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.