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Cell Phone — México


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For ordinary travelers, a cell phone is not a necessity. Still, many people can't imagine being without one and they can be useful in cases of emergencies. Anyone considering traveling with a cell phone should keep in mind they are one of the most expensive ways of phoning home. Although with the right plan, texting can be cheap.

Making Calls

Just like landline phones, every Méxican cell phone (teléfono celular) has an area code and a local phone number.

Landline to cell

To call a cell phone from a landline with the same area code dial 044, then the area code, then the cell phone number.

To call a cell phone from a landline with a different area code dial 045, then the area code, then the cell phone number.

Cell to cell or landline

To call a cell phone or a landline from a cell phone just dial the area code and then phone number.

Call a cell from abroad

To call a Méxican cell phone from another country, dial the international access code, then 52 (México country code), then 1, then the area code, then the cell phone number.

Cell phone in México

The most popular technology for cell phones around the world is the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM). GSM technology operates on four bands: 850, 900, 1800, and 1900. Different bands operate in different countries.

México operates on the 1900 band. So in theory, any GSM cell phone that operates on this band is capable of working there. In practice, however, a 1900 band GSM cell phone needs a thumbnail-sized Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that works on one of México's cell phone carrier GSM networks.

SIM cards can be either country-specific, with a phone number tied to a specific country that works primarily on a specific country's GSM network, or international, with a single phone number, usually tied to the UK, that works on many GSM networks world-wide.

The upside of an international SIM card is its portability world-wide; the downside is local and long-distance calls in different countries get charged pricier international roaming rates.

The upside of a country-specific SIM card is local and long-distance calls get charged in-country rates; the downside is phoning home is an an expensive international call.

And finally, many GSM cell phones are SIM-locked and will only accept carrier-specific SIM cards. Before they'll work with other SIM cards, they'll need to be unlocked. The carrier who locked the phone will usually unlocked it; although, they will probably charge for the service.

There are numerous sites on the internet that will unlock a cell phone or sell the code for unlocking one. Also, check the yellow pages for local cell phone shops that unlock cell phones.

A GSM cell phone that works on multiple bands and is unlocked is referred to as an international cell phone.

The cell phone options for ordinary travelers are an international roaming agreement with a cell phone carrier back home, renting or buying an international cell phone, or buying a cell phone in México.

International Roaming

Cell carrier back home

If you already have a GSM cell phone that works on the 1900 band and a home cell carrier with an international roaming agreement with a carrier in México, it should be easy to get roaming service in México. Although, you may need to purchase a specific plan or extend an already existing plan to get the roaming service turned on for México. Check with your home cell carrier about the specifics.

However, before signing on to any new plan, be sure there's cell coverage where you're going in México; otherwise, what's the point. Also, make sure that you thoroughly understand the charges for international roaming in México. Horror stories abound of unwitting travelers racking up hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in international roaming fees.

For US-based travelers, of the major US cell carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile have the best roaming coverage in México; they both use GSM technology and have roaming agreements with Telcel, the largest GSM cell carrier in Mexico. Neither Verizon nor Sprint use GSM technology and both have only spotty coverage in México.

Rent or buy an international cell phone

For short-term travelers, temporarily renting a international cell phone makes more sense than buying one. Frequent overseas travelers who need cell constant cell access should consider buying a multi-band GSM phone and putting in a country-specific or international SIM card, depending on their needs.

These vendors rent or sell international cell phones, country-specific and international SIM cards, and prepaid call minute plans that are known to work in México:

www.cellularabroad.com
www.ekit.com
www.telestial.com
www.roadpost.com
www.planetomni.com
www.orange.co.uk
Roll your own

To piece together a cell phone that will work in México, all that is needed is an unlocked GSM cell phone that operates on the 1900 band and has either an international or México-specific SIM card.

For a truly international cell phone, one that operates in most places around the world, choose an unlocked GSM four band cell phone and an international SIM card. If extensive in-country local calls need to be made, a country-specific SIM can be swapped in to get cheaper local rates.

Online there are lots of cheap new and refurbished multi-band GSM cell phones available. If you already have an unlocked GSM phone laying around, international SIM cards are available online for as low as USD$10. This is all you should need to be up and running.

Anyone who's a little tech-savvy should be able to piece this together. That said, there is some risk that the assembled contraption won't actually work when you get in-country. So unless this all sounds like it might be a fun challenge and not an aggravating chore, it is best to either rent or buy a prepackage international cell phone.

Buy a cell phone in México

For extended stays in México, a Méxican cell phone is worth considering for the much lower in-country rates and the convenience of having a local Méxican phone number.

México has three main cell phone carriers:

Telcel www.telcel.com
IUSACell www.iusacell.com.mx
Movistar www.movi star.com.mx


Telcel's coverage is the best nationwide. To get started, a cell phone and a small number of initial call minutes will cost at a minimum between Mex$500-1000. Most service plans are for prepaid minutes. Once the initial minutes are used up they can be replenished with refill cards widely available at cell phone carrier retail outlets, mini-marts, newsstands, and other convenient locations. Some carriers allow refills online. Refill cards usually come in amounts of Mex$100, 200, and 500. A Mex$100 refill card will cover approximately a ten minute call to the US, about twice what call offices or Telmex Ladatel phone cards would cost. Receiving international calls is expensive as well. By far, texting is the cheapest way to stay connected with folks back home with a Méxican cell phone.

Internet Phone Calls

Making phone calls over the internet with wifi-enabled smart phones and laptops is another inexpensive way to phone home. Many smart phones — such as the iPhone, Android, and the Blackberry — are enabled with the same wifi technology that allows laptops to connect to the internet.

With Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, like www.skype.com and www.vonage.com, wifi-enabled smart phones and laptops connected to the internet can make phone calls. Setting up VoIP applications isn't that difficult, but it does take some tech-savvy. If this isn't you, it's probably best to use a more traditional means of staying in touch.

Visit Internet México for more information.

Satellite Phone

Satellite phones are a type of mobile phone that connect to satellites orbiting the earth instead of land-based cell sites. To provide coverage of the entire earth takes many satellites. Except for Iridium, which claims coverage of the entire earth, most satellite mobile phone networks provide only partial coverage.

Satellite phones are too expensive for most ordinary travelers. They're used most often by outdoor enthusiasts, professionals, workers, and researchers who need to stay connected in remote locations where cell service is not available or while traveling worldwide.

These companies claim complete coverage of all of Mexico:

Iridium www.iridium.com Worldwide coverage
Globalstar www.globalstar.com Worldwide coverage, except for polar regions
Inmarsat www.inmarsat.com Worldwide coverage, except for polar regions
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