Smart Phoning: Using a European SIM Card

By Rick Steves

While using your American phone in Europe is easy, it’s not always cheap. If you’d like to have the option of making lots of calls at much more affordable rates, it’s worth considering swapping out your own phone’s SIM card for a European one.

Here’s the basic idea: With an unlocked phone (i.e., one that works with different carriers), get a SIM card — a microchip that slips into a slot on the phone — once you get to Europe. Turn on the phone, and bingo! You’ve got a European phone number...and access to cheaper rates than you’d get through your US carrier, even with an overseas plan.

The main advantage is cost. While there’s some up-front expense, the per-minute calling and data rates can be pennies on the dollar compared to the overseas rates you’d be charged with your US phone. Using a local SIM card is liberating, allowing to you to use your phone whenever and wherever you like, without feeling obligated to hold off until you’ve hit a good Wi-Fi connection (though for long calls home to the US, you may still want to wait till you can call for free over the Internet).

You can also save money by suspending your own phone service for the length of your trip. Most providers will charge $10–15 to do this, but at least you won’t be charged for your normal monthly service for the time you’re overseas. Remember that if you remove your American SIM card to insert a European one, you’ll no longer be reachable at your American number anyway.

The only significant disadvantage is the inconvenience. This approach requires first either getting an unlocked phone or unlocking your current one (or at least confirming that it’s unlocked), and then buying a new SIM card in Europe. While neither of those tasks needs to be very time-consuming, I only recommend this for travelers taking longer trips and/or anticipating doing lots of phoning (or data-heavy smartphone app usage) — for anyone else, the cost savings likely isn’t worth the bother.

Getting an Unlocked Phone

First, you’ll need a phone that works with a European SIM card.

If you bought your device as part of a contract, it’s most likely electronically “locked” so that you can’t easily switch carriers. But some tablet and phones (such as the Verizon iPhone 5 and later), while locked to prevent you from using them with another US carrier’s service, still allow you to swap out your US SIM card for one bought overseas — check with your provider about whether this will work.

If not, ask if it’s possible to get your phone “unlocked” — allowing you to use it with any SIM card, not just the one it came with. Some carriers are happy to help you unlock it; if so, you also need to make sure that your phone can actually work with a European SIM (not always the case, as some US phones use a different network, and most use different bands, than the ones used in Europe).

If using your own phone just won’t work, your next-best option may be to look around for any old, unused mobile phone you’ve still got sitting in a drawer somewhere. It may already be unlocked, or at least easily unlocked, especially if it was bought under a since-expired service contract. Again, call your provider for assistance.

Otherwise, you can simply buy an unlocked phone: Either shop online for an “unlocked quad-band” phone before you leave home, or just buy one at any mobile-phone shop once you get to Europe. Whether bought in the US or Europe, a basic model typically costs around $40 (though you can probably beat that price by hunting for special promotions or a used phone).

It’s also possible to buy an inexpensive mobile phone in Europe that already comes with a SIM card. While these phones are generally locked to work with just one provider, they may be even cheaper ($20 or less), and can be less hassle than buying an unlocked phone and a SIM card separately.

While shopping around, keep in mind that Europeans might not understand the American term “cell phone.” Try “mobile” (pronounce it the way Brits do — rhymes with “smile”) or “handy” (most common in German-speaking areas).

Buying and Using European SIM Cards

Getting a European SIM card itself is generally straightforward and cheap. Most go for about $5–10, and usually include about that much prepaid calling credit (making the card itself virtually free). Because the SIM card you’re looking for is prepaid, buying one doesn’t involve any contract or commitment. Since I already have an unlocked phone, I routinely buy one even if I’m in a country for only a few days.

In about half of the European countries, buying a SIM card is as easy as buying a pack of gum — and sold all over: not just in mobile-phone shops, but also department-store electronics counters, newsstand kiosks, and even supermarkets. In Dubrovnik, I bought a SIM card at a newsstand for about $7, which included that much credit. In a Brussels train station, I got one from a vending machine. And on a flight to London, I discovered a free SIM card glued to an ad in the in-flight magazine.

Even so, I like to seek out a mobile-phone shop, where an English-speaking clerk can help explain my options, get my SIM card inserted and set up, and show me how to use it.

Besides, in plenty other countries — including Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, and Greece — you need to register your passport when you buy a new SIM card (as part of an antiterrorism measure). This means you’ll need your passport on hand and be asked to fill out a form or two (you may also be able to register online), and then wait up to an hour or two till you get a text welcoming you to that network.

Beware that you may need a non-standard SIM card, such as the smaller “micro-SIM” or “nano-SIM” cards used in most iPhones; these are less widely available (look for them in mobile-phone shops, not newsstands). With an unlocked smartphone, you can buy a European SIM that covers both voice and data. (See my tips for budgeting your data usage.)

When you buy your SIM card, be sure to ask about rates for domestic and international calls and texting, and about roaming fees. (It may help to know that Europeans use the term "SMS" to describe text messaging.) Also find out how to check your credit balance (usually you’ll key in a few digits and hit “Send”).

When using a European SIM card in its home country, it’s free to receive calls and texts, and it’s cheap to make calls — domestic calls average 20 cents per minute, and international calls can be quite reasonable as well, especially if you shop around. Rates are higher if you’re calling from outside the card’s home country. But if you bought the SIM card within the European Union, roaming fees are capped no matter where you travel throughout the EU (about 25 cents/minute for making calls, 7 cents/minute for receiving calls, and 8 cents/minute to send a text message). Note that calls to a European mobile phone are substantially more expensive than calls to a fixed line. Off-hours calls are generally cheaper than ones made during business hours.

If you expect to be making lots of calls home, look for a prepaid SIM card with good international rates — some brands even specialize in offering extremely cheap international calls. For example, Lebara and Lycamobile, both of which operate in multiple European countries, let you call the United States for less than 10 cents per minute.

To insert your SIM card into the phone, locate the slot, which is usually on the side of the phone or behind the battery. Turning on the phone, you’ll be prompted to enter the “SIM PIN” (a code number that came with your card). You may be asked for this every time you turn on the phone, so keep it handy (better yet, memorize it). If text or voice prompts are in another language, ask a clerk whether they can be switched to English. Remember to send your new phone number to people who may want to reach you — so they can call you anytime, anywhere.

You can top up your credit not just at branch stores of your card’s mobile provider, but at many newsstands and tobacco shops (look for your SIM-card provider’s logo in the window). Tell the clerk how much credit you want, and she’ll 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. Or she may ask for your phone number, and send the credit directly to your phone. Either way, you’ll get a text message confirming your new balance. Many ATMs also let you buy mobile-phone credit, and most providers let you top up online.

When you cross international borders, you’ll usually receive a text message welcoming you to the new country’s network and explaining how to use their services.

A few more 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 is risky. Use it up or hand it off to another traveler.

Also, be sure to store your contacts’ 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 to ensure that your calls will go through, regardless of where you’re calling from.