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Adventure with European SIM cards

Like many, I have read the advice to purchase a European SIM card and install it in my iPhone 4s when traveling in a European country. It is so easy! Right? Pop in the new SIM card and instant service and use in the country inbought it in. What could be simpler?

I have done it three times with the following results.

1.) Italy - I buy a SIM card from TiIM while in Venice. €20 for 4gigs of data . "Wait until 10:00 am tomorrow at the latest for it to be activated". Sure! Then next day at 10:15 still no service. I waste an hour of precious time finding the store and they finally do something on a computer and it works. No problems after that.

  1. Greece - surely my problems in Italy where a one-off. All the articles continue to tell me how easy it is! I find a Geronomous store in Athens and buy a SIM card. €15 for five gigs of data. This time I make sure it works in the store. it does. 30 minutes later in my hotel room I go to use my phone and get the dreaded 'No Service' message. Nothing I do works to gets it working. I go back to the store. Oops! They close early today at 3:30. The next morning I race down to the store after gulping down breakfast and beg my new Greek friend behind the counter for help before the RS bus leaves. After 20 minutes of Greek talk with a coworker and letting my new friend have his way with my phone, It Works! But once again infail the 'pop it in and it works test'.

  2. Italy again - I must be a gluten for punishment. I read an article that says 'get your card from Vodaphone, they have one that works in most European countries!' Since I will visit at least three countries in this trip that sounds like a great idea. I find a Vodaphone store. The SIM card is €40 for one gig of data!!!!! And it only works in Italy. There is no European card I am told. On my way back to my room I see a Tre 3 store. I get an SIM with 5 gigs for €10. But, it's "wait until midnight for it to be activated." It's the next morning and I will soon be visiting the Tre store to ask the to work their magic and get my phone on a data plan.

My poor iPhone 4s and I are rejected again

Posted by
13731 posts

Traveling in Europe without a phone: priceless.
(although our days of doing that are sadly probably numbered)

Posted by
2165 posts

Thanks for sharing this. It's one of the reasons I just do the TMobile thing. No matter how many times I'm told it's simple to get a SIM when I arrive somewhere, things seldom play out that simply for me. TMobile means one less thing I need to worry about. I bring my phone, I turn it on and it works.

Posted by
21328 posts

After buying an Italian SIM last year (it worked when I handed it to other people, but I am phone challenged so it was a struggle for me, and in any case I don't communicate well on the phone in other language), I decided to do without this year. I certainly don't need a SIM for internet connectivity with the wide availability of Wi-Fi.

However, if you're staying in non-hotel accommodations and need to make arrangements to be met at your guest house or apartment, I think you need the ability to make and receive phone calls. Otherwise, you may waste a good bit of time and/or make the people you're doing business with rather unhappy.

Posted by
13731 posts

Right. It would be necessary for private apt/B&B arrangements or pickups. For that reason, we purposely don't book services that can't be contacted strictly by email/wifi. So far; so good.

Posted by
1 posts

When in Europe recently I took the advise of Rick Steves' article on getting a SIM card and bought it from Lycamobile along with a voice service plan with several minutes of talk time, which cost €10, as it was one of the providers mentioned in the article. I purchased it in Paris I put the SIM into my phone and registered it on line and I had service, so far so good. When I left the apartment we were in I had no service! After noticing that anytime I got WiFi connectivity the phone was operational it became clear that the only way the for me to make a call was to also have WiFi connectivity. By the time I got to our next stop which was Copenhagen I decided to see if I bought a voice plus data subscription card for €5 to see if it would let me make and receive calls while not having WiFi connectivity. It didn't work, We traveled to Norway it didn't work, We traveled to the Shetland Islands UK and low and behold it worked! Than we got to Iceland and it only worked with WiFi connectivity but there was an additional per minute and per call charge. Traveling than to Glasgow Scotland and once again the phone operated without WiFi connectivity. My overall experience with changing the SIM card was frustrating to say the least also as mentioned in other post also having to deal with a different telephone number makes it highly unlikely that I will do it again. I think I would be better off to use Skype and WhatsApp, which would only work with WiFi connectivity, with the limited use I required even though it would limit having incoming calls in some cases.

Posted by
31524 posts

This is exactly why I've just been using the international roaming plan with my home cell network for the last few years. It's not the cheapest option but it's worked flawlessly without any issues at all. After some recent experiences, not having any cell coverage is simply NOT an option for me.

Posted by
1005 posts

I used Lycamobile and Lebara recently in Belgium and the Netherlands. Both SIM cards worked just fine on the cellular networks. Perhaps the person who could only call via Wi-Fi had the wrong setting on his smartphone? In any case, SIM cards work best for travelers who have to make a lot of local calls and may have local people calling them. Otherwise, just sign up for your provider's international plan--it's not that expensive and there are fewer hassles.

Posted by
6034 posts

I have only in the last year started to use European SIMs, having Data is a big plus, for maps, navigation, looking up places on the fly; yes, wi-fi is plentiful, but is either slow or unavailable when you seem to need it for the many small immediate things.

Some comments from my experiences and discussion above.

  • For the person who only seemed to get service when there was WI-FI, you likely had no service, as long as your cell has a card, you can access the local cell signal, get some location information, time, etc. and then access wi-fi when available, even though you have no service
  • Even though your phone may be unlocked, there are a number of settings that may need to be changed to get service working, and my son, who has Verizon, had to go through a process on the phone to allow a non-Verizon SIM (not unlocking, other settings). I do suggest going to a branded store (Vodaphone, O2, etc) or a popular chain store (CarPhone Warehouse) where you can get tech support and walk out with a working phone. I would not, unless you fancy yourself a techno-geek, just pick up a card from a tobacco shop or kiosk.
  • Keep in mind that by swapping SIM cards your old phone number is inactive, if you really need a way for people to get a hold of you with out sending out your temporary phone number, do what I do, use a second phone for the international SIM. That way people can call me on my regular number (no international call for them) and I can call them on my much cheaper international number.
Posted by
371 posts

I did get my lowly old iPhone working but it took a 2nd trip to the store where I bought the Sim card. Some of the newer phones will apparently configure themselves for a new sim card automatically. However, my older phone won't, so the guy at the store had to make some change to the APN settings (whatever they are) and the phone worked after that. Unfortunately, after one week I got a message that my had expired even though I had plenty of data left. Angered by such a short time limit on my use of 8 gigs of data, I decided to download city maps to Google maps and that seemed to work well.

Posted by
5697 posts

As I have reported previously, we bought Eurobuzz (now Mobal) dumb phones several years ago for about $50 for two and use them for infrequent/emergency local calls at post-paid $0.79 per minute. (Less than $4 for our last 3-week trip.)
We carry our smartphones (disconnected by the vendor for the length of the trip, no data or calls -- but also no fees) for WiFi connection at our lodging or many public places so we can be in email / Whatsapp communication with our kids, check on travel details the night before, download maps for offline use. If you can wean yourselves from instant/constant connectivity, it's stlll possible to travel comfortably.

Posted by
270 posts

I NEVER leave the store without it working. By never I mean pretty much never. The last time I decided to get my luggage, go to the cell phone store, buy SIM and install it, take my luggage to the car, go by the grocery store in the airport, etc. Then I check the phone. If it works, awesome. If not, right back to the store.

'The phone will work tomorrow'--no thanks, I need it in 10 minutes ;)

Posted by
2 posts

Recent experience, for what it's worth.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom ("Telekom", the parent company of T-Mobile) offers a pre-paid SIM plan for 1 GB of data for 14.95 EUR per month. It roams anywhere in the European Union as if it was in Germany, which is handy if you're starting your trip in Germany because you won't have to buy a new SIM in each country.

But- make sure you buy the correct starting packet! I bought a generic Telekom SIM at a Shell gas station. Big mistake. Apparently none of the SIM packets are pre-activated so you have to register them online. Despite the fact that Telekom has an option on the web site to select your starting tariff (200 MB, 500 MB, 750 MB or 1 GB I believe) the other options (besides the one you already selected by buying a particular starter kit) are grayed out even if you have enough credit topped up on your card. So, you'd probably be best to not buy one at a place that doesn't deal with phones. Luckily I was able to go to the Telekom shop and have the guy manually change my tariff. Calling customer service during their supposed business hours of 0700-2300 mysteriously gave me a message, I think (my German is only so-wie-so) that no-one was available even though it was only 7:30 pm.

Posted by
2776 posts

it does seem to vary widely, best bet seems to be to get your card inside a name-brand store and don't leave until everything is working.

FWIW a few years ago my wife's Verizon iPhone worked just fine in Switzerland and France and my Verizon Android phone was a brick. And yes, we both called beforehand. It just seems that technology still isn't standardized enough for everything to work, all the time.