Also see our iPhone FAQ below.
Now that the major US wireless phone carriers have moved away from the two-year-contract model, it is easier to obtain an unlocked iPhone or other smartphone. You can buy (or lease) a reconditioned or new unlocked iPhone from Apple or a cell phone provider. Why that’s 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 a few tech terms, including CDMA, GSM, and SIM. (More about his below.)
See our latest iPhone 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, four years after the first iPhone was introduced in 2007. 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’s no longer a 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. But be careful! Some iPhone models sold by Apple will not work with Sprint and Verizon in the US!
Expats or world travelers who buy a smartphone in the US should make sure it is a multiband, GSM-capable device. All newer iPhones (since the 4s model) 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 may not work with Verizon or Sprint, but it will work in Europe – and with AT&T or T-Mobile in the US. Verify the iPhonr model and its compatibility.
- I have an unlocked iPhone (5s or later). 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. It is also possible to buy a low-cost, contract (locked) iPhone from a German carrier, but that usually requires residence and a German bank account.
- What if I have an iPhone from Sprint or Verizon?
If it’s an iPhone 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 5s 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 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 S8 is a good option. 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. Any later iPhone models (4s, 5/5s/5c and later) 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 (Android) 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 and most carriers 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. The cost in Europe is always going to be higher than that in the USA.
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 cash for an unlocked iPhone from Apple, T-Mobile offers a monthly plan (with SIM card) that may be an attractive option. T-Mobile USA also offers good rates for calls made on a US iPhone to or from Mexico, Canada, and much of Europe when you are traveling, much lower than AT&T.
The US online Apple Store also offers a no-contract T-Mobile option that includes the cost of the SIM card. (Check with T-Mobile for their current pricing.) Apple now also offers an installment plan for an unlocked phone, 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 for current specs and pricing from Apple, T-Mobile and other carriers.
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 iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in September 2015, Apple also introduced a new purchase option: an installment plan for an unlocked iPhone. Now with the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X in 2017, it is the same deal. 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 (now optional). 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 8 ($699 for the phone plus $129 for AppleCare, and $40.75 for the 64GB iPhone 8 Plus, with the payments running for two years. (That’s for the 64GB model; a 128GB iPhone is a bit more.) NOTE: You can only get this plan by walking into an Apple Store. It’s not available online unless you use a Barclay Visa card.
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 64 GB iPhone 8, AT&T charges $31.25 per month; for a 64 GB iPhone 8 Plus, it charges $35.42. There may also be a $15 “activation fee.” Check with AT&T for their current iPhone offers.
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. The prices are the same as buying through Apple.
MY UNPAID ENDORSEMENT: When I traveled in Europe in fall 2016, I took my unlocked T-Mobile USA iPhone 6s with me (as well as my old unlocked 5s to use with a German SIM card). Thanks to T-Mobile, I enjoyed free data. Voice calls cost only 20 cents a minute. When my tax preparer happened to call me from the USA, we talked for six minutes and that only cost me $1.20 USD. (AT&T charges almost that much for a minute!) The convenience of using my US cell phone number during the trip was certainly worth 20 cents/min. No, I did not use it a lot, but I enjoyed having the option. I was also able to check my email on my iPhone when I had no Wi-Fi (W-LAN in German). T-Mobile’s roaming plan also applies to Canada, Mexico, most of Europe, and some other parts of the world. (Check with T-Mobile for their current pricing.)
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, a current iPhone 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.
MORE INFO: The Verge: Apple is now selling unlocked iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus handsets in the US (will also apply to the new iPhone 8 and X models when they become available).
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 $200 more expensive than one acquired in the US. See the cost comparison chart below.
Beginning with the iPhone 7, Apple dropped the 16 GB and 32 GB models it used to sell, offering only 64 GB and 128 GB versions. The iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and iPhone X only come in 64 GB and 256 GB versions.
|Cost of an Unlocked iPhone 8 • USA vs Germany|
|64 GB iPhone 8: $699||64 GB iPhone 8: €799 ($951*)|
|256 GB iPhone 8: $849||256 GB iPhone 8: €969 ($1,153*)|
|*Converted from euros (€799/€969, Sept. 2017, euro = $1.19 USD), includes 19% VAT in Germany
Sources: Apple USA, Apple Germany
The 64 GB iPhone 8 is $252 cheaper in the US than in Germany, and the savings on the 256 GB model are even greater ($304)! 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 $1.19 (but the euro goes up and down against the dollar). The euro prices include Germany’s 19 percent VAT (about 133 euros/$158 for the 64 GB iPhone 8), 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: Current iPhone models 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. An unlocked iPhone 7, 6, 5s or 5c bought from Apple will not work with CDMA-based carriers such as Verizon 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…
O2, Telekom, or Vodafone
In Germany you can buy an unlocked or contract (mit Vertrag) iPhone from most of the major providers: O2, Telekom, and Vodafone offer the iPhone with a monthly plan. Apple Germany now also sells iPhones without a contract. More below.
- WEB > Telekom – iPhones (in German)
- WEB > Telekom – Smartphone-Tarife – MagentaMobil (in German, all smartphones)
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.) There are currently 15 official Apple Stores open for business in Germany. Besides the German online Apple Store, there are Apple retail outlets in Augsburg, Berlin, Cologne (2), 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 from Telekom 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.
- Living in Germany – 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.