Russian Cell Phones
It's simply ridiculous to try to do without local Russian cell phones (or Ukrainian) when traveling to Russia/Ukraine. You arrive and your airport pickup isn't there, or you need to call for an Uber ride. Your date needs to text you to say she's running late (or vice versa). You get the idea. Seriously, it's just crazy to not have a cell phone there!
When the base content of this site was initially written "smartphones" were still on the rise. Now in 2018 the need for Ukrainian/Russian cell phones with internet connectivity are an even more non-negotiable necessity.
NOW Ukrainian/Russian cell phones with data plans are your:
- Maps and navigation
- Appointment book
- Facebook/Viber/Whatsapp messenger
- Photo Album
- Weather forecaster
- Metric/English measurement converter
And that's all not to mention your pocket encyclopedia of all knowledge known to humankind (aka "Google"). Having Ukrainian/Russian cell phones solves all this.
The utility provided by this one little device has so greatly enhanced the experience of foreign travel it is simply an absolute necessity for your trip to Russia/Ukraine. You MUST make advance preparations to make sure you have this covered.
But before we get to those options we need to cover some geeky technical stuff.
Geeky tech stuff about cell phones
The world isn't as simple and organized as we might like. Much of Europe runs on 220 volt electricity while most of the Americas run on 110 volt. CDs and DVDs made in the Americas won't work in Eastern Europe, and vice versa. Well, the same goes for Ukrainian/Russian cell phones.
For your Western (American/Western European) mobile phone to work on a Russian/Ukrainian network it must be UNLOCKED, QUAD-BAND, and SIM-operated. You can probably get all this information from your mobile phone company, but here are some highlights about what these all mean.
Almost all U.S. cell phones start off LOCKED.
There is a little something about the inner workings of U.S. cell phone companies that will be helpful for you to know when it comes to getting your phone unlocked. Except in special cases, almost any time you buy a phone from a U.S. cell carrier, they subsidize much of the phone's cost.
A Samsung Galaxy and iPhone typically retail in the $600-$800 range. If you get one of those for $200 (or less) at AT&T, it's because they get the remaining $500 or so from you in the form of your monthly bill over the contract term (usually 2 years). One way they can enforce that contract is to keep the phone locked to their network. You can't get the phone for $200 then immediately cancel the contract and use the phone anywhere else.
So how then do you get it unlocked? If you have had the phone for more than a year or two, your cell company will have probably recouped their subsidy and will unlock it for you free. The same is true if you bought the phone at the unsubsidized price (i.e. you paid the whole $600-$800). You just call them and ask if your phone qualifies for unlocking, and if it does, they'll walk you through it right over the phone. I've unlocked many phones that way and it has worked like a charm.
If your phone doesn't qualify for unlocking it may still be possible unlock, but I've never done that so I can't speak with any expertise on the subject. You can investigate these options yourself by just doing an internet search for "Unlock cell phone" and you will get more options than you could ever need.
"Quad-Band" means that a phone can operate on the four radio frequencies most commonly used for mobile phones throughout the world. Mobile phone networks in the U.S., Canada, and much of South America operate on 850/1900 MHz whereas in Russia/Ukraine they operate on 900/1800 MHz. A "quad-band" phone operates on all four frequencies, 850/900/1800/1900 MHz.
Most modern smart phones are quad-band, but better to confirm.
This simply means that your phone uses a SIM chip. Almost surely you know how this works, but basically a SIM ("subscriber identification module") is a small fingernail-sized chip inside your phone that contains your phone number. On non-SIM phones your phone number information is programmed into the phone itself. With a SIM phone, you can take that SIM chip out and put it into another phone, then that other phone will have your phone number.
If your phone is from AT&T or T-Mobile it probably uses a SIM.
Use your normal phone and service
You have several options for solving the phone problem. The first is to simply use your normal cell phone and service and pay their INSANE international roaming charges. If money is no object for you, and you already have a quad-band cell phone that has full international capabilities, then this may be your easiest option.
But if cost matters at all, then you have two other options.
If your phone is quad-band, unlocked, and SIM, by far your simplest option regarding Russian cell phones is to get a local SIM chip for your U.S. phone. Usually SIM chips are cheap (under $5) or free and the service plans are insanely cheap. You would be hard pressed to find a plan with practically unlimited talk/text/internet for over $10/month.
And with this mobile plans, you prepay that monthly amount. You don't open any account, you don't give them your credit card or SSN. You give them cash, they give you a SIM chip. If you stay longer than a month you'll need to go give them another $10 (or whatever the amount). If you stay less than a month, the service will stop working after a month. But KEEP THE SIM CHIP ANYWAY. You may be able to just recharge it if you come back.
If you don't have (and don't want to buy) a quad-band, unlocked, and SIM phone you can get a cheap Ukrainian/Russian cell phones at the airport or other nearest cell phone vendor. They're everywhere. You can probably find a simple Android smartphone for under $70 USD.
Google "phone power bank"
If you're an American you may have never heard of a "power bank" for your phone. That's because they aren't really needed in American life. But when you're visiting or live in Russia/Ukraine, they are absolutely necessary. It's even more true if you're just visiting.
The reason is that you're often going to be walking around ALL DAY with your screen lit up and your map app open and running. You'll probably also be spending a fair amount of time on Viber/Whatsapp (communication apps), on Google Translate, and Uber.
Now matter how good your phone's power management in America, your phone's battery probably never going to get through a whole day in Ukraine/Russia. And not only are you going to be using more battery, but the agony involved in losing the use of your phone increases exponentially!
I mean seriously. Imagine... You're walking around, looking for a restaurant. You meet a girl there for lunch. You use the phone's camera to take pics. You used the maps/navigation to find the place (or Uber to get a ride there). You have the translate app open the whole time of your meeting. You are showing her pictures on your phone. And on and on.
You leave the restaurant, you're staring at your map app to get home and your battery dies! How do you get home? How do you call anyone? How do you page an Uber? How can you communicate with anyone to ask for help or directions without your Google Translate app? Unless you keep all your activity within a very tight, well-known perimeter that you know well, you're screwed.
GET A POWER BANK, and make sure it is fully charged overnight every night! What size: Minimum 5000 mAh ("milli-amp"). Ideal: 10000 mAh.
*** Reviewed/Updated February 2018 ***