Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones and tablets

Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe

Last updated: November 2013

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.

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

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? Although they use GSM, they work on different radio frequencies. To function in Europe, 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 regular GSM — for 3G services, you need 2100MHz in Europe and 1900MHz in the US.

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: GSM World Phones are increasingly popular, so it’s now a lot easier to find a good international phone.

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 calls theseGlobal Phones. The line-up changes every couple of months as new phones are released, but the Apple iPhone 5S, Motorola Droid RAZR HD and Samsung Galaxy S4 are all CDMA/GSM world phones available at the time of writing.

The most significant Global Phones for Verizon and Sprint are the iPhone 5 (any model) and 4S because they’re the most capable world phones. Verizon iPhone 4 (not 4S) customers are out of luck — both are CDMA-only and will not work in Europe. This means that if you’re on Verizon or Sprint and you have iPhone 4S or 5, you can use your phone in Europe and get 3G and regular GSM coverage. 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. They support 4G LTE in the US, but are also fully compatible with 3G GSM networks world-wide. Note that Verizon iPad 2 has no GSM capability and so can only be used via WiFi in Europe.

Verizon also offers a free GSM phone rental program for occasional travelers — if you’ve been a subscriber for a while, they will lend you a phone at no charge for a short trip (less than 21-days). Call Verizon on 800-711-8300 to find out if you qualify.

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.

There are now also some Caribbean and Asian countries with CDMA networks — e.g. the largest Chinese cities — but it is still just a handful compared to the 250+ countries that offer GSM. GSM coverage is usually far better than CDMA in those same countries.

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 cost is less than a week’s rental of a GSM phone. At the end of your trip you can keep the phone for next time, recycle it, or sell it on eBay.

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). When you buy a European pre-paid GSM phone, it contains a “pre-paid SIM” issued by the carrier. If you already had a GSM world phone, you could go to Europe, take out the SIM from your US carrier, buy a pre-paid SIM from a mobile phone store (these can cost as little as 10 Euros) and put it in your own phone.

But we’re forgetting one important detail. In 99% of cases, people buy GSM phones from their carrier, such as AT&T or T-Mpbile, because they offer a steep discount from the actual price of the phone, in return for committing to a 2-year contract. A 32GB Apple iPhone 5 costs $299 with a 2-year contract, and $799 without one. Your service provider wants you to use the SIM that they issued to ensure they capture all your usage. Also, international roaming offers great profit margin compared to domestic “minute bundles”. Therefore, all phones sold by AT&T and T-Mobile are “network locked”. This means that only SIM cards issued by the carrier from whom you bought the phone 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. Nokia phones are unlocked using a code computed from the phone’s ID. Sony Ericsson phones need a code that is dependent on the ID and the keypad lock code, but which can only be computed by connecting the phone to a computer with a special cable.

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 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S, 5, 5S and 5C

AT&T iPhones are all world phones and work on any GSM network, but are network locked. 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 says its policy is to unlock any Verizon world phone after 60 days for a customer in good standing, if you call customer service and specifically request international unlocking. Sprint’s iPhone 4S, 5, 5S and 5C comes with no SIM and is 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.

AT&T/Apple iPad

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 “world phone” make sure that it operates on 1800MHz frequency, and ideally on both 900 & 1800MHz at a minimum. If it does not, it won’t work outside the US.
  • 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?

See part 2 of this article series, which covers mobile data services.

Links

The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.

Search eBay for unlocked GSM world phones

Google result for “Nokia phone unlock”

AT&T

T-Mobile

 

Related Posts:

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87 Responses to Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones and tablets

  1. Pingback: La Photo Vita » Blog Archive » Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

  2. Mathew Lodge says:

    One reader tells me that when in Italy, he bought a pre-paid phone from TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) and asked the shop to set it up in English. He can then follow English voice prompts to reload the phone with Euros to make calls. So… if you want to follow the pre-paid route, try this out.

  3. Binitaly says:

    I had a horrible experience with pre-paid phones in Italy and customer care there. Ever since I’ve rented a SIM card. PicCell Wireless has been the best experience I’ve had. You can rent a phone and or SIM card. Get a local SIM for each country you go or one SIM for all of Europe. http://www.piccellwireless.com

    • Heather says:

      Yes, I bought a phone in Italy that was pay-as-you-go for 79 euros and it was awful. It was an Alcatel and text and internet kept crashing and getting hung up. And now it won’t even charge. I barely used it and now it’s just a paperweight. So needing a new phone in the US as well, now I bought the international version of the Samsung Galaxy S5 (the G900F) on eBay, hoping I could use it in both the US and in Europe. It’s factory unlocked and was also region unlocked, as promised. I’m with AT&T and wanted to switch to Verizon, but I couldn’t do it for the reasons mentioned in this article. So I stayed with AT&T and actually my signal is better in my house now than it was with my AT&T-provided iPhone 3GS. Keeping my fingers crossed that it works well on both continents.

  4. Bob Fernandez says:

    We have traveled for several months at a time in Germany for the last two years. We used a cell phone service based in the US which requires a credit card account and calls are automatically charged to the card. The first year was fine but this year, we were hit with 2 bogus calls made within seconds of each other for $195 each and each showing a time of 60 minutes. It was not possible to make those two calls as shown on the billing. The calling service checked this out with the German provider and we were told that our phone made those calls. We did not make those calls and the phone was never out of our control. The phone service graciously paid for one of them. However, since you have already given your credit card to them, you have no recourse. Next time we will use a pre-paid SIM card that may be a little more expensive per call but will not subject us to fraudulent calls billed to our account.

  5. Jen says:

    Thank you for this simplified, accurate clearly written explanation of the cell/mobile phone-use-overseas maze! Finally someone who knows what they are talking about! While in the UK, I have replaced my at&t smartphone with a british sim and it works great. (only after unlocking of course, because while at&t used to unlock phones, they have gotten greedy and don’t anymore.)

    Thank you again!

  6. alexander says:

    so, recently, i bought the verizon blackberry storm 1. its a global phone, and i was wondering if, in order to use it in France and Italy this month, if i would have to change the account before leaving. let me know; thank you.
    -alexander

  7. Livi says:

    I’m going on a trip to Greece and Italy this spring break and I don’t know how I will be able to get internet. I was wondering if anyone knew if the Verizon Wireless USB760 modem would work out of America?

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Sorry, it won’t work outside the US. It’s designed for Verizon’s CDMA network, not the GSM standard used by most other countries.

      There are lots of Internet cafes in Italy and Greece — it’s often the easiest way. Or you could just go cold turkey :-)

  8. Pingback: Set up your iPhone for Europe and save money | La Photo Vita

  9. karen.jenner says:

    Nice post! Thanks for the pieces of information that you shared, I’ll keep this in mind when I travel to Europe.

  10. Sueli says:

    Thanks for all of you to share your experience. But it is so confuse. We are going

    to Italy and we need the cell phone there.

    I have Droid x, I went o Verizon Store, they told us those doesn’t work there.

    Today I called Verizon Customer service they told me the Droid x works over there.

    They told me the Droid works over there, needs to add features and cost:

    $ 30.00 per 25 megabytes or

    $ 100.00 per 100 megabytes

    for internet, and the GPS – They say the GPS will work in Italy.

    Then I have to pay

    $4.99 a month for International call –

    $.99 per phone call and to Receive it is free. ahahahahah (she was not sure)

    $ .05 To receive Text message

    $ .50 to send Text message.

    My question: Do anybody has this experience, someone can tell me if it works?

    We need the cell phone to receive phone calls ( it is the most important)

    I heard that Verizon can lend the Phone to Europe. Is anyone know about it?

    If I pay $100.00 for 100 megabytes will really works at the GPS (navigation) from my droid.

    I appreciate, Thanks.

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Hi,

      Yes, it can be very confusing. Your local Verizon store is correct — Droid X does not work in Italy. Only Verizon Global Phones work on the GSM standard — the list of those phones is here:
      http://b2b.vzw.com/international/Global_Phone/

      As you can see from that link, Droid X is not on the Global Phone list.

      You may be eligible for a low cost rental GSM phone from Verizon for your trip. Call the number I listed in the blog post and ask if you can get the rental phone.

      Regards,

      Mathew

  11. Ted says:

    I bought an unlocked Quad band Motorola v-190 on ebay for $18 delivered.

    I need to buy a TIM card when I get to Milan.

    Should I be able to get one for about 10 Euros?

    Any tips where to get them in Milan near the train station?

  12. Michael Fitzpatrick says:

    I plan to use my Verizon global phone in Germany but my German friends are reluctant to call me. I know it costs me $1.29 to place a call but what does it cost them to call my American number when we are both in the same city? Thanks, Michael

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      The cost depends on their telephone rates. They’ll be placing an international call to the US — your number. So they’ll pay whatever they pay today for a call to the US. Once the call reaches Verizon’s telephone switch in the US, it gets redirected back to Germany and finds its way to your phone across the German mobile network you’re roaming on. The charges from Verizon cover the cost of this call, plus profit for Verizon.

      That’s one advantage of using a SIM card from a local provider. You have a local number, so the call goes straight to your phone vs. the round trip to the US and back.

  13. Zac Giammarrusco says:

    You should Update this page for Verizon iphone4. I herd this phone does not work In Italy. I wanted to know if the wifi would and the costs?

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Good idea — I will do that. BTW, the answer is No, Verizon iPhone 4 does not work in Italy. You can typically buy WiFi access for a few Euros at Internet cafes and hotels.

  14. Alekx says:

    Today I read about the ability to buy an unlocked iPhone 4 from Apple. Would it be possible to purchase one of these and then buy a card in Europe (specifically the Czech Republic) from a local carrier? We will be there for more than a year, so I don’t need the ability to call or receive calls from the US. We would just use it locally.
    Thanks.

  15. Jay says:

    Great page!!! Very useful info.

  16. Rachel says:

    I would like to get a Blackberry Bold 9650 to use overseas in Austria for 10 months. I plan on getting the phone unlocked (either here or in Vienna) and purchasing an Austrian SIM card and prepaid phone plan.

    According to Verizon, the phone is GSM functioning with
    Network Support:
    Dual–band 800/1900 MHz CDMA/EVDO Rev. A networks;
    Quad–Band: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks Single–Band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA networks

    Will the phone function (phone calls, text message, internet, apps, etc) as planned? Will the phone still be able to use voice and data services although I won’t be using it on my Verizon plan (I will cancel/pause my Verizon plan while in Austria).

    Thank you for your help!

  17. Ben Makinen says:

    Verizon’s Escapade did not work in France & Italy

    I just got back from 2 weeks in France and Italy with a Verizon Escapade global phone. It would not work after having “activated” it with a live operator the night before leaving. I performed the *228, option 1 sequence before the plane left the US.
    Once in France (covered by Verizon with 3G and GSM) I could never get a connection. The phone flickered back and forth from “GSM Limited Service” to No Service and I was never able to make a call. Upon return an operator told me that taking the battery out and reinstalling it can help the phone “find” the network.

    Any guesses as to what went wrong?

    Thanks,
    Ben

    PS Vacation without a phone is absolute Heaven – as long as one doesn’t encounter any emergencies!

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Sounds like the SIM card was bad, or not activated (despite what Verizon said). “Limited service” typically means emergency calls only — usually occurs when the SIM card isn’t activated.

  18. IMOLL says:

    hey I have a question…
    I live in germany and will forever I want to buy a phone in the USA it’s GSM I was wondering if I could use a german sim card into it the phone also is unlocked and worldwide…. So can I use a german sim in an American phone??
    Please answer my email: evaisawesome@live.com

  19. Tony says:

    Slightly off-topic, in that I’m wondering about a USB modem for data usage on a tablet computer while in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. To make matters simple, I’m willing to buy such a modem in Europe and purchase a one-month plan with a European provider. Any suggestions as to brand of modem, service provider, retail outlet, price? Also, a data service purchased, for instance, in the Netherlands, should cover me through Belgium and France, no? Thank you very much.

  20. Kerry says:

    Thanks for such an informative article. My husband and I both have verizon cell phones, I, the Motorola Droid Pro and, he, the Blackberry Tour 3G Smart phone. We’ve been to France recently and with the Verizon international calling plan we were both able to use our phones at a cost you mentioned .99/minute with $4.99/month calling plan. Here is what we are trying to figure out. We are moving to France for a year and will travel a couple times back to our place here in the US. We need to keep our cell phone numbers for business reasons but a Verizon tech said that our phone usage must be at least 50% in the US or they will have to close our account. Do you have a suggestion so that we can keep our cell phone numbers and have a cell phone that will continue to receive our US calls while during our residency in Europe? Also it’s sounding like my husband will have to have a cell phone for European customers to call him locally, any thoughts on that? Thank you for any insight you can offer.

  21. Paula says:

    My daughter will be living in Italy for 1 year. I thought I would just upgrade her Verizon feature phone to an i phone. Verizon salespeople say it will work – but I get conflicting reports at various sites such as yours saying it will not. her idea was to get a cheap global phone from Verizon to stay in contact with us in the U.S. (mostly for emergencies as she will use Skype also) and get a prepaid phone once she gets to Italy to use within that country. I am paying for the phone as well as the calling/data plan and while I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices, I want her to have a useful gadget. Also we are not locked into Verizon at this point so I could switch carriers. Your thoughts……

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      The iPhone 4S has come out since this article was written, and that changes things. The iPhone 4S will work on both Verizon and GSM networks internationally — it is a true world phone. It’s the first iPhone to have this capability. No other iPhone will work — just the 4S.

      Mathew

      • InRome says:

        Hi Mathew & Kerry
        Buy any old (or new unlocked) GSM phone in the states that works on the needed frequencies (Mathew listed them in a prior message). Once in Italy, buy the sim card (from around 5 euros) from any of the many service providers. The phone will work fine in calling the USA, although it will be expensive (probably 30-60 eurocents/min). I have used TIM, but your daughter should ask around when she knows where she is going to live to ensure reception. If you expect to receive a lot of calls from the States, before leaving create (or forward or port the old number to) a Google Voice or Skype-In number. Google Voice WILL NOT forward to Italy, but it will play a message with your new international number and send an email; Skype WILL forward (at a rate of roughly 2 UScents/min to a land line, more to a mobile because the caller pays for that call), but set the voicemail features very carefully – I had a latency problem where sometimes Skype voicemail would answer before the Italian phone rang. And unfortunately, Skype voicemail cannot be turned off. In Italy the phone can be recharged with prepaid cards – or directly at – most newsagents, tobacco shops, cell phone stores, and even internet cafes. Having a prepaid card is useful if you have to recharge on the fly. The phone will accept incoming calls even with a zero balance for a while (90 days comes to mind) and the number and balance will last for 1 year. If you bring the phone back to the States, it can be recharged using a prepaid card for free (so I carry around a few 5 euro prepaid cards for that purpose. Phones can also be recharged online – but often a US based credit card will not work though some providers accept Paypal. Hope this is helpful.

  22. Kerry says:

    Hi Matthew,
    After posting on Oct 27, I was bummed I didn’t hear from you. I have 2 days to figure this out and I was hoping you had some insight you could share with me. Did I do something incorrectly that I didn’t get a response maybe? Thanks.

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Kerry,

      It’s because I don’t know the answer :-(

      Fundamentally, you need international call forwarding from your Verizon numbers to France. I do not know if that is possible — most cell services allow call forwarding within the US (you can find out how in the instructions for your service) but I do not know if Verizon allows international forwarding.

      If not, you might want to look at Skype or other Internet phone services. You’d forward your Verizon phone to a US number you obtain from Skype, and then you can receive calls using Skype on your French phone, or your PC.

  23. Kerry says:

    Thank you for the tips! You are awesome. It was looking like a challenging situation during our research and with your expertise we feel more reassured that we weren’t completely thick : ) So it looks like we are staying with Verizon & drop down our calling plan to the minimum package while using the basic GSM capable Escapades (no data package) in order to keep our numbers active. We’ll place the international package on it $4.99mth/.99min for the time being. But I do get a sick feeling in my stomach should those phones fail like what happened with Ben. Until we get settled with our French phone situation if the Escapades phones and Verizon support let us down it will get crazy. Maybe we’ll do alright. I’m going to check out Google Voice and see if that’s an option as well following through with your suggestion about Skype. Thanks again. Keep up the good work.

    • InRome says:

      If you have no use for the current Verizon numbers (other than to keep them) I suggest a telephone number storage service – just Google storing phone numbers. Some of them will also forward a certain number of calls for you (but check about international calls), and they are much cheaper than the lowest Verizon plan. If the Verizon phones don’t work, try Skype (see previous post (Nov 7). When you return, you port the number back (best to Google Voice, so you don’t have the same problem again).

  24. Mark says:

    Thanks for this great information. This is the best thing I have read on the web about international calls. I have a Droid X, bought because of the big screen, but useless in Italy. Verizon will lend/rent a phone that functions on the GSM network, but I didn’t find out about it until just before we went to Florence for a week. Clearly it helps to do your homework with plenty of time for processing of phones. I think Verizon charges at least $15 USD to rent the GSM compatible phone up to 30 days…

    Mathew, this is great info!!

  25. InRome says:

    Thanks Mathew. Lots of good stuff. My particular question: with a Verizon iphone 4s (and the mandated 2 year contract) will Verizon unlock the sim, and will it then be usable with an Italian micro-sim card, thereby avoiding the Verizon “tax” on international calls. I have heard (but cannot confirm) that Verizon will unlock the sim after 90 days or so, but I am wondering if this is so, and if someone has subsequently successfully used the phone abroad using a local sim.

  26. InRome says:

    One more bit of information possibly of use to the folks in France. In Shanghai, my Sprint phone received calls fine and REPORTED CALLER ID. I did not answer; call went to voicemail. But I now know the calling number, and that a call was received, and can retrieve the voicemail (if any) or return the call using GoogleVoice or Skype over an internet connection, and there are NO CHARGES (except possibly for the transfer to voicemail of the incoming call). Certainly no international calling charges. So, I just left the Sprint phone on, but never used it. This does not work in Rome with a CDMA phone, but I wonder if it would work with a world phone (where the actual connection was GSM)? [In Shanghai, a CDMA provider with a roaming agreement with Sprint exists; in Rome, not.]

  27. Pingback: Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services | La Photo Vita

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  29. gkapfham says:

    My family and I are currently living in Germany. We purchased an iPhone 4S from Verizon when we were living in the USA. We specifically mentioned the fact that we were purchasing the phone so that we could use it in Germany. Currently, we are having difficulties in getting this phone to work correctly, even though our understanding is that the phone is a “global phone.” Right now, there is a “No Service” message in the left-hand corner of the iPhone screen.

    Before leaving the USA, we called Verizon and asked them to turn on international voice and data roaming. The Verizon representatives told us that the phone should “just work” after we started to use it in Germany. However, this does not seem to be the case. After my wife looked through all of the options on the phone, it was not clear to us that there were any that we needed to change in order to ensure that the phone worked correctly.

    Questions:

    — Do we need to purchase a SIM card from a German provider in order to get the phone to work?

    — Are there other software settings that we need to consider?

    — Are there other things that Verizon needs to do in order to configure the phone correctly?

    — Do you have any other suggestions for ways to get the phone to work correctly in Germany?

    Thank you for any assistance that you can provide?

    • mathewlodge says:

       @gkapfham Really sounds like Verizon did not turn on International Roaming. “No service” usually means that the local network won’t allow you to connect because your home provider couldn’t authenticate your SIM card. That happens when roaming is not turned on.
       
      Sometimes there are temporary problems with connecting. In that case, you should try to join a different network (In the Settings on the phone, you can select networks to try — e.g. “O2 de”, “vodafone de” etc.

  30. shamasharma says:

    It is a good technology of Apple iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4 and 4S .It is very useful.

    <a href = “http://www.gizmosupport.com”>Wireless Data Services</a>

  31. shamasharma says:

    Really nice information shared, Thanks for updating my knowledge.

  32. allysonven says:

    I am trying a concept. I wonder if you would take a look and see if you find any flaw in my logic. I am traveling to London and Paris. I have an Iphone 4S with sprint. Sprint now allows me to use Google Voice to translate my voicemail to text. (yes, andriod let’s you do this anyway, but alas apple is slower to add features) So now using Sprint international I can recieve the voicemails as a text for $.05 each. Sprint promises me that I will not be charged for calls that are not answered, but go to voice-mail.
     
    I am traveling with my family, and two of them will also have their international phones. We are planning on using text exclusively to contact each other if necessary. This runs $.50 to send and again $.05 to receive.
     
    For email retrieval, I was just planning on using wifi only when I find it available.
     
    For calls home to check up on one sad three year old who did not meet my age cut-off for Europe… I was thinking of just using skype.
     
    So, do you see any issues?
     
    BTW, your articles are the first that are techinical enough, but still speak my non-techy language. 
    Thanks

  33. Gio1075 says:

    I am going to Poland,Germany,Czech Republic, Italy, France and Spain this summer for a 3 week tour. I plan on leaving my phone on airplane mode the whole time and using skype and Tango wifi calling via wifi. I have a iPhone 4. 

  34. Gio1075 says:

    I am going to Poland,Germany,Czech Republic, Italy, France and Spain this summer for a 3 week tour. I plan on leaving my phone on airplane mode the whole time and using skype and Tango wifi calling via wifi. I have a iPhone 4. 

  35. fjs says:

    I think I’ve read 40 articles on this subject. This article is only 3 or 4 times clearer and more informative than the next best one. Hats off to Mr. Lodge.

  36. Dickie says:

    Great article. I read it just in time to order a GSM phone from Verizon. At just 20 bucks for two way shipping, it’s a bargain when combined with the prorated 5 dollar monthly charge and .99/ min. Thanks.

  37. Pingback: You mean I can use my Verizon iPhone 5 in Italy?! | findingmyitalian

  38. Ark says:

    The best article on international phones compatibility, hands down!!!

  39. Kostas says:

    This article has to be considered as rare!! I am from Greece, is it worth it to buy let’s say iphone 4s from apples site that costs 99euro, hold it 2 years to get the contract over, (sprint,verizon If I read right works to Europe but I will not use it normally) and then the network company unlock it to me??
    Thanks

    • mathewlodge says:

      If you buy an iPhone 4S from Sprint it comes with no GSM SIM card and is completely unlocked. However, you will need to enter a 2-year contract to get the discounted price — and to do that, you will need to have a US credit history. So if you have that, then yes, you can get a fully-functional iPhone 4S for Europe for $99 or whatever the price is with contract. However, you will need to keep paying Sprint for the duration of the contract (2 years) or pay the early termination fee.
       
      If you have no US credit history, you will fail the credit check and not be able to buy the phone.

  40. emmawatsom99 says:

    I like the helpful information you provide in your blog articles.I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.I wish that you’ll carry on posting and thanks for allowing me to comment!

  41. aubrilee says:

    just to chime in: i’m on a 2yr contract with att for my i5. i called att the day i left for a 2 week european vacation (this past friday) asking them to unlock my phone for me, and they did without any trouble in under 10 minutes. it was super easy – the hardest part was having to reset the phone from factory standard, which took about an hour to reload all my content to my phone after syncing it pre-wipe.
    once upon a time they were really hard line about it, but now they’re like “have fun! see you when you get back!”

  42. CC says:

    very comprehensive. love the post! Keep up the good work! Thanks a lot!

  43. Traveler says:

    Thanks for this — I found this post in a search on how to use my i5 in the Middle East with Verizon. I figured that much of what you mentioned would be pretty similar in Arab countries closer to the Mediterranean (e.g. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon). But now you have me a little worried that I bought a global phone that still may be tough to use because of the point about the i5’s nano SIM–that it may be tougher to find a prepaid nano SIM abroad at this point. However, I am really grateful for this post; I love being able to get a good understanding of how it all works and what options are out there and this definitely provided that level of detail. God bless you and thanks a lot for the post. Please let me know if you have any further information about global phone use in the Middle East as well.

  44. Chaim Kokosh says:

    I used CelloMobile.com and was very happy with the service and excellent rates I received. Thanks for the great article.

  45. Ken says:

    Great article. Very clear.
    Does this sound like a plan:
    While in Europe, I plan on using my (USA) Verizon iPhone 4 to make and receive Skype calls, and for wi-fi enabled email and web surfing.
    I will also use Skype for calls and for wi-fi email and web surfing on my AT&T iPad 2. [No sim cards for data as I will be in five countries]
    Additionally, I will get a Skype USA local phone number, and sign up for Skype call forwarding. When someone rings me up on my landline in the US, the call forwarding feature that I have presently with BellSouth/AT&T will forward that call to my Skype number (I hope!), which I will pick up on my Verizon iPhone 4 wherever I may be located.
    Thanks for your comments and response.

    • Lily says:

      Hi Ken. I have the 4s with Verizon. Will you just be able to hook up to any WIFI to do your email and web surfing in Europe? No extra charges from Verizon? For your Skype calls do you need to do anything special. I have Skype for my computer but never used in on my cell phone. I’ll be in Austria and Italy. I’m interested to see what Matthew says re: the rest of your plan. Good luck!

      • Ken says:

        Hi Lily,
        Download the free Skype app from and onto your iPhone. You may want to also download the free Skype WiFi app from and onto your phone, so that you can more easily and cheaply pay for wi-fi spots where there is a charge.
        I used my iPad2 in Europe to make cheap Skype wi-fi calls to the USA, but I had left home my iPhone 4 (not 4s) as it would have been redundant with my iPad2 for Skype calls.

        • Lily says:

          Thanks much Ken. I’ll give it a try. I’ll just be using my 4S. I called Verizon this morning and they have a Global Data plan that’s $25 for 100 mb. I’m assuming you use data when you’re on Skype. Is that correct? Do you have any idea how much data a call takes (by the minute for example). The agent said if I’m on wifi other than Verizon (e.g. the hotel Wifi), there’s no data charge, but I’m not confident that’s true so appreciate any confirmation. Thanks again.

          BTW, for others who are looking to unlock their phone and find a SIM card in another country, one thing the Verizon agent said that I didn’t see written anywhere is that once unlocked the phone won’t be usable with Verizon, i.e. in the US or with any Verizon plan internationally. So it needs to be locked just as one is stepping on the flight international and you have to be pretty sure you can get a satisfactory out-of-country plan.

          • Ken says:

            Hi Lily,
            If you have a wi-fi connection, you can surf the web, get and send emails, etc.using any smart phone or tablet. Wi-fi is agnostic; does’t matter what brand or model smartphone or tablet you have or where in the world you may be.
            Some wi-fi spots charge you to use them. Charges can vary widely and it can be a pain to arrange payment when you simply want to search the web to look up an address, e.g, and be done with it.
            For me, Skype is the service that allows me to make cheap phone calls over wi-fi. As I have the iPhone 4 from Verizon, it is locked and not useable as a Verizon phone in Europe for calls or data. But it is useable for wi-fi.
            I am otherwise out of my league!
            Ken

  46. shahzad87 says:

    Nice blog about the Talet PC. It is awesome and marvelous.
    http://telekupon.com

  47. jana says:

    Id go with PicCell Wireless. They’ve got competitive rates and the most convenient service. Make sure you order the student rates for study abroad students. I order the SIM/Phone before I leave and it arrives in plenty of time. They also give me a US number so family and friends can reach me without calling internationally. Customer care is always lightning fast and helpful when needed. Last time I had a question about the data apn and they responded to my question on twitter in like 2 minutes. Probably would have been the same on facebook if I didnt have a twitter account. Anyway, Ive used them in Italy, UK, France, and Spain, EuroSIM. Skype is good too when you have your laptop on wifi. Ciao

  48. Ann says:

    I leaving for Europe next week. In US I used to have Travelsim, I tried several, but stopped on this one. Prices are ridiculously cheap

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  52. mc says:

    Will this plan work? I will be going to Europe for 2 weeks this summer. I have a Verizon Iphone5. It is standardly unlocked, I believe. I buy a T-Mobile nano SIM and T-Mobile Simple Choice plan in the US before the trip. I put the T-Mobile SIM in and make sure the US number and data (3G only, the LTE T-Mobile frequencies are not on the phone) are operable. Put my Verizon SIM back in until the trip, then put the T-Mobile SIM back in. Upon arrival in Europe it should just work, with free unlimited, but slow 128kbaud data and phone with US number. Get back home put the Verizon SIM back in and cancel the T-Mobile service. So I’m out only the SIM charge and one month service and I don’t have to go through the hassle of getting a SIM in each of the countries I will visit. Any advice?

  53. Love the shots….Great ideas & scenery

  54. Lisa Coe says:

    Hello,
    I have read all of your pages and I still have a few questions. I have an iphone 5 with Sprint and I called them to set up their $4 a month international calling and texting feature. However, at the end of the call I asked and Sprint said the phone can be unlocked for free. My question is if I have the iphone unlocked and buy a SIM card in France, can I use it for phone, texting and data from the French SIM? and can I eject it during my trip and use the one from the USA (Sprint) when I want to call back to the US? I will be using wifi and Skype most of the time, but I want the ability to use apps and maps when I’m in France and Spain.
    Thank you in advance for your help,
    Lisa

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Sprint’s $4/month “Sprint International long distance” plan gives you discounted calling *from* the US to other countries, AFAIK (I don’t have Sprint, but what you say matches the description and price of that plan on their website). So that won’t help you when you’re outside the US.

      With an unlocked Sprint iPhone 5 and a French SIM card, you will be able to phone, text and use data in France. The amount of minutes, texts and data is determined by the kind of plan you buy when you get the French SIM card. This will be much cheaper than using a Sprint SIM card (if indeed there even is one in your iPhone 5 — I have read that it may not come with one at all).

      Regards,

      Mathew

  55. Maria Carcaba says:

    Hello, I have a few questions for you, your blog is really good and clear, but my problem is that I’m going to be living in Spain next year, and i bought and iPhone 5 A1429 and it works with CDMA.
    If the phone is unlocked (no carrier on it) would it work in Europe with GSM ?
    Is it possible that calling the sprint network when the two year contract is over they would activate the gsm for me?
    Any suggestions of how can i get the phone to work in Spain using a Spanish (Vodafone) carrier?

    Thanks!!!

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Most likely, yes, it will work with a Vodafone nano-SIM. Go to the Vodafone.es shop, tell them you want to get a nano SIM for your iPhone 5, and they will walk you through it.

  56. Pingback: Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones ... | Technical innovationsTechnical innovations

  57. Jacob says:

    Hi, fantastic article, thanks so much! I just called Verizon and asked them to international unlock my iPhone 5S. They told me these phones are now unlocked by default, and that I will be able to swap the SIM card for a local SIM card in Spain without a problem. Does this sound right?

    Best,
    Jacob

  58. Pat Jones says:

    You said: “When buying a “world phone” make sure that it operates on 1800MHz frequency, and ideally on both 900 & 1800MHz at a minimum. If it does not, it won’t work outside the U.S.”

    But GSM World Coverage map says: “GSM 850 / GSM 1900 MHz are used in the United States, Canada, Mexico and most countries of South America.” Source: http://www.worldtimezone.com/gsm.html

    Who is correct?

    • Mathew Lodge says:

      Both are correct — they’re not contradictory. US uses GSM 850 and 1900 MHz GSM. Europe uses 1800 and 900. Therefore, when buying a GSM phone in the US (which will use 850 and 1900 MHz), it will need to also support 1800 and 900 to cover Europe.

      Note that 3G and 4GLTE are on different frequencies.

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