Photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock

How to: Buy, Set Up, and Use a Cell Phone in Europe

Technology + Gear
by Chelsea Rudman Jun 15, 2010
Using a cell phone in Europe is relatively easy once you understand the system.

IF YOU’RE HEADING to Europe for a long trip, you’re probably trying to count the ways you can save money, not spend more. But while it might sound expensive to buy a European cell phone—a “mobile,” as it’s called there—it’s an investment that will deepen your experience by making it easy for you to meet up with fellow travelers, contact local hosts or friends, or change your itinerary at a moment’s notice. Handsets are inexpensive, most carriers have coverage in every European country, and it’s easy to sign up for pay-as-you-go plans.

Many American travelers to Europe are tempted to upgrade their home cell phones to international calling plans. Be warned—many carriers will require you to purchase a new handset, for around $50-100, and international calls may end up costing as much as $1-2 per minute.

Investing in a European mobile isn’t for all travelers. If you plan to visit just one or two countries or your trip is shorter than three weeks, it’s probably cheaper to buy local or international phone cards to use at pay phones (either will only work in the country purchased). In US Dollars, local calls from a pay phone can cost as much as 50 – 70 cents a minute (the UK) or as little as 15 – 20 cents (Greece, the Czech Republic).

But if you want to CouchSurf with locals, meet up with friends living abroad, or make plans to get a beer with the American/Scot/Greek/Dane you met in the last country—all experiences that will greatly enrich your trip—a mobile can’t be beat for its convenience.

1. Get a handset and SIM card

Most of the major European carriers – Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile – offer comparable prices and international coverage, but do some research before you arrive in Europe, if possible, to find the cheapest handsets and best coverage. All three of the companies above have many outlets in most European cities, making it easy to buy a mobile as well as find help as you travel. Handsets should run about $20-30: Vodafone offers several for £15 ($22) and Orange has a few for £9 ($15.50)! List the countries you’re visiting and check if you’ll have reception with the company you’re thinking about using. You probably will; I used a UK Orange mobile while traveling in Europe and had coverage everywhere, from the middle of London to the middle of nowhere in Croatia.

After you buy a handset, you’ll buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card, which is about another $15. You may have to call a special number to activate your card before you can use it. Be aware that unless you pay to unlock your phone (not worth it for a short trip) your phone will only work with SIM cards from your carrier.

Before you leave the store, write down your new phone number and make sure to include the country code.

Since you’ll have to discard, donate, or try to sell your phone to another traveler at the end of your trip, a great option is to try to borrow a European handset from a friend. Of course, this isn’t always an option, but it’s well worth asking around before you leave.

2. Learn the details of your phone and plan

First, learn how to use the phone itself as it probably has some new and confusing buttons. I often mixed up my Orange mobile’s “return” and “cancel” keys, usually deleting texts or getting lost in submenus in the process.

When calling or texting an international number, dial 00, followed by the country code, followed by the number. Phone numbers listed without the country code usually start with a 0, which should be dropped when dialing internationally.

Learn how much calls and texts (which are cheaper) cost within the country where you purchased the phone as well as to other European countries. Calls usually cost about US 30 cents, and texts about 15 cents. Some companies offer rewards or special packages with unlimited texts or free weekend calls that you can take advantage of even as a pay-as-you-go customer. For example, one text package offered by Vodafone offers unlimited weekday evening texts as long as you top up by £5 ($7.50) per month.

Most importantly, learn how to check your remaining balance and learn the helpline number for your carrier. Be aware that there are likely two helpline numbers–one you can call from your mobile, and another you must use when dialing from a payphone or landline.

3. Learn how to “top up” or add funds to your SIM card

This many not be as easy as it sounds. You can usually pay through texting or online, but only after you’ve registered your credit card with your carrier, which may require you to call their helpline. If you’ve bought your phone in a non-English speaking country, don’t be surprised if the automated options are only in the local language. “Speak to an operator” is almost always the last item on the menu, so count the number of options listed and dial the final number to be connected to someone who probably speaks English. Speak very slowly and spell everything twice to avoid a huge hassle. When I called to register my credit card on a UK hotline, the operator misspelled my street name and couldn’t bill my card, costing me a lot of time, money, and frustration when I had to buy an international phone card to call the helpline again from a payphone.

After you’ve registered your credit card, many carriers do allow you to add funds by text. Most send you a text alerting you when your balance is low and ask you to reply with the last 4 digits of your card, the security code, and the amount of money you wish to add. Tada, you’re done! Much easier.

4. Be aware of differences between the UK and continental Europe

If you’re traveling in the UK as well as on the continent, be aware that your rates may be higher once you’re in Europe. Ask your mobile company about special programs, as you can often pay a small surcharge to have cheaper international rates.

Also, the UK uses different plugs than the rest of Europe, so you will need to purchase a UK-to-European plug converter or adapter to use these phones after leaving the British Isles.

If you’re traveling mostly within the UK, you’ll be able to “top up” (add funds) at many drugstores and grocery stores in major cities, either through using a special card or by purchasing vouchers.

5. Enjoy the convenience of having a phone

Having a mobile will allow you to be much more flexible in your plans. Since I used CouchSurfing or stayed with friends of friends on most of my backpacking trip through Europe, a European mobile was essential for getting in touch with hosts and letting them know about late trains or missed connections. Having a phone allowed me to meet up with a French guy I met in Warsaw again in Prague; it let me ask my host in Split what he’d like for dinner from the grocery store; it made it possible to meet up with friends in the middle of a crowded square or a train station. Think about getting one! You’ll find yourself spending less time searching out internet cafés or circling plazas and more time getting to know the people and places you came to see.

Community Connection

Looking for more ways to save while traveling in Europe? Check out 8 Budget Travel Tips to Make Europe Cheap Again and the Top 10 Free Things to Do in Europe.

Discover Matador