Using Phone Cards in Europe

By Rick Steves

You can save plenty of money on your calls, especially international calls, by using a telephone card purchased in Europe. (Don't use expensive calling-card services offered by US companies such as Sprint and AT&T; these are a rotten value.)

Insertable Phone Cards

These cards, which can only be used at pay phones, are common throughout Europe (except Britain). They are easy to use and sold conveniently at post offices, newsstands, street kiosks, tobacco shops, and train stations. 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. While you can use these cards to call anywhere, they're only a good deal for making quick local calls. Each European country has its own phone card — so your German card won't work in an Austrian phone. The cheapest cards can cost $5 — more phone time than you may need in that country. You can always blow through the remaining telephone time by calling home, or pass your card to another traveler.

International Phone Cards

These cards can be used to make inexpensive calls from nearly any phone, including the one in your hotel room or a mobile phone that has a European SIM card. (Without a European SIM card, you'd pay high international rates just to connect to the phone card's access number, negating any cost savings.)

With these cards, phone calls from Europe to the US can cost less than a nickel a minute. You can also use the card to make calls within the same country and to other countries in Europe. Cards are generally marked as national or international. All cards work for both domestic or international calls, but you get better rates if you use the card for the purpose it was intended.

International cards all work the same way and are simple to use. These prepaid cards come with a toll-free number and a PIN code (similar to cheap calling cards widely available in the US). The back of the card often contains basic instructions in English on how to make calls. Scratch off the back to reveal your PIN, then dial the toll-free number to reach an automated operator (if calling from your hotel-room phone, check first with the desk to see if there's a fee to call toll-free numbers). Punch in your PIN code at the prompt, then dial the number you want to call. Before you're connected, a voice tells you how much is left in your account. The prompts are nearly always in English, but if they aren't, experiment: Dial your code, followed by the pound sign (#), then the phone number, then pound again, and so on, until it works. If you're making lots of calls, you can avoid redialing the access number and PIN code by pressing whichever key (usually #) allows you to launch directly into your next call — just follow the instructions on the card.

International phone cards are sold at many kiosks, newsstands, long-distance phone shops, youth hostels, and Internet cafés, but the best selection is usually at hole-in-the wall calling shops that cater to immigrants — the leading experts on phoning home cheaply. Tell the vendor you want the cheapest card for making calls to the US. Most cards work only in the country where you buy them, but some cards can be used in multiple countries; if traveling to Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, look for a card that will function in all three places. Buy a lower-denomination card in case the card is a dud. Many shops also sell cardless codes, printed right on the receipt.

There's one catch: International phone cards are such a good deal that the national telecom companies in some countries (including Germany and Great Britain) have cracked down. In these places, using one of these cards at a pay phone comes with a hefty surcharge that effectively eliminates any savings. However, even in these countries, international phone cards are still a good deal for making calls from your hotel room (or any landline other than a pay phone). In Eastern Europe, these cards are harder to find — and rarely as cheap.

Because you don't need the actual card to use your account, it's shareable. You can write down the access number and PIN code and share it with friends.