Affordable Cell Phone Service in Europe
by Sebastian Harrison

In general, cellular service in Europe is exceptional. As long as there is a decent-sized population center, there is likely to be coverage. As in the US, there are some areas that are too remote and with too few people to bother building a network, but in most cases you’d have to be pretty far off the beaten path to encounter that. The rule of thumb is where there are people, there’s coverage.

What makes cell phone service in Europe different from the US is not the technology (though there are differences we discuss below) but instead how Europeans pay for their calls.

European Prepaid Phones

Unlike in the US, where we are use to long-term contracts that offer a certain number of minutes per month for a flat fee, most Europeans (and Asians and South Americans) use their cell phones on a prepaid or pay-as-you-go basis. Therefore, European cell phone customers compare their cell phone plans on a rate-per-minute basis.

Free Incoming Calls

Although European cell phone users don’t enjoy free nights and weekends like many of our plans in the US offer, they make up for it with a different advantage – all incoming calls are free. Even if someone from another country calls them, the incoming call is free to the recipient and the caller pays for the call. This is actually a common feature of prepaid cell phone plans in most countries around the world.

Another interesting aspect of the free incoming call system is that Europeans can receive unlimited free incoming calls even if they’re completely out of outgoing call credit. Of course the limitation is that they can’t make an outgoing call without first adding more money to their account.

Very Low International Rates

In much of Europe the per-minute rates for outgoing calls are generally very low with calls back to the United States averaging only about $0.20 and $0.30 cents a minute. And in some countries the rates are unbelievably low, such as in UK where a call back to the US is only 6 cents (4 pence) a minute!

Add Call Credit At A Corner Store

To add credit, they buy a voucher at almost any retail location where convenience items are sold. These cell phone vouchers, called “recharge” or “top up” cards, are found at magazine kiosks, convenience stores and, in Italy, through Lottomatica machines found at cafes, bars and on street corners.

The user buys a top up charge from the cell phone company they use and enters the code from the back of the card. A top up card looks like the prepaid phone cards that are sold in convenience stores in the US. They come in various denominations and the customer simply calls into an automated system or dials a short prefix and enters the top up code and their call credit is replenished. Since this is the way the majority of Europeans keep their phones working these vouchers are widely available.

A Great Travel Phone Solution – Low Local Rates and No Bills

Could you imagine a European vacationing in the US for two weeks walking into a Verizon store to inquire about short term phone use? They’d probably try to sell them a two-year contract!

But now think about a traveler going to Europe on a two-week vacation where prepaid, no contract phones are common…Are you starting to see the opportunities?

Basically, a prepaid cell phone in Europe with free incoming calls is the perfect solution for an American needing a phone overseas for a short time.

Using a local European cell phone system on a prepaid basis is much more cost-effective than typical airport or other cell phone rental options that charge $1 to $2 a minute for all calls including incoming calls.

Even customers who are able to roam with their US-based smart phones still pay about a $1 a minute for both incoming and outgoing calls. Although cell phone rental rates have come down in recent years, $1 a minute is still a lot considering that the locals pay nothing. Also, when roaming with a US-based phone the call charges accrue to your monthly bill and can add up quickly if you’re not closely monitoring your use.

Will Your US Phone Work Abroad?

Usually if you have to ask, the answer is no. That’s because there are a few technical details to be look into before a US cell phone will work abroad. Frequent travelers who know about the technology know to buy a “quad band, unlocked phone”, but most US users bought their phone for use only in the US.

AT&T and T-Mobile are the two US cell phone companies that use the same GSM technology used in Europe and other parts of the world. However, for a US phone from one of these companies to work outside the US it will need to be “quad band” which means it picks up the 900/1800 MHz signals used abroad as well as the 850/1900 MHz frequencies used in the US.

The second thing to check before taking your GSM phone to Europe is whether it will work with the SIM card from another phone company. The SIM card is a small electronic chip that fits under the battery and determines the phone’s service provider, phone number and rates. Many AT&T and T-Mobile phones are set to only work with their SIM when they are sold, but these companies are often willing to provide the unlock code if you call and ask (assuming your phone is quad-band, of course).

Sprint and Verizon phones generally don’t use GSM technology and therefore they don’t have SIM cards or operate outside the U.S.

How To Access Local Rates in Europe

If your US cell phone and carrier aren’t compatible for use outside the US, Cellular Abroad rents international phones with a single-country SIM for trips to one country and a National Geographic Talk Abroad service for roaming to multiple countries abroad. The rental includes a variable voltage charger, plug adapters for Europe, phone number and English-language operating instructions. They also sell the recharge vouchers to make topping up even easier.

If you travel outside the country once a year, or even once every few years, its more economical to own rather than rent an international phone. An unlocked GSM phone that works on the overseas networks can be used almost anywhere in the world at local rates by simply purchasing a SIM card for the next country you plan to visit.

And since there’s no contract associated with an unlocked GSM phone, the phone can be loaned to friends and family members any time they travel and they can access lower rates by simply inserting a SIM card for the countries they visit. And using a local SIM to pay local rates is not limited to Europe, prepaid SIMs are available for China, Mexico and most other countries around the world. 

For more information about having a cell phone for Europe, visit Cellular Abroad

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