The Frequencies Used by Cellphones

Cell phones have become an essential tool for daily life, but understanding how cell phone technology varies around the world can be confusing. For those who want to keep access to their cell phone and its many features while traveling, understanding how different cell networks work is important. Knowing some of the basics about global cell phone networks and the frequencies they use can help.

  1. Cell Phone Network Basics

    • Cell phones networks can be confusing because of the numerous competing standards and frequencies that have arisen worldwide. GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications, is the most common cell phone network technology worldwide. The runner-up is probably CDMA, or Code-Division Multiple Access, a technology that is mainly used in the USA by Sprint and Verizon. Besides these digital technologies, cell phone use is also divided into varying frequencies used by different countries.

    USA Frequencies

    • In the USA, GSM and CDMA technologies are used about equally, split between the major cell phone carrier companies. All cell phones worldwide operate on specially designated radio frequencies. Most CDMA phones in the USA operate at 800 MHz (megahertz, a unit of measurement for radio frequencies) or 1900 MHz. GSM phones operate on 850 MHz or 1900 MHz in the USA. These differences are just standards of operating, and for most people do not noticeably affect service quality.

    European and World Frequencies

    • In Europe, GSM technology is widely used, with frequencies of 900 MHz and 1800 MHz. Since GSM's debut in Europe, most countries have followed either its lead or the USA's, operating on the same frequencies. Most "world phones" are tri- or quad-band GSM phones, meaning they can access three or all four of these most common frequencies. You should research a specific country's frequencies and technologies before traveling there, to be sure your phone is compatible.

    Cell Phones in Japan

    • One example of a major country where GSM world phones will not work is Japan, which uses a unique standard called PDC (Personal Digital Cellular). This is a non-GSM network, so world phones designed only to access GSM networks will not work, and the best option for most travelers in Japan is renting a phone. On the plus side, Japan's network offers powerful, stable service that will operate even in subways and crowded buildings.

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