I have been to Brail five times since this article was originally published. On my last trip, I was able to use my new T-Mobile iPhone 6 on one trip, and a T-Mobile Sansung 5 on the second trip . The great thing about T-Mobile is that it lets you use your phone (any phone on the normal plan) at a cost of on $0.20 cents / minute with no roaming charges. Hands down this beats anything available for SPRINT, AT&T, or Verizon. The details below have been updated to reflect my experience of using T-Mobile in Brazil.
Everything written in my original post below still applies.
You are going to visit Brazil, and you want to use your cell phone there, but you don’t know if your cell phone will work there. The first thing to know is if you even have the right kind of phone. Global System for Mobile (GSM) is the transmission standard used by all cellular phone operators in Brazil. In the US, some carriers use CDMA, and others use Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).
We will do our best here to tell you what to expect in Brazil will your cell phone from the four major cell phone operators; Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. In addition, we will also give you the current roaming rates and costs to make a call. The table below shows the transmission technology used and the international rates for phone calls of the four major US cell phone operators.
Cost / minute without an international dialing plan
GSM & LTE
$2.50 / minute
CDMA & LTE
$1.99 / minute
GSM & LTE
$0.20 / minute
CDMA & LTE
$1.99 / minute
Charges listed above assume that you do not have a package for overseas call. If you what a plan with your carrier for international calls that includes Brazil, your costs could be considerably lower.
Four options for using your cell phone in Brazil as I see it.
- Use your own USA cell phone in Brazil
- Purchase an inexpensive unlocked cell phone for travel in Brazil and other countries
- Rent a cell phone in Brazil
- With T-Mobile, you will only pay $0.20 / money for receiving international calls, making local call, or make international calls. If you have your T-Mobile phone on WiFi, you will not pay for any calls back to the USA, or have any charges for local in-country or International calls if you have the $10 / month plan to anywhere in the work to land-line phone, or the $15 / month that includes international calls to mobile phones.
Since I do not like renting cell phones, I am only going to discuss options 1 and 2. My personal cell phone in an iPhone 4S, and my US cell provider is sprint. An iPhone 4S fits the class of a “World Phone” in that it can run on both CDMA and GSM. I purchased my phone at the Apple store, and was just set up to work on CDMA, and done not come with a GSM chip installed. I understand that if I had purchased the iPhone 4S directly from Sprint, it would with a GSM chip preinstalled. While you may have another provider, the basic things that I did here should work for all of you.
Roaming In Brazil with your cell phone
Cell phone rates overseas users of T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon are so expensive, even with a plan, that for me the best option is to get a prepaid plan in Brazil. With T-Mobile, you will not have any roaming charges. Getting a prepaid will be discussed later. In general, the following needs to be done for US cell phones. There are two options when using your GSM phone Brazil:
- Have your phone set up for international roaming, or
- Have your cell unlocked so that you can install a chip from one of the cell phone companies in Brazil.
Getting my Sprint iPhone 4S to work in Brazil
I had to get the following done for my account to get my phone to work in Brazil:
- International roaming turned on for my account,
- Get my phone unlocked for allowing a Brazil GSM chip to be installed into my phone (more on this later).
Getting you carrier to unlock your GSM phone is an issue that you need to take up with your carrier. I got Sprint to unlock my iPhone 4S, and they explained to me that steps that I needed to follow through iTunes. If you call your carrier and explain that you want to put a GSM chip into the phone while you are in Brazil.
Types of phone usage with your cell phone in Brazil
There are two options for cell phone usage that I want to consider in Brazil:
- You want to receive calls from your friends or family while you are traveling in Brazil. Who cares what the reason is, it is just important to you to be able to receive calls while you are in Brazil.
- You want to make local calls while you are in Brazil, and be able to receive calls.
With option 1 you might just want to receive calls from your and friends, and will only be making emergency calls, I suggest that you just get your phone set up with Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, or Verizon for international roaming. Of course at the phone rates listed above, I would not recommend talking very long on any call, but this way you will be able to get emergency calls from your friends and family. If you are going to be receiving a number of calls, and need to call back to the US extensively, I suggest you call your carrier, and discuss their internal roaming options.
For those that want make and receive local calls while traveling in Brazil, I suggest that you get a prepaid plan in Brazil from one of the major carriers there (Claro, TIM, Vivo, and Oi). There are some other smaller carriers, but these are the main ones. A prepaid plan allows you to pay as you go, is generally a bit cheaper than using your US cell phone carrier, and also allows you to stay in touch with your friends and relatives in the US. I will give details about getting a prepaid GSM chip for your US cell phone, and using your phone in Brazil, but first I need to explain how things run in general with cell phones. A prepaid plan will give you a fixed number of calls you can make. If you want to make more calls, you can always recharge the account associated with the plan.
General guidelines for Brazil cell phone usage (except for T-Mobile)
I got a GSM chip for my iPhone 4S from Vivo. I will discuss the basic steps that I followed to get the chip. I checked with both Vivo and TIM also, and Claro was the best one for my situation. You should visit several stores to see what works best for you. Below is the Vivo sales agent that help me in the Brazil State of Sao Paulo, and she spoke English, and was very helpful about all the options available from Vivo. With any luck, you will find someone when you go to a cell phone shop in Brazil that can speak english.
Just like the US, there are both company stores, and stores representing certain carriers. Some of these stores will not have prepaid GSM chips, and you will have to go to another store. I found a Vivo store in the state of Sao Paulo. Cell phone stores are as easy to spot in Brazil as they are in the US.
You can buy GSM chips over the Internet in the US, but I would recommend against doing this. First, the chips seem to be more expensive than Brazil, and second, if you buy in Brazil, you have a place to go if you have trouble with your chip. If you buy the chip in the US, how will you get help while you are in Brazil?
Installing my Vivo GSM chip into my iPhone 4S
Below are two pictures showing the process to a GSM chip into my iPhone 4S. The process for the iPhone 5, 5S, 6 and 6 Plus are similar, but you will be using a NANO SIM instead of a MICRO SIM
Getting a Brazil GSM chip into your cell phone
You will have to call your cell phone carrier, or read the instructions for your cell for the instructions for putting a chip into your cell phone.
Another option – purchase an unlocked cell phone
Inexpensive cell phones are easy to find. Inexpensive unlocked cell phones are easy to find at Amazon.
Of course I am assuming that you just want an inexpensive way to both make and receive cell phone calls while you are traveling in Brazil. These sources have low-cost phones that can be used after you buy your GSM phone chip in Brazil.
What you need to know to make a cell phone call in Brazil
I will not even begin to discuss how to make a cell phone call in Brazil. Things are just plain confusing when making a call in Brazil. Just like the USA, you need to know the city code (same as US area code) and the code for the cell phone company of the person you are calling. Below is a link that explains making a cell phone call in Brazil
Links to the four largest cell phone carriers in Brazil:
Oi: I could not find an English web page for this company.
Vivo: I could not find an English web page for this company.
Other sources for Brazil GSA cell phone chips:
Getting a Brazil GSM Chip in the USA
Getting a Brazil GSM Chip in the USA
I recently purchased a CLARO Chip on eBay for my unlocked GSM phone phone. The same vendor was also selling Brazil CLARO chips on Amazon.
I have to report that the CLARO Chip that I purchase on Amazon did not work when I get to Brazil. I would suggest that you not purchase a SIM before getting to Brazil
Using Your T-Mobile Phone in Brazil
I cannot say enough about my T-Mobile phone when traveling Internationally. Besides low rates for calls, I can get my email and surf the Internet for free. During my November 2014 trip to Brazil, I used by iPhone 6 there without an a local sim. After getting home, I did not have any surprises on my bill. The only down side to my T-Mobile iPhone 6 in Brazil was not the fault of either T-Mobile or the Apple iPhone 6, but rather the Brazil cell phone carriers. The main problem in Argentina is that your T-Mobile phones will work for voice, but large parts of the cell services in Brazil will not support an Internet connection. Without an Internet connection, you cannot surf the web or get email. However, when Internet connectivity was available, the T-Mobile free web browsing and email was great.