Cell Phones in Europe Terms GSM Cell Phones (World Phones) GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a type of cell phone and network used in Europe and most countries in the
Cell Phones in Europe
GSM Cell Phones (World Phones)
GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a type of cell phone and network used in Europe and most countries in the world. Some US cell phone companies use GSM (T-Mobile, AT&T), but many do not. You need a GSM phone in Europe. These are sometimes called "World Phones" because they can be used around the world. In the United Kingdom, a cell phone is called a "mobile phone".
GSMBand / Frequency
GSM cell phones and networks work on GSM bands (frequencies). Cell phones in the US work at GSM 1900 or 850. Cell phones in Europe work on GSM 900 or 1800. Read more about frequencies in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.
SIM (Subscriber Information Module) cards are a small chip that fits into your phone. This chip contains the cell phone number (so if you switch it to another phone, you still have the same number) and your account information. The SIM Card determines the network and phone number the cell phone uses. These can easily be switched in a phone, so you can put in one for Italy, then remove it and put in one for the US.
Many cell phone companies "lock" their cell phones, so they can only be used with their service. For example, if you buy a T-Mobile phone, you cannot replace the SIM chip with one from AT&T and have the phone work. Read more about unlocking your phone in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.
When you use a cell phone with a SIM card for one country, e.g. Italy, in another country, e.g. France, you are "roaming".
Why Do I Need a Cell Phone When Traveling?
There are many reasons to travel with a cell phone in Europe. Many vacation rentals do not have a phone line and it is good to have a cell phone so people can reach you or to make local calls (e.g. to reserve at a restaurant). If you are traveling with a few people, cell phones let you keep in touch with each other during the day (e.g. "I am in the Uffizi. Where are you?"). They let you keep in touch with friends and family back home. And they are handy to have for emergencies (e.g. "I am locked in the restroom, come and get me out.")
Options for Using a GSM Cell Phone in Europe
European cell phones work on the GSM standard. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, but many other cell providers do not, so you cannot always use your US cell phone in Europe. If you have a GSM phone in the US, taking it to Europe (if your plan allows international roaming) can be expensive.
If you want a cell phone in Europe, you have these options:
- Purchase an unlocked GSM cell phone and European SIM card. Purchase a cell phone that works in Europe and a SIM card for the country you are going to. This is the best option if you travel to Europe each year and make and receive a lot of calls (calls are inexpensive). Read more about this option.
- Rent a GSM cell phone and European SIM card. Rent a cell phone that works in Europe and a SIM card for the country you are going to. This is a good option if you do not travel each year (calls are inexpensive). Read more about this option.
- Use your GSM cell phone from the US and your US cell account. If you are on a GSM system in the US and your phone and plan allow international roaming, this is a good option if you need the phone for emergencies only (calls are expensive). Read more about this option.
The European cell phone situation changes constantly – pricing, options available, whether or not foreigners can buy a cell phone in Italy or other countries. I try to keep this page updated, but read it through and then go to the message board to ask if anyone has more recent experience.
Option 1: Purchase an unlocked GSM Cell Phone and a European SIM card
Cell phone calling plans in Europe are different than those in the US and Canada. Instead of signing up for a monthly plan like we do here, they buy a SIM card which contains the cell phone number and some prepaid time. When your cell phone runs out of time (you have used up all your prepaid minutes), you purchase more minutes and add them to your phone (the way you purchase more minutes varies by country and cell phone carrier). And, you do not pay a per minute charge for incoming calls!
Note. In the United Kingdom. they have monthly contract cell plans like we have in the US, but they also have "pay as you go" plans (the pay as you go plans are more expensive).
If you travel to Europe frequently, it is worth it to buy a GSM cell phone and a SIM card for the country you are going to. Note that some companies offer a SIM card good for all of Europe.
- Advantages. You do not pay for incoming calls, so your friends in the US can call you in Europe using an inexpensive calling plan (they pay the costs for the long distance call – you pay nothing). Outgoing calls within the country you have the SIM card for are relatively inexpensive.
- Disadvantages. You have to buy an GSM cell phone and a SIM card. People calling you from the US have to dial a European number. If you do not travel to Europe every year, your phone number (on the SIM card) may expire.
You can buy the GSM cell phone/SIM card in Europe or online from companies who specialize in this (see below).
Note. GSM phones that work only in Europe are less expensive than World Phones that work in both Europe and the US.
Buy a GSM cell phone and SIM card in Europe
Most countries in Europe have cell phone stores in the airport and in most towns and cities. You can purchase a GSM cell phone and SIM card when you are there. This option is cheaper, because the companies that sell these packages online add a surcharge to the cost of the SIM card. But, you have to give up precious vacation time hunting down a cell phone store and picking out a phone (possibly in another language).
Note. In the United Kingdom. it is not easy to find inexpensive unlocked GSM cell phones; it is better to purchase one online before you leave. (You can find them, but they are much more expensive.)
Buy an unlocked GSM cell phone and SIM card over the Internet
Below are some US companies that will sell you an unlocked GSM cell phone and a SIM card for the country you are traveling to. You pay a bit more for the SIM card than you would buying it in Europe, but you save yourself the time and trouble in the store in Europe and you have the phone before you leave (so you can leave the phone number with people at home). Plus their prices on the cell phones are good.
The phones work on both currents and come with a plug adapter, so you can charge it at home before you leave. Check the GSM bands for the phone to see if you can use it in the US and in Europe. Read more in How to Choose Your GSM Cell Phone below.
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