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unlocked phone - prepaid card

I am struggling to figure out how to set up phone communication for European travel. I do not use a smart phone in my daily life; for travels I have an unlocked i-phone 4 for which I used prepaid SIM cards 3 years ago in the UK and Germany and 2 years ago in Mexico. I generally get a prepaid SIM card here in the US for a month before traveling so I can "practice" using it and will have it at the airport and so on.

I went to Best Buy to get a prepaid SIM card for this phone, and an employee worked for 2 hours with me to try to get my phone set up with this card. His conclusion was that i-phone 4 must not be supported anymore. I later called the company whose card I had purchased (Total Wireless) and was told that their card does not work on unlocked phones.(?!?!)

Since I only use a smart phone during the rare occasions that I travel, I want to buy a reasonably priced, newer, unlocked phone that is, and will be for a while yet, supported. Also, I heard from a friend that when he bought an AT&T prepaid card for his unlocked phone and then tried to switch it out when he got to Europe that his phone was no longer unlocked. I don't want to buy something and then have a prepaid card lock out other cards, since I will need to swap them country to country.

So . . . the person in the phone section at Best Buy isn't sure how to help me. We called the card provider who says the prepaid card won't work in an unlocked phone. We also just called Motorola (a type of phone I'm looking into purchasing), and the employee there said he was unable to answer such questions about the phone.

This seems unnecessarily complicated.

I will be arriving at my destination late at night next month and will need to contact my airbnb host in order to be let into the apartment. I need to be able to communicate with him as soon as I get in town (was planning to buy a prepaid card at the airport and switch it out). How can I do this with assurance that my phone won't be "locked" by a SIM card bought in the US? How do I know what phones are supported?

Posted by
5288 posts

Take a look at Andrew H's posts about the Vodafone Netherlands SIM which he bought online -- I tried it last year and it worked fine in both France and Germany, no need to switch SIM at every border. (EU eliminated roaming charges.) I used it in a Samsung 6, hardly a new model. Bought the SIM card online, received it at home, took out my AT&T SIM and popped the new one in for practice. You need to put money on the card and can top it up online

Posted by
4686 posts

The best US prepaid service I've found is one called Tello - I use their Pay As You Go option. It works on the Sprint network. You'll need to buy a Sprint-compatible phone to use it, however (don't buy the phone from Sprint). I use Moto phones, too. I had a Moto E4 and gave it to my Mom and upgrade to a fully unlocked Moto X4 (which will work on Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and pretty much everyone else including European carriers). I used both phones on Sprint - and should work great on Tello, which I'm planing to move to shortly. (I used Tello previously and have an old backup phone still on Tello).

To be clear: you want a fully unlocked phone that works on any carrier, not just Sprint.

You do need a Sprint SIM for the phone to use Tello - THAT is something you can buy at Best Buy! The SIM is very specific for the type of phone you buy (Sprint SIM cards work a little differently than GSM SIM cards that are basically interchangeable phone to phone). My Sprint SIM cost me about $10 at Best Buy. Then I could use it with Sprint or Tello - or any carrier that uses the Sprint network. Go to Tello's website to sign up, once you have a phone to use and a Sprint-compatible SIM card for it.

Tello charges 3 cents per minute (and 2 cents per MB of data). Buy $10 worth of prepaid credit and you can use it forever until it is gone. Your credit does not expire unless you haven't used Tello for three months. To keep my old Tello phone alive (with an old number I want to keep), I have a Google calendar reminder set to remind me the first of each month to send a text with the old phone - 1 cent per text - and then it's kept alive another three months, without losing my Tello credit or my phone number.

Tello doesn't work in Europe, so you will want to buy a European SIM for that.

Yes, you can consider the Dutch Vodafone SIM I bought last year. I did try to describe in detail how I set mine up in 2017 - should still work and mostly be accurate, with a few changes. But I guess people still find it confusing. (Feel free to ask me questions about it!) Here's my 2017 write-up:

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

There are other options now besides this SIM. There are Orange Travel SIM cards (French) on Amazon - probably easier to set up than the Dutch Vodafone SIM. But I've not used them myself. People often mention other SIM card options. I've not tried them.

Posted by
572 posts

The easiest way is to join Google Fi. You can buy a Motorola phone for $99, the plan is $20/month and it costs 10 cents/min to use in Europe or just about anywhere abroad. Cancel the plan anytime. Add data at $10/GB per month and no surcharge outside the US. You can have the phone here in the US, test it out, it will work when you travel. See https://fi.google.com/

Posted by
766 posts

I second the Google Fi option. I've used it in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Czech Republic with no problems and no switching SIM cards or any of that hassle.

Posted by
823 posts

Heidi,

I'll third the google Fi recommendation. I'm taking my new Google Fi phone and service to Germany and Austria next month and I plan to submit a trip report about it's usefulness and ease of use. Given that you need to contact your AirBnB host as soon as you land, I think Google Fi is your best choice as there's nothing left to do on you travels - it's already set up and good to go.

I purchased the Moto Android One X4. A little more $$ but I'm thinking about retiring my old phone after the trip. After the purchase credit, the phone cost $149 plus tax... So far, because of a $100 service credit, the phone service has been free.

You old iPhone 4 is no longer supported by Apple and you may have a hard time finding a "Micro SIM" as many carriers are dropping them in favor of newer phones that use "Nano SIMs." (Planned adolescence?)

If you want to keep the iPhone 4 and just want a US-based pay as you go plane in order re-familiarize yourself with the phone, Try Walmart's Straight Talk. The last SIM I purchased from them was a combo Micro/Nano SIM... I use Straight Talk on my everyday phones and generally like the service. One month of service will set you back ~$50 plus tax but it comes with 25GB of high speed data usage (I purchase mine annually and it comes out to ~$43 a month).

Posted by
4686 posts

Google FI seems like overkill for someone who doesn't use a smart phone at home most of the time. But now that Google has opened it up to many more phones, it is a good option for people who do use a smart phone regularly but travel abroad occasionally.

Posted by
9 posts

Thanks so much to you all for the very helpful responses!!

Based on this it sounds like I have some good options to consider. It also sounds like my old i-phone is POSSIBLY still OK for me to use as I did 2 and 3 years ago and that the person at Best Buy was, perhaps, grasping at straws after an hour and a half of trying to activate the SIM card he had put in my phone - which turns out to have a carrier for which my phone is not compatible -