Roam and ring home

Mobile phone users can now make calls from more foreign countries, writes Andrew Geldard
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The Independent Online
USING a mobile phone abroad has never been easier for those with a GSM digital phone. "Roaming agreements" by the four UK network providers with their foreign counterparts now allow customers to use their own phones in Europe, the Middle East, southern Africa and the Pacific Rim.

There is no need to change numbers or pay an extra subscription fee, although customers will need to get prior clearance from their provider, which may involve paying a deposit.

Roaming internationally is possible because many foreign networks outside North America use the same GSM digital frequency as the UK networks. This has allowed the UK operators to set up agreements giving customers access to these foreign networks. In the case of Cellnet, customers can roam in 74 countries, Vodafone offers more than 70, while Orange (59) and One2One (28) are catching up.

The only major region where coverage is limited is North America, where networks operate on a different standard. But travellers can hire a compatible phone from outlets such as Talklands Hire Solutions, Interhire or Mobilehire, although calls cost around pounds 2 per minute to make and pounds 1.50 to receive.

Alternatively, digital customers of Orange, Cellnet and Vodafone can roam in large cities such as New York by using their SIM cards in compatible phones they can hire. The charges are added to their bills.

Apart from the higher charges for making calls when abroad, customers also pay to receive them. This is because operators consider it unfair to charge a caller for a call to, say, Munich when they assume the person they are calling is in the UK.

As a result the recipient pays for the international leg of the call, which could be anywhere from 50p to more than pounds 2 per minute: a hefty bill if you only use the mobile as a means to be contacted when overseas. However, the network providers are addressing this situation. Orange announced a major price cut for receiving incoming calls last September, with a call received in France now costing 21p per minute instead of 52p. That compares with 59p per minute for Cellnet users, 82p for One2One and 75p for Vodafone, all including VAT.

Not to be outmanoeuvred, One2One and Vodafone have launched special international plans costing pounds 3.50 and pounds 2.50 per month respectively providing cheaper prices for international calls made inside the UK as well as for receiving incoming calls while abroad. However, despite these reductions, paying to receive calls remains one of the most unattractive parts of using your mobile abroad.

While making calls overseas is more expensive than within the UK, it is not prohibitively so and can sometimes be cheaper than using a foreign payphone. For example, with One2One and Cellnet, a call from Spain costs 58p per minute, falling to 52p for Orange and 47p with Vodafone, all including VAT.

Further afield, travellers in Hong Kong will pay pounds 1.59 per minute on One2One, compared to pounds 1.22 on Cellnet and pounds 1.04 on Vodafone. However, some countries remain quite expensive, with calls from Yugoslavia, Seychelles, Oman or Russia setting you back well over pounds 2.

Prices for calling the UK vary significantly from country to country, with no one network provider consistently cheaper than any other. You may also have the option when in another country to choose more than one network provider, as is the case in Hong Kong, Poland or Sweden. In this event, make sure you select the provider with the lowest call charges.

Other factors that will affect the cost of overseas calls include currency fluctuation and the cost of setting up the call, and an additional mark- up if you are billed by a service provider rather than the network.