Mobile Phones and Smart Phones in Europe
Once you've purchased a mobile
phone in Italy, you can consider
the full makeover.
By Rick Steves
A mobile phone can come in handy while traveling. Imagine the efficiency of getting driving
instructions from your hotel as you approach; or letting your friend know that your train is late
but you're on your way; or being reachable day or night by loved ones back home (or a lost travel
Mobile phones aren't for everybody. They're often not worth the cost or hassle. If your trip is
brief, if you'll be visiting several countries in a relatively short period of time, or if you just
really want to be on vacation, you can easily get by with phone cards you buy in Europe. But if
you're willing to pay more for the convenience of calling from wherever you are, a mobile phone
may be a reasonable choice.
You have two basic mobile-phone options: Take your American phone (if it works in Europe), or
buy one in Europe.
Mobile Phones 101
The standard mobile-phone network in Europe, and much of the world, is called GSM. Some
American mobile-phone companies — most notably T-Mobile and AT&T — use the same GSM
technology as in Europe. Others (including Sprint and Verizon) use a different system called
CDMA that is incompatible with European networks.
Within the GSM network, different regions operate on different bands. The United States uses
two bands, and most of Europe uses two other bands. A GSM phone that's tri-band or quad-
band operates on both US bands, plus one or both European bands — so it works well at home
The "identity" of a GSM mobile phone — your phone number and account information — is
stored on a removable fingernail-sized chip, called a SIM card, which fits into the back of the
phone. The phone won't work without a SIM card.
Some phones are electronically "locked" so that you can't switch SIM cards — therefore, you
must stay loyal to your original service provider. But you can usually get this lock removed — or
"unlocked" — allowing you to replace the original SIM card with one from a different
company. This is especially useful if you want to use the phone in multiple countries, as you can
buy a different SIM card in each one. While switching SIM cards may sound intimidating, it's
actually quite simple: Just pop out the phone's battery, pull out the chip, and put in the new one.
If you venture outside your mobile phone's home area, you're roaming. Making calls when
you're roaming in a foreign country can be expensive. To avoid high roaming fees,some
Europeans switch SIM cards as they cross borders. (The EU regulates roaming fees within their
territory — but if you're roaming with a non-EU SIM card, it could be pricey.)
Europeans have been texting for years. Also known to Europeans as an "SMS" (short message
service), a text message is a short bit of text that's sent from one mobile phone to another.
Europeans like texting because it's much cheaper than calling — usually 5–10 cents to send and
nothing to receive (potentially more if you're roaming outside your SIM card's home country).
Europeans might not understand the American term "cell phone." Try "mobile" (pronounce it the
way Brits do — rhymes with "smile") or "Handy" (most common in German-speaking
First, figure out whether your phone works in Europe. Many T-Mobile or AT&T phones work
fine abroad, while only specialized phones from Verizon or Sprint do — check your operating
manual (look for "tri-band" or "quad-band"), or ask your mobile-phone service provider. You
might have to go into your phone's menu and manually switch it from the American band to the
European one, but most phones automatically detect the change.
Your mobile-phone service provider likely has an international plan, which allows you to roam
throughout Europe using your home phone number. Most US providers charge $1.29 per minute
to make or receive calls, and 20 to 50 cents to send or receive text messages, with no additional
A few caveats: Note that you'll be charged for incoming calls, even if you don't answer them
(and, in some cases, even if your phone is turned off) — so tell your friends and co-workers not
to call except in emergencies. And recently, owners of some newer wireless devices (such as
iPhones) have been surprised with huge bills for unwittingly roaming — such as when the phone
constantly checks for new emails. (This default Internet data-roaming feature can be turned off to
avoid per-kilobyte charges, which add up fast.) No matter what type of phone you have, ask your
carrier for details before you travel.
If the rates are high or you plan on making a lot of calls, ask your mobile-phone provider for the
code to "unlock" your phone. (You can also pay a third-party company for an unlock code, but
it's less reliable.) Once your phone is unlocked, you can buy and change SIM cards as you travel.
Rather than using your American number, you'll have a European number...and pay cheaper
It can be surprisingly affordable to buy a basic "pay as you go" mobile phone in Europe. Shop
around at the ubiquitous corner phone marts or at mobile-phone counters in big department
stores. No contracts are necessary — most phones come loaded with prepaid calling time — and
additional minutes are usually easy to buy.
Your basic choice is between a phone that's "locked" to work with a single provider (starting
around $20 for the most basic models), or a more versatile "unlocked" phone that allows you to
switch out SIM cards to access multiple networks (starting around $60). To save even more, look
for special promotions or shops that sell used phones. (You can also buy European phones online
from the US, but it's generally cheaper and easier to get one in Europe.)
These days, car-rental companies, mobile-phone companies, and even some hotels offer the
option to rent a mobile phone with a European number. While this seems convenient, hidden fees
(such as high per-minute charges or expensive shipping costs) can really add up, making it a bad
Be aware that if you're having people call you on your European mobile phone number, it's
typically much more expensive (even double) for them than calling a fixed line. Your loved ones
back home might save money phoning you at your hotel, rather than calling your mobile phone.
Buying SIM Cards
If you have an unlocked phone — whether brought from the US or purchased in Europe — you
can buy a SIM card to make it work in Europe. Remember that a SIM card is a small, fingernail-
size chip that stores your phone number and other information. If your phone is unlocked, getting
your own European phone number is surprisingly easy and cheap.
Each country has various service providers, all of whom sell their own SIM cards. Since these
companies are very competitive, they're pretty much the same — just look for a good deal. SIM
cards, which generally cost around $5–15, come with a European phone number and starter
credit. These days, mobile-phone companies are working hard to attract customers; I've bought a
few SIM cards that came with more calling credit than the cost of the card (for example, a €5
card that includes €7 of credit) — making the SIM card effectively free.
While you can buy European SIM cards online from the US, they're usually overpriced — just
buy one when you arrive in Europe. You can buy a SIM card at a mobile phone shop, as well as
(in many countries) at a newsstand. However, a newsstand vendor will give you virtually no help
in using the card.
Instead, for first-timers, it's worth the extra time to go to a mobile phone shop, where an English-
speaking clerk can help you explore your options, get your SIM card inserted and set up, and
show you how to use it. Note that some mobile phone shops sell SIM cards for only one
provider, while others offer a wide range. Unless you're certain you want a particular company,
look for a place that gives you several options, then ask the clerk which one is best for the types
of calls you're going to make. (Mostly domestic or international calls? Are you using it only in
that country, or planning to "roam" with it across a border?) The mobile phone desk in a big
department store is another good place to check.
When you buy the SIM card, ask for a list of calling rates: for making phone calls and sending
text messages — both domestic and international — and for roaming (if you'll be leaving the
country). If you're calling from the SIM card's home country, you'll generally pay around 10–20
cents per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, and nothing to receive calls. Calls to the US
can cost $1 per minute or more — but using an international phone card with your mobile phone
can bring that cost down to pennies.
A SIM card works most affordably in the country where you buy it. If you roam with the SIM
card in another country, call prices go up, and you pay to receive incoming calls. If your SIM
card is from an EU country, fees are regulated when roaming within the EU: You'll pay no more
than about 60 cents per minute to make calls, or 25 cents per minute to receive calls. If your SIM
card is from a non-EU country — or if you're traveling in one — roaming fees can be much
higher. If you'll be making a lot of calls, it can be cheaper to buy a new SIM card for that
When you first insert a new SIM card, you might be prompted to enter the "SIM PIN" (a code
number that came with your SIM card). In some cases, you'll be asked for this every time you
turn on the phone — which can be a hassle. Fortunately, this feature can usually be disabled;
look through your phone's menu and security features, or ask the shop clerk for help.
Text messages and other instructions from the service provider are generally in another language.
It's often possible to switch this to English — again, get help from the shop clerk.
Be sure you know how to check your remaining credit balance. This is different for each phone
company, but generally you'll enter a three-digit number, then #, then hit "send." The remaining
amount should pop up on your screen. You can buy additional prepaid credit as you go: Buy a
printed voucher from that provider at a mobile-phone shop or newsstand, then punch in the
numbers from the voucher to add the time to your phone.
Before leaving the shop, go through the entire process, from turning on the phone, to checking
your credit balance, to actually making a call — to the store, or, for fun, to the shop clerk's
In some places, getting a local SIM card is as simple as buying a pack of gum. In Greece, I
walked up to a newsstand and bought a SIM card for about $5; in the Brussels train station, I
bought one from a vending machine. But other countries are regulating SIM cards more
carefully, so you might have to fill out some paperwork and show your passport before buying
Finally, be aware that most European SIM cards expire after a certain period of inactivity
(typically 3–12 months) — including any credit you have left on the card. So saving your Italian
SIM card for next year's trip isn't a sure thing.
Traveling with a Mobile Phone in Europe
No matter what kind of phone you use, as you cross each border, you'll usually receive a text
message welcoming you to the new country's network, and explaining how to use their
services. If traveling within the EU, the message will indicate how much it costs to make and
receive calls while in that country.
Remember to store your phone numbers in the phone itself, rather than on the SIM card — or
you'll lose access to them when you switch SIMs. When storing phone numbers, include the plus
(+) sign and the country code so your calls will go through, regardless of where you're calling
The Bottom Line on Mobile Phones
For the majority of travelers, phone booths are still the best way to make calls in Europe. But if
you travel frequently, a mobile phone is a great convenience. Here's a wrap-up of my advice for
those who want to go mobile.
If your American mobile phone will work in Europe...Take it and use it if you have a
reasonable calling plan. But if you will be making lots of calls, first get it "unlocked" so you can
switch out the SIM card in Europe (and get better rates).
If your American phone won't work in Europe...Skip the rentals. It's cheaper and relatively
painless to buy a new phone there. If you're planning to visit multiple countries, make sure it's an
"unlocked" phone so you can change SIM cards as you cross borders.
I've roamed with my American phone in two dozen different countries. No more noisy, urine-
perfumed phone booths for me...I travel Europe with a mobile phone.
Be Smart About Smartphones
Smartphones, such as the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android, often work in Europe — but at a
cost. Upon returning home, some users have been surprised with huge data-roaming bills for
browsing the Internet or even simply for receiving emails. With the iPhone, you pay nearly 2
cents per kilobyte downloaded in Europe. This means you'll pay about $40 to watch a three-
minute video clip from YouTube or email a large digital image (either of which is around 2
megabytes). While downloading a few emails (figure around 20 cents to send or receive a basic
message) and doing some casual Internet browsing doesn't involve such large kilobyte loads,
these charges can add up fast. (The EU is imposing stricter regulation of data-roaming fees,
which will reduce the cost in the future.)
If you have an iPhone, you can pay extra for an international data-roaming plan; however, it's
still quite expensive (e.g., $25 per month to download up to 20 megabytes in 90 countries,
including many in Europe). Better yet, simply turn off the data-roaming feature in the iPhone's
menu. You can still access the Internet and download emails by getting online at public Wi-Fi
hotspots (sometimes free, sometimes for a fee). It's also wise to turn off the "fetch new data"
feature, which automatically synchs your device with your email account and calendar. You can
still synch these items manually when you find Wi-Fi. My foolproof solution is to simply remove
the SIM card from my iPhone. I can still get online with Wi-Fi, but my iPhone completely loses
its phone capabilities...it basically becomes an iPod Touch.
The technology is evolving quickly, and more affordable solutions are popping up all the time.
For example, Skype and other calling applications allow your Wi-Fi-connected iPhone to make
cheap or free calls over the Internet. Tech-savvy travelers should do some homework before their
trip to fully understand these and other options