Also see our iPhone FAQ below.
Now that the major US wireless phone carriers are abandoning the two-year-contract model, it is easier to obtain an unlocked iPhone or other smartphone. Why that is important is one of the subjects we cover here. Expats and international travelers need to understand the importance of having an unlocked mobile phone that can be used with any carrier, but especially AT&T and T-Mobile.
The traditional two-year-contract plan got you a low-cost or even “free” cell phone that was subsidized in exchange for you being tied to your cell phone service provider for 24 months – with a locked phone that could not be used with any other carrier. Using this strategy, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon included the cost of the phone in a customer’s monthly service charges, and held on to their subscribers for at least two years. Many customers were not aware that they were in fact paying more for the subsidized iPhone or other smartphone than if they had simply bought it up-front as an unlocked device. While convenient, this sales model was not very transparent, nor was it a good deal for the customer.
So the new “no contract” plans are a welcome change. (A strategy pioneered by T-Mobile USA back in 2013.) But if you travel a lot or spend time in Europe, there are a few things you need to know in order to be a happy iPhone or mobile phone user abroad. Number one is having an unlocked phone. Number two is knowing the meaning of these two terms: GSM and SIM. (More about his below.)
See our new iPhone 6s buying info below.
This guide to buying an iPhone for Germany and Europe will show you the best options for your particular situation. You also need to know that you can purchase an iPhone in the USA for much less than the same model bought in Germany. If possible, buy your (unlocked) iPhone in the United States before traveling to Germany or anywhere in Europe. (If you already own an unlocked GSM iPhone, see Part 2 of our iPhone guide.)
Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland
After two years of remodeling a historic building, Berlin’s first Apple Store finally opened in May 2013, becoming the 11th in Germany at that time. See our current list of all the retail Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland.
The Unlocked Revolution
Europeans have long seen the advantages of buying an unlocked mobile phone, but until recently there was little advantage for Americans to do the same thing – unless they traveled abroad a lot. It’s difficult to believe, but true, that Apple didn’t even offer unlocked, contract-free iPhones in the US until June 2011. It’s also shocking to know that AT&T refused to unlock an iPhone, even if the 24-month contract had expired, until 2012. But these days that is no problem. AT&T will happily unlock your iPhone if it is no longer under contract. See How to Get Your US iPhone Unlocked in Part 2.
GSM and the SIM Card
In the United States two of the four major cell phone carriers use the same GSM technology that is used in all of Europe and over 200 countries worldwide. AT&T and T-Mobile USA (a German company) use GSM and SIM card technology. Sprint and Verizon do not. However, newer iPhone models (2013 and later) from Sprint and Verizon have a SIM card slot and can be used in Europe.
Expats or world travelers who buy a smartphone in the US should make sure it is a multiband, GSM-capable device. All newer iPhones (4s, 5c, 5s, 6/6s and 6/6s Plus) are, but for full capability it is best to buy an unlocked phone directly from Apple or from a GSM carrier (AT&T and T-Mobile). Apple also sells unlocked iPhones in partnership with T-Mobile. You buy the iPhone online, complete with a T-Mobile SIM card, and then set it up with the T-Mobile talk and data plan you want.
Note: If you buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple, it will not work with Verizon or Sprint, but it will work in Europe – and with AT&T or T-Mobile in the US.
- I have an unlocked iPhone 5s, 6 or 6s. Can I use it in Europe?
Yes. See Part 2 of this article for more about your options.
- Can I buy an unlocked iPhone in Europe/Germany?
Yes, you can, but it will cost at least $100 more than the same iPhone model purchased in the US. If you can, buy an unlocked iPhone in the United States. (See the comparison chart below.) It is also possible to buy a low-cost, contract (locked) iPhone from a German carrier, but that requires residence and a German bank account.
- What if I have an iPhone from Sprint or Verizon?
If it’s an iPhone 6, 5/5s/5c or later model, it will have a SIM slot that can be used with a German or other SIM card. Of course the phone must be unlocked to do that. If it’s not unlocked, it can only be used with an international roaming plan, which is much more expensive than using an unlocked iPhone with a German/European SIM card.
- An unlocked iPhone is fairly expensive. Can I get a used one for Europe?
Yes. I still use my old (AT&T) iPhone 4s as my “Europe phone” with a German SIM. Apple and others sell “reconditioned” iPhones that are perfectly suitable for use as a world phone. Just make sure that any used iPhone you buy has a SIM card slot so it will work in Europe. Also see our buying tips for getting an unlocked iPhone 6s or 6s Plus on an installment plan (below).
- Are there Military Exceptions to allow an iPhone to be unlocked early for deployments?
Yes. If you are deployed internationally or receive orders for international deployment, providers must unlock your device upon verification of deployment under new FCC standards. Contact your mobile service provider, provide verification of your deployment, and request that your device(s) be unlocked. (Source: fcc.gov)
- Can I keep all my data, photos and apps after I unlock my iPhone, or if I get a new iPhone?
Yes. Make sure your current iPhone is backed up using iCloud or iTunes. When you have the new iPhone you can restore your data from your backup. (See this Apple support page for more.) – If you’re replacing an Android or Windows phone, check with your provider on how to make the conversion. Also see this digitaltrends.com guide to making the Android to iOS conversion.
- I’d prefer to buy an Android smartphone. Which ones work in Europe and Germany?
Samsung and other smartphone makers sell many models that work well in the US and Europe. The Samsung Galaxy S5 and S6 are two good options. The Galaxy S Duos GT-S7562 GSM phone even allows you to use dual SIM cards (one for your US number and one for your European number). See our GW Expat Blog post for more on this topic.
The SIM Card
It was not that many years ago that most Americans had never even heard of a SIM card, much less used one! The GSM mobile phone technology used in Europe has always required a SIM card. The iPhone also has one, but most users don’t even know how to access it.
Verizon’s CDMA version of the iPhone 4 has no SIM card, which is one reason it won’t work in Europe. The new iPhone 6s and the older 6, 5/5s/5c and 4s models solve this problem by working on both GSM and CDMA networks. See more below.)
A SIM card allows a single mobile phone to be used on two or more different networks from different providers, depending on which card you’re using. That is one of the many useful and money-saving tips we offer on our cell phone pages. But Apple has always kept its iPhone tightly locked up – in more ways than one. Users can’t even change the battery! On most standard GSM cell phones, the SIM card is inserted in a slot underneath the battery. (See below for the SIM slot’s location on the iPhone.)
Below you can read about buying an iPhone that is ready for Europe. If you already have an iPhone bought in the US or Canada, see our advice for tourists and expats in Part 2.
Buying an iPhone in Germany or the USA
For North Americans going to Europe for a long-term stay, buying an iPhone in Europe (with or without a contract) used to be the best way to go. Now that unlocked iPhones are available from Apple in the US, that is no longer the case. (If you don’t want an iPhone, there are many other options. See our main cell phone page for more.) If you compare iPhone prices in the US versus Germany and Europe, there are some dramatic differences.
Buying an iPhone from T-Mobile in the USA
A good iPhone option for US consumers comes from German-owned T-Mobile. Ironically, despite the fact that T-Mobile in Germany was the exclusive iPhone provider there until other German providers also got the iPhone, T-Mobile in the US did not offer the iPhone until April 2013. If you don’t want to lay out the $649 cash for an unlocked 16GB iPhone 6s from Apple ($549 for a 5S), T-Mobile’s $27.08-per-month plan (with SIM card) may be an attractive option.
The US online Apple Store also offers a no-contract T-Mobile option that includes the cost of the SIM card. The phone cost is $649 plus tax. Apple now also offers an installment plan, but only in its physical stores in the US. See more below.
With T-Mobile you can easily see how the costs are divided, and how much the iPhone costs. AT&T now offers a similar plan called Next. See Apple’s Compare iPhone models (with specs and pricing).
The big advantage of buying an unlocked iPhone is the freedom and lower-cost options it gives you. If you’re going to be using your iPhone frequently in Germany, Europe or most of the rest of the world, then buying an unlocked iPhone makes a lot of sense. You can avoid high roaming charges by using various local prepaid plans. You simply insert a new nano or micro-SIM card into your iPhone.
The old iPhone’s micro-SIM card slot is at the top of the phone next to the earphone jack. You open it by inserting the end of an unfolded paperclip into the small hole next to the slot. The iPhone 6/6s and 5s/c use an even smaller nano-SIM card. The new iPad Air 2 with Wi-Fi + cellular even features a “switchable” SIM that does not require removing the SIM card at all, but that feature is not (yet) available on the iPhone.
Buying an iPhone from Apple, AT&T or T-Mobile
With the introduction of the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in September 2015, Apple also introduced a new purchase option: an installment plan for an unlocked iPhone. That’s a good thing, but it makes it a little more confusing to decide which way to go. Here are some buying tips, based on an article at The Verge (see link below):
APPLE: Yes, you can now buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple with monthly installments. Some would call Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade Program” new-phone-each-year deal a lease arrangement, but you also have the option of paying off the phone and keeping it.
Apple’s financing plan costs more than those offered by the carriers, but it also includes an AppleCare+ warranty. You’ll end up paying the same as you would buying an iPhone and AppleCare outright. Apple charges $36.58 per month for the 64GB iPhone 6s and $40.75 for the 64GB iPhone 6s Plus, with the payments running for two years. (We recommend you get either the 64GB or 128GB iPhone, not the 16GB model.) NOTE: You can only get this plan by walking into an Apple Store. It’s not available online.
AT&T: This is actually a hybrid plan, both an upgrade plan and a financing plan.
Similar to Apple, you pay for the phone month to month and can keep it once everything is paid off. But you also have the option of trading the phone in about six months before it’s fully paid for and swapping it for a new one. Upgrading early is not such a good deal, but if you use this plan as a financing option, it’s about the same as what you’ll get anywhere else. You still end up owning the phone without paying a big premium.
But AT&T’s financing plan can be a little confusing. AT&T names its plans after how many months you have to wait before you can upgrade, not how many months before your device is paid off. A good option is AT&T’s Next 18 plan, which divides the phone’s cost across two years (24 months). It’s really a lot like the old standard two-year phone contract, except you can get a new phone after 18 months. If you’re smart, you’ll keep it until it’s paid in full (24 months), and you’ve got an unlocked iPhone that can be used with any GSM carrier in the world.
For a 64GB iPhone 6s, AT&T charges $31.25 per month; for a 64GB iPhone 6s Plus, it charges $35.42. There may also be a $15 “activation fee.”
T-MOBILE: All of T-Mobile’s plans look alike. As long as you avoid any plan that has “Jump” in its name, you’ll end up with a standard 24-month financing plan.
T-Mobile, which pioneered the no-contract option in 2013, has its own unique way of doing things. You pay $27.08 per month for an iPhone 6S or $31.25 per month for an iPhone 6S Plus, regardless of which model you buy. But higher capacity models come with down payments. To get a 64GB version of either phone, you’ll have to fork over a $99.99 down payment. You may also have to pay $15 for a new SIM card. In all cases, the phone will be yours after it’s all paid off in 24 months.
OTHER CARRIERS: Sprint and Verizon also offer their own iPhone plans, but they don’t use the same GSM technology used by all carriers in Europe and most of the world. Yes, an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus from those carriers will work in Europe, but if you want to use your phone in Europe a lot, it’s better to have an unlocked iPhone from Apple, AT&T or T-Mobile.
Cancellation: If you leave any carrier before the phone is paid off, of course you’ll have to pay any remaining balance.
Cost of Buying an iPhone in Germany versus the USA
One thing is very clear: If you want to buy an unlocked iPhone, buy it in the US! You’ll save a lot of money. In most cases, the cost of an unlocked iPhone bought in Europe (even adjusting for VAT/sales tax) is over $100 more expensive than one acquired in the US. An unlocked 16GB* iPhone 6s now costs $649 from Apple in the US. The unlocked price from Apple in Germany is 699 euros (about $780 USD as of August 2015). The unlocked 5s now costs 599 euros ($675) in Germany.
*We recommend the 64GB model as the minimum. The newer iPhones have cameras with higher resolution (12MP) that use up more memory than the 5s does. Apple shouldn’t even still sell a 16GB model, especially since it dropped the 32GB models it used to sell.
|Cost of an Unlocked iPhone 6s • USA vs Germany|
|16 GB iPhone 6s: $649||16 GB iPhone 6s: $780* (€699)|
|64 GB iPhone 6s: $749||64 GB iPhone 6s: $890* (€799)|
|Note: The iPhone 6/6s does not have a 32GB model like the 5s. The 5s model is still available.|
|128 GB iPhone 6s: $849||128 GB iPhone 6s: $1,001* (€899)|
|*Converted from euros (€699/€799/€899, August 2015, euro = $1.11 USD), includes 19% VAT
Sources: Apple USA, Apple Germany
The 16 GB iPhone 6s is $131 cheaper in the US than in Germany, and the savings on the 64 and 128 GB models are even greater! Even allowing for sales tax (depends on where in the US you buy your iPhone), the US phone is much cheaper than the same phone from the Apple Store in Germany. Partly, this is because the price in euros is slightly more than the dollar price, even though, as I write this, one euro equals about $1.11 (but the euro goes up and down against the dollar). The euro prices include Germany’s 19 percent VAT (about 133 euros/$148 for the 16 GB iPhone 6), while the US prices do not include any possible sales tax, which depends on the state in which the phone is purchased.
Bottom line: If you want an iPhone to use in Germany and/or Europe, buy the unlocked GSM version in the United States if you can!
Note: The new iPhone 6s and the old 6, 5/5s/5c and 4s are compatible with both CDMA (Verizon, Sprint) and GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) networks. That means you can buy an iPhone from either Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile that will work in Europe. Verizon’s old CDMA iPhone 4 will NOT work in Europe. Get the newer iPhone models! However, an unlocked iPhone 6, 5s or 5c bought from Apple will not work with CDMA-based carriers such as Verizon Wireless or Sprint in the US. (Not a problem in Europe, which is GSM only.)
Buying an iPhone in Germany
Okay, you’re in Europe and you don’t have the option of buying an iPhone in the US right now. Or you have an iPhone already in Germany. Here’s what you need to know…
T-Mobile, O2 or Vodafone
In Germany you can buy an unlocked or contract (mit Vertrag) iPhone from most of the major providers: O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone offer the iPhone with a monthly plan. Apple Germany now also sells iPhones without a contract. More below.
- WEB > T-Mobile – iPhone 6s (in German, 6s starting at 99.95 euros w/ contract)
- WEB > T-Mobile Tarife – Telefonieren & Surfen (in German, all phones)
Buying an iPhone from an Apple Store in Germany
As in the US now, Apple in Germany also sells the iPhone unlocked. (The unlocked version can only be purchased online from the German or Austrian Apple Stores.) As of fall 2015, there are 14 official Apple Stores open for business in Germany. Besides the German online Apple Store, there are Apple retail outlets in Augsburg, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main (2), Hamburg (2), Hanover, Munich (2), Oberhausen and Sindelfingen (Stuttgart area). We have a complete list of Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland with links.
Buying a Contract Phone in Germany
If you plan to be in Germany for two years or more, you can now buy an iPhone 6, 5s or 5c from T-Mobile or the other German providers (O2, Vodafone) with special offers. See a store in Germany or go online to find the best iPhone deals in Germany. Also see the links above.
Apple Stores in D and CH
See our guide to physical, brick-and-mortar Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland (and the online store for Austria) with locations and opening hours: Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland.
Next | iPhone in Germany – Part 2
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Cell Phones in Germany and Europe – “Handy” Cell Phone Tips – Useful advice for using a wireless phone in North America and Germany / Europe – and saving money.
- Apple Stores in Germany and Switzerland – with links
- “Handy” Cell Phone Tips – Part 2 – First-hand tips on using a wireless phone in North America and Germany / Europe
- Telephone Tips – Getting phone service and using a phone in Germany and Europe
- Electrical Facts – Some shocking facts about electrical appliances in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
- For Expats – Advice and links for expats in German-speaking Europe.
- Hedy Lamarr – The Austrian actress was the co-inventor of “frequency hopping”—a technology that later became known as spread spectrum, a technology adapted for cell phones.
ON THE WEB
- GSM – Wikipedia – About the GSM mobile system used by 80 percent of the world’s mobile phone users
- Full List of GSM Countries – with coverage maps, plus non-GSM countries such as Japan and Korea (from mobileworldlive.com)
Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.