Traveling to Europe? What You Need to Know About European Cell Phones

If you are planning an extended European trip, or preparing your child for a semester abroad, you’ll find one of the most expensive aspects of your stay is the phone bill. On top of that, you’ll discover that fewer and fewer rental apartments even have land lines. The whole world is going cellular, and Europe is no exception.

Unfortunately, most American cell phones won’t work abroad, since the protocol is different. While most US phone companies use CDMA, in Europe and elsewhere in the world the standard is GSM. Think of it this way – when a decision had to be made regarding cell systems, some of chose VHS, and some chose BETA. Who chose which, we don’t yet know, and the two, incompatible as they are, continue to exist side by side.

If you do have a GSM phone with your US carrier, as is the case with T-Mobile or Cingular, you can use your cell phone abroad, but be prepared for high costs. Even if you arrange for a global roaming service with your provider, costs can still be 1$/minute, which is fine for emergencies and “safe arrival” calls, but less ideal for longer conversations and keeping in touch.

The most economical option, particularly if you travel to Europe frequently, is to purchase a GSM phone abroad. In terms of usability, a tri-band phone is preferable to a dual-band, and a low-end one can usually be found for about 100 Euro. Unlike most US phones, you won’t need a plan – instead, you purchase a SIM (or TIM) chip, which actually contains your phone number (about 10 Euro). This can be obtained at a phone store, but you’ll need to bring your passport. The SIM can be charged with a specific Euro amount through a card purchased either at phone stores or at newsstands, and phone calls can then be made on a debit system.

As an aside, if you have T-Mobile or Cingular, you’ll notice that you already have a SIM chip. So can you simply remove your US chip and replace it with a European one? In theory, yes, though the company generally won’t advertise that option, and in fact specifically sell their phones “blocked” to make this interchangability impossible (thus encouraging the use of global roaming services). However, after six months on your contract, T-Mobile will unblock your phone, enabling you to travel to Europe, purchase a new chip with a local number, and make less expensive phone calls abroad. Once purchased, SIM chips will expire only if you wait twelve months without adding money to your account (which can often also be done online), so it is feasible for regular travelers to maintain their European numbers.

Nevertheless, as in the US, cell phone costs are not inexpensive. However, there are several things you can do to keep your costs to a minimum. When you obtain your SIM card, you’ll have to sign up for a plan, which have different pricing options – be sure to ask for the one that best suits the type of calling you’ll be doing (local, pan-European or international). In most cases, incoming calls are free, which means that a good international phone plan for your loved ones at home will also trim costs substantially. You should also purchase an international phone card (in Italy, Carta Europa) available at newsstands, which, in combination with your cell phone, can make dialing home even cheaper. These cards can give you several hundred minutes of phone time for 5-10 Euro.

There are several pitfalls, however, that you should be aware of. If you purchase a phone card, be sure it is meant for use with cell phones. Some cards promise 200 minutes, but don’t stipulate that if you are calling from a cell phone, that amount is reduced to 10. In most cases, you get the best deal by dialing a local access number (not the cell phone access number), and paying for a local call when you call the US. Another pitfall to avoid is making calls to the US from a country outside of the country where you purchased your SIM chip. In other words, if you call New York from London using at Italian SIM chip (rather than purchasing a British number), the cost of your calls will be worse than calling collect!

Despite the hassle of purchasing a phone and chip (in a foreign language the process can be daunting), the convenience of cell phone access while traveling is an inestimable benefit, and can give your family back home real peace of mind.

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