Updated November 2019
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.
What’s easiest and best for European data today?
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 4G (LTE) or 3G (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G coverage in Europe is still patchy compared to the US. European 4G (LTE) coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries, it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 4G and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to 3G outside of 4G areas.
Beware mobile data roaming rates
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 tend to go up. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile offer you the ability to use your existing data plan for an additional fee. Google Fi allows you to use your additional plan with no extra fee and is the lowest cost international roaming service today.
Before you leave…
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.