Mobile Phones for International Travel

Some thoughts on mobile phones for our upcoming trip to Europe.

AT&T and T-Mobile both use GSM, as do all mobile operators in Europe. Relatively recent phones from these two operators should just work (send your model number if you want me to check).

Verizon and Sprint use CDMA2000, and Sprint Nextel uses iDEN, none of which work in Europe. These operators offer some phones which support both systems, for instance, Verizon's global phones.

A working mobile phone is one thing, an affordable mobile phone is quite another. Rates while roaming (using your phone in Europe) are remarkably high. AT&T charges $1.29 per voice minute, 50 cents per text, about 2 cents per kilobyte of data (tens of cents to dollars per email or webpage). Verizon charges similar rates. Thus, text messages among family are a good way to control costs (assuming content-rich messages, as opposed to frivolous updates), phone calls to hotels etc. should be brief and productive, and data should never be used while roaming. For this reason, on an iPhone, data roaming is off by default (Settings|General|Network|Data Roaming=Off).

Wifi works just like home, free some places, one-time fees in other hot spots. So pack your iTouch, iPad or laptop.

Some suggestions for getting ready:

Check your charger. Almost all modern chargers automatically adjust to higher European voltages, although to change the shape of the plug prongs you will need a physical adaptor (these are cheap and readily available). The fine print on the charger should say something like "Input: 100-240V." And pack your charger, or your device will soon become just electronic baggage ballast.

Control incoming text messages. These messages are stored for you, so even if you turn off your phone to control costs, once you turn it back on even for a moment, all these messages will start arriving at 50 cents each. Tell friends to send social updates via email or Facebook instead while you're traveling. And remember to deactivate any automatic text message notifications.

Consider signing up for a Skype account, and loading the Skype application on your smart phone, iTouch, or laptop. Once you connect with wifi, Skype supports free phone calls among its members (as well as instant messaging and video conferences). It also supports affordable outgoing phone calls (using VoIP over wifi) to regular phone numbers, if you add money to your account, useful for calls to restaurants etc. One challenge is that Skype only receives incoming calls when its application is running, so you might need to text message first to place a Skype call. Although it's technically possible to use Skype over a mobile cellular data connection, with expensive data roaming that costs even more than a regular phone call, so don't do it.

Consider renting an international SIM card for your iPhone from iPhoneTrip. With this service, you receive a SIM card to insert into your iPhone. Then you can use unlimited mobile data for $12 per day during your trip, useful when you want to check Google maps or the Deutsche Bahn timetable on the go. A disadvantage is that you pay slightly more for voice minutes and text messages, although Skype calls would be cheap. Another disadvantage is that your phone number would change to some random international number, an inconvenience that could be mitigated with call and text forwarding. (Your phone number returns to normal when you swap back to your original AT&T SIM card.) Some good discussion of this new service.

Many operators in Europe offer prepaid SIM cards, but AT&T locks your iPhone to prevent using them. (Since they subsidize the phone with service revenues, they don't want you escaping to other carriers.) Various gray market firms can unlock your phone, but this is probably excess bother.

June 2010

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