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Wireless phone service in Europe

Most of us now rely on mobile phones to keep in touch when we’re traveling—just look at the banks of unused public phones you pass in most airports these days. That’s been the rule for domestic travel at least five years, and it’s becoming the rule for overseas trips, too. But deciding just how to arrange overseas wireless calls can be a challenge, and many of you may not be sure which is the best option for your trip.

A reader recently put the question this way: “What’s the best way—phone card, cell, or other—to call home from Italy? Can you make arrangements through your regular wireless provider? Is the cost high?”

“Best,” of course, has no one-fits-all answer; it depends on how you balance cost and convenience. But the other short answers are (1) yes, you can use at least some U.S. wireless phones in Europe and (2) yes, using your home wireless phone overseas is expensive. Fortunately, you have less costly alternatives. Here’s my take on the current wireless situation.

GSM: the essential

Much of the world outside North America—including all of Europe—uses the GSM system for wireless calls, and phone services there use different frequency bands than GSM service in the U.S. and Canada. Here, AT&T, T-Mobile, and a few small companies use GSM, the others don’t. For wireless service in Europe, you need:

  • A one- or two-band GSM phone designed for European service, or a three- or four-band phone you can use both at home and in Europe.
  • A SIM card—a small memory card that holds the phone’s number and other data—anywhere you want to use the phone.

These days, many frequent overseas travelers upgrade to three- or four-band GSM phones for full-time use. Four-band phones are widely available through both AT&T and T-Mobile outlets, usually at attractive prices if you extend your contract a year or two.

Keep your regular number

With a three- or four-band GSM phone you can keep your regular number no matter where you are. All you have to do is have your wireless company “enable” it for overseas. Ask your local outlet or call your provider’s customer service line; you shouldn’t have to pay anything.

  • Retaining your usual number while you’re overseas has a big advantage, as people who call you don’t have to fuss with new numbers or international dialing codes. That’s also a potential disadvantage: You may get calls at odd hours from people who don’t know you’re overseas.
  • Using your regular phone is also expensive. Currently, in Europe, both AT&T and T-Mobile charge a flat $1.29 per minute for both outgoing and incoming calls. AT&T has a monthly-fee package that reduces the rate to 99 cents a minute—better, but still high.

Overall, keeping your regular number is probably the most convenient. You don’t have to buy anything more. It can even be least expensive for short trips, as long as you keep calls to a minimum.

Local SIM cards

You can cut the cost of calls considerably by buying one or more temporary SIM cards that allow you to make and receive calls in dozens of other countries. In Western Europe, many cards provide for free incoming calls and outgoing local calls, as well as cheap calls to the U.S.

  • If you’re visiting only one country, a single-country prepaid SIM card generally provides the lowest rates. Local calls and incoming calls are free and you pay as little as nine cents a minute for calls from the U.K. to the U.S. Prices for a one-country SIM card start at around $40, depending how much initial airtime is included.
  • If you’re visiting several different countries, you can get a multi-country SIM card that also provides free incoming calls, free local calls in some places, and calls back to the U.S. for around 50 cents a minute. Prices start at about $50.

Your number changes with each single-country SIM card you buy. The number is registered in the country where it’s issued; many multi-country cards are based in the U.K. Callers from home use the new number(s) plus the appropriate international calling codes.

Most such SIM cards are prepaid, with a stored value. You can replenish the value online, by credit card. Most of them expire within a specified time—a few months to close to a year—if not used and replenished. A few assess a monthly fee whether or not you use them. If you travel a lot, you might want to get a permanent card with a number you can use for years.

A GSM phone from AT&T or T-Mobile is initially “locked,” which means it will not work with SIM cards from any other wireless provider. You must unlock it before you can use it with a different SIM card. Your local provider’s outlet may be unable or unwilling to do this, but you can unlock some phones by inputting a special code you can buy from one of several online outfits, others by having someone unlock it for you. Look in your classified directory for a local wireless specialist or Google “unlocking GSM phones.”

One-country SIM cards provide the lowest wireless rates, and even multi-country overseas cards offer rates considerably lower than what you pay with AT&T or T-Mobile. But you have to offset those lower rates against the initial cost of $50 or so for each SIM card you buy.

Rent or buy

If you prefer to stick with your non-GSM wireless service at home, you can buy or rent a GSM phone for an individual trip. Several online outfits sell cheap GSM phones. Mobal, for example, charges a flat fee of $49 for a phone plus SIM card you can use in Europe, with free incoming calls but a stiff rate of $1.50 a minute for calls back to the U.S. Other agencies offer cheap phones and SIM card programs.

Some package-tour promotions include “free” wireless phones, but you have to pay for the calls. These may be good deals, but watch out for high calling rates before you sign up for any “free” phone promotion.

Making the deal

Overall, your best bet is probably to buy a multi-country SIM card if you’re visiting more than one country or a single-country card if you’re going to only one place. You can buy those cards from a variety of sources, including Telestial, SIMphoneE, Planet Omni, and US Tronics. Those outfits also provide rental and one-use phones.

Selecting your best SIM card deal depends on a lot of trip-specific factors. By far the best resource I know for overseas phone service information is The Travel Insider. Also check Global Phone Wiz.

Other calling options

Wireless is probably the best choice for most of us. But if rock-bottom price trumps convenience, you have other options:

  • Local calling cards in each country
  • An international calling card from your local phone or long distance carrier
  • A callback service—if you’re staying in a vacation rental with a direct line
  • An Internet-based calling system such as Skype

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