Cell Phones for Europe
Most vacation rentals in Europe do not have telephones so you need a cell phone (also called a mobile phone) for calling home or making local reservations. If you are traveling with a group, cell phones make keeping in touch easier.
You may be able to use your non-European cell phone in Europe. If you can't, or if you plan to make a lot of phone calls, purchase a European cell phone.
Note that there are online companies who sell affordable UK cell phones/SIM card packages or UK SIM cards that can be used with your own unlocked GSM world phone. I have used Cellular Abroad and Telestial.
Can I use my non-European cell phone in Europe?
The cell phone network in Europe works on different frequencies than the networks in North America. You need a phone that will work in Europe (a GSM world phone or a GSM European phone) and a SIM card for Europe (the small chip that goes into your phone and contains the European phone number).
If your non-European cell phone works on the European frequencies (900 or 1800), there are two ways to use it in Europe.
Option 1 - Use your cell phone and cell phone service. If your non-European cell phone has an international option (contact your provider to find out), you can use it in Europe. This is a good option if you are not going to make many calls because rates are usually higher than using a European phone.
Disadvantages: You pay per minute for incoming calls (with European cell providers incoming calls are free). The cost for outgoing calls is high, usually $0.99/minute.
Advantages: Friends can call your phone number, but reach you in Europe. They do not pay for a long distance call. You pay the per minute incoming call charge, but no other long distance fees.
Option 2 - Use your cell phone with a European SIM card. If your non-European cell phone is unlocked (meaning you can change the SIM card), use it with a European SIM card. Purchase the SIM card either before you leave or in the country when you arrive.
Remember that you lose unused minutes on your SIM card unless you use it once a year (varies by cell provider).
Cell phones are "locked" to the cell service you purchased the phone from. Usually the cell provider will "unlock" your phone if you ask them. If they don't there are online companies that will do this for a small fee. To unlock a phone, you have to type in a special code. Then it can be used with SIM cards from any cell service.
I have unlocked cell phones both by asking my provider for the code and by going to an unlock website where I paid about $20 for the code. It is easy to enter the unlock code and I have never had a problem with the phone.
Using your Smart Phone in Europe
If you use a non-European smartphone, do not assume you can use it in Europe. Ask your cell provider about an international calls and data. If you can use it, make sure you understand what the costs are. Sometimes data roaming costs are very high.
Most smartphones let you use the data option via wireless internet (wi-fi) regardless of what country you are in. If you use this, remember to turn off data roaming or you will be charged for international data usage.
Plug Adapter for your Non-European Cell Phone
Remember that your non-European cell phone charger uses a non-European plug. Get a plug adapter for Europe - that is all you need (this is all you need with most electronics). If you look on the charger plug for your phone, you will see that it works on North American and European voltages (it says "input 100 - 240Vc").
Should I Buy a Cell Phone for Europe?
Cell Phone: If your non-European cell phone will not work in Europe, buy a cell phone for Europe, either online before you leave or when you are in Europe.
SIM Card: Purchase a SIM card for Europe, either online before you leave or when you are in Europe. Remember that you lose unused minutes on your SIM card unless you use it once a year (varies by cell provider).
Adding More Minutes: With prepaid SIM cards you add minutes by purchasing them locally ("recharge" or "topup") or from your provider.
The photo below shows a Top-Up card for a UK SIM. Take the card into a newsagent or other shop that does Top-Up, give them the card and pay for more minutes. They are automatically added to the phone.
UK cell phone, two SIM cards and "top-up" card
I thought I would purchase an unlocked phone in England, but it turned out that unlocked phones were very expensive, so I ended up buying a locked phone with a prepaid Vodafone SIM card and was locked into that provider. I paid to unlock it.
The cheapest solution
Buy an unlocked GSM world phone and purchase a SIM card when you get to Europe.
Advantages: Free incoming calls and the cheapest rates for calling within that country.
Disadvantages: You do not have your phone number before you leave and you lose unused minutes unless you use the SIM card once a year (varies by cell provider).
Using a European Cell Phone Throughout Europe
EU laws regarding cell phone roaming throughout the EU are changing. It is getting less expensive to use a cell phone from one European country in other European countries. You could purchase a SIM card for the country you visit the most, but then use it when traveling in other countries. Check with your provider for prices.
Making Long Distance Calls from Your Cell Phone
Whichever cell service you decide on, find out the cost of calling home from Europe. If it is not affordable, consider an International Phone Card. These can be purchased in Europe and are sold in Newsagent or Tobacco shops or at the Post Office. You prepay and get a toll free or local number to use to make long distance calls. Keep reading - toll free is not always free from a cell phone.
Or purchase a Phone Card before your trip from Zaptel. With these cards you can set up an account and pay online for your calls.
Toll-Free is not always free from a Cell Phone!!
Toll-free numbers that are free when called from a landline are not free when called from a cell phone (this varies by country, check with your SIM card provider). Some companies even charge toll-free numbers as a premium call, so you pay more per minute than calling a local number.
If you are using an International Phone Card from your cell phone you have to pay twice - you pay for the minutes used on your cell phone and then for the same minutes on your International Phone Card. Check to see if there is a local number you can call to access the long distance calling.
Dialing a Local Call from your Cell Phone
If you are using a SIM card from a different country than the one you are currently in, you have to dial the long distance code and country code even when dialing a local number. The cell phone acts as if it is in its "home" country.
For example, if you have a UK cell phone but are in France, dial 00-33 and the local number. This is because your UK SIM card always behaves as if you are in the UK.
Dialing Long Distance from your Cell Phone
To dial long distance from Europe, dial the international direct dialing number (00), then the country code, then the phone number. For example a call to the US might be: 00-1-505-999-1212.
On a cell phone you can dial + instead of having to know the local international direct dialing number. The + is usually dialed by hitting the * twice, or holding the 0 - consult your phone manual.
GSM: GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is the type of cell network used in Europe. Some US cell phone companies use GSM (T-Mobile, AT&T), but others do not. If your phone uses a SIM card, it is a GSM phone.
GSM Frequencies: 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.
Locked/Unlocked: When you purchase a cell phone in the US from a cell phone provider it can only be used with that provider. For example, if you purchase a cell phone from T-Mobile, that phone can only be used with a T-Mobile SIM card. The phone is "locked" to the provider.
Most providers will let you "unlock" the phone after you have used it for a year. They give you a code and tell you how to enter it into the phone. If your cell provider will not unlock your phone, you can go to a cell phone unlocking website and pay for the code to unlock your phone.
Roaming: SIM cards are specific to a country. When you use it in another country you are roaming and per minute charges may be higher.
SIM Card: A SIM (Subscriber Informaton Module) card is a small computer chip card that fits into any GSM phone. The SIM card contains the phone number and can be moved from phone to phone as long as they are GSM phones and are unlocked.