If you’re from the U.S., like I am, there may be no low cost way to use your cell phone abroad. Roaming fees for international use can be exorbitant. Cost aside, your phone might not be capable of working in Thailand.
Five of the seven largest cell phone providers in the U.S., including Verizon and Sprint, use CDMA technology. CDMA phones do not use SIM cards. Thailand’s cell network uses GSM technology, and phones there have a removable SIM card. Your CDMA phone will not work in Thailand. If you have a GSM cell phone from the U.S., your phone may be locked. Now that it’s illegal in the U.S. to unlock your cell phone without permission from your service provider, you can’t simply go abroad and unlock your phone without possible issues when returning home. The easiest solution is to buy a cell phone and SIM card while in Thailand. Here’s how to do it:
1) Go to a 7-Eleven or other convenience store and buy a SIM card. When in Thailand, I use a SIM card from DTAC, a Thai service provider. True Move, AIS, and Orange are other popular Thai service providers. You can buy a SIM card for as little as 150 baht ($5 USD) that includes some minutes on it. If you’re worried about running out of minutes, also buy a scratch-off phone card from the same service provider. Phone cards are generally available in denominations of 100 baht and are also sold at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores. Calls are super cheap in Thailand, so you’re minutes will go a long way. Also, you won’t be charged for incoming calls.
2) Find a place that sells cheap cell phones. The front desk agent at your hotel may be helpful in recommending a place to go. If you’re in Bangkok, you can peruse the selection at the MBK Center. You can also try one of the hypermarkets such as Tesco Lotus or Big C. If you’re feeling more adventurous, cheap new and used cell phones can be bought from hundreds of street vendors and small shops around the city. If you’re in Chiang Mai, try the Pantip Plaza — that’s where I bought my basic Samsung phone for 600 baht ($20 USD) including the charger. When buying your phone, have the sales person insert the SIM card you bought. Most cell phone batteries come partially charged, so you can boot up the cell phone and check it out on the spot.
3) Putting minutes on your phone with a pre-paid, scratch-off card is easy. Just scratch-off the designated areas to reveal the codes, then call the number on the card. Listen for the English menu option. Follow the instructions.
4) Your new low cost phone will allow you to for make and receive calls and send and receive texts. If you require internet service, you’ll need to buy a more expensive phone, and the service will be considerably more expensive. I travel with a small netbook, which I use with WiFi connections. So there’s no need for me to have a smartphone.
What if my cell phone from home is unlocked?
If you have an unlocked GSM phone, I would suggest taking it with you to Thailand and buying a SIM card. Your phone should work with a Thai SIM card.
Things to avoid
Don’t rent a cell phone when in Thailand. You may notice cell phone rental desks at the airport, or your hotel may offer to rent you a cell phone. It’s almost always cheaper to buy a phone and a SIM card. After you’re done with your trip, hold on to the phone until your next journey to the Land of Smiles. Also, if you’re headed to Vietnam, take your new phone with you. To use your phone in Vietnam, simply buy a Vietnamese SIM card, put it in your phone, and voila, you’ve got service.