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.
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!