Phoning Home Just Got Easier

I have always wrestled with the problem of staying in touch when traveling overseas and have tried any number of solutions, from prepaid cards that always seemed to run out at the most inconvenient times, to reversing the charges (always expensive), to callback services, to rented mobile phones (also fairly pricey), to relying on cyber cafes for email communication. All of them worked, more or less, but none was ideal. Often, I felt like E.T., trying to reinvent the telecomm wheel just to phone home.

On a recent European trip that took me to three countries, I had a chance to test drive a nifty service from a new global telecomm company called Telestial, and I think I’ve seen the future of telephones for the business and leisure traveler.

Telestial offers a number of choices for travelers, including a usage-based calling card and cell phones combined with SIM cards. With usage-based cards you only pay for the calls you actually make, which I found attractive. I always wound up coming home with “lost” money still on the cards I purchased overseas. And since sign up is free and the rates are extremely low, this is a good option for the casual user.

I wanted something a bit more convenient and opted for a mobile phone. That way, I figured, I’d be able to call on the fly, make last minute changes to appointments, and call for directions if I needed them. It turned out I was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you have a GSM cell phone, all you need is a Telestial SIM card to fire it up. Trouble is, few Americans have a GSM cell phone. I sure didn’t. GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications which is the de facto world standard for cell phones. Since Americans don’t like being told what to do by foreigners, we went our separate way and a bewildering variety of “standards” were implemented. The result is that U.S. cell phone users are the odd men out in global communications.

Fortunately, Telestial was able to oblige me with a spiffy little Siemens phone and, since I hadn’t planned too far in advance, it was also fortunate that they were able to ship it overnight on extremely short notice. Phones start at $99 and go up to about $200, but once you’ve got it, it’s yours. I’ve paid more just to rent a phone in the past.

When the phone arrived (complete with wall charger), all I had to do was snap the SIM card out of the little plastic card it came on and snap it into the phone. The cards can only be inserted one way but, just in case, a page on the Telestial web site offers step-by-step guidance, complete with close-up photos, for the technologically challenged.

SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards, by the way, are tiny circuit boards that contain your subscriber information and space to store any numbers you wish to program into the phone. It all worked like a charm. I had a built-in credit of 15 euros and was good to go.

Handheld Satellite PhoneThe system is password (or to me more accurate, PIN) protected. All I had to do was enter my four-digit PIN, and dial the number, including country code. The incoming number of my phone bore a Liechtenstein country code, which made me feel very jetset-y. I’m told that in the near future, Telestial will migrate incoming phone numbers to another European country where rates will be even cheaper.

Refilling the SIM is also easy. Just log onto a web site from your laptop (or the nearest cyber cafĂ©), order up some more minutes, and charge it to your credit card. Dialing 089 (a free call) puts you in touch with a charming computer that tells you how many minutes you have left. Of course, unlike the usage based cards, this systems means you can return home with unused, but paid-for minutes on your phone, as I did. But since I’m planning several more European jaunts in the near future, this didn’t bother me.

Although I only visited only three countries, my phone with its SIM can work in 120 and over very competitive rates in all of them. However, if you want to make sure you are getting the best rates for the country or countries you are visiting, Telestial has a variety of options and a help line to assist you. And if a Liechtenstein number just won’t do, Telestial can fix you up with a cell phone with a “home” number in just about any country on earth.

As it turned out, the phone was every bit as convenient as I hoped. I was able to get word of a last-minute change of plans in Newcastle, chat with friends I didn’t have time to visit elsewhere in England, call my Amsterdam B&B for a restaurant recommendation, make Paris reservations in my halting French, and check in with my office and son when the spirit moved me.

For more information on Telestial’s growing range of global communications products, including handheld satellite phones for those who really want to get lost in the woods, visit.