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Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

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.

GSM comes to America (AT&T and T-Mobile)

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”.

What if I’m on Verizon or Sprint?

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.

The cost of calling internationally

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.

Using data and mobile apps internationally

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.

Cutting the cost of calling with pre-paid

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?

Pre-paid using your own GSM world phone

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.

How to beat network locked GSM phones

The good news is that beating locked cell phones has gotten a lot easier in the last year. Here are your options:

  1. Buy an unlocked phone directly from the manufacturer or T-Mobile
  2. Buy a semi-unlocked phone from Verizon or Sprint
  3. Get your phone unlocked

1. Buy an unlocked GSM phone from the manufacturer

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.

2. Buy a semi-unlocked phone from Verizon or Sprint

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.

3. Get your phone unlocked

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.

Apple iPads are unlocked by default

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.

Handy tips for a phone-stress-free European trip

  • When buying a GSM phone to use in Europe, make sure it’s a “world phone” or to keep it really simple: just get an Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.
  • Before you leave, call your carrier or log in to the website and turn on international voice and data roaming. It’s turned off by default. Even if you bought a world-phone when you signed up for service, and/or told the nice sales or activation person that’s why you went with them. It is turned off by default as an anti-fraud measure.
  • Sometimes, you cannot call US 800/888/877/866 numbers from foreign phone networks. So find out the non-800 number for your cell phone carrier’s customer support before you leave. That goes for any other 800 numbers you may need to call when overseas (e.g. your credit card company).
  • Calling 611 or any other “short code” (in industry lingo) may also not work, so don’t rely on it. Find out the international number for customer service.
  • To call internationally when outside the US, you need to know the country code of the place you’re dialing. The US country code is 1 — pretty simple. France is 33, Italy is 39, the UK is 44… there’s a whole list.
  • To call internationally from a mobile phone, enter a plus sign (+), followed by the country code, followed by the number. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from Europe, you’d dial +1 415 555 1212 on your phone. Finding the plus sign on the keypad of your phone can be hard… keep looking, it is there somewhere! You might need to hold a key down to get the plus sign. If that doesn’t work, try using 00 instead — this is the International standard code for international calling, and works on both mobile and landline phones across Europe. In my example, you’d dial 001-415-555-1212.
  • When calling from a non-mobile phone (e.g. a payphone or hotel phone) remember that the international access code in Europe is 00, not 011. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from a payphone in Europe, dial 00 1 415 555 1212. This convention also works on mobile phones.
  • When making an international call to any European phone number that begins with a zero, omit the zero — unless you are calling Italy. For example, to call the UK number 01606 54321 from France, you’d dial +44 1606 54321. + is the international prefix, 44 is the country code, then the number with the leading zero omitted. Italy is the lone exception — if you need to call there don’t drop the leading zero.
  • Enjoy your trip, and don’t forget to call home!

What about e-mail, data etc?

See part 2 of this article series, which covers mobile data services.

Links

The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.

 

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won’t work.

This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

[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 "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on “I want to…” to get this menu

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):

International Services
International Services

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.

International Roaming – Voice

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…

International Roaming – Messaging

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.

International Roaming – Data

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:

  • 800MB for $120 is $0.15/MB
  • 300MB for $60 is $0.20/MB
  • 120MB for $30 is $0.25/MB

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”.

Confirming your changes

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.

On the ground in Europe

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.

When you get back

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!

Judging by the comments on photography sites, many people have yet to upgrade Adobe Photoshop CS3 to CS4, or Lightroom 1.x to 2.x. Adobe doesn’t update the Camera Raw plug-in for older versions of Photoshop, which is a problem because updates are the only way to get support for new camera models. The same problem exists for Lightroom, where a new version of the program is required.

The Canon 50D isn’t supported in Lightroom 1.4 — only version 2.x. While the 50D is supported in Camera Raw 4.6, which means you can use it with Photoshop CS3, owners of the 5D Mark II are not so lucky: no support in Lightroom 1.4 and no support in Photoshop CS3 either; it’s supported in Camera Raw 5.2 which only works with Photoshop CS4.

To solve this problem, use the latest version of Adobe’s free DNG (Digital NeGative) converter to translate the RAW files from newer cameras into .DNG files. Lightroom 1.4 and Photoshop CS3 can open any DNG file, regardless of the original camera type. The DNG converter can be found here, and there are PC and Mac variants. It is updated at the same time as the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop when new camera support is added.

It works in batch mode — you point it at a directory (folder) full of RAW files and it grinds away creating DNGs in another directory. Taking the long view, DNG is probably a better file format for archiving images because it is open, unlike the proprietary camera-makers’ RAW file formats.

I’m a fan of not paying for rental car CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance, because it’s usually unnecessary and expensive when many credit cards already offer coverage. I’ve written before about positive experiences with American Express’ rental car insurance, but a recent trip highlighted the importance of re-reading the small print.

Francesca, one half of LodgePhoto, had rented a car at London Heathrow, and was pleased to get a free upgrade to a Jaguar, which is this rental car company’s standard intermediate model. Now, there are Jaguars and Jaguars, and this was one of the former — i.e. at the low end of the range, nothing exotic, but a pleasant step up from the more typical Ford or Peugot. At the end of the rental, there was a small chip in the windshield, which American Express explained would not be covered “because Jaguars are exotic cars”… which, if true (there’s some doubt, see below), means that she’d been driving around without insurance for a few days.

Some digging on the Amex website revealed the small print of Amex’s rental car insurance (it is hard to find — it took two failed searches before following a series of links). There are some fairly substantial limitations in the current rules:

  1. Exotic cars: anything by Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini (and other supercar makers). Also listed is the Jaguar XJS, which is not what Francesca rented. Also the Mercedes E320, which I would not consider remotely exotic. Check the document for the full list.
  2. Expensive cars: an MSRP greater than $50,000. This can be a really tough one to figure out when renting overseas — is that the price of the car when purchased in the US, or the price of the car in purchased in Europe converted to dollars? How would you know either price when presented with a particular car at the rental counter? Is that price at the current dollar exchange rate, or when it was purchased?
  3. Full sized SUVs and Vans: Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, Chevy Van etc. If you have a lot of stuff and/or a large family, this might also be a surprise. In Europe I always recommend getting more, smaller cars vs. one huge one, if that is possible, as smaller cars are easier to drive and park on narrow European roads (especially in medieval cities).

This is not the full list of limitations, by the way, just some edited highlights.

So, it’s not clear if the windshield chip is covered or not, since Francesca wasn’t driving an expensive or exotic car per the small print. We’ll find out.

The take-away from all this: re-read the small print. Even if you read it before. It might have changed!