Cell Phones in Europe

Mobile Phone ‘Handy’ Basics and Options

When is a cell phone not a cell phone? When it’s a German Handy… and it uses a different frequency and a different standard than its North American cousins.

An O2 mobile phone store in a Berlin shopping center. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Will a US cell phone work in Europe? Does ein Handy work in the US?
The tangle of incompatible standards for cellular, wireless, or mobile phones in the world is similar to the jumble of conflicting television standards around the globe – only worse. At least with TV standards, the entire country is under one system. In the US alone, there are several incompatible mobile phone systems. In Europe there is one major standard (GSM), but Europe and most of the world have gone one way in cell phone technology, while North America has largely gone another.

In Europe the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) digital mobile phone system is used for German Handys and digital cell phones across most of the continent. Germany has four main competing digital phone standards: D1, D2, E2, and e-plus (all are GSM). In the Americas, the wireless phone situation is much more tangled. There are several different major digital systems. To really understand it all, it helps to know terms like CDMA, TDMA, PCS, and other tech abbreviations. (See our Cell Phone Glossary for help.)

Attempts to achieve a world-wide mobile phone standard have been thwarted by competing technology companies and national interests. Europe has largely achieved digital wireless standardization already with the GSM system, while the US and Canada continue to have incompatible digital networks run by competing operators using different technology. But because it offers several technical and marketing advantages, there is a growing trend towards GSM in the US wireless phone market. GSM phones are provided in the US by T-Mobile (a German company) and AT&T. Their multi-band mobile phones (such as the iPhone) will work with the European GSM system. Your AT&T iPhone will work fine in Europe. So will Verizon’s – as long as it’s an iPhone 4S or 5. However, even if you have a compatible cell phone, you’ll still need an international roaming plan to save money. More…

GSM has taken on true worldwide dominance in wireless phone systems, with some 3 billion users in almost 200 countries, including the United States. In Europe, Africa, and much of Asia the GSM system is the only technology used for mobile phones. This means that GSM has more users worldwide (about 80 percent) than all the other digital wireless systems combined. It also means that a normal US, non-GSM mobile phone is useless in most other parts of the world. But see below.

Cell Phone Options for Travelers

For North Americans going to German-speaking Europe or vice versa, there are several possible solutions to the Handy dilemma:

Rental: You can rent a GSM cell phone during your trip to Europe. Several firms rent out GSM wireless phones on a short-term basis. There are many companies renting cell phones for use in Germany and the rates vary widely. A rule of thumb is that if your rental includes a local German SIM card and hence a German cell phone number, the rates should be much lower, as you are not roaming. In fact, rates to call the United States or Canada can be as low as a few pennies per minute. Renting a phone for Germany may also be more expensive than purchasing a German cell phone, particularly if you plan on staying in Germany for several weeks or more. Some rental phones may be “locked” so that they can not be used with other (German, European) SIM chips. Try to get an unlocked phone.

Cellular Abroad German SIM Card Offer
Mention when calling or enter promo code GermanWay10 online
and receive $10 off your order. Go to
www.cellularabroad.com or call 800.287.5072 to order.

Buy – With a contract: Buy a multi-band GSM cell phone that can function in the several incarnations of the GSM system – in Europe and North America. Such phones are made by all the major cell phone manufacturers and are sold – with a contract – by all major wireless carriers in the US. Most of AT&T and T-Mobile’s phones are quad-band and have the necessary 900/1800 bands for use in Germany and some Sprint and Verizon handsets have the 900/1800 bands as well. Your options are to “roam” in Germany with your current provider and pay their roaming rates. The advantage is that you will retain your US phone number. The disadvantage is that anyone who has your number and calls you will increase your cell phone bill by over a $1.00 per minute. A better solution may be to ask your carrier to unlock your cell phone to be able to accept a German SIM card. There are several German SIM card options available. More on that below. (Note: iPhones sold by Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology and – except for the new 4S or 5 – won’t work in Europe and other GSM regions.)

More on The German Way

Buying an iPhone for Germany
Why getting an unlocked iPhone for Europe is a very good idea.

Buy – Without a contract: Buy an unlocked GSM phone that can be used with any SIM chip. If your current phone does not have the 900/1800 GSM networks for use in Germany and you do not want to upgrade, you can buy an unlocked GSM handset. Even the iPhone is now available unlocked! (But it’s much cheaper to buy one in the US.) You can also buy a European mobile phone that is unlocked, making you free to use any chip (even a SIM card from the US) with it. A good unlocked GSM phone will run about $150-250 in most of Europe. (Smartphones cost more.) But if it’s not a multi-band model, it can only be used in Europe. However, multi-band models are available. This is a good option for people who will be in Europe frequently.

Buy – Prepaid: Buy a GSM prepaid wireless phone and/or SIM card in Germany that includes call time. You can buy a decent cell phone in Germany for under US$50 that includes prepaid minutes and a “refillable” SIM chip. As you don’t need to have a German address or a German fixed network phone number in order to purchase a German cell phone, this is a distinct advantage for travelers. The per-minute rate for a typical pay-as-you-go cell phone for Germany varys considerably from carrier to carrier. One of the carriers with the most affordable rates is Ortel. Ortel Mobile caters specifically to foreigners living in, and tourists traveling to Germany. Unlike German carriers such as 02, E-Plus or T-Mobile with “Handy” stores available on almost every block of any shopping district, Ortel is harder to find in Germany. However, their cell phones and SIM cards are available online in the US at Cellular Abroad. Ortel’s rates are as low as one eurocent per minute to call the US and, once you have the SIM card, you can opt for a plan that offers unlimited mobile broadband for a low rate for 30 days. If your cell phone is data-capable, like the iPhone or other smartphones, you can get low voice rates as well as data rates. Ortel SIM cards also work with GSM iPads.

For some people, particularly business people who want to use their US cell phone number in Germany, options one or two (above) might be better, despite the higher cost.

More | The iPhone in Germany

Cellular Abroad German SIM Card Offer
Mention when calling or enter promo code GermanWay10 online
and receive $10 off your order. Go to
www.cellularabroad.com or call 800.287.5072 to order.