USING YOUR CELL PHONE IN EUROPE: U.S. CARRIER, SIM CARD, NEW PHONE OR WIFI?
You have a U.S. cell phone and plan to travel to Europe soon. You don’t love the idea of spending half of your time looking for free wifi. You want to be able to wander the streets of Paris thanks to Google Maps or post real-time shots of your tasty gelato in Rome on Instagram. This guide provides detailed summaries of each option for using your cell phone in Europe and will walk you through how to choose your best option and the process to get sorted.
Option 1: The International Plan Offered by Your U.S. Cell Phone Carrier
If there’s no wifi, your smartphone must use cellular data to connect to the internet, and if you don’t use an online service like Skype or WhatsApp, your smartphone must use a voice network to call home. If you keep your U.S. wireless plan when using the internet and making those calls, you may be charged roaming fees to use another carrier’s tower whenever you’re off wifi. That’s as much as $2/minute for calls and $2/MB of data!
U.S. wireless carriers, however, have begun offering more competitive international plans and some even provide free international roaming. So in deciding how to use your cell phone abroad, start by reviewing the international plan offered by your existing U.S. wireless carrier. Whether you keep your cell phone carrier for your trip to Europe will depend on which carrier you have and your answers to the nine questions at the end of this post.
Option 2: Replace Your SIM Card
A SIM card is a small card containing a chip that allows your cell phone to tap into a specific mobile network. You can remove the SIM card from your U.S. wireless service carrier (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) by inserting a pin or paper clip into the small whole on the side of your phone and replacing it with an international SIM card. When you take out your U.S. SIM card, you’ll get a new number from the country where you purchased the card, and you’ll be unable to call or text with your U.S. number. But you’ll usually pay significantly less for cellular data using a local SIM card, and you can connect with those in the U.S. using online calling and messaging services such as Skype, WhatsApp, and iMessage/FaceTime (see here for a comparison of top wireless calling apps). SIM cards also may provide better coverage than if you use the international plan of your U.S. carrier if you’re using T-Mobile and Sprint’s 2G networks.
TIP: Even if you change your SIM card, you may be able to check your voicemails from calls to your U.S. number. A Verizon representative claimed that voicemails couldn’t be accessed without your Verizon SIM card, but we’ve been able to still listen to voicemails by calling our U.S. number then pressing # and entering the voicemail code.
When deciding whether to get a new SIM card, you should review your answers to the nine questions at the end of this post and this detailed article on whether to buy a SIM card, which includes a comparison chart of popular offerings, useful tips on where and how to buy SIM cards and helpful checklists for buying either a local or global SIM card.
**In June 2017, the EU implemented the “roam like at home” rule, which prohibits providers from charging roaming fees. If you buy a SIM card in one EU country and travel to another EU country, you cannot be charged a roaming fee. This has made global SIM cards less appealing, but there may still be reasons to get a global SIM card.
Using Your Cell Phone in Europe
Option 3: Buy or Rent a Separate Phone
If you’re only taking a short trip buying or renting a separate cell phone in Europe makes little sense unless you go to the country frequently enough to justify the upfront cost (at least $20-30 for a crappy phone) or you have an old phone you can use, and you’re able to easily add your contacts. You’ll still have to pay for a new SIM card, but you can leave your primary phone as is and receive calls texts to your U.S. number in an emergency if you’re willing to pay the roaming charges or for the international plan. It also makes sense if your phone is locked. In which case, you can’t replace your SIM card (find out how to unlock your smartphone).
Option 4: Rely only on Wifi
On our trips to the Middle East and India eight plus years ago, we did nothing. We kept our U.S. wireless carrier but turned our phones to airplane mode and relied on wifi and Skype to call home. This is no longer a good option for the Travel Honey team and most of our readers. If we’re using our cell phone in Europe, we want to be able to get directions, text home and obviously let the world know about our cool trip on social media. In real time.
But for those who are more willing to unplug, just beware. If you have Verizon or AT&T, and need to use your phone in a pinch, a two-minute call will run you $40 on AT&T and $35.80 on Verizon. Also, before landing in Europe, make sure you turn cellular data and roaming off or put your phone to airplane mode so you are not charged roaming fees.
SO, HOW DO YOU DECIDE HOW TO USE YOUR PHONE IN EUROPE?
To sum it up, if you’re trying to use your cell phone in Europe, don’t rely on wifi, that’s an unecessary inconvenience. And if you’re going for a short trip, skip using another phone. Instead, evaluate the cost of your U.S. wireless carrier’s international plan and the inconenience of getting a SIM card.
Do you want to learn more about using your cell phone in Europe, including whether to get a SIM card, 14 tips for saving data when traveling, what’s the best calling app and how to use offline maps? Then click here or download your free guide in one easy to ready PDF below. You may also like one of our awesome free itineraries for Iceland, Italy or Portugal.
Spain has four network operators, Movistar, Vodafone, Orange, and Yoigo. As of 2016, Vodafone had 95% 4G coverage, followed by Orange with 89%, and Movistar and Yoigo each cover 86% of the population. Movistar is known to have better coverage overall, but check the areas you specifically plan to visit. Spain has a healthy resellers market, but most don’t offer 4G on prepaid SIM cards.
Both Vodafone and Orange offer a tourist SIM card. With Vodafone, you can get 2GB of 4G data and 50 minutes of international calls for about $16, and Orange offers 3GB of 4G data and 30 minutes of international calls for about $37. Movistar charges you about $11 for a SIM card, and you can get another 1gb of 4G data for about $10. Yoigo charges you about $21 for SIM card but you get that amount in credit.
Spain requires you to register your SIM card, so you must bring a photo ID. There are no branded SIM card provider stores in the major airports in Spain and the available SIM card stands are overpriced, so wait to buy a SIM card if possible (there’s free wifi at the Madrid airport). See here for more details on SIM cards in Spain.
Portugal’ s major operators are MEO, Vodafone, and NOS. MEO and Vodafone have the best 4G coverage, followed by NOS. 4G coverage is good in Portugal except for unpopulated areas. There’s public wifi, but it’s not super widespread.
Vodafone has a 30-day holiday SIM with 5GB of data, 500 min. local calls/texts and 30 min. calls/texts to the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand. There’s also a 1GB option for 10 euros that only includes local calls/texts. MEO offers a cheaper weekly plan (about $16 for local minutes/texts and 4GB of data) and a two-week tourist plan (about $16 for international minutes/texts and 2GB of data), but the weekly plans can’t be topped off, and the tourist plans are only available at a few stores. NOS is slightly cheaper, and you get local minutes/texts and 1GB of data for about $12. See here for more details on SIM cards in Portugal.
The big four network operators in France are Orange, Bouygues Telecom, SFR, and Free Mobile. France’s SIM card options are generally pricier than a lot of other European countries, and many cafes do not have wifi. Also, you’ll find 4G in the bigger cities, but you’ll be limited to 3G in the countryside.
As of January 2017, Orange has the best 4G coverage in 17 cities and 88% of the population, but the others are not far behind: Bouygues has 85%, SFR has 81%, and Free has 80%. All of the network operators allow tethering on their SIM cards.
Each of the providers except Bouygues Telecom offers a tourist option that allows you to use the SIM card throughout Europe. The Orange Holiday is the most expensive at 40 EUR, and Free Mobile has the cheapest option at 20 EUR (but you can only buy Free Mobile SIM cards in machines, which can be confusing if you don’t speak French or know how to switch out a SIM card from your phone). There are many Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom shops in Paris. They may try to sell you the more expensive package, so make sure you ask for all your options. You can also get a better deal through one of the MVNOs (Lebara is a popular option), but your coverage and speed may be less – and you’ll only be able to buy the SIM card in a supermarkets, tobacco shops, etc. where you may not find help if there’s an issue.
You’re required to bring your passport to buy a SIM card. And because it needs to process, it takes about an hour to get service as long as you’re buying directly from a provider’s store (e.g, an Orange or SFR store). If you buy the SIM card elsewhere, you may have to wait more than a day to activate your card, so double-check before buying. See here for more information on SIM cards in France.
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