Helpline Question of the Month:
What's the Best Way to Use a 3G Cell Phone in Europe?
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More and more travelers going to Europe want to stay connected through web, phone, texting, data and apps. Here at home, a 3G cell phone makes all this easy. But what's the best way to combine all this convenience — affordably — over there? Jon from Cincinnati wonders...and he's not alone!
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I want to use a 3G phone in Europe, and I need help understanding what really works where and how much it costs. I plan to purchase an unlocked 3G refurbished handset on eBay (Blackberry, Motorola, etc), then, if possible, purchase prepaid SIM cards with voice, text and data, in each of the countries my wife and I will be visiting: France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Is it worth it, or do I just take my trusty 3GS iPhone to Europe and pay AT&T a gazillion dollars a minute to use it? Someone HELP!
Prior to buying an unlocked phone on eBay, I'd suggest first checking with AT&T to find out the cost of their roaming plans. Other iPhone users here have reported fairly reasonable costs when roaming with a roaming plan in Europe. It's relatively easy to buy a PAYG SIM either in Europe or from one of the travel phone firms such as Roam Simple, Call In Europe, Cellular Abroad, Telestial or Mobal. However, as far as I know it's very difficult for non-residents of Europe to have access to data plans as these are usually only available on a contract (with a local address).
White Plains, NY
Since you are visiting many countries you might want to go with something like:
I am going to be visiting just Italy for 3 weeks this spring and I expect to be able to walk into a phone shop and purchase a phone/data SIM card for my unlocked android phone, as I have heard many others have done. I wish I could do this more easily with an iPhone, which I prefer, but (due to it being locked to AT&T and the micro SIM) the android is the easier way.
I've checked available AT&T International Data Packages, and the only two that seem reasonable are: $119.99 for 100 MB, and $199.99 for 200 MB. Looking around the web to find a way to convert MB to time (I know this depends...but I'm only after a general correlation), it seems the $119.99 plan would equate to 3 to 4 minutes of surf time a day for the 18 days I'll be in Europe, or 6 to 8 minutes a-day for the $199.99 plan. The costs get dicey with any data over the 100 or 200 MB limit. The overage rate is $0.005 KB. This doesn't seem bad until you do the math. For an additional 3 or 4 minutes of surf time a day during my stay in Europe the overage fee would be $270+. These costs are in addition to purchasing an unlocked handset. This said, I've looked further into prepaid Europe SIM cards. Purchase of SIM cards for voice and texting are readily available and rather cheap, but when I tried to find a prepaid SIM data card I hit a stone wall. As was suggested in the earlier thread from Ken, these seem to be sold only to residents of European countries. Lisa: If you can put me in touch with your friends that did purchase a SIM data card as a non-resident walk-in I would be most appreciative. Otherwise, if any of you seasoned globe trotters have found a way to accomplish what I'm after, please send me the lexicon linking Europe's telephony and the internet with a prepaid SIM data card.
Our experience with the iPhone last summer was that the 50MB plan was enough for our needs (apart from email which we checked only when we had wifi). We were careful about downloading maps which are the other big data hog. My Blackberry is unlocked so a local phone sim was used for local calls and to receive calls. For calls to the States we used the Skype app with wifi. You can upgrade the MB's at any time if you see you're needing more. To determine your data needs, you could turn off wifi on your phone and experiment with some web browsing to see how much is used for various tasks.
White Plains, NY
When I was in Paris a few year ago (2006) I just bought a Nokia phone from an electronics shop for less than 70 euros and I had the SIM refilled. That was the era before iPhone and Android. I did all my internet at the hotel wifi.
I don't have any experience outside of the U.K. as far as data goes, but you can easily get data on a prepaid SIM in Britain — and the rates are pretty reasonable. For example, T-Mobile U.K. offers prepaid at One Pound a day. (Check out its web site.) It may even let you roam in other countries. To get this type of SIM you just hand the seller some money. No need to disclose anything. I've heard some other countries are more restrictive, but I've also heard the restrictions aren't always enforced. If you want to have a 3G connection, be sure whatever phone you get has the proper radio bands. The U.S. bands aren't the same, but there can be some overlap. Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation of which work where. Finally, just be sure you get something that allows a wifi connection. That is likely the best way to use data overseas (and if the device runs something such as skype, it can allow some pretty inexpensive calls, too).
New York, NY
There is info on this site that you might find useful...
Jon, what is it going to cost you for the unlocked phone, all the separate SIM cards, and the hassle? Why not just take your iPhone with data switched OFF and use it as a phone for $1.29 a minute (roaming) or 99 cents if you sign up for a month of the ATT world plan ($5.99 when we did that last summer.) You can still use it to access the internet wherever there is wifi — which is very common these days
Russellville, AR USA
Per Lola's suggestion, that is what I plan to do, just spend the $5 to my carrier and get a minute call for $1 — but I might splurge for 100mb's of data just in case I get stuck and need to be online with no wifi available. My phone rep tells me that the prepaid sim card idea is great as long as I am the only one calling people (but if someone calls me they would get an international charge). My children are not the problem — they will probably just text or facebook me — but the elderly parents will call so I might as well assume that I'll have a larger bill then normal for that month.
Bloomington, IL USA
I would never want to take my regular phone, with its regular number, with me. Since it is my only phone, there is too much chance that someone might call who doesn't know I'm in Europe. I don't need to pay $1.29/min or whatever for the dentist to confirm my appointment or for my college to call seeking a donation.
You don't have to answer those calls. Then there is no charge. The advantage of having your regular phone is that you don't have to give new numbers to the people you DO want to hear from. And they don't have to pay for a foreign call. If your reason for needing a phone is to stay in touch with someone at home, an ailing parent for example, it helps to have your regular phone.
Last June I took my Verizon Blackberry to Italy. I got an international calling & unlimited data plan, which took the place of the regular plan I'm on normally for the time I was in Europe. As soon as I got home I switched back to the regular plan. Verizon pro-rated the monthly fee so I only had to pay the higher cost for the 3 weeks I needed it. This can all be handled with one phone call before you leave home and another when you return.
Lola wrote: "You don't have to answer those calls. Then there is no charge."
I'm afraid this isn't true. But here is an alternative if you are concerned about too many incoming calls that you don't want to accept: Unconditionally forward ALL of your incoming calls to your voicemail number before you go. Anyone calling you will go directly to voicemail so the call makes no trip overseas. If you're lucky, however, you'll get a notice you have a voicemail message the same way you do at home. Then you can call and check the message using a prepaid calling card or some other means. Even though all your calls are forwarded, you can still make outgoing calls without a hitch.
An even better solution would be to get a Google Voice number and forward all your calls to that number. Google Voice will try and transcribe the voicemail messages you receive and can either send you a text or an email with the transcription. It can even be set to send you notice of calls you missed even though no message was left. That way you have a better way to assess if the call is one you need to handle.
Paul, I am sorry, I do not understand the technicalities, but I know that if I did not answer the call it went to voicemail (which I did not check) and I was not charged. We checked the bill carefully when we returned. I also switched the phone off at night. We were, in the other hand, charged for texts, but we only received those from our daughter who was there with us. She would text to ask where we were and where we could meet.
Lola, what you experienced may be what actually happens but I wanted to say something because I have read otherwise. It may depend on your carrier. Also, sometimes foreign charges don't appear for a few billing cycles. I've used data at the ridiculously expensive rates but the usage never showed up on my bill. I was just lucky because we've all heard of people who didn't even know they were using data only to discover a bill for thousands of dollars when they returned home. My information comes from posts on one of the forums just devoted to cell phones, specifically, HowardForums.com. I'd advise others to search there if this is a potential problem.
...and back to...
From the many comments posted, I take some comfort with the confirmation there is no easy answer. The comments have provided excellent assistance and I've looked into several sites recommended.
For anyone interested I will report this: the www.internationalcellphoneguide.com is quite informative (at least for a newbie like me). From there I went to www.mobal.com and checked some of their offers. Mobal offers a "World Phone Deluxe" (Nokia 2730C unlocked) for purchase at $109.00, with card, charger, etc. There's no contract and you only pay for actual use. The fees are billed after use (not prepaid) at rates of $1.50/min voice to US, $0.80/msg for SMS text messages and $0.14/10KB for data.
I then returned to www.att.com/global and reviewed their plans. Summary of costs: "AT&T World Traveler" $5.99/mo plus $0.99/min voice, $0.50/text message sent, $1.30/picture-video message sent. Then, in addition. for the 100mB International data plan add $119.99/mo (anything over 100MB is billed at an additional $0.005/KB rate).
It looks like if I would purchase the Mobal "World Phone Deluxe" use it for a month making the same number of calls/messages, internet searches as with the iPhone 3GS that I have and get the AT&T plans, it is about "six of one" and "half dozen of the other". If, however, I use the Mobal phone on a future visit(s) to Europe, it would be the lower cost option. I also understand there may be some fees charged by the local carrier (within Europe) for processing each contact to my phone from the US. I haven't yet learned what magnitude cost this might be.
By the way, the AT&T web site provides an easy-to-use "data calculator" so one can determine approximately how much data would be used in a month.
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