Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Little GSM Primer

The first thing I did when I got to Cairo (after checking into the hotel) was go buy a SIM card. This was simple, as in many countries. I walked into a tiny store, found a salesman who could understand me, then bought a new phone chip called a SIM. He stuck it in my GSM phone, made an activation call (during which he kindly specifed "English" when the computer-voice asked), and I walked out moments later with my brand-new Egyptian telephone number.

For those of you in my home country who believe I am speaking gibberish, it works like this. Almost the rest of the world outside the USA uses GSM mobile phones that work on different bands to ours. As most of you know, your phones won't work overseas unless you buy a fancy one with tri or quad band. But even then you get to pay roaming charges and your charger won't plug in.

If you want to save a lot of dough, instead get yourself an unlocked GSM dual-band phone off eBay.co.uk or in a phone store next time you're in a foreign country. The older, the cheaper. Mine was 12 UK pounds. Then every time you go into a new country, you can walk into a phone shop, and walk out with a local prepaid phone number. These are cheap--my SIM card in South Africa was about $2. Here it was less than $10.

If you want to go even farther, get a USB charger for your phone. This is usually lighter than a charger, but obviously only works if you are also carrying your laptop.

This is not rocket science. You will see ads touting world phones and companies that will get you a local phone number for a small fortune. No need. Just remember not to make a lot of calls or you'll have to buy more minutes. But hey, in the rest of the world, incoming calls are free. That's right. FREE.

My new phone company here in Egypt, MobiNil, kindly pre-programmed in “common” SMS text messages. Great! With one click, I can tell someone “I am thinking of you,” "mabrouk" (congratulations), or “Dinner or lunch.”

This seemed a bit of a waste of my phone’s memory, so as soon as I found a little cafĂ© where I got a mango juice and chicken salad, I hit “Delete.” I’ve never texted anyone “I am thinking of you,” at least not without an expletive on the end.


Marie said...

And by the way, the generic for "mobile phone" in East Timor is... "Nokia." :-)

mmclaurin said...

I am thinking of you.

See? I can do that without a phone!

Sara Kocher said...

I am thinking that my U.S. mobile phone company deserves quite a number of those expletives on the end. All calls cost me airtime, including wrong numbers and calling in to pick up my messages. Not to mention their great customer service, or the amount of time spent on hold before getting that "service."

Thanks for the primer on international mobile phones. If I ever make it out of the country again, it'll come in handy.

Marie said...

To get the right phone at the right price, you can get one without a camera off eBay.co.uk, a few years old. Dirt-cheap! The problem is only a few people ship to the US, and you have to get one that takes Paypal (I had mine shipped to infamous H. M. when he was in university there). It's easiest if you are actually buying a phone in the country you're going to. Virginmobile.co.uk has some awesome deals, and they are locked to Virgin's network until you've bought a certain amount of airtime, so if you're going to the UK anyway, you'd be in luck.

As for US cell phone companies, a pox on them! It's outrageous. Why are we the only country in the world where consumers pay for wrong incoming numbers? Aren't we supposed to tell them what to do since we're the consumers?

I told them. I switched from a monthly plan to Virgin Mobile prepaid. Because I don't use it much. My bill went from about $46 a month to about $20. And when I'm out of the country? It's $20 for three months, and I get to use those minutes when I get back.

There is someone, I heard, who does not charge for incoming minutes. But I think it requires a long contract. But that seems like a good deal if you're using the phone anyway.

Matt said...

My phone here in Croatia actually sucks too. It charges for incoming, presumably because there's very little competition. The government sold off lots of their infrastructure after communism fell, so T Mobile owns the actual lines. So, VIP, which I use, has to pay them. Ack! And it's a rip off. BUT, I will get a new cell soon with an actual plan, then it's free to call anyone on the same company's cell phones. Nice. And you get a buddy list that can include people on other company's phones and they charge a reduced rate for that.

Cell phones themselves seem to cost about the same here, possibly a little more. But if I get a one year plan, which I will, they are much cheaper. Everyone here sends text messages 90% of the time anyway, though. Actual phone calls are rare. And it's not just kids doing it, it's everyone.

Marie said...

They text everywhere else! In Uganda, we texted all the time because it is so cheap and saves on minutes. But in the US, most companies actually charge EXTRA for texts, while phone calls are booked against the monthly minutes. So when I text at home, people get mad at me because they have to pay ten cents or whatever.

Ridiculous. A certain number of texts should be included in the minutes.

Matt said...

Yeah, fair enough. Also, though, I've found that people on the West Coast sometimes actually get offended when you text them. Like, they don't rate an actual call or something. And they think of it as something that kids do, not adults. Whereas here, everyone does it all the time. Usually, it's "wanna grab a beer?" or something simple about hooking up for a hangout. But there is the "mislim na tebe", "I'm thinking of you". Heh heh.

Marie's Pal said...

You do not need to buy a new phone from ebay. Everyone in the USA except verizon now uses GSM. ANy recent phone will be tri or quad band. You just need to unlock your phone first, find your code on the internet or go to chinatown.

Marie said...

Wow, what a switch from last time I looked. When I look about a year ago, it was only T-Mobile and Cingular that had GSM available.