There are lots of horror stories of people going to Europe on vacation or on business and coming home to massive cell phone bills. Even if you know that you are going to be paying a lot it’s really easy to end up with a few hundred dollar international roaming cell phone bill. There are thankfully some ways around dealing with this. How easy and expensive this all is really depends on who your US cell phone carrier is.
If you are on AT&T or T-Mobile things are actually pretty easy. The first step is to make sure that your cell phone supports all the frequencies that you need. If you have a quad band phone you are done with this step. Most of the newer 3G and 4G phones are quad band. I recommend an Android phone, as that’s what I’ve got so I know that this all works perfectly.
The next thing you need to do is have AT&T or T-Mobile unlock your phone for you. They’ll probably charge you a few bucks, but pay it.
If you are on Verizon (which is my US provider) or Sprint you are pretty hosed and you’ll need to pick up an unlocked GSM phone. Google sells phones directly which are unlocked, which is where I bought one from. If you are going to Europe a lot this makes sense. If not you can pickup a used phone from eBay that’s either unlocked or easily unlockable pretty easy. You can either unlock the phone here, or you can unlock it at most cell phone shops in Europe for a few dollars. I recommend an Android phone, as that’s what I’ve got so I know that this all works perfectly.
The next step is to get a Google Voice account (this needs to be done while you are in the US). Right now Google Voice is free (that may change, who knows). Setup an account, you can use a separate number if you’d like, which is what I’ve done.
The next step is to get an app on your phone called GrooveIP. This will let you connect to Google Voice without using the voice network in Europe. Now this app is only available for Android phones. There is an app called Talkatone which I haven’t tried which is available for Android and iPhone. Talkatone routes the calls through Talkatone’s servers, while GrooveIP routes calls directly from Google Voice to your phone via Google Chat.
If you want people to be able to send you text messages you’ll need to install the Google Voice app. This app is free from iTunes and from the Google Play store.
Once this is all setup and working while you are at home in the US you are good to go.
When you get to Europe your first stop should be to the shops at the airport after you clear customs and immigration. Tell the person behind the counter that you need a SIM card and a top up voucher. The back of the SIM card box will probably tell you which top up voucher you need to purchase to get the unlimited data plan. If they don’t offer an unlimited data plan go with something which has a large data usage. Cell phone calls going over the data network are about 1.2 Megs per minute. So a Gig plan will handle about 900 minutes of voice calls. Install the SIM card, if this is your US phone don’t loose your US SIM card as you’ll need that when you get home. If you don’t know how much top up credit you need, ask the guy behind the counter. He probably knows as people ask him all day long.
Make sure that you read the instructions on the SIM card (or have someone translate them for you if they aren’t in English) as to how to activate the unlimited plan if that’s an option. The unlimited plans usually don’t activate themselves and you’ll burn through a LOT of money on a pay as you go plan. Usually it involves sending a text message or making a free phone call to activate.
At that point you can launch GrooveIP or Talkatone and make calls to the US for free. This works because GrooveIP and Talkatone send your call over the data network instead of the voice network like a normal phone call. Now if you need to call your hotel or a phone number within the country that you are currently in you’ll need to use the phones normal dialer so that you aren’t using Google Voice to make that international call.
If you aren’t on an unlimited plan be sure to keep an eye on your data usage through the phones normal metering feature to make sure you don’t run out of data service, and swing by just about any supermarket to purchase a top up card for the phone service.
Keep in mind that if you are jumping between countries while in Europe (which is really easy to do) you’ll need a different SIM card and plan for each country as the pre-paid services don’t have international roaming on them. If you are doing this I’d recommend writing the country that the SIM card goes to on the SIM card so that you can try and use it again in the future. Some of the phone providers lock out the cards about 180 days without use and some don’t.
Hopefully this helps on your travels.