the device. 

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