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Unlocking smart phones?

Even after reading numerous articles about using US smartphones in Europe (including Rick Steves'), I am still confused. My husband and I both have an iPhone 4S on the AT&T network. My understanding is that AT&T phones will work overseas, so that shouldn't be a problem. Here's a summary of my confusion:
- Can/should we unlock our own phones? I understand you can buy "unlocking codes" for $25 or so. Is this the way to go, or is it better to hit ebay for a new unlocked phone? How do we "relock" it when we come back?
- If we unlock our phones, we need a European SIM card. OK. When we put that in, do we have to do anything else? Will the phone now work just like it does in the states and on our same phone plan (I know the number is different, but I don't get how we'll be charged for data - still through AT&T, or do we have to sign up for a European service?)
- We plan to do most of our voice/data usage over wifi. However, we both want the security of being able to use data if we need to. Is this the best option for us, or should we plan on getting the (expensive!) AT&T international plan?

I'm sorry if these are dumb questions, but I really feel like I'm missing something here. Your help is appreciated!

Posted by
9363 posts

I don't have an iPhone or use AT&T, so there are probably others who will chime in on that part.

When you put a European SIM in an unlocked phone, there is a setup process that just takes a couple of minutes (the place where you buy the SIM will do that for you, which is good because the prompts are in whatever the native language is). SIMs are generally prepaid, meaning you buy quantities of minutes. It will not be on your home phone plan because it is now a "different" phone. You do not "relock" the phone back to AT&T (and there would be no reason to do so) when you come back. I don't know about data options. I carry an unlocked GSM phone and buy a local SIM when I get there. For data purposes, I use my home cellphone, which does not work on European systems, on wifi. I have never had a problem finding wifi anywhere. I have no idea what it would cost to get a data plan there.

What is best for you will depend totally on how you want to use the phone. Are you going to be making lengthy, frequent calls home? Are they just for emergencies or short calls? On my last trip, I bought a 9 euro SIM card that came with 9 euro in credit. I made three 15 minute calls home to the US, and a few local calls, and I didn't use up the credit. I could not have found a cheaper, easier option (as I said, I used my regular phone for email and apps on wifi). If you just want the phone for brief calls, etc., just staying on the AT&T international plan might make sense from an ease-of-use standpoint, but just keep in mind that you might get calls, from people calling your regular number, who won't know you are in Europe. That can cost you, too.

Posted by
679 posts

Just had a look at ATandT site.
The Monthy plan for $30 for 120MB, $120 for 800MB and $30 gets you 30 mins call time.
A typical UK , off the shelf ,1 month deal,is about 250mins call time(UK),1GB/unlimited data, free Uk text for at worse $35. Best deal $14.

The pay as you go roaming data. rate is an astonishing $20 a MB
Even with a EU registered SIM on roaming its capped at an "expensive" 70c a MB.

A picked off the shelf SIM here would give max rate within the EU of 36c a min call charge as theres a EU mandated cap and its more common for the rates to be 15/20c a min. AT and T rate $1 a min. Its pretty easy to find calls to US for 10c/min.

Phone unlocking is very common here, and if you are contracted even carriers often unlock after 3 months use if asked, sometimes with a fee sometimes not.

Posted by
2081 posts

Welcome JJ and confusion,

" Can/should we unlock our own phones? I understand you can buy "unlocking codes" for $25 or so. Is this the way to go, or is it better to hit ebay for a new unlocked phone? How do we "relock" it when we come back?"

I havent done my own unlocking since they came unlocked or using a regional sim 'unlocked" it.

You may want to ask your provide how much it will cost for you to "unlock" your phone, or ask if they have "loaners". i believe someone mentioned something about AT&T and loaners, but i would ask.

"locking" them keeps you from using some other less expensive provider, whoever that maybe. if you were to "unlock" it i dont see why you would want to "relock" it after doing so.

I would ask, WHY do you want to use your phones over there?

"If we unlock our phones, we need a European SIM card. OK. When we put that in, do we have to do anything else?"

Yes. you may need to do some minor "setups" or not.

"Will the phone now work just like it does in the states and on our same phone plan (I know the number is different, but I don't get how we'll be charged for data - still through AT&T, or do we have to sign up for a European service?)"

Your phone will work just like it has before, but with a local phone number. If you choose to buy an AT&T sim, i have no idea on what they offer.

If it was me i would buy a Pay As You Go (PAYG) sim. there is a limited number of minutes you have when you first purchase it and you can add minutes as you see fit. Most sims will come with some minutes on it and maybe some data. Whats nice in my opinion, is that you can buy data time when you want it. My UK/NL sim i can buy data time in 1 day, 3 day and 1 week blocks. It comes down to MB chunks, but i dont have to buy a monthy/yearly plan to get data as i do in the USA.

" We plan to do most of our voice/data usage over wifi. However, we both want the security of being able to use data if we need to. Is this the best option for us, or should we plan on getting the (expensive!) AT&T international plan?"

you may want to check with AT&T regarding this.

take a look at carphonewarehouse.com. look at the providers and rates

enter link description here

they use to have a table with all of the providers and rates, but i cant find it now. But you can look at the individual providers and get an idea on the costs.

Just a comment. If you do buy a sim overthere, make sure you can add minutes in and out of the country you purchase it in. especially outside of the country. If you dont plan on using it further, then it isnt a big deal. the reason is that my UK sim i can not add minutes without a voucher. i have to buy it there and use it later when i need it. The catch, you have to buy it in the UK. My NL sim i can do online using paypal.

happy trails.

Posted by
31137 posts

JJ,

If you're only planning to use the phones sparingly while in Europe for calls or texts, using the AT&T international plan may be the best option. Given my location, I don't use AT&T but I understand you can cancel the international plan when you get home. Hopefully someone else can clarify that.

If you need to contact each other (if separated), texts are about the cheapest method. I'd recommend switching OFF the cellular data and leave it off for the duration of the trip. That will also disable the data roaming. That won't prevent use of the phones in Wi-Fi areas.

One other point to note is that if you use your home phones in Europe, anyone calling your home number will reach you where ever you are, and you will pay for each incoming call. Unlocking phones is certainly one option, but using a PAYG SIM can also have a few issues, depending on which countries you'll be visiting. In some cases, it's difficult to top-up the cards once you've left the country where they were purchased.

With an unlocked phone, you could also use a SIM card from one of the travel phone firms such as Roam Simple, Cellular Abroad, Telestial, Mobal or EuroBuzz, which provide consistent rates across most of Europe and post-paid billing (calls charged to a credit card) so no worries about topping-up. Many of the travel phone firms use U.K. phone numbers. I also use a 4S and that's the method I've been using the last few years (I bought the phone directly from Apple, so it came unlocked).

Posted by
679 posts

Do let us know how you get on with AT and T.
Thier policy is all over the place, at one point for contract iphones it was a stock , no unlocking.
To get out of contract was a $350 fee.
Then they sued some 3rd party unlockers and won millions in damages, and the unlock codes were harder to get and rose to $100. late 2013.
The international package is so expensive you could buy a very decent android for $100 and it still work out cheaper