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Pre-paid Phones

Hi, has anyone used a pre-paid, pay-as-you-go phone in Europe? My travel partner and I both have smart phones but received conflicting info from Sprint and Verizon about their plans and costs. For our last trip we had everything set up with Sprint but when we arrived a text popped up with "welcome to Europe" instructions for a different, more expensive deal. We turned off the phone and didn't use it until we returned to the US.

This trip is to Norway. I need the phone for a few calls home to check on my elderly mother. I am able to e-mail her but would like to talk every few days. She doesn't have wifi. Has anyone used TracFone or other brands successfully? I would like to know the costs up front to avoid any surprises. thank you!

Posted by
4686 posts

What plans do you have? What kind of phones, exactly? Some prepaid phones can be unlocked (buy a code on eBay). I have unlocked a few prepaid phones that way - but some are easier to unlock than others. Varies by make and model. In addition, after a year of service (maybe that varies by the carrier), I think the carrier will unlock the phone for you by request.

Either way - if all you really need is to make a voice call home now and then, on a smart phone just use Google Hangouts. (For Android, also install the Hangouts Dialer app.) You can call your mother's land line phone number for free from Hangouts as long as you are on WiFi. To avoid charges from Sprint or Verizon, keep the phones in airplane mode, then turn on WiFi.

Try Hangouts now before you leave for Europe. It works the same way over there - except sometimes you need to add a +1 to the front of the US number to dial (hold down the 0 key to get a plus).

If you want to RECEIVE calls too in Hangouts, set up Google Voice and get a free Google phone number. Then you can turn on ringing in Hangouts. You can install the Google Voice app and receive free texts on your Google number plus make calls with Hangouts that will show your Google number on the other person's phone caller ID instead of "unavailable."

Posted by
4205 posts

Tracfone is what I use at home but it won't work overseas. I bought (on Amazon) an unlocked quad-band GSM phone for about $35-40 and take it with me on trips. Then, in Europe, I buy a SIM card with included credit for minutes, get it installed at the store, and use it to call home as well as over there. This worked well for me on my last trip to Italy. You should be able to get a card like this in Norway, set to expire after your trip is over and with enough minutes' credit to meet your expected needs (or a way to add minutes online or at another store).

Here is what our host has to say on this topic. There are various ways to get this done but the low-end unlocked phone and local SIM card are probably the simplest. I'm sure Andrew's advice above is also good, but maybe your mother isn't as internet-savvy as you and he and others (like me on good days) are.

Posted by
4686 posts

Here is what our host has to say on this topic. There are various ways to get this done but the low-end unlocked phone and local SIM card are probably the simplest. I'm sure Andrew's advice above is also good, but maybe your mother isn't as internet-savvy as you and he and others (like me on good days) are.

Why would her mother need to be internet-savvy? Why can't she just answer her landline phone from her daughter calling from Europe? Mom doesn't have to know what technology was used to call her. Phone rings, Mom answers it like any other call.

Posted by
4205 posts

I guess your last paragraph seemed to suggest that mom might be calling daughter. But neither of us knows, do we?

Posted by
4686 posts

Well, if Donna takes the additional step of setting up Google Voice on her smart phone, then Mom can call Donna from a landline (or cell phone) by dialing Donna's new Google number. All of the "tech" burden is on Donna. Sorry for the confusion.

Posted by
4686 posts

That phone would technically work - but it's an old, slow phone, designed to be "tough" (military grade) - to be dropped, etc.

Hangouts will work fine to call your mom (for free) from the hotel's WiFi on any smart phone.

If you want to call her when not on WiFi then yes you will need some other phone and buy a SIM card in Europe. If you want a cheap smart phone, consider the fully unlocked Moto E4 (XT1768) a decent budget Android phone - about $100, less for a used one on eBay. This is my every day phone at home. Worked great in Europe too. You can look on eBay but avoid any listings that say "US Cellular" or "MetroPCS - look for one that says "factory unlocked."

Posted by
1510 posts

Hi Andrew, I loaded Google Hangouts on my iPad and called my home phone from it. Would it work the same way if I used the iPad (connected to WiFi) to call my mother from Norway? No costs involved? Sorry for all the questions. I have an iPhone SE that I could take but want to be sure I don’t incur $1000 roaming charges or something else crazy. Thank you.

Posted by
4686 posts

Yes, Donna, Hangouts will work exactly the same way in Europe with one possible exception: you may need to add a +1 in front of US phone numbers to call them from Europe. For example, to call the Rick Steves office number - 425-771-8303 - from Europe you might need to dial it as +1 425-771-8303 . (Hold down 0 to get the +).

I'd call your mom at least once with Hangouts before you leave just to try it out. Hangouts isn't perfect; there may be a tiny bit more delay than with a regular cell phone. And occasional, it kind of "cuts out" for a second. It will work best when you have a good WiFi connection. But, I have used Hangouts on many different connections, and overall it works quite well - especially for being free!

You can call non-US numbers with Hangouts too, but it costs a few cents a minute.

Posted by
1510 posts

Andrew, thanks for all your help. I’ll try it!

Posted by
52 posts

Hi, Donna! It's been years since I got an actual second phone for travelling in Europe--long enough ago that I remember it being a Nokia flip phone.

In the US, I have TMobile prepaid (the Simple Choice plan, $80/month for 2 lines), and have the option of paying $0.25/minute when travelling for calls, with totally free text & data. TMobile uses GSM network technology, so it's compatible with European cellular networks without any additional, outrageous charges. If you can get a cheap unlocked phone, and if this plan is still available, this might work okay for you.

Some of the conflicting information may have to do with Verizon & Sprint using CDMA networks instead of GSM. However, newer CDMA phones should work in most of Europe, though you may have to take a few more steps to make a call, and you might not have as much coverage as you would with a GSM phone.

I have an Irish SIM card (with Three, www.three.ie) with a prepay plan. It's helpful for me to keep an Irish phone number & have access to some apps that will only work on EU networks. I have a dual SIM phone, so both my TMobile & my Three SIM cards stay in the phone. Without a dual SIM phone, I'd have to remove & reinsert the teeny SIM cards every time I travel (and would definitely lose one or the other in no time) and I wouldn't be able to "toggle" between lines.

Getting a cheap pay-as-you-go Norwegian SIM definitely makes sense if you are making enough local calls to justify the expense, but might not be a better deal for calls to your mom in the States. And, I'm not sure if you can use a Norwegian SIM with a CDMA phone; I don't think so but will defer to someone here with more knowledge of it than I have.

Have a great trip!

Posted by
8 posts

I have a similar problem. My son gave me his "old" iPhone, which still uses his old phone number, and installed TracFone on it. Works fine here in US, but not in France, where despite all efforts to clear everything and with "unlocked" noted on phone, it refused to work with an Orange SIM card, insisting that it was "locked". Orange refused return/refund because they claimed my phone was to blame.
This year, I need a phone so that my husband and I can call each other, and for reservations, etc., in France- i.e., it has to work in France for 3 weeks, using French numbers-- and we also need to be able to call my son on his US phone, using his US phone number, which will have a "patch" so it will work while he's in France. I like the idea of getting a cheap phone here (Amazon) and installing a SIM card in Paris, making sure it works before leaving store. What phone do you recommend? What SIM card? What store?
Also, can I use my "older" Apple iPhone like a tablet to access the Internet and email via Wi-Fi?

I have very little techno-savvy. Thank you for any help.

Posted by
407 posts

Tracfones will not work in Europe. I have a Tracfone smartphone and the only way for me to use it for calls to the US is with a google voice number and hangouts. Andrew H. has been very helpful in giving information on how to do this. Although the Tracfone is not useful for calls on its own, you can still use it for wifi without any problem. Someone said that newer CDMA phones should work in Europe, but I don't understand how that would be possible, since Europe uses GSM 900 or 1800 not CDMA.

Posted by
4686 posts

Someone said that newer CDMA phones should work in Europe, but I don't understand how that would be possible, since Europe uses GSM 900 or 1800 not CDMA.

It is possible because most new phones can handle GSM and LTE, not just CDMA. Most phones use LTE these days anyway, though in the US, Verizon and Sprint still fall back on CDMA.

Posted by
4686 posts

This year, I need a phone so that my husband and I can call each other, and for reservations, etc., in France- i.e., it has to work in France for 3 weeks, using French numbers-- and we also need to be able to call my son on his US phone, using his US phone number, which will have a "patch" so it will work while he's in France. I like the idea of getting a cheap phone here (Amazon) and installing a SIM card in Paris, making sure it works before leaving store. What phone do you recommend? What SIM card? What store?

You don't need a French SIM or French number to call French phones. Anyone with US phone service that offers international roaming (T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T) can use their phones in France with their US number but still call French phones. T-Mobile and Sprint both offer affordable roaming options (25 cents/minute calls to US and non-US numbers but free unlimited texting and free unlimited 2G data). Verizon and AT&T's plans are more limited and/or more expensive but will work. Many new phones also support "WiFi Calling" that will let you use those plans for free calls home to the US when the phone is on WiFi.

If you don't have one of those four carriers or just want to save money, you can buy a SIM ahead of time. The only French SIM I know that you can buy ahead of time is the Orange Holiday SIM (buy on Amazon). It is not necessarily a great deal and offers only two weeks of initial service (you can add credit - "top up" - to keep using it longer than two weeks). It would have the advantage of giving you a French phone number at which locals can reach you.

I use a Dutch Vodafone SIM that will work in France and is a better deal, but if you are not tech-savvy, perhaps I should not recommend it to you.

In Europe, a free app called WhatsApp is very popular for keeping in touch without actual phone numbers. You can install WhatsApp on your phone (do it before you leave for France) and even use it on WiFi without phone service to keep in touch with people.

As far as buying a phone: you can buy an unlocked smart phone before leaving the US. I don't know what the best deals are at the moment. It should be possible to find a decent Android phone under $100. The Moto E5 Play can sometimes be had for under $100 - it's a decent basic Android phone (make sure it is fully unlocked; some cheaper versions of it are not). I just bought a fully unlocked Moto X4 (Android) at B&H for $165 (still on sale for that price at the moment) and gave my old phone to my mother. The Moto X4 is probably much more than you need for just a travel phone, but it is a pretty snappy little phone for the money and will work on any US carrier and in France with any SIM card.

Also, can I use my "older" Apple iPhone like a tablet to access the Internet and email via Wi-Fi?

Yes. Any phone that has WiFi can be used in France just like in the US. You can even do WhatsApp on it and use it on WiFI.

Posted by
741 posts

Donna: I haven’t used Hangouts myself but if you’ve tried it and are comfortable that’s probably as good a way to call Mom as any. Skype is another option. It’s free between Skype users, but you can also use it to call non-users, including landlines, for next to nothing. I loaded $10 onto my account nearly four years ago before our first trip to Europe. I made a couple of overseas calls and a few domestic calls and I’ve used less than a dollar. If all you need to do is make a few calls to Mom, Skype would work fine as long as you’re on WiFi.

Are you on Verizon? Their international plans aren’t very good for long-term use, but their Travel Pass is ok if you want to use your regular plan here and there. It’s $10 for each 24-hour period you use it. It’s handy if you’re out and about and really need data, text or calls but WiFi isn’t convenient.

But WiFi will probably suffice for 99 percent of your needs. We were in Italy 12 days last year and I turned on Verizon for one day in Rome. Ten bucks for one day of convenience was fine but it’s not cost-effective for regular use.

Posted by
4686 posts

stoutfella, Skype works fine for making cheap calls to US and non-US phones. I have used it over the years, too. Hangouts works the same way, except that calls to US phones are free. So no need to spend even $10 on Hangouts, unless you want to call non-US phones.

That said, Google is replacing Hangouts in the next year or so (exact timeline TBD), and we don't yet know exactly what will replace it or whether it will still allow free voice calls like it does now. We'll see! But for the next six months at least, Hangouts should still work for free calls to US numbers. IPhone and Android users can install the Hangouts app; Android users must also install a second app called "Hangouts Dialer" to call phones.

I have found my smartphone extremely useful for walking and public transit directions (e.g. Google Maps), and it doesn't work well for that without a SIM card and data. SIM cards can be cheap - my Dutch Vodafone SIM cost only 10 euros for 2GB of data last May for my 9 day trip to Portugal. I already had free 2G data with Sprint but found it a little slow. 10 euros for faster data for my whole trip was well worth it - the phone saved me an enormous amount of time because I had fast data. It would have been a shame to limit the use of my phone just to save 10 euros.

Posted by
991 posts

I can't speak for Sprint, but Verizon has a pretty easy to use option called Travel Pass. It's $10/day for each 24 hour period that the phone is used. If you stick to WiFi, you won't use a cent. Verizon is good for telling you when your 24 hours begins and sends a free text to let you know when it's about to end.

You do want to sign up for this before you leave home, and it's not available in every country around the world. (Example - Morocco). It worked for me in every other country which I visited, and was the best way for me to maximize data/phone/texts on the days which I used it.

How do you plan to use your phone? Data? Maps, videos, webpages? Texts? Just making phone calls? Sometimes that's the key to knowing what works best.

Posted by
4686 posts

Verizon's $10/day travel pass works fine - it's just expensive for a long trip. (There is a monthly package too with some amount of data and per-minute phone calls.) Sprint's roaming plan is like T-Mobile's 25 cents/minute calls, free unlimited texting, free unlimited 2G data (a little slow but usable for many people). So Sprint and T-Mobile have much cheaper roaming options: completely free if you don't make or receive any phone calls, plus you can call home to the US for free on WiFi if your phone supports the "WiFI calling" feature.