Smart Phoning: Roaming with Your Own Phone in Europe

Limit your data charges by taking advantage of Wi-Fi at caf├ęs and other hotspots.
By Rick Steves

These days, most people enjoy the convenience of taking their own smartphone along to Europe. Horror stories you may hear about sky-high roaming fees are both dated and exaggerated, and major service providers (wary of bad press) now work hard to avoid surprising you with an exorbitant bill. With a little planning, you can use your phone — for voice calls, messaging, and Internet access — without breaking the bank.

First, figure out whether your phone works in Europe. As a rule of thumb, most phones purchased through AT&T and T-Mobile (which use the same technology as Europe) work fine abroad, while only some phones from Verizon or Sprint do — check your operating manual (look for “tri-band,” “quad-band,” or “GSM”). If you’re not sure, ask your service provider.

Types of Roaming

“Roaming” with your phone — that is, using it outside of its home region, such as in Europe — generally comes with extra charges, whether you are making voice calls, sending texts, or reading your email. The fees listed here are for the three major American providers — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile; Sprint’s roaming rates tend to be much higher. But policies change fast, so be sure to get the latest details before your trip. For example, as of mid-2014, T-Mobile waived voice and data roaming fees for some plans.

Voice calls are the most expensive. Most US providers charge $1.29 to $1.99 per minute to make or receive calls in most of Europe. (As you cross each border, you’ll typically get a text message explaining the rates in the new country.) If you know you’ll be making lots of calls, look into paying for a global calling plan to lower the per-minute cost, or buy a package of a certain number of minutes for a discounted price (such as 30 minutes for $30). Note that you’ll be charged for incoming calls whether or not you answer them (possibly even when your phone’s turned off — check with your provider); to save money, ask your friends to stay in contact by texting, and to call you only in the case of an emergency.

Text messaging costs 20 to 50 cents per text. Again, if you’ll be doing a lot of texting, you could sign up for an international messaging plan (for example, $10 for 100 texts abroad). You can also consider various apps that let you text for free (iMessage for Apple, Google Hangouts for Android, or WhatsApp for any device); however, these require you to use Wi-Fi or data roaming.

Data roaming means accessing data services via a cellular network other than your own home carrier’s. International roaming prices have dropped dramatically in recent years, making it an affordable way for travelers to bridge the gaps between Wi-Fi hotspots. You’ll always pay far less if you set up an international data-roaming plan before you leave. Most providers charge $25–30 for 100–120 megabytes of data. While you’ll burn through that amount quickly if you stream videos or music, it’s plenty for basic Internet tasks: 100 megabytes lets you view 100 websites or send/receive 1,000 text-based emails — for most of us, that’s more than enough for one trip. If your data use exceeds that amount, most providers will automatically kick in an additional 100- or 120-megabyte block at the same price as the first.

These days, anyone who manages to run up a gigantic data roaming bill has to go out of their way to do it — most likely by activating their phone’s data-roaming capability without pre-buying an international data plan. If that does happen, try calling your provider and asking if they’d be willing to retroactively activate one.

Setting Up (or Disabling) International Service

With most service providers, international roaming (voice, text, and data) is automatically disabled on your account unless you call to activate it. Before your trip, call your provider (or navigate their website — some are better than others), and cover the following topics:

  • Confirm that your phone will work in Europe.
  • Find out their global roaming rates for voice calls, text messaging, and data.
  • Tell them which of those services you’d like to activate.
  • Consider any add-on plans — for example, if you’ll be making a lot of calls, consider paying for an international calling plan that brings down the per-minute cost.

When you get home from Europe, be sure to cancel any add-on plans that you activated for your trip. While some providers let you set up an automatic shut-off date for international services, others make you call them to cancel.

Some people would rather use their phone exclusively on Wi-Fi, and not worry about either voice or data charges. If that’s you, call your provider to be sure that roaming options are deactivated on your account. (And consider asking them to suspend your account while you’re gone, so that you’re not charged for services you’re not using.) To be double-sure, you can also put your phone in “airplane mode” and then turn your Wi-Fi back on.

Tips for Budgeting Your Data Usage

As you — and your mobile device — travel through Europe, getting online can be touch and go. To reduce the frustration of spotty service without breaking the bank, one good approach is to use free Wi-Fi wherever possible, and just pay for data roaming when you need to get online between hotspots.

Wi-Fi (sometimes called “WLAN” in Europe) is readily available throughout Europe. However, the quality of the signal in the places you’ll encounter it — hotels, cafés, etc. — is potluck. It may slow down or speed up suddenly, or just decide to conk out every few minutes. On most of my travels, I find that it’s usually good enough to shoot off an email, but too slow to stream movies or make a video Skype call. Be patient, and keep your expectations low.

At accommodations, access is often free, but sometimes — especially, it seems, at more expensive hotels — you’ll pay a fee. Many European hotels, with their thick stone walls, have Wi-Fi signals that can’t reach from the router in the lobby to the rooms high above it. If Wi-Fi access is important to you, ask about it when you book — and be specific (“In the rooms?”). When I’m checking in at a hotel, I ask at the desk for the password and network name (in case several are in range), so I can log on right away.

When you’re out and about, your best bet for finding free Wi-Fi is often at a café. They’ll usually tell you the password as long as you buy something. More sneaky — but also effective — is to stroll down a café-lined street, smartphone in hand, checking for unsecured networks every few steps until you find one that works.

Some towns have free public Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around highly trafficked areas. (You may have to register before using it, or ask for a password at the tourist office.) Just find whichever idyllic spot you like best — a bench overlooking a sandy beach, on a floodlit piazza, or along a bustling people-watching boulevard — then log on and surf away.

Data roaming is handy for times when you can’t find useable Wi-Fi. Because you’re paying by the megabyte, it’s best to conserve your data. Don’t use it for bandwidth-gobbling tasks like Skyping, downloading apps, or watching YouTube videos; those can wait until you’re on Wi-Fi. But data roaming is ideal for the times when you’re out and about and need to perform some online task that can’t wait until you’re back in a hotspot.

Budgeting your data is easy, if you’re thoughtful. For example, you can lessen how much data you use by switching your phone’s email settings from “push” to “fetch.” This means that you can choose when to “fetch” (download) your messages when you’re on Wi-Fi rather than having them continuously “pushed” to your device. If you receive an email with a large photo, video, or other file, wait until you’re on Wi-Fi to download the attachment.

Also, be aware which of your apps automatically update over the Internet, such as news, weather, and sports tickers. Check your phone’s settings to be sure that none of your apps are set to “use cellular data.”

Because there are so many ways that to accidentally burn through data, I like the safeguard of manually turning off data roaming on my phone whenever I’m not actively using it. To do this, look in your phone’s settings menu — try checking under “cellular” or “network,” or ask your service provider how to do it. Then, when you need to get online but can’t find Wi-Fi, simply turn on data roaming long enough for the task at hand, then turn it off again. On some phones, you can even select specific apps as authorized to use data roaming.

In your phone’s menu, figure out how to keep track of how much data you’ve used (look for “cellular data usage”; you may have to reset the counter at the start of your trip). Some companies automatically send you a text message warning if you approach or exceed your limit.

There’s yet another option: If you’re traveling with an unlocked smartphone in Europe, you can buy a SIM card that also includes data; this can be far, far cheaper than data roaming through your home provider.

By sticking with Wi-Fi wherever possible and thoughtfully budgeting your use of data, you can easily and affordably stay connected throughout your entire trip.