Using Mobile Phones in Europe

By Rick Steves

Traveling with a mobile phone is handy and practical. Whether you're using a smartphone or a conventional cell phone, the basics for how to make calls and send texts are the same.

Mobile phones aren't for everyone. Some travelers simply don't want to hassle with figuring out how to use their phone in Europe. Others like having an excuse to be out of touch. It's OK — you still have other options for contacting people, from hotel-room phones to pay phones to Internet calling apps on a mobile device.

If you do want to go mobile, you have several options: Bring your American phone (if it works in Europe), buy a phone to use in Europe, or rent a phone. If you bring your own phone, it's easiest to roam with your US phone number — but it's more expensive. An "unlocked" phone allows you to switch out SIM cards as you travel from one country to another, giving you cheap pay-as-you-go calls. This takes a bit more effort but can be a huge money saver — especially if you'll be making lots of calls. You can buy an unlocked phone, or you may be able to unlock your own, depending on your model and carrier.

No matter what kind of phone you use, as you cross each border, you'll usually receive a text message welcoming you to the new country's network and explaining how to use their services. If you're traveling within the European Union, the message will indicate how much it costs to make and receive calls in the country you're in. Remember, having people call you on your European mobile phone number typically costs them much more than calling a fixed line (the rates can be as much as double). It might be cheaper for them to phone you at your hotel, rather than calling your mobile.

Roaming with Your Own Mobile Phone

Many AT&T and T-Mobile phones work fine abroad, while only specialized phones from Verizon or Sprint do — check your operating manual (look for "tri-band" or "quad-band"). If your Verizon phone doesn't work in Europe, they'll loan you one that does for a one-time shipping fee (described below). Note that some older iPhones from Verizon don't work in Europe.

The simplest way to travel with your own phone is to set up an international plan with your carrier. This is a good choice if you don't plan on making many calls, you'll only be away for a short time, or you want people to be able to reach you on your US phone number. It's also the best solution for those who value ease over expense. Most US providers will charge you $1.30 to $2 per minute to make or receive calls in Western Europe, and 20 to 50 cents to send or receive text messages. (Rates for roaming in Eastern Europe are generally higher.) If you bother to sign up for an international calling plan with your provider, you'll save a few dimes per minute. Though pricey, roaming on your own phone is easy and can be a cost-effective way to keep in touch — especially on a short trip or if you won't be making many calls.

Before you leave, call your mobile-phone provider to find out whether your phone will work in Europe and to ask about dialing instructions. In addition, ask if you need to activate international calling. Get rates for each country you'll be visiting and ask about other fees (such as for text messaging and data roaming). While it's typically free to enable international calling, many companies also offer the option of paying an additional monthly fee to lower the per-minute charges. Similar deals exist for text messaging (for example, $10 for 100 texts abroad). These services can often be worth it, but remember to deactivate the service when you return. (On the other hand, you can call your mobile-phone company and ask them to disable both international calling and data roaming; when you get to Europe, you're still free to use your smartphone's Wi-Fi capabilities.)

Mobile-phone companies have received furious complaints from customers who've rung up huge bills because they didn't realize they were incurring roaming charges, so they can be a little over-the-top in making sure you understand all the potential costs. But it's better to be informed.

Note that you'll be charged for incoming calls, even if you don't answer them (and, in some cases, even if your phone is turned off) — so tell your friends and co-workers not to call except in emergencies. If you want to have your US phone with you for making calls or texting, but do not want to receive expensive calls, ask your provider about setting up automatic call forwarding so that calls to your mobile phone are automatically rerouted to your home phone.

Using an Unlocked Phone

With an unlocked mobile phone, you've got Europe at your beck and call. No contracts are necessary; all you have to do is buy a SIM card, pop it in your phone, and you'll instantly have access to European calling and texting rates, as well as your very own European phone number. You can unlock your US phone or buy an unlocked phone (either before your trip or once you've reached your destination).

Getting Your US Phone Unlocked

Most mobile phones sold in the US are electronically locked to work exclusively with the carrier that sells them. However, any GSM phone — which all use SIM cards — can be unlocked for use with other providers (remember, some phones from Verizon or Sprint don't have SIM card slots). Just call your provider, ask if your phone will work in Europe, and see if they will send you an unlock code. If they agree, you'll receive a long code that you can punch into your phone. Some providers are willing to give you a code after you've been under contract for 90 days, while others wait until your phone's contract has expired. (Sometimes they won't do it at all, though companies seem to be gradually loosening up on this.) You can also go through back channels to get an unlock code (either on the Internet or at a back-alley mobile phone shop), but this is less reliable and in some situations may even be illegal.

Buying an Unlocked Phone in the US

As the world shrinks, unlocked phones are becoming more and more affordable. Go to Amazon.com or your favorite online shopping site and search for "unlocked quad-band GSM phone." As long as the phone has each of those attributes, it should work with European SIM cards. Phones range in features and price, but they don't have to cost much at all. I recently bought a basic unlocked phone for less than $40 and was able to start using it immediately throughout Europe. Some companies specialize in selling unlocked phones to travelers (sometimes bundled with SIM cards), but I'd avoid them since they often come at a higher price.

Buying a Phone in Europe

At your destination, shop around at the ubiquitous corner phone marts or at mobile-phone counters in big department stores. Many airports and train stations have hole-in-the-wall mobile phone shops. You'll get the most versatility from an unlocked phone (generally $60 and up), but many shops sell even cheaper locked phones (starting around $20) that you'll have to use with a single provider. To save even more, look for special promotions or shops that sell used phones.

Buying and Using SIM Cards

Once you have an unlocked phone, you'll need to buy a SIM card to make it work anywhere in Europe. A SIM card is a small, fingernail-size chip that stores your phone number and other information. With an unlocked phone, you can buy a SIM card at your destination and have your very own European phone number at local calling rates. I've bought SIM cards for my unlocked phone in two dozen different countries, and it's become a convenience I can't live without.

While some online companies in the US sell European SIM cards, these tend to be outrageously marked up (to prey on nervous travelers who don't realize how easy it is to buy SIM cards in Europe). For the best deal, just buy one when you arrive in Europe. Each country has various service providers, all of whom sell their own SIM cards. Since these companies are very competitive, they're pretty much the same — just look for the best rates. SIM cards, which generally cost around $5–15, come with a European phone number and starter credit. These days, mobile-phone companies are working hard to attract customers, and you'll often get the SIM card free when you buy calling credit. I've even bought a few SIM cards that came with more credit than the cost of the card (for example, a €5 card that includes €7 of credit).

Rates

If you're calling from the SIM card's home country, you'll generally pay around 10 to 20 cents per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, and nothing to receive calls. (Calls to mobile phones tend to be more expensive.) Calling the US can cost $1 per minute or more, though some providers offer extremely cheap rates. For example, Lebara — which sells SIM cards in several European countries — typically lets you call the US for around 10 cents per minute. You can also use an international phone card with your mobile phone to call internationally for pennies.

A SIM card works most affordably in the country where you buy it. If you roam with the SIM card in another country, call prices go up, and you pay to receive incoming calls. If your SIM card is from a European Union country, fees are regulated when roaming anywhere within the EU: You'll pay no more than about 30 cents per minute to make calls, 10 cents per minute to receive calls, or 10 cents to send a text message (plus tax); receiving text messages is free. If your SIM card is from a non-EU country — or if you're traveling in one — roaming fees can be dramatically higher. If you'll be making a lot of calls, it can be cheaper to buy a new SIM card for that country.

Shopping for a SIM Card

In some places, getting a SIM card is as simple as buying a pack of gum. In Greece, I walked up to a newsstand and bought a SIM card for about $5; in the Brussels train station, I got one from a vending machine. But other countries (including Italy and Germany) regulate SIM cards more carefully, so you might have to fill out some paperwork and show your passport before activating the card.

Though you can buy SIM cards at newsstands in many countries, don't expect much help from the newsstand vendor. For first-timers, it's probably worth the extra time to go to a mobile-phone shop, where an English-speaking clerk can help you explore your options, get your SIM card inserted and set up, and show you how to use it. (The mobile-phone desk in a big department store can be another good place to check.) Note that some mobile-phone shops sell SIM cards for only one provider, while others offer a wide range. Unless you're certain you want a particular company, look for a place that gives you several options, then ask the clerk which one is best for the types of calls you're going to make. (Mostly domestic or international calls? Are you using it only in that country, or planning to "roam" with it across a border?) Also ask for a list of calling rates: for making phone calls and sending text messages — both domestic and international — and for roaming (if you'll be leaving the country).

Setting Up Your Phone

Installing a SIM card is quite simple. First, locate its slot — usually on the side of the phone or behind the battery. If you already have a card installed, pop it out, then put in the new one. When you first insert a new SIM card, you might be prompted to enter the "SIM PIN" (a code number that came with your card). In some cases, you'll be asked for this every time you turn on the phone, though this feature can usually be disabled (look through your phone's menu for security features, or ask the shop clerk for help).

If buying a card from a mobile-phone shop, ask the salesperson to walk you through the entire process, from turning on the phone to making a call. If texts, recorded messages, and other instructions are in another language, ask the clerk to help you switch it to English.

Buying More Credit

Learn how to check your remaining credit balance to avoid running out at an inopportune time. This is different for each phone company, but typically you'll enter a three-digit number, then #, then hit "send." The remaining amount should pop up on your screen. Ask how to do this when you buy your SIM card.

If you start running low, you can top up your credit at any newsstand, tobacco shop, mobile-phone shop, or many other businesses (look for the SIM card's logo in the window). Typically you'll tell the clerk how much credit you want; the clerk will print out a paper voucher with instructions for how to add the amount to your total — usually by punching in a long string of numbers. (I punch in the numbers before I leave the shop, in case it doesn't work or if I need the clerk to help me interpret the instructions.) Once you've entered the code, the credit is instantly added to your account. You'll often receive a text message confirming the new amount.

If you can't find a shop, you have other options: Many ATMs let you buy credit, and some providers let you top up on their website.

Tips

Be aware that most European SIM cards expire after a certain period of inactivity (typically 3 to 12 months) — including any credit you have left on the card. So saving your Italian SIM card for next year's trip isn't a sure thing. Use it up or hand it off to another traveler.

Remember to store your phone numbers in the phone itself, rather than on the SIM card; otherwise, you'll lose access to them when you switch SIMs. When storing phone numbers, include the plus (+) sign and the country code so your calls will go through, regardless of where you're calling from.

Renting a Mobile Phone

Many car-rental companies, mobile-phone companies, and even some hotels offer the option to rent a mobile phone with a European number. While this seems convenient, hidden fees (such as high per-minute charges or expensive shipping costs) can add up — which usually makes it a terrible value. You can probably buy a similar unlocked phone on Amazon.com for the price you'd pay to rent one.

However, one option worth considering is Verizon's Global Travel Program (available only to Verizon customers). While this doesn't save you money or let you use cheap European SIM cards, it does give you the convenience of traveling with your own phone number (including all your contacts). If your Verizon phone won't work in Europe, you can pay a one-time $20 shipping fee to borrow a Europe-compatible phone that can make calls at the regular international rates (generally $1.29 to $1.99 per minute). As long as you send it back within 30 days, there are no additional rental fees or charges.

The Bottom Line on Mobile Phones

When deciding whether to roam with your US provider or use a cheap unlocked phone with European-purchased SIM cards, consider the following questions: 1) How much will you use a phone? 2) How many countries will you be visiting, and for how long?

If you're the type of person who dials ahead to confirm each hotel, makes nightly restaurant reservations, or regularly calls for info about tours and sightseeing, using an unlocked phone with local SIM cards will be much more affordable. If you won't be making a lot of calls, or you just want something for emergencies, you should be able to roam with your US phone without racking up a huge bill.