Calling Locally in St. Maarten
Any phone you buy in the United States will be “locked” so that the SIM card is only compatible with the phone company that you have a contract with. The United States is one of the few countries I know that does this. Therefore, if you want to use your cell phone from the states abroad, you need to get it unlocked. Otherwise, you can buy an unlocked phone here on the island. Some American phone companies do have an unlocking service for customers who have been with the company for over 2 years or so, or whenever your contract has ended. In the states, I used T-mobile. Before my trip down to the island, I called T-mobile and asked them to unlock my phone for me. I told them I was going to be traveling and that I was a loyal customer for many years. They then gave me a code to punch in my phone, and then afterwards, my phone was “unlocked” so that I could take out the T-mobile SIM card and insert another one (like Chippie) into my phone to use. T-mobile was fairly nice about it, but some other phone companies may make you pay a fee or may not even allow it at all. As of April 2012, AT&T has also started allowing customers to unlock their phones once their contract has ended (which for most people would be after 2 years, or after paying an early termination fee if you have not reached 2 years yet). But as always, there are “unofficial” ways to unlock your phone, like through software or through people who know how to do it. I’d recommend using your unlocked phone in St. Maarten, mainly for local calls and short calls since minutes are a bit pricey with the popular prepaid plans that students here like to use. Here are the two most popular pre-paid phone options among AUC students:
- Tel Em (aka Telcell): As low as $0.24/min local. $30 to activate new account, of which $20 goes into credit. Text messages to other Telcell users are $0.10 each. $0.25/10 min to check voicemail. Free caller ID and free GPRS (data plan). You can buy the SIM card during at the Business Fair during Orientation. You can refill on your minutes at the coffee shop next to campus (as of January 2010).
- Chippie (aka UTS): $0.20-$0.40/min for local calls, depending on the receiving caller. It has call waiting, caller ID, and voice mail. All incoming calls are free. You can buy the SIM Card at the Business Fair during Orientation on campus, which you can get for a student discounted price of $20, which includes $11 worth of minutes. You can also get a Chippie SIM card at The Mailbox in Simpson Bay if you wish to get a SIM card before orientation.
If you do not wish to purchase a local SIM card to call locally, you could also borrow the public telephone on campus, but of course, others cannot call you back.
Calling Home to the States
For longer calls back to the US, I’d recommend signing up for Google Voice and getting a local US phone number for free. With this number, you can call and send text messages from your computer or smartphone (via the Google Voice App) to any other phone in the United States for free via wifi, which is accessible all over the AUC campus. Other people can call your Google Voice number as well, as if it were a local US number, and you can receive the phone calls (or voice mail) from your computer or smart phone.
If you have an iPhone, then you can Facetime anywhere with a wifi connection, like on campus or in your apartment or dorms. Alternatively, many students use Skype for video calls, which you can download onto your computer or onto your smart phone or tablet. Before coming to the island, tell all your family and close friends back home to also get Skype. It’s free, it’s easy, and you can see your friends and family back home as long as you both are on Skype at the same time. I videochatted with Irene via Skype throughout my time at AUC and it saved our long-distance relationship. You can also do instant messaging on Skype. Skype is so popular here at AUC that it is also a very popular way of communicating with your classmates and friends here on the island. There is also Google Hangout. Unlike Skype, you can video-chat with multiple people (not just one-on-one) on Google Hangout for free without paying a service fee.
If you have an iPhone, you can send iMessages for free over wifi connection. Alternatively, tell your family and friends back home to get Whatsapp, and you can text all you want internationally for free on your smartphone via wifi.
Another option you may consider is MagicJack, which you can get either as a USB device connected to your computer or as an App. You can call to anywhere in North America for free using the Magic Jack app, but you would not have your own phone number for others to call you back on, unless you pay for a membership. I’ve personally never had much experience with MagicJack before, but I know that there are some people that use it and are happy with it. Other options I’ve heard students using are Viber and Talkatone. **UPDATE 1/1/2010**
- Vonage does not work in the AUC dorms.
- Magic Jack works in the AUC dorms.
- There are no land-line phones in the dorms.
- Also, here are the calling rates for Chippie!