American Smartphones in Europe: Windows, Android and Blackberry customers
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 smartphone 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.
Check on international capabilities
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 (one iPhone model may work for one carrier, but not another), it’s easiest to check directly with your carrier.
Click below to read about your international calling capabilities on the following American carriers. Most of these links go directly to pages explaining each carriers’ international packages, most of which consist of some sort of bundling of calling, texting and data options.
How will you be using your phone?
Next, figure out how you plan to use your smartphone 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:
1. Making telephone calls.
Depending on your carrier, prices can vary greatly just to make and receive calls while abroad.
AT&T’s three “Passport” plans cost between $30 – $120, and lowers your per-minute charge for phone calls to between $1 minute and $.35 per minute. As minutes normally cost $1.50 each, these packages can offer considerable savings, especially if you plan on making a lot of calls. (read more on our AT&T page)
Without any special bundle, you’ll pay $1.29 per minute to call home. With a $40 bundle, Verizon includes 100 minutes of calls. (read more on our Verizon page)
Without a plan, Sprint charges $1.99 per minute to call the US from Europe. Sprint’s Worldwide Voice plan ($4.99 per month) lowers this hefty rate, bringing it down to $.99 per minute. (Read more on Sprint’s not-so-user-friendly Website.)
Of the four major wireless service providers, T-Mobile offers the best deal with their “Simple Choice” plan. This plan offers unlimited free texts and data (!), and lowers the cost of telephone calls from Europe to the US to $.20 per minute. (read more on T-Mobile’s website)
2. Text messaging.
If you think keeping track of all these minutes and rates might drive you mad, texting while abroad can be a much simpler and cheaper alternative.
If you sign up for any of AT&T’s Passport packages, unlimited text messages are included. Without a plan, these will cost $.50 each.
Verizon’s texting rates are odd. Without a plan or with their cheapest $25 package, texts cost $.50 to send. With their $40 plan, you receive 100 texts. Not great.
Texts cost $.50 to send from Europe to the US, and $.05 to receive.
With T-Mobile’s “Simple Choice” plan, subscribers get free unlimited texting from Europe to the US.
3. Data: Checking e-mail and Web browsing.
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 offers three tiers of data in its Passport Plan bundles: $30 for 120 MB, $60 for 300 MB, and $120 for 800 MB. (Prices are per month.)
Verizon, meanwhile, has only one pricing rate for data: 100 MB for $25.
Sprint offers customers two international data “add on” options, although neither are cheap: $40 for 40 MB and $80 for 85 MB. Without the add on, you’ll pay a steep $.019 per KB.
T-Mobile is once again the exception, offering unlimited data with it’s “Simple Choice” plans.
How to set up your phone up to go abroad.
As we’ve previously detailed for iPhones, it’s essential when traveling abroad to set up your phone 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.
To make calls only
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 phones
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.
For other phones, 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. All smartphones 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. However, 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 with 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.