GSM International Cell Phone

And Tips for Using the Land Lines

Many travelers are buying international cell phones, because using the telephone in a foreign country is often a daunting task. On this page we provide tips for making phone calls while in Rio de Janeiro and information about buying and using a GSM unlocked international cell phone.

Calls from your hotel can be made and received both locally and internationally, but surcharges and per minute costs can be high. Check the rates before making any calls from your hotel.

Credit cards often offer international calling services, and this can be a good option if you don't plan to make local calls while on a Rio de Janeiro vacation. You can also buy prepaid international calling cards at home that provide you a PIN# and have international toll free access numbers. You'll just need to find a phone that allows you to make a free or fixed rate call to the toll free number.

Phone Booth (Orelhoe) - Big Ear !

Phone booths are everywhere in Rio. They are known as "Orelhoes" (Big Ears) and are generally pretty clean. To use a phone booth you'll need to buy a "Cartao Telefonico" (phone card) from a newspaper kiosk. Insert it into the phone slot, see your available credits, and dial the number. Sounds easy? It is just as long as you don't make a mistake or have to follow any automated Portuguese verbal commands. Making an international call from a phone booth is expensive and is difficult to execute.

Buying a GSM international cell phone with a prepaid/rechargeable SIM card is becoming very popular, as you cannot use your regular cell phone while in Brazil. The cost of buying the phone and air time is much less expensive than in the past. You should consider buying a GSM international cell phone if you:

  • Travel internationally frequently or only occasionally.
  • Will visit one or more countries.
  • Need to make or receive local calls while in Brazil.
  • May need to call home.
  • Need to be reached by people back home (incoming calls are usually free!)
  • Plan to study abroad.

Buying a GSM international cell phone starts as low as US $99! The cell phone usually comes with a prepaid rechargeable SIM card (subscriber information module) phone number and starter minutes. You can add usually register your SIM card and add air time minutes to your international cell phone while in Brazil, by going to a TIM or Claro cellular store with your passport. Check around for the options for prepaid phone plans before you leave for your trip.

Incoming local and international calls are usually free and you'll get the benefit of local call rates while using your international cell phone during your Rio de Janeiro vacation.

It's much cheaper to buy a SIM card with airtime at a cellular store in Rio de Janeiro, than from the vendor from whom you purchase the phone. Due to Brazilian laws meant to deter crime, it's becoming difficult to buy a Brazilian SIM card overseas.

Also, you will need to have a Brazilian social security number (CPF number) to buy a Brazilian SIM card in Rio de Janeiro. There is talk of the law changing, so that a foreigner just needs to show a passport to buy a SIM card, but this has not occurred as of September 2012.

Visit the TIM retail cellular store located in Ipanema on Rua Visconde de Piraja about a block from the park named Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace). The store is on the same side of the street as the park.

TIM (pronounced 'cheem') is Brazil's largest cell service provider. You can buy a air time card at any newspaper kiosk to re-charge the SIM chip, but you have to buy the chip at one of the TIM stores that sells phones and offers service plans.

You will see the red/white/blue TIM sign at several places, but again, only their retail stores sell the SIM chip. They pretty much give away the chip when you buy airtime in $R 15 increments. They will install the chip and assign you a local Rio phone number which is valid forever as long as you add minutes at least every 4 months. Incoming calls, including those from overseas are free. The only drawback is that you will have to notify people back home of your new phone number.

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International Cell Phone Q&A

Why can't I use my current cell phone overseas?

Most cell phones in the U.S. are not compatible with the frequency or bandwidth used overseas. Only a tri-band phone (known as a GSM phones) with a 900, 1800 or 1900 frequency phone will work overseas. You can buy tri-band phones in the USA and the best deals are found on-line.

U.S cellular companies will usually only sell what's called a "locked GSM phone", meaning that the customer is locked into using that provider's service, and there's no actual key you can use to unlock it. An "unlocked" phone is what you want so you can use less expensive service providers in Brazil and elsewhere in the world.

How does a GSM phone work?

Cell phone users need to know what a SIM (Subscriber Information Module) card is, because it is the SIM card that operates a GSM phone. A SIM card is a small encoded chip that is inserted into the back of the phone, which contains your unique account information including the telephone number and your personal address book. SIM cards are removable, interchangeable, and can be purchased for individual countries or for multiple countries (i.e. a global roaming SIM card).

Can I get free in-coming calls, free text messages and local call rates overseas (without roaming charges)?

In-coming calls on cell phones are actually free in almost every country in the world (with the exception of the U.S., Mexico, Canada, China, the Bahamas, Kuwait, Singapore, Hong Kong and parts of Russia). You'll pay the local cell phone call rates in most destinations, without being penalized with exorbitant international roaming charges. Often, customers can also receive free text messages.

Do I need to sign a contract for my international cell phone service?

There are usually no contracts, as SIM cards are pre-paid and can be purchased on a country by country basis. Alternatively, travelers can buy a global roaming SIM card which allows for usage in multiple countries. You can start with as little as $10 of air time credit.

Is it cheaper to rent or buy a phone?

Depending on the type and frequency of travel, purchasing an internationally compatible, unlocked GSM cell phone is both affordable and practical. It is especially economical for people who travel overseas often and is certainly a cheaper and easier option than renting. The down side of renting is being locked into paying the rental company's call rates, which can be as high as $5 per minute from some countries (plus many charge for in-coming calls). Purchasing a phone gives the freedom to choose a SIM card that suits your needs, without being tied to a particular network or provider.

As GSM phones start from as little as $99, it's a small investment to make if you are a frequent or even occasional international traveler.

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