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Cell Phones in Europe

Pauline Kenny

Using a GSM cell phone (mobile phone) on your trip to Europe. This information is for Americans and Canadians traveling to Europe. Europeans traveling within Europe do not have these same concerns; they can use their cell phone easily in other European countries (but pay roaming fees).

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Cell phones in Europe National Geographic Travel Phone as well as country specific SIM cards and international cell phone rentals.
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Cell phones in Europe Mobal : Cell phones and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide.

Terms

GSM phone and SIM cards

GSM Cell Phones (World Phones)

GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a type of cell phone and network used in Europe and most countries in the world. Some US cell phone companies use GSM (T-Mobile, AT&T), but many do not. You need a GSM phone in Europe. These are sometimes called "World Phones" because they can be used around the world. In the United Kingdom, a cell phone is called a "mobile phone".

GSMBand / Frequency

GSM cell phones and networks work on GSM bands (frequencies). Cell phones in the US work at GSM 1900 or 850. Cell phones in Europe work on GSM 900 or 1800. Read more about frequencies in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.

SIM Cards

SIM (Subscriber Information Module) cards are a small chip that fits into your phone. This chip contains the cell phone number (so if you switch it to another phone, you still have the same number) and your account information. The SIM Card determines the network and phone number the cell phone uses. These can easily be switched in a phone, so you can put in one for Italy, then remove it and put in one for the US.

Unlocked/Locked Phones

Many cell phone companies "lock" their cell phones, so they can only be used with their service. For example, if you buy a T-Mobile phone, you cannot replace the SIM chip with one from AT&T and have the phone work. Read more about unlocking your phone in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.

Roaming

When you use a cell phone with a SIM card for one country, e.g. Italy, in another country, e.g. France, you are "roaming".

Why Do I Need a Cell Phone When Traveling?

There are many reasons to travel with a cell phone in Europe. Many vacation rentals do not have a phone line and it is good to have a cell phone so people can reach you or to make local calls (e.g. to reserve at a restaurant). If you are traveling with a few people, cell phones let you keep in touch with each other during the day (e.g. "I am in the Uffizi. Where are you?"). They let you keep in touch with friends and family back home. And they are handy to have for emergencies (e.g. "I am locked in the restroom, come and get me out.")

Options for Using a GSM Cell Phone in Europe

European cell phones work on the GSM standard. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, but many other cell providers do not, so you cannot always use your US cell phone in Europe. If you have a GSM phone in the US, taking it to Europe (if your plan allows international roaming) can be expensive.

If you want a cell phone in Europe, you have these options:

  • Purchase an unlocked GSM cell phone and European SIM card: Purchase a cell phone that works in Europe and a SIM card for the country you are going to. This is the best option if you travel to Europe each year and make and receive a lot of calls (calls are inexpensive). Read more about this option.
  • Rent a GSM cell phone and European SIM card: Rent a cell phone that works in Europe and a SIM card for the country you are going to. This is a good option if you do not travel each year (calls are inexpensive). Read more about this option.
  • Use your GSM cell phone from the US and your US cell account: If you are on a GSM system in the US and your phone and plan allow international roaming, this is a good option if you need the phone for emergencies only (calls are expensive). Read more about this option.

The European cell phone situation changes constantly - pricing, options available, whether or not foreigners can buy a cell phone in Italy or other countries. I try to keep this page updated, but read it through and then go to the message board to ask if anyone has more recent experience.

Option 1: Purchase an unlocked GSM Cell Phone and a European SIM card

Cell phone calling plans in Europe are different than those in the US and Canada. Instead of signing up for a monthly plan like we do here, they buy a SIM card which contains the cell phone number and some prepaid time. When your cell phone runs out of time (you have used up all your prepaid minutes), you purchase more minutes and add them to your phone (the way you purchase more minutes varies by country and cell phone carrier). And, you do not pay a per minute charge for incoming calls!

Note: In the United Kingdom, they have monthly contract cell plans like we have in the US, but they also have "pay as you go" plans (the pay as you go plans are more expensive).

If you travel to Europe frequently, it is worth it to buy a GSM cell phone and a SIM card for the country you are going to. Note that some companies offer a SIM card good for all of Europe.

  • Advantages: You do not pay for incoming calls, so your friends in the US can call you in Europe using an inexpensive calling plan (they pay the costs for the long distance call - you pay nothing). Outgoing calls within the country you have the SIM card for are relatively inexpensive.
  • Disadvantages: You have to buy an GSM cell phone and a SIM card. People calling you from the US have to dial a European number. If you do not travel to Europe every year, your phone number (on the SIM card) may expire.

You can buy the GSM cell phone/SIM card in Europe or online from companies who specialize in this (see below).

Note: GSM phones that work only in Europe are less expensive than World Phones that work in both Europe and the US.

Buy a GSM cell phone and SIM card in Europe

Most countries in Europe have cell phone stores in the airport and in most towns and cities. You can purchase a GSM cell phone and SIM card when you are there. This option is cheaper, because the companies that sell these packages online add a surcharge to the cost of the SIM card. But, you have to give up precious vacation time hunting down a cell phone store and picking out a phone (possibly in another language).

Note: In the United Kingdom, it is not easy to find inexpensive unlocked GSM cell phones; it is better to purchase one online before you leave. (You can find them, but they are much more expensive.)

Buy an unlocked GSM cell phone and SIM card over the Internet

Below are some US companies that will sell you an unlocked GSM cell phone and a SIM card for the country you are traveling to. You pay a bit more for the SIM card than you would buying it in Europe, but you save yourself the time and trouble in the store in Europe and you have the phone before you leave (so you can leave the phone number with people at home). Plus their prices on the cell phones are good.

The phones work on both currents and come with a plug adapter, so you can charge it at home before you leave. Check the GSM bands for the phone to see if you can use it in the US and in Europe. Read more in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.

Sponsors

Cell phones in Europe Cellular Abroad: Cell phones and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide. Promo code "SLOWTRAV" for $10 off.
Cell phones in Europe Telestial: Cell phones and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide. Code "SLOWTRAV" for 10% discount all products, airtime not included.

Can I use my US/Canadian GSM Cell Phone with a European SIM Card?

If you have a GSM cell phone that you use in the US or Canada, you can use that same phone if it is unlocked and works on European frequencies (this is very important and is explained in the How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below). Remove your US/Canada SIM card and put in a European SIM card. You can purchase a European SIM card in Europe or online from one of these companies listed above.

Option 2: Rent a GSM phone with a European SIM card

The Internet companies listed below rent European cell phones/SIM cards. This is a good option if you do not travel to Italy every year.

Cellular Abroad: www.cellularabroad.com, GSM phones and SIM cards. Promo code "SLOWTRAV" for $10 off.

Telestial: www.telestial.com, GSM phones and phone cards. Code "SLOWTRAV" for 10% discount all purchases.

Context|Rome: www.contextrome.com, Rents GSM phones with SIM cards for Italy (click "Services").

AutoEurope rents European cell phones. I have talked to a couple of people who have rented from them and there are problems: the cell phone you get has an England phone number, so if someone is calling you from Italy while you are in Italy, they have to dial a long distance number and the per minute rates are high.

Before you rent a cell phone find out the following:

  • What are the per minute charges when making a phone call from within the country?
  • Do you pay for incoming calls (European cell phones usually do not pay for incoming calls)?
  • What country is this cell phone for - e.g. will someone calling you from Italy have to dial long distance even though you are also in Italy?
  • Is Voice Mail available? So people can leave messages for you.

You may still decide to rent a European cell phone to have just for emergencies. If incoming calls are free, this is a great way to let people from home contact you. The phone is delivered to you in the US before you leave on your trip - so you know your phone number before you leave and can give it to people.

Option 3: Use your US GSM Cell Phone

This is a more expensive option, but it has the benefit that people who need to reach you from the US dial a US phone number. No complicated dialing to Europe.

If you already subscribe to AT&T or T-Mobile (or any US cell service that uses GSM), you can purchase a World Phone and use your current account (you may have to register for a special plan that allows International use). The World Phone works on both US and European frequencies.

Check the charges carefully before you go with this option. What is the per minute charge for calls? Do you pay for incoming calls (most likely the answer is yes)? Do you pay long distance extra for calls from the US? Read How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone to be sure your World Phone will work in Europe.

Usually you pay by the minute for incoming and outgoing calls. Prices have come down in the last few years, but when I checked in 2007, it was still around $0.99 per minute (incoming and outgoing), long distance charges included. This is expensive if you plan to use the phone frequently, but is fine if you don't plan to make many calls.

  • Advantages: People can reach you easily by dialing a US number.
  • Disadvantages: It is expensive to make calls and you pay by the minute for all calls, incoming and outgoing.

How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone

Get an unlocked GSM cell phone

Note: Dual-band 900/1800 phones are significantly cheaper then tri-band phones with the same coverage throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.

Most cell phone providers in the US and Canada lock their cell phones (also in the United Kingdom). This means that you cannot change the SIM card. They do this so that you will not get an inexpensive phone from them and then change your cell service. If you plan to use your GSM cell phone in Europe, with a European SIM card, be sure your phone is unlocked. Either buy an unlocked phone or ask your cell provider to unlock the phone or get the phone unlocked another way.

Each company has a different policy for unlocking a phone you bought through them. I have a T-Mobile phone that is two years old. I phoned them and told them I wanted to unlock the phone so I could use it in Europe with another SIM card. They filled out a request form (I had to give them the IMEI number for the phone, which is found in the battery compartment) and the next day I got an email with a code that I entered into the phone. This unlocked it and I was able to use my UK SIM card in the phone.

You can unlock your phone without going through your cell provider. Search online for "unlock GSM phone" to find sites where they give instructions for unlocking your phone. I did this for a phone I purchased in the United Kingdom and paid $30 online to get the code and instructions for unlocking. There are hundreds of companies that do this online. I chose one that took PayPal payments, so that I was not giving away credit card information.

Note: Before you get your phone unlocked, be sure it works on the right frequencies for Europe. See below.

Make Sure the Phone Works on European GSM Bands

GSM cell phones and networks work on GSM bands (frequencies). It is very important that you know which bands the GSM cell phone works on. This will determine where you can use it.

  • Cell phones in the US work at GSM 1900 or 850
  • Cell phones in Europe work on GSM 900 or 1800

If you want to use your GSM cell phone in both the US and Europe, get a Quad Band phone (four bands). These are more commonly available now, but are more expensive. Another option is to have one phone for use in Europe and one for use in the US.

GSM World has a good chart showing you the frequencies used for all countries and cell providers.

If your phone has 1800 Mhz but not 900 Mhz for Europe, you will still get reception in Europe, but perhaps not in all places. European cell phones originally used the 900 MHz frequency, but have now started using 1800 MHz as well. Most phones automatically switch frequencies, but if you are having a problem with your GSM cell phone in Europe, see if there is a way to change the frequency manually.

Check your phone before you leave to be sure it will work in the countries you are going to. I recently took a GSM Dual Band cell phone to the UK, but was not able to use it with the Orange network, because they used the 1800 MHz and my phone did not have that frequency (even though it was called a "World Phone", it was only Dual Band - GSM 900/1900). I then purchased a GSM cell phone in the UK, thinking it would also work in the US, but it is Tri Band - GSM 900/1800/1900, and does not have the GSM 850 band that my provider T-Mobile uses (in addition to 1900). I can use it in the US, but it would be better if it had one more band. After this experience, I did some research on GSM Bands!!

Plug Adapters and Charging Your Phone

Most cell phones, no matter where you buy them, charge on any current. All you need if charging in a different country from where you purchased it, is a plug adapter so you can plug it in. The voltage information is printed on the phone plug. If it says 100 - 240V, then you can use this plug in any country. See Bringing your Electronics to Europe for more information about plug adapters and voltage.

About SIM Cards

How to Recharge Your SIM Card

When you buy or rent the GSM cell phone, it comes with prepaid time (ours came with 25 of prepaid time). When that runs out, you have to purchase more time. How time/money is added to your SIM card varies by country.

SIM cards and your phone number

When you purchase your GSM cell phone, either in Europe or online, you get a phone and a SIM card. The SIM card is a small chip that fits into your phone and contains the telephone number and your account information. It also comes with a certain amount of prepaid time (usually 25). The telephone number depends on the SIM card, not on the cell phone.

This SIM card expires if it is not used (the number of months varies by country, in Italy it was 13 months, but I heard it now expires in a shorter time period). If the SIM card expires, the unused time is gone and the phone number associated with the SIM card is no longer valid. You will have to purchase a new SIM card. See below for information about recharging your SIM card (adding more money to it so you can make more calls).

With some cell phone service, you might be able to recharge your SIM card over the internet (with a credit card) so you can keep your phone number.

Note: If purchasing a SIM card for Italy through Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM), TIM requires users to provide a Passport Copy along with some other information located on the sim card to activate their sim cards. The registration process takes up to 72 hours before activation is completed. If you are wary about sending Passport info over the net, you can also register the sim cards at a TIM store in Italy, but keep in mind that this will take up to 72 hours also. TIM is the oldest service provider for GSM in Italy and they like to keep track of who is on their network.

SIM cards can be used in more than one country

Once you purchase your SIM card for a country (you have to use it the first time in that country), then you can use it in other European countries. For example, we used our Italy cell phone in Switzerland, France and England. Check with your SIM provider for rates in other countries.

Rates for calls

The rates for calling from your cell phone within the country and to the US vary by the provider. Check with them for the current rates.

Roaming Through Europe with Cell Phone

If you are traveling to more than one European country, you may want to purchase a SIM card that allows you to use it in different countries (called "roaming"). Read more about Roaming with Cell Phones in Europe.

Calling Long Distance from a Cell Phone

You have two choices when making long distance calls from your cell phone in Europe:

  • Call directly and pay through your cell phone provider
  • Dial an access number for an International Phone Card

If you plan to call directly, ask your cell provider what the charges are for long distance calls. If you are not making many calls, this may be a good option.

If using an International Phone Card from a cell phone, you may have to pay for the minutes used on your cell phone as well as on the International Phone Card. This varies by country. From my experience, in Italy you did not pay for toll-free calls, but in the United Kingdom you paid extra for them (they were treated as premium calls and not given any discounts).

Toll-Free Calls are not always free! (but sometimes they are)

Some cell providers in Europe do not give you free calls to toll-free numbers, such as the toll-free access number for your Prepaid International Phone Card. They may charge you per minute or block access to all toll-free numbers. This varies by cell provider and by country.

If they charge you per minute, check with your cell provider to see what the rate is. Some providers charge toll-free calls at a "premium" rate; a rate that is higher than calling a local number. In that case, call the local number for your international access number, instead of the toll-free number, so you will get a cheaper rate. ZapTel usually gives you a local number to call as well as a toll-free number; check the access numbers for the country you are traveling to.

For example, if using a ZapTel International Phone Card to call the US from the UK on a cell phone, dial the London access number, not the toll-free number (only when calling from a cell phone). Then you pay for a cheaper local call, instead of the premium rate to a toll-free number.

There is no problem when calling the toll-free number from a landline; the toll-free number is a free call. There may be an extra charge if calling from a public phone booth.

Programming a GSM Cell Phone to Dial European/International Numbers

Written by Nan McElroy, author of Italy: Instructions for Use, December 2005

The most reliable way to call from ANY cell phone, from ANY country, to any OTHER country, using ANY service provider (US, Italian, roaming or not), is to dial the "+" sign, followed by the entire number, including country code.

If you get in the habit of coding your numbers this way in your current cell phone, they'll work in the US, and everywhere else, too. (The "+" is often dialed by hitting the "*" twice, or holding the "0," but consult you phone manual.)

So, a US phone number will look like this (1 is the US country code):
+1 415 555 1234

An Italian number will look something like this (39 is the Italian country code):

+39 051 555 555 or, if it's a cell,
+39 340 555 5555

The beauty of this method is that the "+" will automatically dial the international code for the country you're in; 011 if calling from the US, 00 if calling from Europe, and so on, so YOU don't have to remember! Works every time, and can simplify things whether you purchase a SIM in Italy, or take your cell phone with you using a US service provider.

Resources

Slow Travel - Italy - Instructions - Cell Phones: How to recharge your Italy SIM card

Slow Travel - UK & Ireland - Instructions - Cell Phones: How to add money to your UK SIM card

www.wtng.info: World Telephone Number Guide with complete information on how to dial other countries.

www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/: The World Clock, see what time it is in the country you are calling.

www.kropla.com: Steve Kropla's Help for World Travelers, comprehensive listings of worldwide electrical and telephone information. This is his Mobile Phones page.

www.voltagevalet.com: Voltage Valet, detailed information about electronics in other countries.

www.thetravelinsider.info: The Travel Insider article, GSM Cell Phone Unlocking FAQ.

en.wikipedia.org: Wikipedia, GSM Frequency Ranges

Sponsors

Cell phones in Europe Cellular Abroad: Cell phones and SIM cards for Italy, Europe and worldwide. Promo code "SLOWTRAV" for $10 off.
Cell phones in Europe Telestial: Cell phones and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide. Code "SLOWTRAV" for 10% discount all products, airtime not included.
Cell phones in Europe Mobal : Cell phones and SIM cards for Europe and worldwide.

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