How to be an International Phone Nomad

So you’ve shed your earthly possessions, found a location-independent way to make a little money, and freed up your schedule to cross some borders.

Now how do you stay in touch?

We’ve come a long way since Martin Cooper fired up the first cellphone in 1973, and if you think an international calling card is going to cut it, you’re still behind the times. Luckily we’ve figured it all out for you.

  •  Get all your calls, all the time
  •  Pay almost nothing — no huge roaming and long distance bills
  •  Get one number that will redirect to you wherever you go
  •  Check your voicemail from any computer connected to the Internet

With the right phone and service, you can be as accessible as you are at home from ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

1. Get an international phone

If you live outside North America, chances are you’re already using an international phone. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM like the rest of the world while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, which is superior in many ways but makes your phone a paperweight when you’re globetrotting.

You want a quad-band phone with Wi-Fi and VOIP capability. US GSM phones operate on the 850/1900 MHz frequencies and Europe’s are 900/1800 MHz, so you need all four to be a proper nomad.

With Wi-Fi and VOIP, you can connect to wireless networks and route your calls through the Internet very cheaply. No worries if your phone doesn’t have VOIP, it’ll just cost a little more.

I suggest Nokia’s fantastic E series. Their latest models are perfect for our purposes. They have SIP (the most popular VOIP protocol) clients built-in so you can make and receive Internet calls exactly as you would with your everyday cell service.

Tynan uses the E90, which is more of a compact computer. It has a huge screen and keyboard and everything you could possibly want in a phone. It also looks like Nokia used a leftover design from 2002 inspired by Zach Morris’s Motorola.

E90 evolution

The E61i is my phone of choice. Smaller screen and no GPS, but incredible battery life. And I have a GPS watch, so I’m not exactly doing without. My phone’s lineage also happens to be a little easier to trace.

E61i evolution

If buying a new phone just to travel seems like a hassle I doubt you’ll follow through with the rest, but there are a bunch of companies that rent them. American Express can arrange this for you too.

2. Get local prepaid service

Virtually every carrier offers prepaid service. Just go into a retail location with your superphone in hand and they’ll get you up and running.

Here in Panama it’s around 25 cents a minute to make calls. But RECEIVING CALLS IS FREE!

The US is unique in that minutes are billed to both the originator and recipient of a mobile call, but in most other countries only the originating party pays. Makes more sense, doesn’t it? Why should you have to pay if a telemarketer calls you outside of night & weekend minutes?

We can take advantage of this — let’s minimize our outbound calling.

3. Set up an account with CallWithUs

CallWithUs is an awesome VOIP service. They route data over the Internet instead of through conventional voice networks, so it’s less expensive and allows for more ways to get your calls.

It’s got all the features we need and it’s way less expensive than its competitors. Let’s compare prices in our plane ticket countries.

VOIP rates by provider

CallWithUs wins in EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY I’ve ever looked up.

Their website is pretty Spartan but everything we need is easily accessed. For some reason they don’t allow webmail addresses, so don’t use a Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail account. Search for “free email forwarding” if this is a problem.

Sign in to your account and you’ll see a Google Checkout link at the bottom of the screen. Buy $20 of calling credit — this will be enough to buy a number and make calls. It may take a few minutes for your credit to show up.

Now we’ll get an incoming phone number in your home country so people can call you without paying international rates.

(You can have as many DIDs as you want, so if you had customers in Guatemala and wanted to give them a local number, no problem!)

Click DID and Add a DID. Direct Inward Dialing (for our purposes) is just a number connected to the regular phone networks. CallWithUs accesses third-party vendors’ inventories to allow you to select a number.

Select a country, area code, rate center (if this option is given) and phone number. Play around with the area codes and rate centers until you find a number you like that comes with free incoming minutes. You’ll be surprised at how many good numbers are available!

Most DIDs cost $3-6 for setup and monthly fee. This is nothing compared to what you’ll save yourself and those calling you.

  1. To add your local cell number to your account, click DID again.
  2. Select the DID you just purchased.
  3. Select no for VOIP call.
  4. Enter your local phone number including the country code.
  5. Click the button to Add destination to DID.
  6. Click Edit next to the destination you just added.
  7. Change Priority to 2 and confirm.

If your destination is a US number, make sure you included the 1 before the area code.

When someone calls your DID, CallWithUs will check whether your phone is connected to the Internet, and if not it’ll route calls to your local cell number.

Have a local landline too? No problem, just add it as another destination with priority 2 and your cell and landline will ring simultaneously. Just pick up whichever you’d like to use (though landline is often cheaper).

Now let’s set up your phone to receive Internet calls.

4. Configuring your phone for VOIP

SIP is the most popular protocol for Internet calls, and as I mentioned before, the Nokias I recommended come with clients built in to the phone’s firmware.

In your CallWithUs account, click VOIP accounts. Use the username and password as listed on this page for the following settings.

Go to the menu on your Nokia.

Tools » Settings » Connection » SIP settings
Options » Add new » Use default profile

Profile name: CallWithUs
Service profile: IETF
Default access point: Your WiFi access point
Public user name: (username)
Use compression: No
Registration: Always on
Use security: No

Don’t go into Proxy server. Go for Registrar server.

Registrar server address:
Username: (username)
Password: (password)
Transport type: Auto
Port: 5060

Back » Back » Internet tel. settings » Options » New profile

Name: CallWithUs
SIP profiles: CallWithUs

Back » Back » Call and change these settings:

Internet call waiting: Activated
Internet call alert: On
Default call type: Internet

Now when you’re connected to your access point, your calls will be routed through the Internet by default. Obviously you can set the default to “cellular” if you use the cellular network more often.

If you have WLAN scanning on, you’ll notice that whenever you come within range of your WiFi, your phone will automatically connect to your CallWithUs account!

Now getting your calls as economically as possible is TOTALLY AUTOMATIC.

If you’re having trouble or you’re using another VOIP provider, try downloading Fring. It’s a fantastic program for Nokias that has a SIP client and a really simple configuration screen that always seems to work when others don’t.

5. Voicemail

CallWithUs offers voicemail for $1 a month. They activate this manually, so click Contact Us to send them a request. I haven’t activated mine so I don’t know whether messages are accessible online, emailed to you, or any fun stuff like that.

Grandcentral also offers online voicemail free. It comes with some caveats and I don’t recommend it, but it may be suitable for some so I’ll mention it here.

It’s not available outside the US and your calls will be going through their system too, so call quality will be marginally lower. They also have a really annoying “feature” that requires you to press 1 after picking up to accept a call.

You select a DID with them (free) and they direct all calls from this number to any US numbers or Gizmo accounts you register with them. They all ring simultaneously and go to one central voicemail if no one picks up.

You can block numbers and at one point could even play a number disconnected message. Perfect for your ex!

Anyway, I say don’t mess with it. CallWithUs is more configurable and we’d rather keep our calls’ routing as simple as possible.

6. Tips for using your nomad-enabled phone

  • To make a call over a network other than your default (for example, calling your local voicemail when Internet calling is your default), dial the voicemail number then hit the selection button (the middle of the phone’s directional navigation pad). Under Call you can select Voice call.
  • When you’re entering contacts, enter a plus and the country code so you can call them from any network in the world.

    If you want to yell at Bush, entering (202) 456-1414 won’t get you to the White House switchboard unless you’re in the US. Instead use +12024561414. That way you won’t have to modify your numbers when you’re abroad.

    Don’t forget the plus sign, as this is equivalent to 00 and indicates you’re using the country code.

  • If you keep getting the wrong number, make sure you’re dialing the country code. In the US the 1 is required.
  • Call quality has always been great for me, but if you’re having trouble you can dial *32 before the number to use a premium route.

Now there’s one less thing keeping you from your travel dreams. Soon you’ll run out of excuses. 🙂

I’m sure you have some secrets of staying connected. Share them in the comments and let me know if you have any questions!

Tynan also found a service called InternetCalls that offers free calling to many countries, US included. In non-free countries, their rates are comparable to Gizmo and Skype.

There are a few limitations but nothing we’d ever hit. For most countries other than the US, calls to landlines are the only free ones. You also have to install a program on your computer to set up or modify your account.

I prefer CallWithUs because it’s more configurable and any calls that were free with InternetCalls are dirt cheap anyway. You might save a couple bucks a month if you’re only calling the US.

Plus he can’t get it working on his brick phone. Ha!

9 thoughts on “How to be an International Phone Nomad”

  1. Todd- When selecting a DID, do you choose one that is from the country you are currently in (ex. Panama) or is it from the country your cell phone is from (Austin)? I assume its the country you are in and that is why you add your local number later with Edit… Thanks for the tips! How is everything going so far??? – Chris (fellow red-head from Casa de Luz)

    P.S. How exactly do you make location-independent income through the i-net????

  2. I know it seems like a good idea at first, but as a fellow American ex-pat I’m really against the caller-pays phone systems.

    The problem is that there’s no economic pressure on those incoming call rates — so they remain _obscenely_ high.

    The person who buys the phone plan usually has no incentive to minimize the cost of incoming calls — so nobody offers phone plans with cheap incoming rates. While the cost of an outgoing call plummets, incoming calls remain a huge cash-cow.

    It may not be practical (or indeed legal) to have a variable incoming rate, because the caller couldn’t know in advance how much the call will cost.

    As a result, it still costs about 25c/min to call a mobile phone in Australia, which in 2008 is beyond ridiculous.

  3. I love that you guys are laying out all of the steps you took (are taking) for the travels. Keep up the good work boys.


    P.S. – Todd, you win mad cool points for referencing both Saved by the Bell and Star Wars in nearly the same breath.

  4. Hey Chris! Choose a DID from the country where most people will be calling you. For me it’s the US… this way my friends and family won’t have to dial a long-distance number.

    Phik, I think there’s less pressure, but the incoming rate is usually the same rate paid by domestic callers. So if one carrier makes it cheaper to call in, domestic people will flock and international rates will benefit. And CallWithUs only charges 11 cents. 🙂

    Dov, love to see you’re reading… we gotta get you here!

  5. Sounds awesome guys. Where did you purchase your phone from? Does a prepaid phone have to be carrier specific? Also, my wife and I are going to shed our things and start country hoping as well. Any tips or suggestions? Things to keep in mind while preparing for this?

  6. Kevin,

    We bought our phones from ebay. It does not have to be carrier specific… any quad band phone will do the trick. They aren’t necessarily prepaid phones, btw… they can also be used for contracts.

    My only suggestions are :

    1. Pick a date that you WILL leave on and buy the tickets. It’s a big jump, so you may never “feel ready”, but if you do this you’ll have the motivation to prepare.

    2. Consider weather so that you can pack light. Packing for one season is easier than packing for four. (Packing for three is also a lot easier than packing for four). Our schedule was based on weather, so it might be a good starting point.

    3. DO IT! No one ever regrets going on trips.


  7. cool, how do you get data, do you have a plan, if so what carrier. As soon as our blog is up I will send the the web address. Hope you are having a blast

  8. Most excellent. Get a MagicJack Dongle to use when you are near bradband service like WiFi (free calling).

    Also, Get a WFi enabled phone to use in hotspots. Set up an Asterisk server, and create your own international telephone switch.

  9. I have used CallWithUs for VOIP service for 2 months and I am very happy with them.

    No monthly fees, great rates. Good quality calls. Very reliable. Personal customer service.

    They do not have a fancy website. And you do need to provide your own VOIP device or softphone, which is actually liberating because you’ll own it. But the service and rates can’t be beat.

    I have said about CallWithUs: No frills, low bills.

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