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As an American living in Europe, I’m a bit too used to the realities of using your smartphone in Europe. If you’re
Does your smartphone work in Europe?
Depending on your country of origin, you might have issues where your phone does not fully work on a European phone network. Phone carriers in Europe use the GSM system while phone carriers in the United States generally use the CDMA system. This means that your phone might not have a SIM card that determines the service; your phone comes with the carrier set-up for you. This can make it harder to use your smartphone in Europe without
GSM is the standard phone service for most of the world, including Europe. Your ability to call, text, and use data
You will want to check with your carrier before your trip to see if you can use a SIM card with your phone and if you can unlock your smartphone to use with other carriers.
Does your phone plan include European or global travel?
I recommend checking your phone plan first to see what is included. Check the terms for international roaming, how much you pay per minute in a European country that you plan on visiting, and how much you pay per GB. Similarly, see how much your provider’s package is for international roaming if it’s not included. Roaming fees can add up quickly, so keep reading if you find the price a bit high!
For Americans: I can personally vouch for how great T-Mobile is, which includes roaming with texting/data in 210+ countries, including most European countries with normal phone plans. I’m not a T-Mobile rep, but I’ve had a good experience with them myself. If you have Google Fi, you’re covered in most European countries without extra charges.
In general, it’s likely that your phone may offer a set amount to have international calling, texts, or data depending on the package. Anything over the package might cost extra.
On average, you should expect to pay about $10 per day for basic coverage in Europe through American phone carriers. That’s a high price if you’re away for a week and you only make one phone call per day. Keep reading how to save money while using your smartphone in Europe!
An unlocked phone is key if you plan on getting a SIM card
A lot of US phone carriers lock the phones that come with plans to make it harder for you to switch carriers. For your carrier to unlock your phone for free, your phone will need to have been paid for in full via the installment plan or a two-year contract. If you have a prepaid phone, it should be able to be unlocked after 12 months. Some carriers make it easier than others.
Although there are plenty of hacks online to unlock your phone, it can get you in hot water with your carrier and invalidate your phone warranty. At the end of the day, I ended up buying a new phone for my first backpacking trip!
If you’re traveling for a longer time, you’re better off trying to find an old phone that should be able to be unlocked that you can use OR buying a cheaper smartphone for use abroad. I include my favorites below.
Depending on the length of your trip and your current phone plan, you might want to buy a SIM card in Europe. This is often best done once you arrive, rather than ahead of time as you’re likely to pay a lot more in your home country. I’ll discuss below the best places to buy a SIM card once you arrive in Europe!
GSM friendly prepaid phones to buy as an alternative
I needed something that would work in the US and Europe, so I bought a cheap smartphone that would work in Europe. I ended up purchasing a Huawei smartphone with a dual-SIM card slot that worked beautifully.
If you’re looking to save money, European smart phones tend to be considerably cheaper and unlocked in general. You should be able to head to an electronics store once you’re in the city center in order to find a reasonable smartphone with a decent camera for 120-200 euros new. You’ll pay even less secondhand at a used phone store or for a more basic phone (60 euros).
Some things to keep in mind*
It’s important to remember that you don’t need the best smartphone ever. You simply need something that works for calling and texting as needed. I generally find that I mostly use my phone for calling hotels (when lost), calling taxis (as needed), calling family/friends to figure out their location, texting new friends, and checking directions using Google Maps offline.
Simply, I find that I use my phone less often and mostly to coordinate important travel details. That said, Wi-Fi tends to be readily available and I find that I average about one phone call per three days. Keep reading for my tips at the bottom for minimizing phone use while
Even if your current phone is still locked by your carrier, you should be able to bring it with you with it on international roaming off and/or airplane mode on (to prevent charges) to take photos with. You can always connect on Wi-Fi to check your messages/email on your normal phone. It’s important to remember that generations of people have managed to visit Europe without a smartphone. 😉
Charging your smartphone in Europe: What you need to know
You’ll need to have a European-friendly USB plug and/or an adapter. You’ll come across two types of plugs in Europe: the square prong plug used in the UK and Malta and the rounder two prong plug used elsewhere in Europe. You can buy individual adapters for each individual outlet, but I find it’s easy to forget the correct one this way. Similarly, I hate waiting for one device to finish!
As I often travel between the United States and Europe, I ended up replacing my adapter to buy an international adapter that could handle my laptop and that had USB ports to charge my phone with. I find that this is a far easier solution that you won’t forget at home!
Buying a SIM card 101
You’ll only need one SIM Card for most of Europe. You can thank the EU for a law that states that anyone with a European SIM card will not be charged roaming charges in other EU countries!
If you’re traveling within the EU (soon not to be the U.K…), you’ll be able to use your new European SIM card in most European countries*. The good news: your European SIM card should work in the rest of Europe without you needing to do anything.
*Not included in the country list: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. If these countries are on your travel list, you’ll have a great time, but you’ll need to buy the SIM card in each country when you arrive.
Where to buy a SIM Card
Usually if you buy a SIM card at the airport, you’re going to pay a premium. If you can manage to get your accommodations without a phone, I find that it’s best to ask at your accommodations for the closest place to buy a SIM card near you.
Personally, I just usually exit the train station in the city center or close to my hotel prior to looking for a tobacco shop, mobile phone store, or supermarket as these places often carry prepaid SIM cards for a good price. (You may need to show your passport.)
I get to this later, but the two most dependable carriers in the EU are T-Mobile and Vodafone. If you can find a Vodafone store, you should be able to get an affordable SIM card with decent service in English to help you activate your new SIM card. If you have issues, you can always return to the store in person. (Just check that you’re headed to a cell phone store, not a corporate office!)
Activating your SIM (with help)
The only tricky part is that your new SIM card might involve instructions in the local language. If you can’t wait, ask the person who just sold you the SIM card to help you. Just be careful about putting your home SIM card away. (I usually carry a ziplock bag with me for my
Save your SIM card information to top-up later.
Depending on how long I need my phone to work, I usually add 20 euros (or the equivalent) to the SIM card for about a month. This covers most of what I need in terms of quite a bit of calling, texting, and some data (1-2GB).
You’ll need to top-up your card at some point. Save all the relevant documents (especially the pop-out card that it came with) as well as any relevant codes that you got when you activated the SIM card as you might need this information to top-up your phone. At worst, you can always
The best European prepaid phone carriers
Every European country has their own local carriers,
Reducing your data usage in Europe
Whether you’re using a SIM card or bringing your smartphone from home, you might want to ensure that you use less data while you’re in Europe. As someone with a fairly low data package (1gb), I have a few tips and tricks for cutting down on your smartphone data usage while in Europe.
Data Roaming off
By default, your phone might automatically connect to data while in Europe. If you’re on a budget or you only want to turn on your data when needed, you can follow these tips for shutting off your data roaming to avoid charges. That said, you will be able to receive calls and texts.
On iPhone, you can turn on your data then select the “Cellular Data Options” to select “Roaming off.” If you’re simply scaling back your phone plan to necessary calls/texts only, I find that this is a good solution to ensure that your data doesn’t get accidentally switched on.
On Android, Go to Settings -> “Wireless & Networks” -> More. You should see Mobile Networks. Find the “Data Roaming” heading and unselect the checkbox. (Alternatively, it may say Global Data Roaming Access. Tap this to shut it off.).
If you don’t want to risk paying for any extra costs while in Europe, you can turn your phone onto airplane mode to avoid data, phone calls, and texts until you’re connected to Wifi.
Not everyone knows that you can download Google Maps offline, so you can navigate cities with a map without ever needing to be online. It will give you walking as well as driving directions. I also like
Finding good Wi-Fi
This is pretty basic,
Some old school establishments may not bother with Wi-Fi, however many Wi-Fis require agreeing to the terms and/or signing in using social media. Most restaurants are happy to give out the Wi-Fi password if you order something (it may be on the menu/board). McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other global chains are a sure bet for decent fast Wi-Fi.