Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe
Last updated: December 2014
To many Americans, staying in touch with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn’t have to be. Having a phone while you’re there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money.
Why don’t US cell phones “just work” in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM (“Global System for Mobiles” – one of the reasons why Europeans use the term “mobile” and not “cell phone”).
This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.
GSM comes to America (AT&T and T-Mobile)
Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, and phones from Verizon and Sprint that offer GSM modes. So why don’t these phones “just work” in Europe? Because the US and the Rest Of The World use different radio frequencies to communicate, even though they support GSM. To function on European 2G networks, a GSM phone must operate (at the very least) on the 1800MHz frequency; to get the best European coverage it must operate on both 900MHz and 1800MHz. And this is just for 2G: for 3G services, you need 2100MHz in Europe and 1900MHz in the US. It’s even more complicated for 4G LTE with its frequency “bands”: AT&T uses bands 4, 12 and 17 while in the UK you need bands 3, 7 and 20.
The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a “World Phone”. These operate on both US and international GSM frequencies. If in doubt, check the small print to find out what frequencies it supports. The good news is that GSM World Phones are increasingly popular, and nearly all smartphones from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft (Nokia) are World Phones, so they’re a lot easier to find than a few years ago. Verizon’s old “global phones” page now simply links to its Smartphones page.
AT&T charges $0.99/minute for voice calls while roaming with its Discounted International Roaming plan, and $1.29 without it. T-Mobile is the stand-out leader in International Roaming, however, with its $0.20/minute charges and you can roam on all the same networks as AT&T when overseas. Competition is a wonderful thing — let’s see how AT&T responds.
What if I’m on Verizon or Sprint?
Verizon and Sprint use a system called CDMA (it stands for Code Division Multiple Access — incomprehensible to the average human.) However, Verizon in particular has figured out that it is losing a lot of nice profitable international traffic as a result, and now has phones that support both CDMA and international GSM frequencies. Verizon used to call these “Global Phones“, but now it just ensures that all of its smartphones that have full global roaming capability.
Examples of Verizon global smartphones at the time of writing include the iPhone 6/6+, 5S and 5C, Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5 and Motorola Droid MAXX. One gotcha: Verizon iPhone 4 (not 4S) is CDMA-only and will not work in Europe.
The net: if you’re on Verizon or Sprint and you have iPhone 4S or later, you can use your phone in Europe and get 2G, 3G and even 4G LTE if you have an iPhone 5S or 6. More on iPhones later — it gets a bit complicated.
Verizon/Sprint iPad 3 and 4, launched in March 2012 and November 2012 respectively, are more travel friendly, as is the more recent iPad Air and Air 2. They support 4G LTE in the US, but are also fully compatible with 3G GSM networks world-wide, and the Air 2 is also compatible with many international 4G LTE networks. Note that Verizon iPad 2 has no GSM capability and so can only be used via WiFi in Europe.
Sprint offers a flat rate $1.29 per minute overseas roaming charge for most GSM countries (i.e. those where Sprint has a roaming agreement). For Verizon subscribers, it’s a little more complicated: Verizon GSM roaming charges are different for each country, though most of Western Europe is $1.29 per minute, discounted to $0.99/min on the $4.99/month discounted international plan.
Cutting the cost of calling with pre-paid
Call charges on a European pre-paid GSM phone can be up to 80% cheaper than rental phones or roaming charges on your own account, and incoming calls are free. You visit any phone store, buy a pre-paid phone and pre-paid minutes of talk time. There are disadvantages: you can’t use your own cell phone number any more, and you will need enough local language proficiency to buy “recharge” or “Top up” cards and activate them using a telephone menu. Also, due to billing limitations, many pre-paid GSM phones will only work in the country where you purchased them. But if you are willing to put up with the extra complexity, this approach can save you a lot of money as the per minute charges can be 80-90% lower than AT&T, Verizon or Sprint.
Clearly, a drawback of this kind of pre-paid is that you need to buy a phone you may never use again, unless you travel to Europe often. So why can’t you use your own GSM world phone for pre-paid service?
Pre-paid using your own GSM world phone
In the GSM system, your phone number and other identifying information are stored on a little chip: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It’s a fingernail-sized smart card that slides into the back of your GSM phone under the battery (on most models), or the side or the top (iPhones). When you buy a European pre-paid GSM phone, it contains a “pre-paid SIM” issued by the carrier. But if you own a US GSM phone, why can’t take out the SIM from your US carrier, buy a pre-paid SIM from a mobile phone store and put it in your own phone?
Answer: because of the deal you have with your wireless carrier. In 99% of cases, people buy GSM phones from their wireless carrier, because they offer a steep discount from the actual price of the phone, in return for committing to a 2-year contract. A 64GB Apple iPhone 6 costs $299 with a 2-year contract on AT&T, and $799 without one. AT&T wants you to use the SIM that they issued to ensure they capture all your usage during the contract, in return for the discounted phone. Also, international roaming offers great profit margin compared to domestic “minute bundles”: AT&T charges at least $0.99/minute for a call that costs $0.10/minute (or less) on a pre-paid SIM on exactly the same network.
And this is where there’s now a major difference between T-Mobile and everyone else. T-Mobile now sells unlocked GSM phones where you can use other SIMs, and it also has hands-down the best international roaming plan with free 256Kb/sec data and $0.20/min for calls outside the US. For a small monthly fee you can upgrade to full speed data. But you must pay full price for the phone — $799 for an iPhone 6 with 64GB — and T-Mobile has the worst US coverage.
All phones sold by AT&T are “network locked”, even those that are not subsidized (e.g. the “AT&T Next” plan where you pay full price over 12, 24 or 36 months). This means that only SIM cards issued by AT&T will work. If you put a SIM from a different carrier into a network locked GSM phone, it will display an error message and/or only allow emergency calls (911 or equivalent).
The goods news is that all network-locked phones can be unlocked, because locking is implemented in software. So you have two choices: buy an unlocked GSM phone, or have your existing phone unlocked. Buying an unlocked GSM worldphone today is very easy: Amazon.com sells a wide variety of brand new unlocked phones from all major manufacturers with full US warranties, and Apple sells unlocked iPhones in its online store.
There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of web sites offering phone unlocking services and equipment, and independent mobile phone stores in Europe will also do it for a small fee. Typical costs range from free to $20. The last time I did this a 20-minute call in Italy using a Telecom Italia Mobile pre-paid SIM was enough to break even on the cost of unlocking.
The Apple iPhone
AT&T iPhones are all world phones and work on any GSM network, but are network locked by AT&T. The Verizon iPhone 4 is CDMA only and won’t work in Europe, but the Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S and 5 are dual CDMA/GSM and will work pretty much anywhere. Apple will also sell you an unlocked iPhone — it’s about $500 more than one sold with a cell phone contract.
The great news for Sprint and Verizon iPhone customers is that they have an easier time with unlocking for international travel. Verizon iPhones are unlocked outside the US: they will work anywhere outside the US on GSM networks, but not inside the US where they (obviously) want you to use the Verizon CDMA network. Sprint’s iPhone 6/6+, 5, 5S and 5C come with no SIM and are completely unlocked at sale time.
Help is at hand for AT&T iPhone owners: AT&T will also unlock your iPhone, but its policy is unclear. AT&T says it will do this for phones that are off-contract (i.e., when you have completed the minimum 2-year term). On AT&T’s web forums, there are reports from those who are simply longtime AT&T customers having their phones unlocked before the end of the minimum term. In short, it’s worth a try. Here’s the link to the AT&T iPhone unlock request page.
You can also use an unofficial unlocking service, either at a store or on the Internet. Some unlocking services also provide after-sales service: if Apple releases an iPhone software update that invalidates their unlocking, they will unlock the new software for you at no extra charge.
An important footnote on SIM cards: iPhone 4, 4S and iPads up until iPad 3 use “Micro SIMs” that are smaller than a regular SIM. Most SIM cards now come in a dual package — a standard-sized SIM that can be turned into a Micro-SIM by breaking off the plastic surrounding the metal contacts. The iPhone 5, 5S, 5C, iPad Mini and iPad 4 and iPad Air use a new, even smaller and thinner SIM card called a “Nano SIM”. If you’re buying a pre-paid SIM card at a store, have them install it for you right then and there. Not only do they have the right tools to get the SIM cards out of your devices, but you can also be sure they gave you the right sized SIM card and that it works.
All Apple AT&T iPads are not network locked. They come with an AT&T SIM for use in the US. To use elsewhere, you will need to buy a micro SIM from a local wireless carrier and swap out the AT&T SIM. Don’t lose it (they’re tiny) as you’ll need it when you get back to the US. Get the store to install it because sometimes they get the SIM size incorrect, selling you a Micro SIM when you need a Nano SIM.
Verizon 3G iPad 2 is CDMA-only and does not work in Europe, but Verizon and Sprint iPads 3, 4, New iPad and iPad Air support 3G GSM if you buy a SIM card.
Skype and other voice over the Internet options
With smartphones becoming more powerful and now offering apps like Skype and Google Voice, it’s possible to get free calling if you are in a reasonably good WiFi hotspot (such as your hotel). Call quality depends on the WiFi network performance and Internet connection congestion at your location. If it’s busy and everyone is Skyping, you’ll get poor quality. But when it works, it’s a great alternative and can offer better voice quality than a regular call.
Handy tips for a phone-stress-free European trip
- When buying a GSM phone to use in Europe, make sure it’s a “world phone” or to keep it really simple: just get an Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.
- Before you leave, call your carrier or log in to the website and turn on international voice and data roaming. It’s turned off by default. Even if you bought a world-phone when you signed up for service, and/or told the nice sales or activation person that’s why you went with them. It is turned off by default as an anti-fraud measure.
- Sometimes, you cannot call US 800/888/877/866 numbers from foreign phone networks. So find out the non-800 number for your cell phone carrier’s customer support before you leave. That goes for any other 800 numbers you may need to call when overseas (e.g. your credit card company).
- Calling 611 or any other “short code” (in industry lingo) may also not work, so don’t rely on it. Find out the international number for customer service.
- To call internationally when outside the US, you need to know the country code of the place you’re dialing. The US country code is 1 — pretty simple. France is 33, Italy is 39, the UK is 44… there’s a whole list.
- To call internationally from a mobile phone, enter a plus sign (+), followed by the country code, followed by the number. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from Europe, you’d dial +1 415 555 1212 on your phone. Finding the plus sign on the keypad of your phone can be hard… keep looking, it is there somewhere! You might need to hold a key down to get the plus sign. If that doesn’t work, try using 00 instead — this is the International standard code for international calling, and works on both mobile and landline phones across Europe. In my example, you’d dial 001-415-555-1212.
- When calling from a non-mobile phone (e.g. a payphone or hotel phone) remember that the international access code in Europe is 00, not 011. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from a payphone in Europe, dial 00 1 415 555 1212. This convention also works on mobile phones.
- When making an international call to any European phone number that begins with a zero, omit the zero — unless you are calling Italy. For example, to call the UK number 01606 54321 from France, you’d dial +44 1606 54321. + is the international prefix, 44 is the country code, then the number with the leading zero omitted. Italy is the lone exception — if you need to call there don’t drop the leading zero.
- Enjoy your trip, and don’t forget to call home!
What about e-mail, data etc?
The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.