While the iPhone gets a lion’s share of publicity, Apple’s iconic device only accounts for a small portion of the global smartphone market. With an ever-expanding number of smart phone makes and models—from a variety of service providers—it can be a bit confusing to figure out how much an international call will cost for North Americans traveling in Europe. Luckily, we’re here to help you sort through the mess and make the most of your mobile phone in Europe.
The first thing you should determine is whether or not your phone is indeed capable of international roaming. Since this can differ based both on phone and service provider (the iPhone 4 works for AT&T but not Verizon, for example), it’s easiest to check directly with your carrier.
Click below to read about your roaming capabilities on the following American carriers:
Next, figure out how you plan to use your smart phone for while traveling in Europe. Will you need to be on the phone for hours? Just for emergencies? Do you need instant e-mail access? Planning to search the Web or use apps?
Carriers offer separate rates and plans for calling, texting and using data (e-mail, web browsing). If you get all three, the costs can quickly add up.
Here’s an overview of your options:
Depending on your carrier, prices can vary greatly just to make and receive calls while abroad.
AT&T offers the best value, though least flexible, plans, with their Europe Travel Minutes packages. These come in three sizes, with better per-minute rates the more you buy: 30 minutes for $30, 80 minutes for $60 and 200 minutes for $120. Any minutes used beyond what your package offers will cost $1. Since minutes normally cost $1.50 each, these packages can offer considerable savings, especially if you plan on making a lot of calls.
Verizon offers the Global Value Plan, which, for $4.99 monthly, discounts the price of minutes. In France and much of Europe, calls that would cost $1.29 without a plan will cost $.99 with the plan.
Sprint’s Worldwide Voice Plan works in a similar manner as Verizon, though the rates aren’t nearly as good. For $4.99/month, rates are discounted by about $.50 per minute, though the discounts and the rates have little consistency.
For example, per-minute rates for France and Germany drop to $1.49 from $1.99, while Belgium and Switzerland are only discounted $.20 per minutes, from $2.49 to $2.29. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Spain aren’t discounted at all!
If you have a Sprint phone, we would advise checking Sprint’s pricing overview to see if the Worldwide Voice Plan will be worthwhile for the countries you visit.
Of the four major wireless service providers, T-Mobile is the only one that does not offer a plan to help you save on phone service while abroad. This means you’ll have to roll with their regular international roaming rates which, while not exorbitant (we’re looking at you, Sprint!), aren’t quite bargain-basement either, at $1.49 per minute for most of Europe.
If you think keeping track of all these minutes and rates might drive you mad, texting while abroad can be a much simpler alternative (or add-on). Unlike phone calls, rates for sending a text in Europe are fairly standardized across carriers.
In most of Europe, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all charge $.50 per message that you send. Of the four, AT&T is the only carrier to offer a discount plan, charging $10 to send 50 texts, $30 for 200 or $60 for 600.
Receiving text messages is a different story, and prices vary slightly across service providers. T-Mobile and AT&T charge $.20 to receive a message, unless you have a domestic texting plan, in which case the texts count as part of that plan. Verizon and Sprint don’t offer this option, though they charge a piddling $.05 for each text message received.
Note that to send and receive text messages, you’ll need to turn on your phone (you cannot send or receive normal text messages while in airplane mode).
Using international data packages on your smartphone to check e-mail or browse the Web (instead of using Wi-Fi) can be a risky proposition while abroad. It’s easy to lose track of how much data you’ve used and wind up with a four-figure phone bill. Seriously.
Luckily, most carriers offer data packages that can make internet usage a little less treacherous.
AT&T again leads the way in terms of value, offering three pricing tiers for international data transfers: 120 MB for $30, 300 MB for $60 and 800 MB for $120. (Prices are per month.)
Verizon, meanwhile, has only one pricing rate for data: 100 MB for $25.
Sprint offers customers two options, though neither are cheap, at $40 for 40 MB and $80 for 85 MB. Additionally, these rates are only available for some European countries, while others will have to pay the standard price of $.019 per KB.
T-Mobile is once again the exception, as it does not offer any sort of discount data package. Rather, customers will have to pay a hefty $15 for each MB of data used.
As we’ve previously detailed for iPhones, it’s essential when traveling abroad to set your phone up properly. With different charges for calls, texts and data, it’s easy to accidentally open an e-mail or receive a phone call that results in an unexpectedly bulky bill.
Luckily, there are some settings that can help you manage your minutes, messages and megabytes.
If you’re planning on using your phone solely to make and receive calls while you’re abroad, make sure to turn off data roaming, which will block your phone from using e-mail services, web browsing, and downloads. Your phone will still be able to receive text messages (though check with your carrier about picture and video text messages, as they’ll sometimes count as data downloads).
For Android phones
Do this by going to Settings > Wireless & Networks > Mobile Networks. When there, you can make sure international data roaming is turned off and also uncheck all mobile data roaming as a safeguard .
For Windows Phone 7
Go to Settings > Cellular > Data Roaming Options and switch the setting to “Don’t Roam.”
Go to Settings > Mobile Network > While Roaming and select “Off.”
If you need to use web services while you’re in Europe, but you’re worried about piling up data charges without realizing it, you have a few options.
The least drastic is to switch off your phone’s ability to receive e-mail automatically (turning off “push” email downloads and notifications). If you still want to check your inbox occasionally, you can do so by “fetching” your email manually.
For Android users, this can be done by going to Settings, selecting “Accounts and Sync” and unchecking “Auto-Sync.” This will additionally turn off any other applications that automatically sync data, such as weather updates.
Windows Phone 7 owners should go to Settings, then “e-mail and accounts” to select their account. Then, select “Download new content” and choose “manually.” Finally, uncheck all “Content to sync” and save the changes by clicking the checkbox at the bottom of the screen.
If you have a different type of phone, you can check the user guide or talk to your service provider for advice on how to stop automatic syncing.
A final and more extreme solution is to go into “airplane mode” and only use Wi-Fi networks to access your email, Web and apps for free. Smart phones will generally have this setting, which shuts off access to all phone and data networks. Activating airplane mode will prevent you from getting phone calls, normal text messages, and using your Web browser without a Wi-Fi connection, but it will also prevent you from fretting about the charges.
When you do join a Wi-Fi connection, however, you can check your email, browse the Web and use your apps. This is generally the best solution for casual travelers who are fine checking their phones just a few times a day, for example from their hotel or a cafe offering free Wi-Fi. It’s even more sensible these days, as free Wi-Fi connections are popping up all over European cities. (Read our posts on where to find free Wi-Fi in Barcelona, Florence, London, Madrid and Paris.)
When in airplane mode, you can make calls using the Skype app or Google Voice while on a Wi-Fi network. Both of these options are free between Skype or Voice users and very cheap when calling a US phone number.
Note that once you activate airplane mode, you’ll often have to manually turn the Wi-Fi connection back on. Also, when you’re finished, don’t forget to go back into airplane mode!
Here’s how to set up airplane mode on your phone:
Simply go to Settings, then “Wireless & Networks” and check the box next to “Airplane Mode.”
Go to Settings and then select “Airplane Mode” to toggle it on and off.
Click “Manage Connections” in the main menu and select “All Off” or “Turn all connections off.”
Of course, everyone’s needs while traveling abroad are different, and often the right approach is a combination of plans, settings and packages. Just remember to work out your strategy before you leave, in order to avoid getting mixed up in a maelstrom of bills and charges.
More tips for using your phone in Europe: