We’ve updated this guide. Click here for our guide to suing phones and data plans in Europe.
I get a lot of questions regarding cell phones and how to use them in Europe. Honestly, I don’t think you really need one, but they are nice for emergencies or if you need to meet people. This guide should give you an idea of how to successfully — and as inexpensively as possible — use a cell phone in Europe.
Information About Using A Mobile Phone (Cell Phone) In Europe
Networks: Basically, there are two types of mobile phone networks — GSM and CDMA. Europe uses the GSM network and much of North America primarily uses the CDMA network. Simply put, if your service provider uses CDMA your phone won’t work in Europe—unless your particular phone can work on both networks.
Some North American cell providers use the GSM network (notably T-Mobile and AT&T) so those phones should work while in Europe — but you’ll get charged a ton if you use your domestic phone plan. You want to use an European provider to get good rates (see below).
SIM Cards: All phones that use the GSM network use SIM cards. A SIM card is a small removable microchip that contains the phone’s number and account information — so you can place the card in different phones but still keep the same phone number. In Europe, each mobile phone provider issues their own SIM cards and the cards can usually be bought in mobile phone stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, newsstands, etc. Keep in mind that SIM cards are cheap — in fact, a 10€ SIM card will often come preloaded with 5€ worth of credit.
Unlocking A Phone: Many mobile phones are “locked” and can only be used with a certain provider. For example, Brand A mobile phone can only be used with Brand A SIM card. Luckily, pretty much any phone can be “unlocked” — this allows the phone to work with any SIM card/service provider. This is essential if you plan on traveling to multiple countries because most providers charge a lot extra to use their phone outside the “home” country. With an unlocked phone all you have to do is buy another SIM card in the new country and switch SIMs.
Purchasing A Mobile Phone: You have a few options when it comes to purchasing a phone —
- Buy An Unlocked One Before You Arrive: First check your current phone to see if it accepts SIM cards. If it does, unlock it—this is pretty easy to do in Europe or in the US—or you can do it yourself (google how to unlock your particular phone). Another option is to look for used phones that are unlocked on eBay — I’ve seen really basic used cell phones for like $20.
- Buy A Phone In Europe: There are mobile phone shops all over the place. Just hop in and ask for a phone. You can get a phone that’s locked into one provider for like 20€ or an unlocked one for around 60€. A lot of these places will also unlock your current phone for a fee.
- Rent One: There are companies that rent phones but they tend to overcharge so I suggest another option.
Pay As You Go and Topping Up: Most Europeans use “pay as you go” mobile phone service. Basically, you buy your mobile credit in 10€-30€ blocks and then buy more once you run out. All you have to do is buy a refill or “top up” card (make sure it is the same brand as your SIM card) at a shop/grocery store/vending machine/newsstand and then enter the info into your phone.
Smart Phones and Data Plans
You can certainly use your smart phones in Europe, but paying international roaming charges for your data plan will cost you a fortune. Here is an article from Wired that talks about preparing your iPhone for use in Europe. Basically, you “jailbreak” the phone and then unlock it. Then you have to find a pay as you go data plan & SIM once you get over there. This works for any smart phone and you just have to do a little googling.
One way to save a ton of money is by using the Skype app on your smart phone. This allows you to make cheap calls over a wi-fi connection.
Does All This Sound Like A Hassle?
Don’t forget that phone cards are a cheap and easy way to make calls. You can buy them at any convenience store.
Other Tips and Advice
Get the Correct Frequency: Make sure your phone is on the 1800MHz frequency — for best coverage you want a phone that can operate in both 900MHz and 1800MHz frequencies. Just because your US phone is on a GSM network doesn’t mean the phone operates in the correct frequency ranges. Basically, look for a phone that’s labeled a “World Phone.”
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