Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe
Last updated: October 2017
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. But all that has changed in the past few years.
Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless, Verizon 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 8/8+/X, Samsung Galaxy and Note phones.
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 later.
AT&T and Verizon have revamped their international roaming plans to reduce complexity in the last year. For most travelers, the changes will also reduce prices for data and voice usage.
AT&T's international roaming plan now consumes voice and data from your plan (in the past, you had to pre-buy packages of international minutes and international data). However, you will also have to pay a $10 fee per day for international roaming. So if you're on a 7-day trip, you'll also pay $70 in roaming charges (assuming you use your phone each day).
T-Mobile is the stand-out leader 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 nothing like your typical app expects. So T-Mobile also offers high-speed data plans for an additional cost, without a bandwidth throttle. Sprint has copied this approach and does the same thing.
What if you're staying for a while and don't like the idea of paying an extra $300/month to use your US phone internationally?
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 (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 basic Apple iPhone 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.
The good news is that beating locked cell phones is now easier than it ever was. 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 websites. You'll pay the full price for the phone, but it'll work out cheaper than buying it over time from the carrier over time.
Apple has taken 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". So they've come up with phones that are semi-unlocked: they will work just like an unlocked phone with an 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.
The iPhone 5-8 and X and iPads use a SIM card called a "Nano SIM", but older phones use larger SIM cards. 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 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.
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.