Cell phones in Europe???

Our little family of three will be in Ireland, Scotland, England, France and Switzerland for a month total...and we are not really big cell phone users. We have an AT&T go phone at the moment that we use with prepaid phone cards. Are cell phones something we need to have on our trip? And if so what kind is good (easiest and cheapest) for multiple countries?

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17787 posts

Mary, Cell phones are not something you will "need to have" on your trip, but they certainly make things easier at times. I've been travelling with a Cell phone for a number of years, and don't leave home without it! I'm assuming your AT&T "Go Phone" is a pre-paid phone that has to be topped-up when the minutes are depleted? If that's the case, you probably won't be able to use if for international roaming. As it appears you'll be starting in the U.K., the easiest solution would be to buy an inexpensive PAYG phone when you first arrive there. There are lots of options, but you could try Car Phone Warehouse as they usually have a good selection. You'll probably find that mobile phone shops are ubiquitous, so you won't have any trouble finding one. Each of the networks also have their own shops, so look for O2 Telefonica, Orange, Vodaphone or T-Mobile. Be sure that you're clear on the method for topping-up, especially in France and Switzerland. The cost should be fairly reasonable if using one of the U.K. networks. A phone is sometimes a very useful travel accessory, but of course there is a cost associated with the convenience. Happy travels!

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

I agree with Ken that your Go Phone won't work. If you are not big cell phone users now, will you really miss not having a phone? Are you going to be driving anywhere or traveling on mass transit? Will there be a need for people from home to reach you? Do you think you may need to make calls while you are gone? If so, calls to the U.S. or local calls? If you want a cell phone for comfort's sake, I'd buy a low cost prepaid phone over there. You can get them at the same kind of places you can buy them here, although there are phone-only stores such as Carphone Warehouse (I've bought two phones there).

Posted by Robert
Portland
629 posts

I also had an ATT Gophone, which couldn't be used in Europe. Before leaving for a month in France I bought a cheap ($30) unlocked quad band Blu brand cell phone through a supplier listed in eBay, then a French SIM card. Since you'll be going to several countries, you might want to consider getting a multi-country SIM card in advance. I'm sure several companies that sell these are listed elsewhere on this web site.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7211 posts

We bought a small Samsung phone from Vodaphone for 25 euro, including ten euro calling credit. We were offered at least one other phone option at 25 euro, also with credit, but I don't know which company it was through. Our use for the phone was a morning call, on travel days, to book a room for the evening because we traveled without reservations. A cell phone worked well for that because it's more convenient than getting a cheap pin card and finding a pay phone. For calling home, we used our Ipod touch with a Skype app installed (and made a $10 deposit so we could call land line numbers). Since every place we stopped had wifi, and there are many public wifi zones in cafes and bars (some better than others) it worked fine.

Posted by Roger
Monein, Pyrenees, France
425 posts

"Tesco" supermarkets are another place to get a cheap PAYG phone.

Posted by Nicholas
Seattle, Washington, United States
282 posts

Your AT&T phone is not likely to work in Europe. The US and Europe operate on different frequencies and the cheapest phones (like the one you have) is only tuned for the American frequencies. That can't be changed by software and even if it could, that would still mean that you be paying way too much to use it there. If you are not big cellphone users and will be traveling together, I don't see a big need for getting a cellphone that works there. If you really want to get one, buy an unlocked (!) cheap nokia (It shouldn't cost more than $30-40) and then a prepaid card. Whenever that card runs out, but a new local card (unless you're in the same country... then load it back up at the local 7-11). That said, when would you use it?

Posted by Mary
Parkdale, Or
7 posts

Thanks to you all. I think my plan is to copy down the types of phones that have been suggested by all you gracious people in case I need to buy one there...but not worry too much about it ahead of time and just buy it if I see the need once I get there

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

Hi, Mary. I beg to differ with everyone's advice. We all have AT&T gophones and they all work in Europe. Four years ago we had one that did not so it depends on the phone. You can google the specific phone for its specs and check to see if it is quadband (google that if you don't know what it is). If so, then it will work. I have successfully used mine here with 2 different providers (I am in Berlin right now and just received a text from my son at home). We are also not big users of our phones (which is why we have gophones) however having them available for just a few things here has been invaluable, First, my daughter and I needed to "find" each other as we arrived separately, next we rent apartments and also arranged for taxi pickup so people needed to contact us, and last we got locked out of our apartment (the lock broke) and needed to contact the mgr. I would advice getting t-mobile sim cards for at least 2 of your phones (if they are quadband; if not buy cheap ones from ebay before you go). T-mobile will sell you a sim for about $2 per phone. You then can add time in $10 increments; the $10 is good for 90 days. Do all of this before you go and make sure the phones work for you. You can simply send a text. Now for about $25 total, you have 2 phones with US numbers that you can use to text people (pretty reasonable) and call if necessary (not as reasonable - $1.50-$2.50 per minute; but invaluable if needed). We traveled to Budapest, Prague and Berlin over 21 days and have only needed to add $10 more to one phone. This is getting pretty long. If you decide this is the way to go, PM me and I will also give you some advice on preloading phone numbers especially if you think you will dial ones in the local countries. That's a little tricky. PS I have used my phones in all but Ireland and Scotland, but pretty sure they'd be fine.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17787 posts

@Kathy, Thanks for the additional information on the Go Phones. Could you clarify a few points.... > If you're using your Go Phones with T-Mobile SIM cards, that would indicate that you likely had to get your phones unlocked at some point. Could you provide any details on that? > Are you using T-Mobile SIM's with a German number, or those obtained from the U.S. branch of T-Mobile? As you noted, it's very important to ensure that the phone handset is a quad-band model. It's also prudent to ensure that the phone charger is capable of operation on 220 Volt electrical systems.

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

@Ken-
Yes, you are right. I should have talked about unlocking the gophones. At&t has never given me a problem with this including calling them from a layover in Dallas on my way to Paris when I discovered that we had brought a phone that had not yet been unlocked. You do have to call gophone customer service and ask them to give you the code. (Fyi - at&t gophone service is completely separate from their contract customer service. You "might" have a problem getting them to unlock the phone if you have not had it at least one year (although I also got them to do this successfully, too, due to needing to replace a broken phone). I have never encountered a phone charger that required more than a simple plug adapter, but again, something to look at in your phone specs. If you buy a phone from eBay or Craigslist, make sure it is unlocked as I think getting the carrier to unlock it would prove difficult. T-mobile will give you a "local" number (mine is a Seattle number) just as at&t would. It is essentially the same type of service as at&t gophone just with t-mobile with one BIG difference. T-mobile allows international roaming for non-contract customers and at&t do not. I do plan to fully document all of this when I get home because I also asked the questions again this go round to see what was new which is how I got to using t-mobile. I have a second set of backup sims from eKit that have both UK numbers and US numbers. Did not use them this trip, but have on previous ones. There are a LOT of variables involved in this situation and I am only conversant in some of them, but willing to help document what I do know.

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

One more detail, you will need to call t-mobile customer service (after activating your sim) and tell them you want to use international roaming. I know this is sounding complicated, but it's mostly a lot of little details.

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Kathy, your experience is definitely good news. Now U.S. travelers can get a low cost prepaid phone from T-Mobile and use it in many European countries. (I say "many" because there are some exclusions. For example, no service in the U.K. when I last looked.) Here is the thread where we first discussed this topic: Using Phones in Europe between fellow travelers. In that thread is a link to the T-Mobile web pages that discuss the ins and outs of using their prepaid phones overseas. In my experience many GoPhones are just dual band, as are some of the cheaper T-Mobile prepaid phones, so you have to be careful and check. You can key in your phone model at many Internet sites and see the specifications. I like phonescoop.com, but there are dozens and dozens of others that will give you the necessary information. What you are looking for is phones that have the 900 and 1800 radio frequencies. In the U.S., the phone companies use 850 and 1900, along with a few other additional ones for 3G and 4G service (such as 1700 and 2100).

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

@Paul, t-mobile lists the UK as an area that they cover.

Posted by Eileen
Texan in CA
3582 posts

"T-mobile allows international roaming for non-contract customers" This is news! This didn't used to be the case...Of course, we had given up waiting for T-Mobile to consider 'International Roaming' for PAYG customers as something beyond Canada and Mexico...and just bought European phones :-)

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Kathy, I was going by the rate sheet that T-Mobile lists for its prepaid international roaming. It doesn't list the U.K. as a country covered. It is, of course, with contract plans. According to the sheet for prepaid plans, users have to sign on to a specific carrier in each country. With contract plans, you can roam on almost every carrier. Here is a link to the sheet I mentioned: International Calling Rates

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2852 posts

I was just in the Netherlands in April 2012 with my T-Mobile US prepaid plan. I was all prepared to have to choose the preferred network (T-Mobile NL, as it turns out), but my phone did it automatically. Furthermore, I got a text informing me of the now very high rates for using it, including the fact that data could be as much as $15 a megabyte. I appreciated the convenience (as well as their honesty). I had planned to buy a Lebara SIM, and they were having a promotion (10 euros for the SIM, including 20 euros of credit). However, in the end I stayed with T-Mobile, and only made 1 one-minute call, so it only cost me $1.49. Since I already am set up with a quadband phone and T-Mobile prepaid, and don't use data (at home or traveling), this worked very well. But, that 10 euro purchase price would be used up with less than 7 minutes of T-Mobile USA roaming, and everything else is a huge saving. Unless you really are making only a few minutes of calls, the fact that local SIM usage is so much cheaper means that you will make back the SIM purchase price in no time. This was the first time I was traveling with a netbook and all my hotel rooms had free WiFi, so I had more internet access than before - a main reason I didn't make as many calls as usual.

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

I don't know about the UK and won't get a chance to try it. As Harold said, the fact sheet says that you will have to manually choose a network in each country and that was NOT my experience with either of our phones. We also got the notification/warning every time we crossed a border and switched carriers. Maybe someone else has had experience with non contract t-mobile international roaming and knows for certain about England. Perhaps when I get home we can start a specific thread.

Posted by Eileen
Texan in CA
3582 posts

Well, after reading those prices, I've done OK with my EuroBuzz phones; much cheaper rates! I'm glad I went that route afterall - now my 'good' quad-band phone (purchased specifically for European travel) can stay at home where it's nice and safe. A cellphone can take a beating while you're on vacation ;-) Mary, I don't know if you need a cellphone; my husband and I knew that we wanted a more precise method of meeting up from time to time, and so we just decided to bite the bullet and get phones. They came in handy when we had a couple of problems back in the States to take care of :-( These phones were made to easily work in all Euopean countries; that's their whole reason for being... We, also, rarely used cellphones at home; until a few months ago, I was famous for NEVER having my cellphone even turned on LOL! Now, I have to carry two of them, 24/7/365 8^(

Posted by Ray
Portland, Oregon, USA
1358 posts

hi, I will add my .10 (w/inflation and USA prices here). Until recently, ive never had a cell phone. didndt want one or care to have one. But public pay phones are getting rare even over there. I remember the firts time i went over to London for work in the mid/late 80s and the red phone booths were all over the place. Not anymore. same with Paris,not alot of public phones. you could always try to borrow one in a hotel or something like that tho. i choose to get a phone in London since after doing my research, i found that we as americans are getting the shaft when it comes to www and phones. I used the carphonewarehouse.co.uk web site to do some checking into rates and phones. I got one for 60 USD which includes a 10 pound top-up (minutes) and a memory card. I should mentioned that the phone is a slider type (didnt want any butt calls) and its GSM, Quad Band and Unlocked and PAYG. THey do offer less expensive ones too. I chose to go with simple since i wasnt going to spend my life on the phone texting, browsing the web or yacking away while in Paris. I was going to mingle with the natives! iac, i choose this phone since its not expensive and i can use it about anywhere in the world w/a few exceptions. I also plan on traveling at least 1x/year as long as my bod and work holds out, so its going to get some use. btw, i also carry it around here in the US for emergencies, but i p/u a US Tmobile SIM card for it since i didnt want to pay for internation call nor do i want any friends to either. one important thing tho. whatever you buy, make sure you can "top-up"/add minutes or pay by phone or www where ever you will be traveling if you do the PAYG route. happy trails.

Posted by George
Canada
834 posts

Frankly, I'd stay way from any advice given here about going to websites who pretend to offer unlocking. So many times the process fails, and then leaves your phone "bricked." Either you have an unlocked phone or you don't. If your current provider will unlock the phone, use them. My provider will unlock a smartphone after three months of the contract, for 35 bucks. If you're unfamiliar with going outside the box, it can be a nasty surprise.

Posted by Steve
Gaston, Oregon, USA
869 posts

Wow! Lots of great info here! Thanks Kathy, for the tip about buying/using/ bringing a TMobile prepaid SIM card. My prepaid phone plan is thru Straightalk, using AT&T, (or I could have ed TMobile, etc) I use an unlocked IPhone and love it, since I only pay $45/month with "unlimited" talk, text, and data thru Straightalk. But the problem is that I went with AT&T as my carrier, and I can't use the service in the EU. I guess the advantage of the buying a prepaid TMobile SIM (and popping it in my Iphone) is that I can have/know what my number will be prior to leaving home. (so my critter baby sitters, etc.,always have a number where they can reach me.) But I think that I'll take our unlocked IPhones to London, stop at a Carphone warehouse, and buy a SIM card from them, with minutes and data for me, and just minutes for my wifes unlocked iphone. Then call the baby sitters(probably Skype on my phone or netbook) Another thing to note is that I have found texting to be a great and very lo cost way to comunicate with others and my travel partners (if we get separated)