You’re about to make a trip to Europe. Fantastic, but how are you going to keep in touch while you’re there? There are lots of possibilities, and each one has its good and bad points. This article will help you to find your way through the maze, and choose the option that works best for you.
1. Use your own phone
In an ideal world, this would be the simple answer for everyone. What could be easier than taking your own cellphone with you? It’s familiar. You know how to use it. It’s already programmed with all the numbers you need to call.
Unfortunately, back in the real world, things are not so simple. There are two big problems with taking your own phone on a trip to Europe. The first problem is that it’s possible your phone simply won’t work in Europe. The second problem is that your phone will work in Europe, but you’ll end up with a phone bill that makes you wish it didn’t. Let’s look a little closer at these two problems.
The technical problem
Back in the 1990s, when the second generation of cellphones was being developed and adopted, North America and Europe decided to take different paths. The main standard adopted in America is a technology called CDMA, while the Europeans opted for a technology called GSM. If you’re interested, you can find out more on the Wikipedia pages for CDMA and GSM. The bottom line, however, is that a CDMA phone can’t connect to a GSM network, and vice versa.
In the past few years, more networks in America have begun using GSM. There’s also been a move to supply phones that are equipped with both systems, so that they can be used outside North America. Even then, there are still issues, because the radio frequencies used in America (850MHz and 1900MHz) and Europe (900MHz and 1800MHz) are different.
What all of this means is that your own phone might be able to work in Europe or it might not. If you’re planning to choose this option, check your phone’s manual carefully or call the customer help-line at your cellphone company. If your phone’s equipped with 900MHz or 1800MHz GSM, you’ll be able to use it in most of Europe. To check on coverage for the particular countries you’re planning to visit, take a look at http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml
The financial problem
Once you’ve got past the technical questions, there’s another challenge to deal with: what’s it all going to cost?
When you’re using your cellphone at home, it connects to a base station that belongs to your network company (e.g. Verizon). As soon as you take your phone to Europe, you’re connecting to a base station that belongs to some other company. To make it possible for you to use your phone overseas, the different companies have set up agreements with one another, so that they can get paid by your cellphone company for the services you use. This is known as “international roaming”.The big catch with international roaming is that it’s very expensive for you, the customer. You pay heavily both to make calls and to receive them. Typical rates range from $0.99 to a hefty $4.99 per minute with the major companies, depending on which country you’re visiting.
2. Rent a phone
If taking your own phone sounds like more trouble (or risk) than it’s worth, how about renting a phone?
If you’re making short, infrequent visits overseas, this might be a good option, especially if it’s important for people to be able to reach you while you’re there.
There are several different devices available for rental. Here are the main ones:
Standard Cellphone – As the name suggests, this is a basic cellphone, giving you phone calls, text messages, probably picture messages and maybe some very limited Internet access.
Smartphone (e.g. BlackBerry Storm) – This is a device aimed primarily at business users, giving you everything you get on a standard cellphone, plus email, much better Internet access, and maybe extra features such as satellite navigation.
Satellite Phone – The only real choice if you’re going to a remote area that’s not served by the standard cellphone network. These are expensive to rent and expensive to use.
Cellular Modem – A USB-connected device that allows your laptop to connect to the Internet wherever you are, using the cellphone network.
Services on a Rental Device
Any rental device will offer you the standard services you’d expect from a cellphone: voice calls, voicemail, and text messaging. Some rental companies may offer you the option of other services that you’d find useful:
Keep your own number – This service allows you to redirect calls from your existing cellphone, so that they come straight through to your rental phone. If you’re expecting to receive a lot of calls, look for a company that charges a flat rate per day for this service, rather than charging per minute.
Picture messaging – Great for keeping the folks back home in touch with what you’re doing. Let them see what you’re seeing.
Email – With a business smartphone, you can access your webmail or corporate email right from the device.
Internet browsing – With the latest generation of devices, the screens are large enough and the connections are quick enough for you to browse the whole of the Internet.
Social networking – Can’t live without Facebook? No problem. The latest phones have special applications for viewing and updating social networks.
Navigation and tracking – Some devices come equipped with GPS technology and maps, so you can always find your way.
Where can I use it?
GSM coverage is very good in all major European cities. Coverage in rural areas varies from country to country, with the best coverage in countries where cellphones have been in use for a long time, such as the UK, France and Germany. For a map showing coverage throughout Europe, take a look at http://www.coveragemaps.com/gsmposter_europe.htm.
If you need to use the data network, for services such as email and Internet browsing, you need an area that’s covered by a different technology, called GPRS. This is available in over 80 countries worldwide and again is widespread in Europe, particularly in cities.
How do I rent a cellphone?
If renting looks like the right option for you, where do you start? It turns out that your best bet is to rent direct from one of the European phone networks. The reason for this is that back in 2007 the folks at the European Parliament passed a law, putting limits on how much European phone companies can charge for international roaming. Tough for the companies, but good for you the customer. You can read what the BBC had to say about this.
3. Buy a phone
If you’re regularly visiting Europe, it may make sense for you to buy a dedicated phone – one that’s designed specifically to be used there. If you’re making more than a couple of trips per year, this will probably be less expensive than renting a phone. You also have the possibility of getting used to using one phone, and keeping it loaded with all the numbers you need.
The main disadvantage of buying a phone is the initial cost – even a basic phone will cost you over $100 by the time it’s ready to use in Europe, with the latest models costing hundreds of dollars more than that.
Which phone should I buy?
If you’re buying a GSM phone to use in Europe, an important point to look for is that it comes equipped with the two main frequency bands – 900MHz and 1800MHz. If you also want to use it in other parts of the world, look for a quad-band phone – this will be able to connect to networks in Asia and the Americas.
A second important point is that the phone you buy must be “unlocked”. Here’s what that means:
In order to work, every GSM phone needs something called a SIM card - this stands for Subscriber Information Module. This little card, the size of a postage stamp, provides the phone with important information, including the phone number and which network it belongs to.
Because the networks subsidize the cost of the phone when you buy it from them, most phones are “locked”. This means that an AT&T phone, for example, will only work with an AT&T SIM card. Because you’ll need to use your phone with other networks, make sure you buy one that’s already “unlocked”, so that it will work with a SIM from any network.
The easiest way to do this is to look for a retailer who specializes in selling phones to use overseas. They’ll be able to advise you on the right phone for the countries you’re visiting and which network you should use. For more information, here’s a useful article about buying a phone for Europe.
4. Buying local SIM cards
If you already have a cellphone that will work in Europe, there’s another option that may be the best one for you. You can buy a SIM card for one of the local networks in each country you’ll be visiting.
This can be a good option if you’re going to be staying in one country for a longer period. One of the main advantages is that you’ll be paying local prices for the calls you make to numbers in the country where you’re staying (for hotels, restaurants, etc.). It’s also normally free to receive calls in a European country if you’re using a SIM from a local network.
The main disadvantage is that, if you want to take advantage of the best prices, you’ll end up with a separate SIM card and a different phone number for every country you visit – not too convenient for anybody who wants to know how to reach you.
5. Use a calling card
If it’s not important for people to be able to call you while you’re in Europe, it’s likely that your best option is to buy a long-distance calling card. These cards allow you to use a payphone, or to call via a toll-free number if you’re staying with friends and can borrow their landline phone.
If you’re using payphones, expect to pay around $0.07 to $0.08 per minute to call home. If you’re able to borrow a phone, using a toll-free number will cost you even less – around $0.03 to $0.04 per minute.
For more information about using calling cards, and to compare prices, take a look at http://www.timedial.net/phone-cards-price-compare/.
6. Using payphones or the hotel phone
In many ways, this is the easiest option of all. There’s nothing to take, and no preparation needed – you just pick up the phone and call.
Unfortunately, this option carries a very heavy price-tag. It’s not uncommon for a hotel to charge $10 per minute or more to call overseas. And payphones aren’t a whole lot better. Calling America from a UK public payphone will hit your credit card for around $3 per minute.
All in all, this option is one to avoid, unless you have very deep pockets.
7. Using Skype or other Voice over IP (VOIP) services
If you’re planning to take a laptop with you, another option may be to use a Voice-over-IP service, such as Skype. This is a program that lets you make phone calls over the Internet, and offers very cheap calls to regular landline phones in most parts of the world. Again, this only works if it’s not important for other people to be able to call you while you’re overseas.
The big disadvantage with this option is that your laptop needs to be connected to the Internet for you to be able to use it. This may be very easy and free or nearly free – some coffee shops and cafes offer free wireless Internet to attract customers. Or it may be difficult or very expensive – some hotels charge $10 per hour or more to connect to the Internet.
In other words, it’s difficult to predict what it will cost and how easy it will be. On the other hand, if you’re taking your laptop, and you know you can’t go more than a few hours without checking Facebook, it’s one to think about.
The final word
So there you go – lots of different ways to stay connected when you’re travelling in Europe. If you’re a regular traveler, and people need to reach you when you’re overseas, look at buying a GSM phone. If you’re travelling less frequently, but it’s still important that people can reach you, consider renting a phone for your trip. If it doesn’t matter that people can’t call you, then calling cards or Skype might be your best option.
For additional information, visit comparecallrates.com to compare international sim cards before travelling to Europe.
Finally, whichever way you choose to stay connected, enjoy your trip!