Using a cell phone in Mexico can be pretty expensive if you aren’t careful. This page gives you a summary of what we learned when trying to take our phones to Mexico. At the bottom you’ll find an overview of the services offered by some of the major carriers in the US and how they work in Mexico.
Enabling International Usage
Most carriers don’t give you international roaming capability automatically. You’ll usually have to call and request that they turn it on. This can’t always be done right away, so be sure to do this a few days ahead of when you are planing on going to Mexico.
Some carriers will have to ask you a bunch of questions to verify your identity. The last time this happened they asked me about the banks I paid for former mortgages. Since it had been quite a while and all my payments were done automatically, I had a hard time answering their questions, but eventually I was able to convince them of my identity.
When you are in Mexico, you may not want your phone to ring. The carriers will usually charge you for any call that touches their network–even if you don’t pick it up. You can forward your phone to keep the calls from even touching their network, but you’ll have to use a “hard” forward not a “soft” forward.
Hard and Soft Cell Phone Forwarding
A hard forward is handled by your cell phone company. That means the call doesn’t even make it down to the Mexico network. You can usually do this from your phone, but it is best to call in before crossing the border and asking your cell phone company how to do it on your particular phone model. (You can usually reach your phone company by dialing 611 while you are in the US).
A soft forward is one that is handled by the phone itself. If your forwarding lets certain calls through and sends others to voice mail, it is probably a soft forward.
Cell Phone Forwarding Fees
Make sure you understand the charges for call forwarding. Some companies like T-mobile include a small number of minutes of call forwarding. Others like Cingular charge you a per minute fee for every minute a call is being forwarded. Usually any of these charges will be miniscule compared to the cost of using the Mexican cell network.
You have to come up with a good place to forward the calls. You can forward them directly to voicemail as long you have a good way to check the messages from Mexico. (If you aren’t going to be in Mexico for more than a week or two at a time this may be sufficient.) If you use Skype or Vonage you can probably call in and check your voicemail without paying Mexican cell phone airtime fees. Usually you do this by calling your cell phone number and pushing * when your voicemail answers.
Personally I prefer to forward my calls to a service that will send me any incoming voicemail messages as an attachment in an email. I usually just forward them to Vonage (which gives me the voicemail as an email attachment), plus if my Vonage phone is hooked up I can answer the calls directly.
Other Forwarding Services
There are other services that can handle forwarding your phone for you. I’ve used CallWave before and they can forward your phones for a low monthly fee. CallWave can also handle your voicemail, by sending you messages as email attachments when they come in.
If you need to make a bunch of local calls from Mexico, you may want to consider getting a local Mexican SIM card. By swapping your US SIM card with a Mexican SIM card your phone will become a Mexican cell phone.
Getting a SIM Card
In Mexico most people seem to use pre-paid cell phone service. You should be able to get a prepaid SIM from a TelCel store. In Durango these stores were very common and you can find them ever few blocks in the downtown area.
You can also sign up for a plan like you would in the US. This seems to be less common. I think you can get a slightly better deal this way if you are using a bunch of minutes.
Unlocking your US Cell Phone
To use a SIM card from another carrier, you may need to unlock your cell phone. Most US carriers give phones away (or charge a very low price) and make up the cost over the next few years that you use their service. To keep you from getting a cheap phone and then switching to another service, they lock the phones so they will only work with their SIM. That way you can’t get a really good deal on a phone from Cingular and then switch to a cheaper plan with Verizon.
I know T-Mobile will give you the unlock codes for your phone if you’ve been a customer for a certain period of time. Usually you just follow the instructions to unlock the phone. Some phones require you to hook them up to a computer to unlock them.
You can also buy unlock codes online. The prices vary depending on how popular the phone is, but many times you can get an unlock code for about $30.
Troubleshooting Cell Phone Problems from Mexico
If you are having problems with your cell phone in Mexico, calling your cell phone company using your cell phone is probably the last thing you want to do. You’ll be paying high per minute fees to troubleshoot the problem and chances are they will have you restart the phone anyway.
When traveling to Mexico, make sure you take a contact number to call your cell phone carrier. In the US you can usually just dial 611, but if you try that from Mexico, you’ll likely get Telcel or MoviStar who won’t be able to help you much.
When I ran into some connection problems in Durango, I called T-mobile’s 800 number from my Vonage phone (a phone that has a US number, but connects through a cable modem connection). That way I could work on my phone without paying $1.49.
One of the common problems in Mexico is connecting to the wrong network. In the US, phones generally jump back and forth to the best network, but that doesn’t always happen in Mexico. You may need to manually tell your phone to connect to TelCel or MobiStar (the two Mexican cellular carriers). This is particularly true if you are trying to use a Blackberry. Voice seems to have an easier time than the data connection in finding the best network to use.
T-mobile in Mexico
T-mobile has one of the highest rates for voice and one of the lowest rates for Blackberry email. Voice calls are $1.49, but international email only Blackberry service is around $40.
When we used T-mobile, we had decent coverage and the Blackberry email made it easy to let people in the US know where we were without spending a fortune on calling out. We forwarded our number to our Vonage line, so we wouldn’t miss any important calls.
If you are looking at using T-mobile for Blackberry service, you can get a Blackberry only plan, where voice calls are charged $0.20 per minute in the US. This works well if you need the phone mainly for email, but want to be able to place and receive calls while you are North of the border.
Cingular in Mexico
Cingular charges more for international Blackberry usage ($69), but for an additional $6 per month, you can roam in Mexico for $0.69 per minute. It sill isn’t cheap, but if you plan on making calls from Mexico, this can save you a lot of money.
One of the big advantages of using Cingular is the rollover minutes. If you spend a lot of time in and out of Mexico and don’t use your cell phone much while South of the border, you’ll have a lot of months where you are paying for minutes that don’t get used. Cingular lets you “bank” those minutes toward future months when you go over your allocated minutes.
Rollover minutes do eventually drop off. Roll over minutes from 1/1/2007 will disappear if not used before 1/1/2008 and rollover minutes are only used once you’ve used all of the minutes for your current month. However if you spend a month with no usage and then a few months with heavy usage, this can be a good way to save by order a less expensive plan and letting the rollover minutes even out the high and low usages months.
Verizon in Mexico
I have heard the Verizon has a 1300 minute plan for $100 that will let you roam all of North America (Mexico, USA, Canada) with no additional charges. If you need to do a lot of voice communication this sounds like the ideal solution. Unfortunately I’ve also heard that their Blackberry service has a lot of trouble connecting–even in Mexico City. This might have been because of phone configuration issues, so it might work out well for others.
Sprint in Mexico
Sprint/Nextel has been doing a big push into Mexico–particularly in Durango where we were. I’m not sure what type of rate they have available, but it might be worth checking out. In particular the nextel service has direct connect which in some cases could be a very good deal–depending on what you need.
Hopefully these notes will save you some time in traveling to Mexico. Make sure you confirm what your rates will be with your carrier before trying to use your phone in Mexico. Take notes on what they say and get the name of the person you spoke to. If there are any problems they are likely to be very big problems and having a good record of what you were told could save you several hundred dollars (or more) in fees.
It is also a good idea to ask the same question of several different people just to make sure they all say the same thing. Many of the cell phone representatives in the US aren’t familiar with international roaming and may give you incorrect information. If you can get ahold of a representative outside of the US, you are likely to get more correct answers. For example, Sunday evenings, T-Mobile sends their calls to customer support representatives in Great Britain. Since your average resident of Great Britain is statistically more likely to deal with international travel than the average resident of the US, the customer support representatives over there will probably be more familiar with international issues than customer support out of Wichita, Kansas.