Updated October 2015
If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “How can I use my cell phone in Europe?” and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.
WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi connection quality varies widely — from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you’re stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing.
Mobile wireless data: You’ll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is picking up speed and is mostly available in larger towns and cities.
European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage (256Kb/sec) outside of 3G data areas.
Mobile data roaming rates on your US phone or tablet plan can be extremely expensive, so beware. When you leave your home (US) network, your costs go up. There is only one “unlimited data” international roaming plan (T-Mobile — read this article on its ground-breaking offering).
Very important: You will be paying per Megabyte for “roaming” data usage outside the US. Your US data plan only covers data usage on your home network. Usage “off network” comes out a different “bucket” of data usage.
The hands-down leader in roaming costs is T-Mobile, offering free rate-limited data (up to 256Mbits/sec). For many people this works fine for email, simple web browsing, and mapping apps on smartphones. You can purchase “buckets” of data from T-Mobile that are not rate-limited, allowing up to 1Mbit/sec on 3G networks. AT&T charges $0.25 per Megabyte on its $30 international roaming plan that comes with 120MB of data.
3G (3GSM) data
3G stands for “3rd Generation” and represents the mobile technology standard that came after 2nd generation (no kidding!), the original GSM standard. 3G offers data rates up to 1Mb/sec. 3G is now widely deployed in Western European countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as the Middle East. Because coverage is generally good in the major cities but not elsewhere, most 3G phones will “fall back” to GPRS/EDGE if they cannot establish a 3G data connection.
Note that there are restrictions based on the use of different frequencies in the US and Rest Of the World (ROW). 3G radio frequencies are different in the US, and so phones need to support no less than 8 different radio frequencies to get full GSM and 3GSM coverage world-wide. To keep costs down, some phones will only support 3G in the US and fall back to EDGE or GPRS elsewhere.
An acronym only engineers could love to describe a 3G network with higher speed download — 3.5Mbits/sec on most networks, though theoretically capable of 14Mbits/sec. A bit flaky today, so don’t count on it internationally.
Engineering geekiness beat out clarity again with the naming of 4th Generation (4G) mobile data. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and the explanation for this is simply too dull to repeat here. Expect data rates in the double-digit megabit range. The actual rate depends on many factors, including the network, the phone, the phase of the moon (OK, kidding), how you hold your phone (not kidding) etc. 4G coverage is somewhat limited today, mostly to urban areas.
Most GSM phones available in the US offer the somewhat tortuous acronym of EDGE. Offering up to 384K of bandwidth, EDGE is an add-on to GSM networks that bumps up the amount of data that the network can carry using GPRS (see below). In the US, AT&T has been turning off EDGE in congested areas in cities like San Francisco and New York so it can re-use the radio frequencies for 3G. It is not clear what the long-term plans are for EDGE given that 3G is more attractive.
GPRS theoretically offers up to 171K of bandwidth from your cell phone. In practice, the actual data rate is limited by your cell phone and/or the carrier, and may top out at 40K or thereabouts. If there isn’t a good connection between the phone and the network, speed is reduced in order avoid re-transmission of garbled data. Also, all GPRS users in the same cell contend for the available GPRS bandwidth. The carriers put an upper limit on the bandwidth that each phone can use to prevent any one person from hogging it all. If you’re sitting in a room full of people using GPRS, such as a press room at an event, you may get just 9.6Kbps even with GPRS.
There are two older standards, modem emulation and Circuit Switched Data, but they’re so slow and GPRS is now everywhere that I’ll ignore them.
Many GSM world phones send and receive e-mail and provide a web browser. However, he small screen makes it very hard to use the phone for long messages or standard web pages. The carriers know connecting your phone to your laptop breaks all their assumptions about how much bandwidth you will use, so they disable tethering. You can fix this by unlocking your phone (see previous article) and updating its software, or buying an unlocked phone that doesn’t have this restriction.
If you plan to use a GSM world phone in Europe, make sure you get data services working before you leave. In many cases, your phone comes pre-configured, but you might have to use a web-based tool from your carrier to “provision” it, or call the technical support line. Smartphone users will be fine — the phone basically can’t function well without data services, so it’ll already be set up.
The best way to prepare before going to Europe is to go to the website for your carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) and buying one of their international roaming packages. This normally ensures that your phone is enabled for use outside the US, and you won’t get burned by the default (high) rates, or have a phone that won’t work at all because international roaming is turned off (to prevent fraud).
The GSM Association: trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps for GSM data services.
Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe
Last updated: January 2016
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.
Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. Many (but not all) of these phones will not “just work” in Europe. The US uses different radio frequencies to the rest of the world, so you need a “World Phone” that is designed to work in the US and outside the US. The most popular smartphones all work internationally: the Apple iPhone series, the Samsung Galaxy series and the Google Nexus phones. As a rule of thumb, the cheapest phones are generally those that do not support international roaming.
The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a “World Phone”.
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 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 have full global roaming.
Verizon has a specific international phone page here, and examples of Verizon global smartphones at the time of writing include the iPhone 6S/6S Plus, 6/6 Plus, 5S, Samsung Galaxy S series and Motorola Droid. One older phone 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.
AT&T charges $1.00/minute for voice calls while roaming with its most expensive international roaming package, and $1.29 without any plan at all. If you buy up to the larger international plans, the cost per minute drops to $0.50 or $0.25/minute. 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.
Verizon charges $1.79/minute for calls unless you explicitly buy an international bundle for $40 that includes 100 minutes and 100 texts. Usage beyond that is charged at $0.25/minute and $0.25/text (incoming texts are free). Its international plans page is here.
Sprint copied T-Mobile in April 2015 and now offers $0.20/minute calling and unlimited texting when abroad.
With many more people owning smartphones and using apps, having access to lots of data is increasingly important when traveling. With modern smartphones supporting 3G and 4G LTE data internationally, the issue these days is less likely to be the speed and is more likely to be the limits of your international data plan.
Once again, T-Mobile is the stand-out leader here offering unlimited 256Kb/sec data internationally for free. Now 256Kb/sec (0.256 MB/sec) is not very fast — just about good enough for basic web browsing, but certainly nothing like your typical app expects. So T-Mobile also offers high speed data plans for additional cost, without a bandwidth throttle. Sprint has copied this approach, and does the same thing.
AT&T revamped its international mobile bundles in October 2015 to make them more competitive with T-Mobile and Sprint. All plans feature unlimited texting and unlimited Wifi roaming with AT&T partners in Europe. The following prices are all for 30 days:
Passport: $30 for 120MB of data, $0.25/MB over that, and $1.00/min for voice
Passport plus: $60 for 300MB of data, $0.20/MB over that, and $0.50/min for voice
Passport pro: $120 for 800MB, $0.15/MB over that, and $0.25/min for voice
If you run out of data inside the 30 days, you have to buy another package all over again to get more data — and it replaces the current package. You can’t add two packages together and pool the voice minutes, for example.
Call charges on a European pre-paid GSM phone can be up to 80% less than rental phones or roaming charges on your own account, and incoming calls are free. Think $0.10/min instead of $1.29/min. 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.
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?
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, you typically can’t just 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. Why? Because your cell phone carrier won’t let you, and they have “network locked” your phone to stop you doing this.
Many people buy GSM phones from their wireless carrier, since 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 up to $1.29/minute for a call that costs $0.10/minute (or less) on a pre-paid SIM on exactly the same network.
The good news is that beating locked cell phones has gotten a lot easier in the last year. Here are your options:
All the major manufacturers now sell their phones on Amazon.com and other online retailers, and also directly from their own web sites. You’ll pay the full price up front for the phone, but it’ll work out cheaper than buying it over time from the carrier over time.
With the launch of the iPhone 6S, Apple took this one step further by offering a new installment plan where you pay the price of the phone over time but can upgrade every time a new iPhone comes out (typically every 12 months). The plan also includes AppleCare extended warranty and support. If you do the math, you’ll see it costs more over 2 years vs. just buying the phone outright, but you also get AppleCare and the ability to upgrade.
T-Mobile only offers full price “pay up front” pricing, and the phone is completely unlocked, so if you buy one from T-Mobile it’s just like buying from the manufacturer.
Verizon and Sprint don’t use the GSM system on their domestic networks but all modern smartphones are designed to work anywhere, offering both CDMA and GSM capabilities in a single hardware design. That simplifies manufacturing (fewer models to make), but it also means Verizon phones can also work on GSM frequencies “for free” off the phones that also work on their CDMA networks. So they’ve come up with phones that are semi-unlocked: they will work just like an unlocked phone with any international SIM card, but won’t work with a US SIM card (e.g. one from AT&T).
The net: you can slide out the Verizon SIM card and put in a European SIM card on an iPhone 6/6S and it’ll work just fine.
All network-locked phones can be unlocked, because locking is implemented in software.
Help is at hand for AT&T iPhone owners: AT&T will also unlock your iPhone, and 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.
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 $25.
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, 5C, 5S, 6, 6S, 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 tool to get the SIM card out of your device, but you can also be sure they gave you the right sized SIM card, and that it works.
All Apple iPads are not network locked. Wireless iPad versions come with a SIM for use in the US, and to use elsewhere you will need to buy a micro or nano SIM from a local wireless carrier. Don’t lose it (they’re tiny) as you’ll need it when you get back to the US. Get the local mobile phone store to install the SIM for you 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, any iPad later than that works in Europe with the appropriate 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.
The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.
In October 2013, T-Mobile introduced a revolutionary new international cell phone capability — free data and text message roaming in 115 countries, and 20c/min for roaming voice calls. Could this be the best option for travelers looking to save money when in Europe and elsewhere?
International Roaming charges are insanely profitable for Verizon and AT&T. How do we know this? Easy: you can go to France or the UK and buy a pre-paid SIM card to get voice calls that cost between 8-15 cents per minute. You’re paying the highest price for those calls because you’re making no commitment whatsoever. Yet the same voice call, when purchased as international roaming from Verizon or AT&T, would cost you approx 99 cents. AT&T and Verizon have millions of customers who roam Europe making hundreds of millions of calls, so they surely pay a lot less than 8-15 cents. Let’s say that call costs them 3 cents/minute, which means AT&T and Verizon make over 95% profit. The costs to interconnect mobile networks are fixed and effectively zero compared to the revenue collected. Everyone in the mobile phone industry knows this, but only T-Mobile has decided to do something about it.
T-Mobile is offering free 128Kbit/sec data when roaming outside the US, along with free texting in 115 countries, including all the European Union states. Phone calls are 20c/min maximum. You’ll need a GSM World Phone (see here to learn what that means) and a T-Mobile SIM and account. The bad news: 128Kbit/sec isn’t exactly fast. It’s good enough for email and chat, but is very sluggish for website browsing — particularly complex websites like Google mail, Facebook etc. You’ll be much better off using the native apps for those rather than the websites.
You’ll only ever roam on 3G networks, because 4G LTE roll-out and roaming in Europe is in its very early stages, but that’s true today for AT&T and Verizon too. The good news: T-Mobile is offering something that no other US carrier provides today, and with their steadily improving US 4G LTE coverage, that makes T-Mobile far more attractive to customers.
Is it worth switching to T-Mobile to get these roaming advantages? That depends largely on where you live: if there is good T-Mobile coverage in your area, this could be a really great deal for travelers and not just because of free data roaming. T-Mobile also has a very generous unlocking policy for its phones, including the Apple iPhone (see here). This makes it much cheaper and easier for you to use pre-paid SIM cards when overseas. One thing to bear in mind is that T-Mobile uses different GSM radio frequencies to AT&T in the US, so if you plan to bring an existing phone to a new T-Mobile SIM card, read the small print on your phone. Here’s Apple’s page explaining how to find out if your iPhone 5 supports T-Mobile’s 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz frequencies.
Finally, you can also “buy up” to full speed data for relatively little: $15 for 100MB/day, $25 for 200MB/week. All in all, T-Mobile just made international roaming a much more competitive market, and that’s good for everyone. Learn more about using your AT&T, Verizon or Sprint cell phone in Europe here.
[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices]
Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money?
If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:
Click on “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):
Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.
The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…
This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.
There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:
There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data.
If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck.
If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.
The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up.
Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”.
“Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day.
One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.)
When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.
To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges.
Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges.
Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail.
To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.
Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left.
Enjoy your trip!
Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.
Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of “+” instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe — which is handy for numbers you put into the phone’s memory or contact list. In my example, you’d dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe.
On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the “post dial delay”). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits — several seconds — because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn’t know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn’t required with mobile phones because you hit the “send” or “call” button at the end of the number.
One more thing about the ‘# at the end trick’: it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see!