Cell Phones in Europe

Mobile Phone Basics and Options for International Travelers

August 2015

Here’s what you need to know about using a US cell phone in Europe. Most Europeans prefer the term “mobile phone.” In German-speaking Europe – Austria, Germany, and Switzerland – a mobile phone is called ein Handy. But what you really need to know is that a European “Handy” may also use different frequencies and different technical standards than those used in the US, Canada and Mexico. Many North American cell phones simply will not work in Europe. In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile USA are the only major cellular phone carriers that use the same GSM mobile phone system used all across Europe and in about 200 countries worldwide.

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

But if you have a so-called “world phone,” you’ll be to use it in Europe and other overseas locations (via international roaming), no matter which carrier you use. (Even Verizon and Sprint offer world phones that will also work abroad.) That does NOT mean, however, that you have no other potential drawbacks to worry about. If you just take your US cell phone to Europe and use it as you would in North America, you could be in for some nasty (costly) surprises!

To help you avoid such potential problems, here are some important basics about roaming the world with a mobile phone. If you need help with the technical acronyms and abbreviations below, see our Mobile Phone Glossary for help.

CDMA versus GSM
For a variety of historical and technical reasons too numerous to cover here, today’s mobile phone world is divided into two different main camps called CDMA and GSM. (There are also a bunch of sub-camps, but let’s keep it simple.) Both CDMA and GSM are digital technology designed to enable the transmission of more calls within a given bandwidth, far more than was possible with the earlier analog (G1) cellular technology.

While the US and Canada remained fragmented into various competing analog and digital technologies for mobile phones, Europe became much more unified under GSM (Groupe Spécial Mobile) following a 1987 technical agreement. Five years later the world’s first digital (2G) GSM mobile phone system went into operation in Finland (July 1992) on a network built by Telenokia (Finland) and Siemens (Germany). That year GSM also became the first system to introduce the SMS (short message service) texting technology that later took the world by storm. Soon there were GSM networks, and only GSM networks, all across Europe.

2G digital cell phone technology only arrived in North America several years after GSM was already established in Europe. The first CDMA networks went into service in the United States and South Korea in 1996. The CDMA standard was later also adopted for use in Canada, China, Japan, and Latin America.

Today GSM has taken on true worldwide dominance in wireless phone systems, with some 3 billion users in over 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. CDMA has over 620 million subscribers. Both the CDMA and GSM technologies have advanced beyond their earlier 2G iterations, and they will continue to progress and offer both faster data transmission speeds and better quality. In reality the CDMA vs GSM gap is closing, as most carriers move to 4G/LTE, but unfortunately that does not mean all phones soon will be compatible around the world.

No SIM Card, No Service
One characteristic of GSM phone technology, dating back to its first days, is the SIM card. The “Subscriber Identity Module” card, a small microprocessor chip that’s inserted into a phone, is a unique feature found in all GSM phones. The exchangeable SIM card allows something that CDMA phones do not allow: the ability to switch between different mobile phone providers. A SIM card authenticates the subscriber and ensures that the user is accurately billed. The SIM card can also store your personal phone directories, messages, information on roaming across different networks, and other data.

The rule for international roaming is you need a SIM-card phone. No SIM, no cellular phone service in Europe – or most of the world outside of North America. Even CDMA “world phones” have to have a SIM card to make their GSM frequencies work.

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.

GSM Carriers in the US and Canada
In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile USA use GSM networks, as do Bell and Rogers in Canada. They will usually allow you to use either a phone they provide or your own compatible GSM mobile phone, using a SIM card.

Verizon and Sprint are CDMA carriers, and they will not allow you to use your own unlocked mobile phone (with or without a SIM card) on their networks. They will be happy to sell you a combo CDMA/GSM “world phone” such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the iPhone 6/6 Plus, but it will be locked into their own system, forcing you to use their international roaming plans in Europe or other overseas locations, which is seldom a very good deal.

Cell Phone Options for Travelers and Expats

For North Americans going to German-speaking Europe or vice versa, there are several possible solutions to the dilemma of different global mobile phone standards. But which solution is best for you depends on various factors, including:

  • How long will you be away from your home system? (Days, weeks, months, years?)
  • How often will you be away from your home system? (Rarely? Frequently?)
  • Which kind of phone do you currently use? (GSM or CDMA?)
  • Which carrier do you currently use? (CDMA or GSM?)
  • Is your current mobile phone locked or unlocked?

Your answer to these questions will determine whether you should use your carrier’s international roaming plan, buy or rent a phone, buy a “travel” phone, use an old phone, or just get an international SIM card to use on your current (unlocked) phone. Here are your options:

Use Your Current Carrier’s International Roaming

In most cases, this option only makes sense for short trips and/or infrequent travel. It almost always costs more for talk and data than other options. One exception is T-Mobile USA’s free roaming in Canada and Mexico (a Simple Choice option) and their low-cost calling option for Europe. For more, see this GW Expat Blog post: Cell Phone Tips for International Travelers and Road Warriors: Dual SIMs, Unlocked Phones, and Free Roaming.

Rent a Cell Phone

Although this is not always the best option, renting a GSM cell phone for short trips to Europe can be a good idea. Several firms rent out GSM wireless phones on a short-term basis. 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. And in fact rates to call the United States or Canada may be included at no extra cost. Cellular Abroad offers rental phones for Germany (and other countries) starting at $48.95 for one week, with these features: (1) Unlimited calling within Germany, (2) Unlimited free incoming calls, (3) 200 included minutes to the USA and Canada, (4) a German number plus optional US number, (5) an optional 3GB data plan, (6) extensive cellular coverage on T-Mobile Deutschland. Cellular Abroad also sells low-cost GSM phones for use around the globe. See the link below.

Cellular Abroad Phone Rental – Germany

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 multi-band and have the necessary bands for use in Germany. Some Sprint and Verizon handsets have the GSM bands as well. Your options are to “roam” in Germany with your current provider and pay their roaming rates. (Unlike most other US carriers, T-Mobile offers very reasonable international roaming.) The advantage is that you will retain your US phone number. The disadvantage is that anyone who has your number and (unknowingly) calls you overseas 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. There are several German SIM card options available. More on that below. Also see: The iPhone in Germany – Newer iPhones sold by Verizon and Sprint will also 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

This way you get an unlocked GSM phone that can be used with any SIM card. Even the iPhone is available unlocked, but it’s much cheaper to buy one in the US than in Europe. You can buy an unlocked iPhone directly from Apple’s online store, but T-Mobile and AT&T now allow you to buy an unlocked phone with monthly payments. You could also buy a European mobile phone that is unlocked, making you free to use any SIM (even one from the US) with it. A fairly good unlocked GSM phone will run about $150-250 in most of Europe. (Smartphones may 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. Even though a good unlocked smartphone costs between $550 and $900, it’s cheaper than the total cost of a subsidized phone with a two-year contract. There are also cheaper phones (under $100) if you’re willing to settle for fewer features and slower (2G) data speeds. See below.

Buy – Prepaid

Buy a GSM prepaid wireless phone and/or SIM card in Germany/Europe that includes call time. You can buy a decent “Handy” in Germany for under US$70 that includes prepaid minutes and a “refillable” SIM card that you can top up as needed. You don’t need to have a German address or a German landline phone number for this option. The per-minute rate for a typical pay-as-you-go mobile phone for Germany varys considerably from carrier to carrier, but it’s almost always cheaper than international roaming. Another option is buying a GSM phone prior to departure. One of the online sites with the most affordable rates is our partner Cellular Abroad. They offer phones, SIM cards and other wireless products for Americans or Canadians 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, Cellular Abroad mobile phones and SIM cards are available online in the US before you leave. Go to www.cellularabroad.com and enter promo code GermanWay10 online
and receive $10 off your order. You can also call 800.287.5072 to order with the same promo code.

Buy or Use a “Travel” Phone

Do you have an old iPhone 4s or iPhone 5/5s lying around? If it’s unlocked, it could be the ideal travel phone. All you’ll need is a European/German SIM card. If you don’t have a second phone to use, consider buying an inexpensive GSM cell phone that you can use for travel. You can get a refurbished, unlocked iPhone 4s or 5s for less than half the cost of a new iPhone 6. Another interesting option is a dual-SIM phone. Learn more about this two-phones-in-one option in Cell Phone Tips for International Travelers and Road Warriors: Dual SIMs, Unlocked Phones, and Free Roaming.

Use Wi-Fi (Wlan) and Free Apps

This does not replace the options above, but using Wi-Fi as often as possible could save you a lot of money. It may not matter at home, but when you’re traveling internationally, data downloads can cost you real money. Even checking your email or looking at a web page on your mobile device counts towards your data limits. Use your hotel’s Wi-Fi or Internet hotspots as much as possible. Most restaurants and cafes in Euope offer free Wi-Fi for paying customers. (Ask your server for the password.) But be careful about online banking or other situations in which someone might be able to access your data via an insecure connection.

Free messaging/video conferencing apps such as What’sApp, FaceTime (iOS), iMessage (iOS, Mac), Skype, Google+ Hangouts, and Viber are another great way to avoid data and/or talk/texting charges.

Have a Good Trip – and Stay in Touch!
Now you know how to travel without giving up the connectivity you’re used to back home. One or more of the options above can save you money and help you enjoy your travels abroad. Gute Reise! Bon voyage!

More | The iPhone for Germany