Understanding European SIM Cards for Americans

TravelEurope.me
By TravelEurope.me / a couple of months ago
10 MINUTE READ

Skip Your US Plan
Do I Need to Unlock My Phone?
How Much Will I Pay for International Roaming?
European SIM Cards

I’m a planner, but my plans failed me because the people I asked did not have the experience to have the correct answers. Before I left for my trip, I read all the blog advice. It seemed so simple. I called my mobile provider, added the international roaming plan, and confirmed it would work in Paris. “Yes, of course,” was the reps response.

My trip to Paris was my dream vacation. I scored three weeks off over the winter holidays. I rented an apartment to live my Parisian dream of baguettes, cheeses, wines, and art.

My arrival was a series of missteps. Not from a lack of planning, but a lack of experience. A part of me believed I could assume life in Paris just like it was another day in Los Angeles.

It began in the arrivals terminal. My Airbnb host was on a flight to Canada when I arrived. She had arranged for a local service to let me into the apartment. The service allowed for an hour window to show up. In choosing my time, I accounted for two hours in customs and the 90-minute ride on the metro into the city.

I didn't account for the problems that I ran into trying to buy my metro pass. First, my card didn't work, then I didn't have coins to use the cash option, and no one was at the ticket window. Uber was in a fight with the city, and I didn't know if I could afford a taxi.

I tried to use my phone to call the Airbnb service to let them know that I was running behind schedule. My phone wouldn't work. Thankfully, it had only taken me 90-minutes to get through customs and the ticket window opened while I was trying to get my phone to work.

When I got off the metro, I walked several blocks in the wrong direction and had to backtrack. I made it to the apartment just as the girl was about to leave.

Once I was settled into the apartment, I used the wifi to call my phone company. They didn't know why my phone wouldn't work. Well, it never worked the whole time I was in Paris. I ended up buying a local SIM card.

As a person that writes everything down and easily navigated downtown Los Angeles and its metro system on a regular basis, I was stunned at how hard the first 24 hours were in Paris.

Skip Your US Plan

After several trips to Europe, it is just easier and cheaper to use an EU SIM card or a global SIM. I tried three different times with three different US carriers and never found success.

If your trip is longer than ten days, you should read your terms & conditions. You'll probably find that if you are abroad too long or too often, it allows the company to terminate your plan or mark it for cancellation. The phone company never ended my account, but there are several horrible stories out there. I've read three threads in the past two weeks.

A working phone on arrival isn’t just a convenience; it’s integral too many international trips. If you booked an Airbnb, make sure you have a way to call them outside of the app. Many hosts use WhatsApp or Viber for free international calls. Connectivity is one of the unforeseen pitfalls of replacing hotels with non-hotels.

The easiest way to navigate from the airport is to hire someone else to do it. I realized that I spend an average of two hours after a red-eye flight trying to find my way in a new city. Sleep deprivation and a need to protect your luggage are not worth the $10-$30 savings by taking the metro.

However, I digress...

Research is a tool, but the best research has already been compiled for you by people with first-hand experience. The customer service rep works for the company, and they will tell you things like, "Of course it will work," and "No there are no refunds with the phone connects to a network, but doesn't work for you."

What a hassle, when all you want is for your phone to work, so you can enjoy your vacation.

There is a lot of information about international SIM cards on the internet.

There are many people with firm opinions about them too.

If you are looking for an international SIM card, here is the best resource:

FANDOM's Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki

http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/Prepaid_SIM_with_data

It tells you all the companies in each country and their plans.

I used to spend countless hours researching the companies available and how to get my local SIM card. Does the company allow hotspoting? I was surprised at how many do not permit it or limit the amount of data.

Choosing a company and balancing all the plans is confusing and overly complicated.

The thing no one tells you is that buying a local SIM card is not as easy as they make it sound. Think about the last time you had to go into the store and buy a phone plan. How long did it take? Imagine that in a country and with a salesperson who does not speak English.

I lived in a little town in Spain for about three months. Every month, I walked a mile to our local store, handed over my passport, in broken Spanish told them the plan I wanted, showed them the address of my apartment and gave them my host's phone number. The process took about 20 minutes.

That was the best experience I had getting a local SIM card in the Schengen zone. It's not like a card you pick up at 7-11, everything is a process drowned in paperwork.

I could say, look I only spent 20 minutes getting a local SIM card, but that's not true. You can spend hours researching, and then you need to locate a store. That could be a process on its own.

Another time in Spain, I decided on a company from the Fandom Wiki. Looked at their website and found two locations in my city. I hopped on the bus and went to the first location. I walked around the block, looked across the street, then decided to see if I could find the other store. No luck finding that store either. I passed a phone company on my way back to the bus, so I went in. The plans they were selling were crazy expensive. So, I went home.

That was a solid 4 hours trying to locate a business, and I still didn't have a working phone. If I had been on short vacation, I would have been peeved. What a waste of vacation time!

I do need to give a shout out to the Balkan countries. They are the easiest. You can go to any newsstand, which are everywhere. Hand over your passport, they scan it, you give them 5 or 10 Euro, and you get the SIM card. The tricky part can be setting the APN or activating it.

That's the other thing that people do not tell you. Most local SIM cards require activation or APN settings. If you do not speak the language and the salesperson has other customers, you are left trying to decipher what you need to type into your phone.

Do I Need to Unlock My Phone?

I am going to separate out some of the US mobile providers. Please scroll down to your provider for my best understanding of each network, as well as, my personal experience.

T-Mobile

- The device must be a T-Mobile device.
- The device must not be reported as lost, stolen or blocked to T-Mobile.
- The account associated with the device must be in good standing.
- You have requested no more than 2 mobile devices unlock codes per line of service in the last 12 months.
- The device must satisfy all the Postpaid or Prepaid Unlocking terms outlined below.

Source: Unlock Policy - https://www.t-mobile.com/responsibility/consumer-info/policies/sim-unlock-policy

Support: https://support.t-mobile.com/docs/DOC-1588
T-Mobile Unlock App for Android: https://support.t-mobile.com/docs/DOC-14011
T-Mobile does not have an Apple app.

Personal Experience: Three years ago, I paid for the international plan, but it didn't work. It might be different now, but you won't know until you arrive.

AT&T

- Your device isn't reported lost or stolen or involved with fraud.
- You must complete your contract or installment plan (including early termination fees). Or, pay off an installment plan early and then make another unlock request in 24 hours.
- Your device isn't active on another AT&T account.
- If you upgraded early, wait 14 days to unlock your old device. Business customers wait 30 days. Your service must be active for at least 60 days with no past due or unpaid balance.
- AT&T PREPAID℠ (formerly GoPhone®) devices must have at least 6 months of active service.
- If you're military, we'll ask you to email your TCS or PCS (Temporary / permanent change of station) documents for eligibility. You won't have to complete installment plans or contracts.
- If you have a business-owned device, your company must authorize you to unlock it.

Source: Device Unlock Portal (eligibility requirements popup) - https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/#/

Personal Experience: My phone was "unlocked," but I could not access the APN settings menu on my iPhone. I had to use my backup Android phone. I later learned AT&T did not unlock my phone.

Sprint

Sprint uses CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) mobile technology. This technology predominantly found in the US and Russia. The European standard is GSM (Global System for Mobiles). The details are not necessary, but this affects yours phone ability to work in Europe.

Some, but not all modern phones made for Sprint work on CDMA and GSM.

If you use an iPhone 4S, you can use your phone in Europe and may receive up to 3G data. If you have an iPhone 5S or later could achieve 4G LTE, but it requires internationally roaming. I was unable to access the site because you must be on the Sprint network.

Before unlocking your device, first check if it will work internationally: https://support.sprint.com/support/service/category/Traveling_internationally_with_your_phone-Traveling_intnlly_with_your_phone

- The device is SIM Unlock capable
- The device must be or have been active on the Sprint network for a minimum of 50 days
- Any associated Service Agreement (or any Minimum Service Term, where applicable), Installment Billing Agreement, or Lease Agreement has been fulfilled including, but not limited to, payment in full of any applicable: 1) early termination fees, 2) accelerated installment or lease payments, and/or 3) end-of-lease purchase options. Because leased devices are not owned by the user, the end of lease purchase option must be exercised and paid in full before the SIM unlock is completed.
- The associated account is in good standing
- The device has not been reported as lost or stolen, associated with fraudulent activity, or otherwise flagged as ineligible to be unlocked

Source: Unlocking Requirements - https://www.sprint.com/en/legal/unlocking-your-sprint-device.html

Unlocking Your Phone FAQs: https://www.sprint.com/en/support/solutions/device/faqs-about-unlocking-your-sprint-device.html

Personal Experience: None. I left Sprint in the early-naughts for T-Mobile.

Verizon

Verizon uses CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) mobile technology, predominantly found in the US and Russia. Europe uses the GSM (Global System for Mobiles) standard. The difference affects yours phone ability to work in Europe.

Verizon sells Global Phones and World Devices. These phones can operate on CDMA and GSM.

- We do not lock most phones or tablets that are activated with our postpay service either during or after the term of your service contract or Device Payment Plan installment sales agreement.
- We do not lock our 4G LTE devices, and no code is needed to program them for use with another carrier.
- We do not lock our 3G devices, other than our non-iPhone 3G World Devices. The simple code to program such 3G devices for use with another carrier is either “000000” or “123456.” If the user guide for your device does not provide instructions to access the programming menu, you can dial *611 from your Verizon Wireless phone or call 800.922.0204 for assistance.
- The SIM cards used in our non-iPhone 3G World Devices are locked. We will unlock those SIM cards at your request.

Source: Device Unlocking Policies - https://www.verizon.com/about/consumer-safety/device-unlocking-policy

Personal Experience: None. I've never been a customer.

Other Networks

Assume it does not work.

Still, Need Help?

Try DoctorSIM (https://www.doctorsim.com/us-en/unlock-phone/)

How Much Will I Pay for International Roaming?

T-Mobile

Customers on T-Mobile's One Unlimited and Simple Choice plans can use unlimited data and text at no extra charge.

T-Mobile restricts their international roaming data to 2G speeds. For faster data, T-Mobile sells passes starting at $15 for 100MB.

ATT&T

AT&T's international roaming outside of North America costs $10 per day per device. It includes unlimited talk and text. Your data allowance is the same as your home plan. The Day Pass activates when your phone connects to the network; this might occur when a background app connects.

If you need to add more data, AT&T sells Passport Plans starting at $60 for 1GB of data.

Sprint

Sprint automatically activates its free Global Roaming service. It includes free texts and 2G data.

Customers with LTE/GSM capable phones who are in one of the 50 support destinations can add high-speed data passes starting at $5 per day depending on location.

Verizon

A customer can pay $10 a day to use their home plan internationally. If you require additional data, you can add a 100MB TravelPass for $25/mo. Their $40/mo plan adds 100 minutes, 100 outbound texts, unlimited incoming texts, and 100MB of data. Each additional100MB is $25.

FreedomPop

I was over advertised FreedomPop, and I bought into as a simple solution while I was in the US. Maybe it was my location, but I wasn't impressed.

I especially was not impressed when I traveled with it to Europe. FreedomPop US 4G/LTE SIM cards do not work in Europe. If you have their Global SIM card, mine connected briefly in December 2017 and stopped working the next day. The company told me they no longer supported the global SIM.

ProjectFi

Plans are charged at $10 per GB up to $60. Calls and texts are an additional $20/mo. The data price is the same overseas, however, calls cost $0.20/min after 60GB.

Many travelers have recommended ProjectFi, but I haven't used it. I no longer have a US-based phone plan.

European SIM Cards

It is possible, in most, cases to use your phone in Europe. However, the prices are crazy expensive in comparison.

Mobile phone plans in Europe are a lot cheaper. The price varies depending on your location, but you will spend less money using a local SIM card. That is why everyone who travels recommends it.

Avid travelers have been burned in one way or another by their US company.

The complexities of using a local SIM can easily be avoided by having it delivered to your house before you depart. The problem with this is that there are very few options. Many countries require SIM card registration. Because of these regulations, companies will only mail SIM cards to an address within its country.

Finding a SIM card that also works in the US is rare. After all the troubles I've had with my phone, I like to test it and make sure it works. Thankfully, I am no longer concerned with phone plans. It is nice to know my phone is adaptable to my needs.

Be sure to check out Travel Apps in the free version of the Land & Go Trip Planner.



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