One of the perennial annoyances of world travel in the early 21st century is the difficulty inherent in having the wireless connectivity abroad upon which one has become dependent in one’s country of residence. To say, having operable cell phone service. Yes, the entire world now generally recognizes GSM and unless you are foolish enough to travel abroad with a CDMA only provider like America’s Verizon or Sprint, or Japan’s AU, then your foreign phone shall operate locally, but with the combination of using a foreign phone number and operating said number in a foreign land under a roaming agreement, which produces a particularly usurious fee schedule, wherein a simple text message or phone call of greetings is so expensive as to chill the blood and whiten the face.
The solution to this problem is inherent in the same GSM specification that allows phones and service provider accounts of most nations and varieties to operate worldwide – the SIM card. In most countries, a traveler may simply peruse a local vendor of inexpensive SIM cards offering a reasonably priced prepaid service, whether said vendor be official company store, or marketplace stall, or even automated machine, and after completing the local procedure shall simply replace their existing SIM card, being extremely careful not to lose it, whereupon he or she then has a local phone number.
The difficulty of obtaining such a prepaid SIM card varies greatly by nation. In my experience, the most difficult of all is Japan, where they are simply not sold; the only options for the foreign traveler is to cavort without a cell phone, in the manner of a twentieth century hobo, or to pay a truly outrageous fee for a rental phone or the aforementioned international roaming service. The easiest of all may be The Philippines, where there is a SIM card vending machine located in the lobby of the international airport, allowing one to purchase the chip without providing any personal identifying information, or even to interact with a human being. Someone higher on the scale is Taiwan, where the item may be purchased cheaply and readily at any of the innumerable vendors dotting the market-places, but where the traveler is required by law to show both one’s passport and a supplemental form of identification, quite a burden for a thing so small.
And this brings me to today. Here I am, in my country of citizenship and birth, but only for a short time. Far too short a time to obtain the ongoing contractual wireless service of a resident, and yet far too long, and with far too busy a calendar of engagements to vainly search for working examples of the antiquated coin-phone, or to scurry from doorway to doorway, in search of an unprotected WiFi signal, like a starved and lonely rat trapped out in a storm, trying to sniff its way home before the scent fades.
Here in the US we have two providers of GSM service. AT&T and T-Mobile. Yesterday I was in Manhattan, I believe at 6th Avenue and 17th Street, where stores of these competing firms stared down each other across the Avenue (increasingly full of bicyclists, in these recessionary days). I first inquired at AT&T, the original provider of my retired Samsung Blackjack, now being asked to come out of retirement for one more short campaign. Absurdly, they told me that the fee for a SIM card was $100, with $100 worth of service included. So, there is no base fee but I would be required to spend far more money than I will actually use. And across the way, loquacious Dennis of the T-Mobile store, resident of The Bronx, informs me that their basic fee is a mere $10, with service structure that becomes increasingly favorable (to both parties) the more credit one purchases, in the grand mercantile tradition of the bulk discount.
In fact, it turns out that my old Blackjack was still SIM-card locked to AT&T (meaning that it would not work with any other provider), but either a law of congress or regulation of the FCC now requires that providers of services provide the code needed to unlock said lock, which AT&T (relevant tech support # is 1-800-331-0500 ) did most readily upon request. And now, here I sit, surrounded by phones and computers of divers sizes and capabilities, but amidst them is a single unit, made in Korea, purchased in New Jersey some years ago, containing within itself an accurate and complete record of the telephone numbers of family, friends, associates and acquaintances domiciled in these United States, and once again with the capacity and license to contact them.