Keep connected on your Euro trip
Smartphones are key for a smooth-sailing European trip, since travelers use iPhone and Android apps for everything from booking hostels to getting updates on local train schedules. Luckily, with a little planning, U.S. iPhones – in fact, most smartphones – can work just fine in European countries. Convert that smartphone for European use in two primary ways: buy a SIM card in Europe or purchase a travel plan through a U.S.-based carrier.
This allows the phone owners to use the CDMA iPhone on their carrier's LTE network or use an international SIM cards while abroad. Note: In order to use an international SIM card, both GSM and CDMA (with SIM card slot) phones must be unlocked. If you’re going to be using your iPhone frequently in Germany, Europe or most of the rest of the world, then buying an unlocked iPhone makes a lot of sense. You can avoid high roaming charges by using various local prepaid plans. You simply insert a new nano or micro-SIM card into your iPhone (or use an eSIM). ESIM (embedded SIM card). If you have an unlocked phone, a third choice would be to use a SIM from one of the 'travel phone' firms such as Roam Simple, Cellular Abroad, Call In Europe, Telestial, Mobal, EuroBuzz, One Sim or Max Roam. While iPhone users in the U.S. May still be tied to AT&T for their cellular service, Apple will sell the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 unlocked and SIM-free in several countries, including Canada. Phone carriers in Europe use the GSM system while phone carriers in the United States generally use the CDMA system. This means that your phone might not have a SIM card that determines the service; your phone comes with the carrier set-up for you. This can make it harder to use your smartphone in Europe without.
Buying a European SIM card
This is usually the cheapest way to use a smartphone while traveling in Europe, and it's pretty simple, depending on the actual phone in question.
Europe hosts several cellphone carriers, each offering SIM card and travel package deals. The best deal varies depending on the countries you plan to visit and the length of your trip, but here's an example of one European package:
Orange, a major French carrier, sells a SIM package for EUR 39 ($46) that includes the following:
- A SIM card with a French phone number
- 120 minutes of phone calls, good anywhere in Europe
- 1,000 text messages, valid anywhere in Europe
- 1GB of data transfer, throughout Europe
It's easy to refill the package online, as well, should you max out your data or phone minutes. But keep an eye on these cellphone carriers' policies – some require you to bring in your original passport in order to qualify for the purchase of a SIM package, for example.
GSM vs. CDMA phones
Still, there's a catch: European SIM cards are often accepted only in GSM phones, though some newer CDMA phones are starting to support them, as well.
GSM and CDMA are two different types of network technology. European mobile carriers all use GSM (which requires a SIM card), as do AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States. Verizon and Sprint, on the other hand, use CDMA, so phones bought through those carriers might not use SIM cards.
All iPhones use GSM technology, except for a CDMA version of the iPhone 4 manufactured specifically for Verizon and Sprint.
Unlocking a phone
To further complicate things, many American carriers 'lock' their phones to prevent users from swapping out their services for a cheaper SIM package. Users can unlock their phones through their carrier or via a third party, but if they do so before their contract with the carrier is up, it can void the phone's warranty.
Once the phone is unlocked, a new SIM card should slip right in and work like a charm.
If a smartphone isn't eligible to be unlocked by its U.S. carrier and its owner doesn't want to go through a third party and jeopardize the warranty, he can pick up a cheap SIM-card compatible smartphone specifically for the trip. Retailers like Walmart and Target sell them.
Using a European SIM card
A new SIM card means a new phone number, so most travelers who go this route opt to download messaging apps to simplify that situation. WhatsApp, which uses a data connection to place phone calls and send texts, is the most popular option for European travelers.
International roaming with a U.S. carrier
Most U.S. mobile carriers offer their own travel packages, which are usually more expensive than the SIM option but also allow travelers to keep their own phone numbers and simplify the overall travel process.
Here are each major carrier's travel options:
- AT&T: International day pass for $10 per day for unlimited calls and texts and the usual monthly data allowance.
- Sprint: Global roaming provides free texts, free 2G data roaming and phone calls for $0.20 per minute in most European countries. For faster data connections, pay $5 per day or $25 per week for 4G.
- Verizon: TravelPass for $10 per day for the usual talk, text and data allowance.
- T-Mobile: One Limited and Simple Choice plans provide unlimited 2G data and texting at no extra charge in most European countries, as well as calls to the United States for $0.20 per minute. For high-speed data connections, shell out $15 for 100MB of data for one day, $25 for 200MB for a week or $50 for 500MB for two weeks.
By Rick Steves
While using your American phone in Europe is easy, it can get expensive. And unreliable Wi-Fi can make the reality of keeping in touch via a service like Skype more frustrating than it should be.
If you anticipate heavy phone or data use, consider traveling with a mobile phone fitted with a European SIM card. This gives you a European mobile number and access to cheaper rates than you'd get through your US carrier, even with an international plan. Generally with a European SIM card, it's free to receive domestic texts and calls, about 2–20 cents/minute to make domestic calls and calls within the EU, and 5–15 cents to send a text within the EU. For the best rates, buy a new SIM card every time you arrive in a new country.
How To Use Unlocked Smartphones
To get a European SIM, you'll need to do the following:
1. Make sure you're equipped with a proper phone. You'll need either a European phone or an unlocked phone in order for a European SIM card to work (some phones are electronically 'locked' so you can't switch SIM cards). Check with your carrier — it's possible the phone you have is already unlocked, as this feature is becoming more common in newer models. Otherwise, you can try asking your provider if they'll unlock it for you. Remember that as long as you have a European SIM in your own phone, you won't be reachable at your regular US number.
If it's not possible to unlock your phone, you can buy an unlocked phone either before your trip or at your destination (it's around $40 for a basic unlocked phone). It's also possible to buy an inexpensive mobile phone in Europe that already comes with a SIM card. While these phones are generally locked to work with just one provider (meaning you couldn't switch to another European SIM if traveling to other countries), they may be even cheaper ($20 or less, and often with enough prepaid calling credit to make the phone itself virtually free). If shopping for a phone in Europe, use the European term 'mobile' (pronounce it the way Brits do — rhymes with 'smile') or 'handy' (common in German-speaking areas).
How To Use Unlocked Iphone In Europe Deals
Finally, you may already have an old, unused mobile phone in a drawer somewhere. It's probably locked, but your provider may be willing to send you a code to unlock it.
2. Shop around for a SIM card. SIM cards are sold in Europe at mobile-phone shops, department-store electronics counters, some newsstands, and even at vending machines. Costing about $5–10, they usually include about that much prepaid calling credit, with no contract and no commitment. Certain brands — including Lebara — are reliable and provide cheap international calls, including to the US.
If you have a smartphone, look for a SIM card that also includes data. Expect to pay about $15-30 for a SIM that includes one month of data within the country you bought it. Be aware that many smartphones (especially iPhones) use smaller micro-SIM or nano-SIM cards. Make sure you get the right size card for your phone.
Before buying a SIM card, ask the clerk about rates for calls within the country; to and from other countries you'll be visiting; and, if you plan on calling home, to the US and Canada. Also check the rates for data use and for sending/ receiving a text message (called an 'SMS' in Europe). Make sure you get rates for data and texting both within and outside the card's home country. Rates can vary wildly from brand to brand and store to store.
3. Set up your SIM card. Once you buy your SIM card, ask the clerk to insert it, set it up, and make a test call to be sure it's working properly. Turning on the phone, you'll be prompted to enter the SIM PIN, which you may be asked to enter every time you start up the phone. If text or voice prompts are in another language, ask the clerk whether they can be switched to English. Also find out how to check your credit balance (usually you'll key in a few digits and hit 'Send'). Remember to record your new phone number so you can pass it on to friends and family.
Note that many countries require you to register the SIM card with your passport as an antiterrorism measure. If that's the case, it may take an hour or two after submitting the information before you can use the phone.
4. Top up your SIM card. When you run out of credit, you can top it up at newsstands, tobacco shops, mobile-phone stores, or many other businesses (look for the SIM card's logo in the window). Tell the clerk how much credit you want. You'll either get a voucher with instructions (in most cases, to top up credit, you'll punch in a long string of numbers on your phone), or the clerk will send the credit directly to your phone. Some providers let you top up online.
Tips: Be aware that most European SIM cards expire after a certain period of inactivity (typically 3–12 months), so use up the credit or hand it off to another traveler. Also, be sure to save your contacts' phone numbers in the phone itself, rather than on the SIM card; otherwise, you'll lose access to them when you switch SIMs. When storing phone numbers, include the plus (+) sign and the country code to ensure that your calls will go through, regardless of where you're calling from.