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Buy prepaid phone in Europe?

I use a TracFone here in the US. It serves my limited needs quite well. However, I've read that a TracFone doesn't work in Europe and I'm planning a trip over there next month. Can I buy an inexpensive prepaid phone when I get there

Posted by
8889 posts

Yes, except you buy two things:

1) The phone (which must be unlocked). You could, if you want, buy this before you leave home.
2) A prepaid SIM card to go in the phone. This is your "phone connection", and connects you to a phone provider (who you must pay), and it gives you a phone number (a number from the country in which you buy the phone).

Cheap "dumb" phones start at around €20.
SIM cards are cheaper, but you have to put "pay-as-you-go" credit on them. Make sure you can add credit over the internet. You do not want to be searching for a shop all the time.

Posted by
4689 posts

If your TracFone is a smart phone, you can use it on WiFi in Europe for free (assuming WiFI is free). You can make free calls home to the US with it with Google Hangouts (to be retired by the end of 2019) or Google Voice (not being retired). If your phone is a smart phone, try installing Google Voice now and try it at home in the US.

If you don't have a smart phone? Then perhaps your TracFone could be unlocked for use in Europe. But buying a cheap flip phone once you get to Europe might be your best option.

Posted by
5019 posts

TracFone does not make phones. You don't use a "TracFone". You use some kind of phone made by somebody else, and you use TracFone's cellular service. That makes a world of difference.

You need to figure out what kind of phone you actually have.

Actually, although you are using TracFone "service", TracFone does not have its own cellular network. TracFone simply re-sells AT&T cellular service, at a deep discount. There are several companies that do this. Another is called StraightTalk (StraightTalk and TracFone may be different names for the same company).

I have an iPhone, always have. And I use StraightTalk for service. It's great - basically you get AT&T's network for about half the price of getting service through AT&T (you just get cut-rate customer service, which is a worthwhile trade-off to me). But it doesn't work overseas.

My iPhone is unlocked. So when I travel overseas, I simply remove my phone's SIM (it's a "StraightTalk" SIM), I buy a local SIM upon arrival and pop it in.

You need to find out:
1) What kind of phone you actually have (manufacturer and model)
2) If it is unlocked
3) What cellular system your phone uses (GSM versus CDMA)

You may be able to simply buy a SIM upon arrival in Europe and swap it in (save your original SIM - you will need it when you get home).

Posted by
21 posts

Chris, I have an extra phone I can take instead of buying one so you're saying I can just buy a sim card when I get there. You also said I need to be able to charge over the internet. I take it you mean with the use of a credit card? Can't I just buy the sim card with a predetermined amount of time?

Posted by
21 posts

Andrew, I do have a smartphone. I text my sister in the Bahamas all the time using Whapsapp. Can that work from Europe?

Posted by
21 posts

David, I have a LG Rebel 2 LTE (LG L58VL). I don't know if it's unlocked. I believe it's GSM. Saw it someplace. I barely know enough about cellphones to do what I need to do which is limited.

Posted by
4689 posts

Try this to unlock your phone (call TracFone):

https://www.wikihow.com/Unlock-TracFone-Mobile-Phones

If successful, you'll get an unlock code that you'll need to take to Europe with you. Then, buy a SIM card there and when you insert it (with power off), turn the phone on and you'll be asked to enter this unlock code one time and then never again.

Yes, you can use Whatsapp just on WiFi without mobile service.

It's really worth the effort to unlock the phone and use it with a local SIM in Europe. Then you won't have to learn a whole new device, plus you'l have your contacts and everything else on it as you do now.

Posted by
8889 posts

How do I determine if my phone is unlocked?

Replace your SIM card with a friend's card, type in his PIN and see if it works. If your phone is unlocked you can buy any SIM card and it will work.
Andrew wrote: "unlock code that you'll need to take to Europe with you.". I recommend you unlock it, and try the above test, BEFORE leaving home.

Posted by
407 posts

The LG Rebel 2 L58VL is CDMA. It will not work in Europe to call the US unless you use Google Hangouts.
I also have a CDMA smartphone through Tracfone. However, I was able to use Google Hangouts to call the US during a recent trip. I could not, however, make calls within Italy.

Can someone clarify GSM for me? My understanding is that even US phones that are GSM will not necessarily work in Europe because the US GSM uses different frequencies than European GSM. Is that correct?

Thanks.

Posted by
4689 posts

The LG Rebel 2 L58VL is CDMA. It will not work in Europe to call the US unless you use Google Hangouts.

I think you are right about this specific phone. It is both CDMA and LTE, but it seems to have no GSM frequencies. Most newer smart phones for Sprint and Verizon, for example, can roam on GSM frequencies even though they support CDMA. This LG Rebel does not apparently. My cheapy Verizon prepaid Moto E2 from 2015 works fine on GSM and LTE, however, even in Europe. Verizon and Sprint both have international roaming plans for Europe, so it would make sense that their phones will roam on GSM.

Can someone clarify GSM for me? My understanding is that even US phones that are GSM will not necessarily work in Europe because the US GSM uses different frequencies than European GSM. Is that correct?

This is correct, but most newer smart phones do have even the European GSM frequencies (900MHZ and 1800MHZ I think are the ones you need) to allow basic use. But they may not have the 3G and LTE data frequencies needed for fast data. My old Moto E2 has only 2G "edge" data frequencies and would be very slow in Europe - but it would work for calls and slow data, at least. You have to look up the specifics of each specific phone design.

Because TracFone has no international roaming anyway, they wouldn't need for their phones to support any frequencies but CDMA and LTE.

Posted by
407 posts

Thanks, Andrew. By the way, your posts on using Google Hangouts and Google Voice have been very helpful.

Posted by
21 posts

Thanks you all for the info. Chris, I have an older phone here that I could see to determine if my phone is unlocked but I don't recall having used a PIN with it and I don't know where to get it.

Posted by
21 posts

Actually what I meant to say is that I would use the sim from the old phone.

Posted by
4689 posts

maxcarey, as mentioned above, whether or not your phone is unlocked is probably a moot point - it seems like it will not work in Europe at all except on WiFi, no matter what SIM you have in there, unlocked or not.

Posted by
8889 posts

I don't recall having used a PIN with it and I don't know where to get it.

When you turn on your phone (for example if you turn it off or the battery goes flat), do you have to enter a PIN?
This is the PIN for the SIM card. Some SIM cards have them, for some this is turned off, no PIN needed.

Posted by
21 posts

Thanks again folks. If Andrew is right and I can use WhatsApp on WIFI that may be all I need. I don't really have to make calls. I only want to be able to let my family know where I am periodically.
Is Google Handouts similar to WhatsApp?
Chris, I've never used a PIN with my phone or any of my previous TracFone's so I assume they don't use them.
All of the technical and sometimes conflicting information almost makes me just want to go back to old fashioned corded phones.

Posted by
11154 posts

Chris F: In the US, SIM cards usually come with the PIN turned off. This completely puzzles European visitors (I've been in the phone store when they've bought a US SIM).

Of course, the converse is true; when I've bought SIM cards in Europe, I always have to figure out how to turn off the SIM lock, since I'm not used to entering it when I turn on the phone.

Yet another cultural difference, that people who've only experienced one side of the difference are unaware of.

Posted by
4689 posts

maxcarey, yes, Hangouts is similar to WhatsApp, with one difference: you can also call regular phones with Hangouts, even landlines. The other person does not need to have Hangouts to receive your call. (Skype can do this too, except Skype doesn't support free calls to US numbers like Hangouts does.)

I suggest installing Hangouts and trying it out now. (On Android, also install Hangouts Dialer - a separate app.) It will work the same way in Europe, except that you may need to add a +1 to the front of US numbers when calling them from Europe. (Hold down the 0 key on the dial pad to get a +). Hangouts isn't perfect, but it works quite well for what it is.

Alas, Google will be retiring Hangouts later this year. Google Voice already has many of the same calling features, and that's what I plan to use after Hangouts is gone, but it's a little more complicated to set up than Hangouts. And I can't guarantee the Google Voice app will actually work in Europe as I've never used it over there - but it ought to.

Posted by
3 posts

Hi -- this thread was very helpful as we planned our trip to UK/France so I thought I'd report back on our experience. (Sept. 10-18, 2019)

We are Tracfone customers with a Samsung CDMA/GSM phone and picked up a card from Sim Local in terminal 2 at Heathrow upon arrival. Spent L30 for data, voice, and texts in UK and France for the period we were traveling. Data and voice absolutely fine but never managed to send texts successfully (but we could receive them.) We checked all services in the store before leaving except for texts...not being able to text was not a big deal for us, voice/data more important.

Were happy we used this solution for our travel needs.

Posted by
4689 posts

Did you add a +1 to the front of US phone numbers before trying to text? And the + and country code to text to other countries?