Using Phone Cards in Europe

By Rick Steves

Europe uses two different types of telephone cards. Both types are sold at post offices, newsstands, street kiosks, tobacco shops, and train stations.

Insertable Phone Cards

These cards, which can only be used at pay phones, are available throughout Europe (except Britain). They are easy to use: Simply take the phone off the hook, insert the card, wait for a dial tone, and dial away. The phone displays your credit ticking down as you talk. Each European country has its own phone card — so your German card won’t work in an Austrian phone.

International Phone Cards

Available in much of Europe, these cards can be used to make inexpensive calls — within Europe, or to the US, for pennies a minute — from nearly any phone, including the one in your hotel room. The prepaid cards come with a toll-free number and a scratch-to-reveal PIN code. If the voice prompts aren’t in English, experiment: Dial your code, followed by the pound sign (#), then the phone number, then pound again, and so on, until it works.

Most cards work only in the country where you buy them — ask when you buy. Many shops also sell cardless codes, printed right on the receipt. Because you don’t need the actual card to use your account, you can write down the access number and PIN code and share it with friends.

If you have a mobile phone with a European SIM card, using one of these phone cards can be cheaper than dialing direct — compare the rates.

Finally, be warned that the national telecom companies in some countries (including Germany and Great Britain) levy a hefty surcharge for using one of these cards from a pay phone — which effectively eliminates any savings. But you can still use them cheaply from a hotel-room phone.