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Things I’ll Talk about in this article:

  • Smartphones and how to use them in other countries
  • Prepaid SIM Cards and how to find them
  • Wifi, Internet, and why you should love it. (hint: it’s because…)
  • International travel is made easier and cheaper by smartphones and the internet
  • Some resources on how to research your own details and get technical advice.

Here’s what I won’t talk about in this article:

  • In depth detailed analysis of various phone plans or phones
  • In depth detailed instructions or trouble shooting your technical problems
  • Recommendations on specific phones, tablets, or laptops

In a previous post, I got into the glories of combining the Internet and Travel.  Here’s the more meaty info. Keep in mind I’m speaking from the perspective of a traveler from the US but much of what follows will be helpful to others.


Smartphones and How to Use Them on International Travel

Free walking tour in London
Find a tour, literally, like where to meet them, using your smart phone.

Luckily, you can use just about any modern smartphone in the rest of the world. Don’t be intimidated by using a cell phone in Europe or other international location. You do have to pay some attention to the radio systems your phone uses but many of them from the US use both CDMA and GSM. Make sure to confirm if you don’t know (Here’s an explanation of the tech ). Basically, for international travelers,  you’ll want GSM.  You’ll also want to make sure your phone is unlocked.  Lots of links on how to do that on the Google.

Finally, you’ll want to decide if you will get better value to get an international plan with your current domestic carrier or get a prepaid SIM card at your destination.  Personally, I think this comes down to how long your plan on traveling and how long you plan to spend at your destination.  One of the first things we realized when we started traveling is that Cell phone plans in the US ARE EXPENSIVE!!!  We’ve never spent more in Europe than in the US, and we usually spend less than half of what we spent back home which was around $100/month for the two of us together for about 2GBs of data.  If you want to use Verizon international coverage, plan to spend $5-$10 per DAY.  I’m not sure what  AT&T International calling or data  or other US based international calling plans price out at but I know that if you haven’t gotten a plan before going international roaming fees will break you. In Croatia, we spent about $30 for both of us for the month with about 10GB of data.

I’ll take “Pre-paid SIM Cards” for 30 Alex

Ok, so let’s assume you have an unlocked, GSM phone and intend on traveling for more say 30 or more days. GSM is really the only requirement for the best cell phone for Europe travel. You’ll probably do the math and decide you want to go with a cheap prepaid SIM card.  Good choice.  We’ve done that in every country we’ve been to in Europe and it’s been incredibly easy, cheap way to have a cell phone in Europe, for the most part.  Here’s what you do. 

Before you go

If your trip lasts for a really long time and don’t want to lose your number or don’t want to give out a new phone number every time you change locations, port your number over to Google Hangouts when you cancel your old US phone plan.  Here’s how. https://goo.gl/c3eBw

It costs $20, once.  Then when people call your old number, you just use the Google Hangouts app for the call. As long as you have a data connection, it works and your US friends won’t have to pay international rates. Carriers treat it like a domestic call.

Next you’ll want to do the following before every new country in which you plan to get a new SIM card. Go to this site and search for the county you will want to buy a SIM card in. (or just google “prepaid SIM Card + country name” and it will be one of the first links).  They list out the providers in a country and various plans and prices.  The plans usually last from 7 to 30 days with recharge or “topping up” possible if you run out of data or go past the time window. Choose one and make sure to locate an actual retail store for that provider.  (I highly recommend downloading offline copies of GoogleMaps for the destination and saving the location beforehand) You can often buy the SIM cards at a grocery store or gas station or tobacco shop, but the people working there seem less likely to speak English or want to help you initiate the card or explain options. 

Google Maps Offline Maps
Downloading offline maps beforehand is easy and helpful

When you get there

We’ve gotten to the point now where we just get data plans. They cost a bit less, have more data, and we don’t really call people locally.  I’ve purchased $10 of credit on Hangouts that I can use for making cheap international calls if I need to. (Calling other countries from your US number counts as an international call because it looks to them like you are calling overseas. Still cheap. I haven’t used up the $10 yet and I purchased it 10 months ago).  Amble on over to your chosen retail outlet and find someone to help you.  Make sure you have your passport with you if you need it. Several countries require this information to register your SIM Card. I’ve always been able to use just my own passport for both our SIM cards.  On the other hand, I generally don’t need any ID.  Be patient, be polite, and make sure they know what you want and you know what you are getting.  Remember, to them your accent may seem as thick and hard to understand as theirs seems to you.  We’ve always had the clerk change out the SIM cards for us and register/initialize them without any problems. You can try to do it yourself but doing this in, say, Croatia, you might find the process of texting in Croatian a bit difficult.  Keep it simple.  They’ll insert the new SIM card (keep the old one if you want it but we just destroy ours) and do what is necessary to make sure it is up and running.  All of your apps and info should stay on the phone and not need to be reloaded. Your cell phone should function fully now but perhaps make sure you know how to Top-up the card.  This is where we’ve had issues in the past.  “Just buy it at the gas station” ends up being a confusing ordeal and waste of money in our case. And topping up online hasn’t proved much better.  Luckily, you typically get so much data, you rarely need to top up unless you go past the time limit. 

Important points and tips:

  • Because of the new EU law requiring “Roam like at Home”, you should no longer be charged roaming on a SIM card plan that you purchased in another EU country.
  • Take note if your SIM card plan will allow tethering (connecting your laptop or other device to the internet via your smartphone’s connection)
    • In Europe, you can get little routers that use SIM cards to connect over the cell network.  Video on a tethered laptop will burn through your data.
  • Make sure you know where the retail store is and have downloaded an offline google map
  • Consider getting a Data-only plan if available
  • Remember your passport
  • Get the clerk to initialize the SIM card

Have SIM, will Travel

international cell phones on table
Cell signal and wifi and cake and beer, on a mountain. Is this part of your international calling plan?

OK, now the fun starts. You’ve got your SIM card working and you are ready to use your phone or tablet.  I assume by this time you’ve got the basics like GoogleMaps and your social media accounts.  Now here’s a few more to help you out.

  • Google Translate allows you to download language packs for when you are offline.  It also allows you to use your camera to automagically translate labels.
  • Fitbit- Ok this one is for those of you who like to track your steps with your Fitbit tracker.  We love ours and get LOTS of steps while traveling.
  • Weather app- We use the default one on our iPhones
  • Apple Wallet. This might be my favorite app and I’m not sure of the Android equivelant.  It not only allows you to load your credit card so you can use it as a contactless credit card (big in many places in Europe) it also does not require a signature since it uses fingerprint tech. You can also use it to store and organize various e-tickets.
  • Evernote – I use this to take photos of my receipts for tax purposes rather than carrying them all around
  • Chrome – It works and synchs with your chrome browser on other devices.
  • Tripit – I just discovered this one but you can forward confirmation emails and it (usually) automatically loads the details into the app so you can have them at your fingertips rather than trying to dig through emails
  • Gmail – very handy for traveling. It just works without having to worry about smtp, pop, or IMAP servers
  • Conversion app – There are many out there. we use one called XE for currency and I use another one called Conversion for measurement conversions
  • Speedtest app from Ookla – great for measuring wifi speeds if that’s an issue. And if you work, it’s always an issue.
  • Snapchat and Viber – Many apartment hosts and taxi drivers use these communication apps. Very handy.
  • Credit Card apps – These are handy if you get robbed in the Paris metro and need to cancel your cards. Also for checking balances.
  • VPN – but first you should probably get a VPN that will work on your phone to encrypt financial transactions when using public wifi or private wifi in dense locations
  • Local and regional Transport apps.  These are often VERY GOOD. From the Paris bus app (SFTP) to the Austrian train and bus app (OBB Scotty), you can often plug in your location and destination and they will give you the next bus and route options and maybe the ability to buy a ticket.  Buying train tickets online and ahead of time will often save you money
  • AirBnB and HomeAway apps – If you are renting apartments, these are nice to have on your phone if you are trying to find the unfamiliar address format or find the hosts contact info.
  • Always looking for suggestions!

Here and there and everywhere: Wifi

ice cave konigsee
One of the few places with no wifi in Europe

If you have walked this earth for more than 40 years like me and not so fond of using the browser on your phone, you’ll spend a lot of time on your laptop doing research and taking care of the day to day business of running your life. I highly recommend subscribing to a VPN service to encrypt your traffic any time you conduct a financial transaction over wifi. You can find many posts out there that will give you better info on this than I can. Luckily, you can find a wifi hotspot just about anywhere in Europe. I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but I assume given some of the locations we’ve found it on our trip, other similarly developed parts of the world will as well. Obviously, the further you get away from urban areas, the more limited your access will be, but we’ve found wifi in the wilds of Bosnia and and along the burns of Scotland. Typically, most bars and coffee shops will have a hotspot. Just ask for the password.  In addition we’ve found wifi signals on public busses, trains, airports (of course), pubs, ferries, and the occasional castle.

What to Use all that Wifi and Data For

One of the big surprises on our trip has been just how much time we spend on logistics and research. It is a massive time suck.  Luckily there are some sites out there that will make life easier.

  • TripAdvisor forums – your fellow travelers and on the spot locals are a font of information, especially on minute details that just don’t exist out there, like what time the museum closes on Sunday or which bus to take to the weekly market, etc.  Search the forums, then post your question if you don’t find anything.  They are broken out by continent then country and then sometimes city.
  • Youtube – Ok, believe it or not you can find out a LOT from videos.  I’ve become a big fan. From figuring out the train ticketing system in Italy to what NOT to do in Sweden, there are videos out there for it. They can also give you some great ideas for destinations.
  • Google – Yeah, that’s an obvious one but did you know that it will give you public transportation schedules if you search for start location and destination, with a map? (I Include GoogleMaps on this too)
  • Rome2Rio.com – if you are looking for general information on the cheapest way to get from point A to B, this is a great site. It gives you average prices from Airlines, trains, buses, taxis, and even Uber. You can follow links to purchase tickets.
  • seat61.com – If you are looking for details about train routes and facilities, like, is there a bar car on the train from Umea to Upsalla or which side of the train to sit on for the best views on the way to Zagreb, this is a great site. This one focuses mainly on Europe
  • bahn.com – the Deutschbahn site has the most reliable scheduling info for european trains. Do research on where to get the best prices before buying through them though.  For instance. Innsbruck to Munich was cheaper to buy through OBB than Deutschbahn.
  • kayak.com – Another great travel site that will compare many hotels, airlines, and car rental agency prices.
  • Facebook Travel groups – Another great resource for posing questions.  There are a ton of travel groups out there. Ask around and join a few to get great recommendations from people who share your love of traveling.
  • Netflix – the titles licensed in each country may change but your account should still work and it’s great content.
  • Podcasts – Lots of great podcasts out there with lots of great tips and inspiration

Of course individual blogs and social media influencers can help a lot too but if you have any other great sites to recommend, please shout them out in the comments. I hope this info helps clear up the daunting fog of the unknown you are about to embark upon.  Rest assured, if I’ve been able to stumble my way through the world, anyone can.  Happy travels and let us know how it goes.  Much love.

-Henry

 International cell phones and prepaid sim cards in Europe

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