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SmartPhones in Europe

Greetings,

We will be traveling to Spain and Greece next year. We are considering buying either an iPhone SE, iPhone 6s, iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy J3 V 3rd gen phone for our trip and purchasing a SIM when we get to Europe (we currently just have a flip phone.) How do we know if a particular phone will work in these two countries?
Also, if we buy a used phone online, how do we know that the phone is really unlocked?

Connie

Posted by
4686 posts

I assume all of those iPhones will work in Europe, though I'm not 100% certain. Not sure about the Samsung. Some very old or really budget Android phones may not work.

You can check the website frequencycheck.com and see for sure whether an individual phone has the correct frequencies to work in Europe.

However, another question is: will the phone work WELL in Europe? A phone might have the GSM frequencies for calls and the 2G "Edge" data frequencies (900MHZ, 1800MHZ) for data, but that would make the phone extremely slow, even if technically usable. Plus, some mobile companies in Europe have been phasing out 2G altogether. You want a phone that supports UMTS (3G) in Europe - 900MHZ and 2100MHZ - at minimum. LTE would be nice too, but there are many LTE bands (frequencies) and they don't use the same ones in Europe that we use in North America.

I have a Moto E4 XT1768 (Android). I used it in Portugal this last May. It has only one LTE frequency (band 7) for Europe, and I got that sometimes; other times I got 3G/UMTS, but that was usually fast enough. I've used a 2G-only phone in Europe before, would not want to do that again!

Posted by
20597 posts

The big issue that you need to understand is the carrier or service provider. The make and model of phone is not that important.

Posted by
4686 posts

One way to check to see if a phone is unlocked is to insert another carrier's SIM card into the phone and turn it on. If the phone powers on without demanding an unlock code, it is unlocked. The exception is that some "MVNOs" (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) work on the same network as your phone originally did. For example, if you have an AT&T phone that was originally locked to AT&T, if locked it won't work on T-Mobile. If you put a T-Mobile SIM into the phone, and it is locked, you'll be asked for an unlock code before you can use the phone at all. But if you put say a Cricket SIM into the phone, it should still work even if locked - because Cricket (owned by AT&T) operates on their mobile network.

If you're going to Europe, I recommend buying a Dutch Vodafone SIM on eBay ahead of time - that's what I did. It supports EU "Rome Like At Home" rules, meaning it will work in Greece and Spain too. You can activate it at home before leaving for Europe, and you can test whether the phone is unlocked or not by inserting the SIM and powering on at home before you leave. If you aren't asked for an unlock code, then the phone is unlocked. (The SIM itself probably has a 4-digit PIN that you must type in each time you power up, unless you remove the PIN in the phone settings.)

My write-up from last year is mostly still valid, except that you now get 2GB of data for 10 euros, 4GB for 15 euros, 6GB for 20 euros.

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tech-tips/dutch-vodafone-sim-card-for-use-in-europe

Posted by
4686 posts

The big issue that you need to understand is the carrier or service provider. The make and model of phone is not that important.

The exact model could be very important, because some of them have different frequencies. For example, my old Moto E2 came in several variants, and some only had 2G "Edge" data frequencies for Europe. I wound up buying the international Moto E2 for travel because it had the LTE frequencies used in Europe - but not LTE at home in the US.

Posted by
4945 posts

Are you planning to then buy a US SIM for that phone when you return home? Or is it only for use in Europe?

Posted by
5629 posts

I just used a SIM card from TIM ( a carrier like Verizon) in Italy with my iPhone 7 and it worked great.

Posted by
1493 posts

Connie,

To avoid confusion, I took off my above reply. For me, the (unlocked) phone I have works in Italy; not sure about other countries. I can also buy a SIM if I want.

Posted by
8569 posts

Go to Amazon and look for phones made by BLU.

Before you spend hundreds of dollars on an advanced phone you don't need, the BLU phones are unlocked, multiple frequencies for use in Europe and most carriers in the U.S. (except Verizon), and work just fine.

I'm on my second one. I upgraded for more speed and storage.

Posted by
4686 posts

Frank, which BLU phone do you have?

I am not familiar with them, but I did a quick search on Amazon. Even though some of these phones have decent specs, they all seem to have really old versions of Android (Android 5.1 at newest - the 2015 version of Android). That will probably still work for a year or two but not for as long as a phone with a newer version of Android.

Plus, at least one of the BLU phones that comes up is a 2G-only phone that will be really, really slow on European data networks. I would not buy one of those.

I can recommend my Moto E4 if you can get one for a good price (it is last year's phone now however - I bought mine last December). Look on eBay - you can find my version (XT1768) which is the fully unlocked version that will work on Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, or T-Mobile - and every European mobile carrier. I used mine on Vodafone in May in Portugal (and Spain at the Madrid airport briefly). It does the 3G frequencies fine and can also do LTE band 7 which worked sometimes in Portugal. It's also Android 7.1 (2017 version). Don't buy one unless it says "factory unlocked." (If it mentions US Cellular, avoid it.)

Here's a brand new one (unopened) on eBay for $100:

www.ebay.com/itm/Motorola-Moto-E4-16GB-Factory-Unlocked-Black-GSM-CDMA-Brand-New-Free-Shipping/264021722389

That may or may not be the best deal on a phone. This is the one I use every day at home, though, and it works in Europe. Although a budget phone, it's actually fairly snappy for a cheap phone.

Posted by
8569 posts

I have the Blu Vivo 8.
4gb ram, 64gb memory, 4000mah battery,
Android Nougat 7.0

Posted by
3133 posts

Connie, I use my iPhone SE overseas and just returned from a trip 3 days ago. I love the SE as it's also my phone at home and recommend it highly.

Posted by
11153 posts

As you can see, there are multiple issues, and it is much more confusing than it should be, but unfortunately there is no simple answer.

Well, your last question ("how can I be sure a used phone is unlocked") has a simple answer: you can't, until you actually check it. About ten years ago, a friend bought an "unlocked" phone, but when he got to Spain, it turned out it was locked. (He ran into the issue Andrew H mentioned - In the US, he was using a SIM from a carrier linked to the one the phone was locked to, so he thought the phone was unlocked when it really wasn't). Back then, there were phone unlocking shops all over, so he was able to get it unlocked in Spain, and then get his EBay seller to refund him the cost of the unlocking. Today, phone unlocking shops are rare, and you may or may not be able to get the problem fixed abroad.

So, if you do buy a used phone, it's important to check it with SIM cards from several different carriers, right away, while you can still get a refund for it.

Will you want to use this new smart phone in the US, and if so, with which carrier? Or, will you only want to use this phone in Europe? This will determine which model you should buy.

I want to emphasize Andrew H's point: different editions of "the same model" have different specs for different countries and carriers. I just bought a new Samsung Galaxy S9. There was a locked one sold by T-Mobile (my carrier) and two different editions sold by B&H Photo Video that were unlocked. However, ALL THREE had different specs. For instance, the T-Mobile one has some extra 4G LTE frequencies that both of the B&H ones are missing (you only need these for rural areas in the US). Of the B&H phones, one will work with Verizon and one will not. As I said, it's complicated.

Posted by
11677 posts

If you just want to use the phone as a phone ( including texting), not for Internet and maps, your flip phone may work just fine. My Nokia does. And my iPad takes care of the other tasks.

Posted by
172 posts

Lola points out an important consideration--How does the OP plan to use the smart phone? Calls, texting, photos, maps, social media? If only for phone calls, his current phone with an international plan may work if it is compatible with European carriers.

Posted by
991 posts

I have always used an iPhone overseas. I believe all of those models work just fine, but I also bought mine brand new. There's nothing wrong with a used/refurbished model, but I'd look for one that came from an Apple-certified dealer.

As someone else said, if you buy a phone through your US cellular provider, then the phone may be locked to that carrier and won't work with a SIM card from another cellular provider.

Some of the stores have phone sales during the holiday shopping season. You might be able to find a good deal that way as well.

Good luck with your phone and trip planning! :-)

Posted by
16 posts

Greetings,
Thanks for all your replies. I didn't realize how complicated the purchase could be. To answer some of your questions....

Stan: We do plan on using the phone when we get back from Europe (Verizon plan)
Also, while in Europe, we'll use the phone primarily as GPS, to look at train schedules and perhaps with some phone calls, if needed. Back in the states, it will replace our flip phone (Convoy3) mainly as a phone and not for heavy data usage.

Thanks,
Connie

Posted by
4686 posts

Stan: We do plan on using the phone when we get back from Europe (Verizon plan)

Then you'll need to buy a phone that specifically will work on Verizon. Many smart phones will not. (Pretty much all will work on T-Mobile and AT&T but not necessarily on Verizon and Sprint.) My Moto E4 will work on all of them plus overseas. There are newer Moto phones that will also work, but you need to get the fully unlocked version of any phone. Not sure about the iPhones, but if you're buying an older one used, make sure it works on Verizon.

Posted by
16757 posts

Check and re-check before making a purchase. Things may have improved in the last few years, but when I researched my smartphone purchase in spring 2015, Verizon used very different technology than one encounters in Europe. That led me to choose T-Mobile as my US carrier, so I could buy a phone that would also be usable in Europe. I think phones are more flexible now, but especially if you're buying an older, used phone, you could end up with something that works in Europe but not on Verizon, or the reverse.

Posted by
4686 posts

Check and re-check before making a purchase. Things may have improved in the last few years, but when I researched my smartphone purchase in spring 2015, Verizon used very different technology than one encounters in Europe

You're talking about CDMA vs. GSM, and that's really not an issue anymore. Historically, in Europe and in much of the world, GSM technology has been used. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile have both used GSM, so those phones would be more likely to work overseas. Verizon and Sprint, though, have used CDMA, a complete incompatible technology from GSM (like VHS vs. Beta if you remember VCRs).

But in the last few years, modern smart phones for all carriers support LTE, which is much more compatible between carriers. Verizon and Sprint smart phones still fall back to CDMA if they can't connect to a faster LTE network. But generally, all the newer smart phones can roam on GSM networks too. The Verizon-branded prepaid Moto E2 I bought in 2015 works fine (with a little tweaking) on GSM and LTE networks - in fact, I never used it on Verizon.

A good test: if a Verizon or Sprint smart phone has a SIM card, it should support LTE and also roam on GSM. If it has no SIM card, it will not work in Europe or on GSM. I probably wouldn't buy a smart phone older than 2015 anyway - or not pay much for it. It's much less likely to support the fastest data networks in Europe or anywhere.

Posted by
9 posts

Just returned from France. We have an iPhone 7 from Verizon. They have an international Travel Pass plan for $10 a day. Spain and Greece are both covered. We used the phone just as if we were home - calling and internet - with no problems.

Posted by
4686 posts

Yes, epj, but the people who find $10/day expensive (two people each with a phone for say a 3 week trip is $400+) are trying to save money by buying a SIM. Last May in Portugal, my Dutch Vodafone SIM cost me 10 euros for a 9 day trip (2GB of data) instead of $90. But for people who shrug at the $10/day as just another expensive, of course that's the way to go.

Posted by
607 posts

All these phones have anywhere from 6 to 10 radio frequencies and the service providers in both North America and Europe (or Asia) transmit in just as many frequencies. So you are almost guaranteed that some if not most of the frequencies will match. Perhaps the latest fastest LTE may not match but the phone will pick the next best speed.

The only way you can know for sure is to pick a phone and list every frequency in the specs and then compare with the frequencies with the Euro sim that you intend to buy, keeping in mind that as you go to different countries and roam, not all frequencies will be available.

I would just buy a phone that works in North Am rather than a "world" phone because most of the time I would use the phone in North Am so I would not want to have a major North Am frequency missing on the phone.