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Buying an Unlocked Phone Before Travelling in Europe

I am planning to travel to a few countries in Europe for a month (Italy, Switzerland, Austria) and I was hoping to buy a relatively cheap unlocked phone in the US and then purchasing a SIM when I arrive in Switzerland. Does anyone know what kind of phone we can buy here that is compatible with a European SIM card?

Posted by
10951 posts

As long as it is GSM it should work in Europe. Amazon has a good selection.

Posted by
7463 posts

Both of our iphones work well with the SIM cards we buy in Europe.

Posted by
783 posts

It's a tricky question, whether or not to buy a burner or upgrade your existing phone's plan for a few weeks of travel. You can explore this topic endlessly (and inconclusively, sadly) at numerous sites and forms dedicated to getting the best deals on phones and plans. But I'd start with your carrier. Drop into their store, take a number or make an appointment, and see what your options are. Some plans offer global calling and data for a fixed period, say 30 or 60 days, at a reasonable cost while others are stupid expensive and easily justify the throw away phone or the acquisition of an EU SIM. Many modern phones have dual SIM or e-SIM capabilities these days.

While I only needed international functions for 17 days, my Sprint iphone was totally activated and usable in Scotland/UK (going into the EU would have required a different setup) for a month for less than $100 back in 2019. All I did was enter a code when I hit the ground in Edinburgh. That was then.

Posted by
2396 posts

I'm going through this with a trip to Austria, I'm going to buy a prepaid SIM once I get there for the length of my stay and bring a cheap unlocked phone. Everyone and their little brother sells these things over there, the only wrinkle seems to be that nowadays they have to be registered (thanks terrorists) so you need a phone store that knows the ropes for non-residents and will help you with that. Amazon and Best Buy sell unlocked phones, just make sure they have all the GSM bands and are NOT made for use on Verizon (which is CDMA).

The German expression for the cards seems to be tartkarte, if that helps. I expect Coop and Migros among many others sell them. Do some Google, they come in many strengths, make sure you get one that allows your data to roam.

Posted by
189 posts

I agree with one of the posters here about inquiring options with your phone carrier. I've learned to my regret that saving a few dollars becomes a false economy when I had an emergency or even just a change of plans. Buying a month's worth of global calling or texting on my cell phone was worth it when my flight got re-routed and I had to let family know. My phone carrier's global plan worked reliably on my familiar cell phone. My unlocked cheapie did not. Also, I did not find it easy to find a store opened near where I was selling the Sim card I needed.
Have a great, safe trip!

Posted by
206 posts

If you have a recent GSM iPhone (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc., but possibly not Verizon unless a "world phone") you may have the option of just using your phone's eSim capability (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT209044).

Various Android phones also have this capability.

Posted by
1307 posts

When I purchased my last phone I got an unlocked version. Now, when I travel I get a SIM when I get to where I am going and install it in my phone (I have AT&T and their overseas rates are horrible. I just may switch to T-Mobile). I then send an e-mail to those that need to know and provide them with my temporary phone number and remind them if they call me it is at international rates, i.e. not for chit-chat.

Posted by
8674 posts

Things may be different now, but in 2010 I had a trip to Italy and Germany. When I arrived in Italy I bought a SIM card.

Problem #1 - All the prompts were in Italian and when I actually needed to use the phone I couldn’t figure it out. We had to use my husband’s phone to make a call and it was pricey. Halfway through our three weeks there was a kind Italian woman who spoke English explained it to me.

Problem #2 - We arrived in Germany and that Italian SIM card no longer worked. We were going to be meeting up with family and it was important that we have a way to communicate, so we had to buy a German card.

We now have T-Mobile and we are very happy with our international travel experiences with them. Unlimited texting and data (sometimes slow and sometimes not) and very inexpensive call rates.

Posted by
760 posts

No.

It is easy enough to find out. Search the internet for cell phones that will work in Austria, Switzerland, and/or italy.

When I took a Yiddish class in Lithuania in August 2007 - I got college credit for it- I talked my mom into buying me a phone that cost $120 US dollars. It came with a Lithuanian phone number and the right Sim card already installed; I bought some extra minutes at certain news-stands or convenience kiosks. A Lithuanian-speaking secretary or liason who knew enough English who worked for the Yiddish program/ Vilnius University, entered the codes from the receipt from buying the minutes. The prompts on the phone were in Lithuanian.

Later when I traveled solo for leisure my mom figured out she could get the phone plan modified so that my phone will work outside the USA, using my same phone number. The phone service is from Sprint/ now merged with T-Mobile.

Yeah I could pay for a phone plan for myself if necessary but it makes my mother feel good to keep a plan with her, my dad, and me on it. It is the only expense my mom still pays for. Alternatively she is still maladaptively trying to keep too much track m of me even though I live on my own, earn my own money, pay my more bills, and so on. Actually, I did paid for my current phone.

Just upgrade your cell-phone plan so you can use it in Europe. Don't bother with buying another phone and trying to figure out how to add minutes to it in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.

Posted by
1117 posts

I would make it depend on how long I am going to be staying in one country. For a couple of days, I would not bother. For a month, to me, it certainly makes sense to get a local SIM card.

For those of you traveling between different European countries, the SIM card from one country should work perfectly in another, and the pricing is capped by the EU roaming regulations. This...

We arrived in Germany and that Italian SIM card no longer worked

... does not make sense to me. I can only guess of course what was the matter... maybe there just was no money left on that prepaid account?

The German expression for the cards seems to be tartkarte, if that
helps.

Not really... It's simply "SIM-Karte" in German. Never heard "tartkarte".

Here's another idea for anyone who is thinking about getting a new cell phone anyway: I decided to get a dual sim phone some years ago. I hate lugging around two cell phones, and I can use the two SIM card slots for different purposes, like keeping my private and my office accounts separate. Or I can have two SIM cards for different plans. It's great for traveling because I can get a SIM card in the country I am currently in, and people can still reach me under my home mobile number.

Not sure how they handle the locking for dual sim phones in the States though.

Posted by
5769 posts

Since I travel a couple times a year, I just changed carriers. I went to Google Fi, their plan is your phone works nearly everywhere at no additional data or text charge. Calls you make are subject to international charges where that applies.

It is nice to land, turn on your phone and have service and data. No searching for a SIM card, no new phone number, seamless. My monthly bill is also less than it was with ATT.

Posted by
2396 posts

my mistake, apparently the term is wertkarte. anyway it's a prepaid local SIM card.

Posted by
1117 posts

To be honest, I have never heard "Wertkarte" either... I was curious though and looked it up: It seems to be the Austrian term for a prepaid card.

Posted by
2396 posts

I did quite a bit of research into this before cancelling my Austria trip, I was going to buy a short-term SIM with enough phone and data to last me for my trip. Probably from Magenta/T Mobile, although apparently they are also sold in tabacs and supermarkets.

Posted by
1086 posts

The answer used to be simple back when most of the mobile phones around the world used just a few frequencies, and when one technology predominated. That was the GSM standard that many posts above mention. That standard is decades old, however, and will not work in the U.S. very soon, if it still works at all. Why? you might ask. The spectrum used for radio communications is limited. If an older standard still takes up space in the spectrum, there may not be room for the new stuff. U.S. companies are shutting down some older technology to make room for the new.

Cellular communication has gone through a series of different standards and technologies in an attempt to do more; more calls, more data, more sound quality, and all at faster speeds. Most recently 5G had been touted for all it will do that earlier standards won't. The 3G standard, for example, is on the chopping block in the U.S. and phones that rely on it will not work in the very near future. This fact is true in Europe as well.

So to get a phone that will work in Europe, you likely will have to get one that works with the right radio frequencies and the right technology. At this day and time that likely means a phone with 4G (or 4G LTE) and possibly even 5G, although 4G should cover it for less expensive phones. Being sure your phone has the right radio coverage is more complicated. See, for example, European mobile phone operators.

Here is my more simplified suggestions:

1) Buy an inexpensive simple phone over there. That way, the phone should pretty much be guaranteed to work. I know getting an inexpensive phone used to be easy in the U.K. I'm not sure about the countries you mention.

2) Use your phone from home if it is relatively new. Phone manufacturers have included more frequencies than needed in one country so most higher end phones will have most, if not all, of the European frequencies needed.

3) If you use your regular phone, it has to be unlocked to use a foreign SIM card in it. Personally, I wouldn't pay the still outrageous fees that AT&T or Verizon charge for usage overseas. I would go with T-Mobile or Google Fi.

4) If you have newer phone, it might have dual SIM capability. Dual SIMs are mentioned in a post above. For phones sold in the U.S., dual SIM capability most likely means the option of using an eSIM and a physical SIM. Explaining how to setup an eSIM may be giving you too much information, which I've probably already done anyway.