How to Use a Smartphone and Data Plans Abroad

Smartphones are ingrained into our daily lives, so it’s no surprise that travelers want to use their smartphones and data plans while traveling abroad. Unfortunately, using your smartphone in Europe isn’t quite as simple as many would like, so it takes a little extra planning if you don’t want to spend a fortune on international roaming fees.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about using your smartphone (or dumb phone) and data plan in Europe.

The Basics of Using Smartphones and Data Plans in Europe

The number one thing people ask me about is how to use mobile data while abroad.

But before we jump into data plans and all that jazz, you need to make sure your phone will actually work in Europe. Some carriers in the US use a different wireless technology than what is used throughout all of Europe — which means that some US phones simply won’t work in Europe.

All of Europe uses a system called GSM (Global System for Mobiles) but two American carriers (Verizon and Sprint) use CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). All the other major US carriers use GSM, so no worries there. Luckily, most new phones offered via Verizon and Sprint can now connect to both GSM and CDMA networks, so all hope is not lost. When it comes to iPhones, anything higher than an iPhone 4S will work perfectly fine in Europe. If you have an Android or Windows phone through Verizon and Sprint, be sure to check if it’s a “world phone” (i.e., it’s GSM compatible) — most modern phones should be fine.

If your phone isn’t compatible, check with your service provider as some will rent you a phone for a few weeks/months.

There are a few different options for using your phone (voice and text)/data in Europe:

The easiest — and dumbest — is to simply use your phone by taking advantage of international roaming. Don’t do this. It will cost a fortune. The rates for international roaming, especially when it comes to using data, are insane. You can easily spend $50 sending a few emails and viewing a few webpages. Be sure to call your mobile carrier as they might have to enable international roaming.

iphone-sim

The SIM card in an iPhone

The next easiest way to use your phone abroad is by signing up for an international data plan from your mobile phone provider. You’ll still pay quite a bit for data — around $20 for 100MB-200MB of data. For reference, you can burn though 100MB of data by streaming a few Youtube videos, so it really isn’t very much. However, if you just want to send a few emails and do very minimal web surfing, this could be a viable option. Voice and text is still fairly expensive but it isn’t too outrageous — especially if you use them sparingly.

If you’re on a budget and you’re cool with trying to use free Wi-Fi as much as possible, this is a pretty cheap option.

I believe T-Mobile now offers free international data to most of its customers, so be sure to check that out that option. I’m guessing that this trend will spread to other carriers as competition grows.

The cheapest option is purchasing a pre-paid SIM card in Europe from a European mobile carrier. To do this, you’ll most likely need to “unlock” your phone so it can accept SIM cards from other companies. The problem is that most phones sold in the US are “locked” to your mobile provider so the phone won’t work if you install a SIM card of another mobile company. This is basically a way for mobile companies to keep you from switching carriers. Contact your carrier to see if they’ll unlock it, but each carrier has their own policies regarding if/when they’ll unlock a phone.

The process of unlocking your phone is fairly easy, but it feels a little shady. Basically, phones are locked via software, so you need special codes to bypass the locking software. There are hundreds of online services that will do it for you — for a fee of course. The process is fairly simple — you enter some information into a website, pay, and then the company will email you a special unlock code for your phone. You just follow the instructions they give you. It’s usually a pretty painless process.

Alternatively, many small, independent mobile phone shops in Europe will unlock your phone for about $20-$30.

Your final option is to simply buy an unlocked phone.  You can get an unlocked phone from the factory but factory-unlocked phones are usually costly because they’re not tied to a two-year contract — and therefore you will pay full price for the phone. Your best bet for finding a cheap (i.e., basic) unlocked phone is to search for an “quad band unlocked phone” on Amazon. There, you’ll find cheap smart and dumb phones that are ready to go. The phones won’t be great (unless you’re prepared to shell out of a lot of cash), but they’ll work.

Here is an example of what a phone unlocking service website will look like.

An example of a phone unlocking service website

Okay, at this point your phone is unlocked. So now you need to purchase a pre-paid SIM card.

It’s best to purchase a SIM card once you get to Europe. Every country has multiple carriers, and they should all be fairly similarly priced.

sim-vending

Each country has its own laws about purchasing SIM cards. In some countries, you can buy them from grocery stores, kiosks, or even vending machines. In some countries, like France, you have to buy them from a mobile phone store (and be prepared to show your passport).

The SIM card will normally come with some credit (voice, text, and data) and you purchase more credits when needed. Additional credit can usually be purchased at convenience stores, grocery stores, or mobile phone shops. All you need to do is simply pay the cashier and they’ll give you a code that you enter into your phone.

However, you should be aware of roaming fees between countries. For example, if you use a French SIM card in Germany, you’ll get charged an inflated rate. The European Union has passed a law that prohibits this practice within the EU, but it won’t go into effect until December of 2015. So, until then, you’ll need to buy a new SIM card in each country in order to get the best price.

Texting is usually the cheapest way of communicating, but even that can get expensive if you do it a ton because you pay per text sent.

Take Advantage of Free Wi-Fi and Offline Apps

Any smartphone will have the ability to connect to Wi-Fi, so it makes sense to use Wi-Fi as much as possible in place of data. It’s fairly easy to find free Wi-Fi in most cities, but it’s not always super convenient, reliable, or fast — just be aware of that. Additionally, availability does drop considerably once you leave the big/medium-sized cities.

The best places to find free Wi-Fi are McDonald’s (some make you purchase something first), Starbucks, cafés, and hostels/hotels.

Additionally, many apps can be used offline so you don’t have to worry about eating up all your data. For example, City Maps 2Go and MapsWithMe are the two best offline city map apps. Basically, the apps download city maps to your phone and then it uses the built-in GPS function to pinpoint your location (GPS doesn’t use/need a data connection to function). These apps will save you a ton of money and stress, so make sure you download them before you’re abroad.

Monitor Your Data Usage

It’s easy to forget how much data our phones use without us knowing. Some phones will download app updates using your data. Even email apps will constantly use data to check for new emails — this can lead to huge phone bills if you’re not careful. That’s why it’s wise to ensure that you turn off your data connection when you don’t need it. Any time I need to send large files (email, posting photos on Facebook, Snapchating, Instagramming, etc.), I wait until I’m connected to Wi-Fi.

cheap-phonePre-Paid Dumb Phones

If you simply want a phone for making calls and sending texts within Europe, your best bet is to buy a cheap pre-paid phone once you’re in Europe. They usually cost $10-$20 and come with $5-$10 worth of credit. You can add credit as needed.

Other Tips and Advice

  • Texting is often called SMS in Europe.
  • Many mobile phone companies will let you “pause” your contract, so this is a good option if you’re traveling for an extended period of time. It will usually cost a little each month, but you won’t be stuck paying for an expensive phone plan back home that you won’t be using.
  • In Europe, you’re usually only charged for calls and texts that you make, but incoming calls and texts are free.
  • Some pre-paid credit is only valid for for a few weeks once activated, so be sure to know when it expires. You don’t want to buy a ton of credit all at once and then find out it expires after 30 days. In this case, it might make more sense to buy credit in smaller chunks.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all this phone mumbo-jumbo, you can always rent a phone that’s all ready to go. There are a handful of companies that provide this service. You’re going to pay a premium for the convenience, but you won’t have to worry about dealing with anything.
  • Use apps like Skype to make international calls back home — just be sure you’re using Wi-Fi.
  • Even the cheapest data plan can run up a huge bill if you’re not careful, so it’s wise to use Wi-Fi whenever possible.
  • The most secure way to make online purchases is through your data plan — not Wi-Fi.
  • There are long-term contracts, but they’re generally only available to European citizens. Most people aren’t traveling for long enough to take advantage of these long-term contracts.
  • SIM cards come in multiple sizes, so be sure you know which size your phone needs.

sim-sizes

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