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Cell Phones in Europe:  2007 & 2008

Here's a quick tour of what Bill learned about economizing when using a cell phone (or "handy") in Europe. He was shopping specifically for phones and services for making domestic cell phone calls within Italy and Germany. The original shopping was done expecting to only make a few calls per month but of course, once we had the phones in hand, they were used more than that. If you are going to be primarily in 1 country with a fixed address, then some of this information will likely be off the mark for you.

The Phone
GSM Compatible
    Your mobile phone must work on the GSM band system to work in Europe.  Many phones in the US operate on another system, so be sure you get (or have) a GSM phone.
Unlocked
   You have the potential of saving hundreds of dollars if you buy an unlocked telephone in the US and bring it to Europe. "Unlocked" means you can put a chip in it once you arrive in Europe. He didn't go shopping for them, but the cheapest unlocked phones Bill saw in Europe were over $500 whereas he bought one in the US for $100.
    If you use your own "locked" phone in Europe (this is the type you would usually get in the US at a discounted price packaged with phone service), then you will only be able to make calls through your US carrier and the price per minute will be prohibitive.  Sometimes you can get your US carrier to unlock the phone for you, but often not.
Quad Band
    Quad band phones can be used both in Europe and the US. If your US phone is dual band, it won't work in Europe.  If it is tri band it might work, depending on which 3 bands you have.  If you just want to use your phone in Europe and not the US, you can get a dual band or tri band phone with the two European bands.
In summary:
    If you want 1 phone to work in both the US and Europe at the lowest rates, get a quad band, unlocked, GSM phone. However, this will only work with GSM networks in the US.  In our area - Portland, Oregon - GSM is only supported by Cingular and T-Mobile.  Bill bought us each a new phone on eBay for about $100 apiece, including shipping, that met these criteria.

The Service
    Buying a prepaid "SIM card" allows you to use your unlocked, US purchased, quad band phone in Europe without cumbersome and expensive contracts. First shop the big vendors online for the country or countries where you'll want to use your phone for their SIM card options. Vodafone, T-Mobile, O2, TIM (Italy), and Orange are some of the biggies. Shopping online allows you to get up to speed on the details in English (usually), at your leisure.
    When you actually go to buy the card, you'll likely stand in line at a shop for a long time and take pot-luck on how fluent your clerk is in English, so it's best to go prepared. In Italy, Vodafone had a special deal that wasn't advertised online whereas in Germany T-Mobile was the best choice for us but with no in-store specials. With some pressing, Bill was able to find entry deals for as little as 6, which included the essential SIM card and prepaid minutes.  You can expect to walk out of a dedicated telephone shop with your card inserted and the phone ready to make calls.
    To be on the safe side, top-up your minutes before you exhaust your prepaid supply. It appears that with some arrangements, that you may lose your phone number if you completely deplete your account, and then you start over with standing in line. "Top-up" cards can be purchased at places other than the phone stores. In Italy, it's the tobacco kiosks that sell the cards; in Germany we even saw them in vending machines and at grocery stores. You buy a set amount in Euro's and your per minute rate is determined by your prior agreement when you purchased the original SIM card.

Take Your Passport
    We saw other shoppers fumble the ball by standing in those long lines only to discover that they couldn't buy that SIM card without their passport, so take it with you as well as the phone you expect to use.

Don't Leave Town Without Confirming It Works
    The first 3 pairs of SIM cards we bought in Europe were installed by the phone store staff who also confirmed that they worked before we walked out the door. Then, in a small general electronics shop in the mountains (rather than a dedicated phone store), I bought a SIM card and was told it would be activated about 8 pm that evening. We checked it that evening and the next morning and discovered it did not work. Fortunately, it was both mid-week and we were laying over for hiking, so could wait for them to repeat their activation process. The electronics shop clearly was not set-up to do on the spot activations as I was told it would be another 2 hours when I returned with the non-functioning phone.
    So, the moral of the story is to buy your SIM cards 1 or 2 business days before leaving town in case they don't activate the card on the spot. Had we been down the road when we discovered the problem, we'd probably just abandoned the chip and bought a new one as the language barrier would have been insurmountable in solving this problem. I am sure such an activation problem could only be resolved by the original vendor.


A movable cell tower in Sicily.

2008 Experience in Sicily
   
Our house was on the market to be sold while we were in Sicily in the spring of 2008 and we needed very reliable cell phone and internet contact with our realtor. Getting email every week or 2 and having cell phone service every day or 2 wasn't good enough so Bill upgraded our technology. We each had a cell phone for hiking and Bill had a 3rd phone purchased as a modem for the laptop. We decided to buy service with 3 different companies since we had 3 phones to increase our odds of getting a signal. Over the course of more than 2 months in Sicily and covering most of the island, TIM was by far the most reliable service. We could almost always pick-up a strong signal with TIM whereas the Vodafone and Wind service was less reliable and often weaker. If you are in a situation where it is imperative to be able to make or receive calls, I'd recommend 2 phones with service from 2 different companies. TIM did go down a couple of times for several hours at a time, so having a backup would be prudent if you have a high-accountability situation.

International Calls
    Emboldened by our success with our new cell phones, we bought yet another SIM card, this one from Ortel, which gives killer rates on international calls from Germany to the US or elsewhere in Europe. Those calls were 9 cents a minute plus a 15 cent connection fee. Calls within Germany on this card were higher. For 13, we received a SIM card to insert in the phone plus 10 of calling minutes. We rushed back to our room to check it out and it was for-real. It does of course require physically removing the domestic SIM card and swapping it with the Ortel chip, which isn't hard to do but a nuisance if you are making a lot of calls.
    Ortel doesn't operate in Italy--we are guessing because of Italy's tougher anti-terrorism documentation requirements. But, after too long, we cracked the code on cheaper international calls from Italy. The trick is to buy a Wind brand SIM card for your mobile phone, then purchase a separate calling card for international calls. We bought a "cabina" card--a phone card suitable for making calls from telephone booths, but one with a special Wind access number on it. Our calls to the US dropped down to 5 cents a minute by using the cabina card on our mobile phone with a Wind SIM chip. There was no charge to our mobile phone--only minutes deducted from the cabina card. Too bad we only tumbled to this a few days before leaving Italy for the season, but there is always next year.
    Being on a roll, Bill is now boldly looking into using our cell phone to connect our laptop to the internet for up and downloading emails. It looks prohibitively expensive and he has just begun the process to determine if he can make it work with our phones, connectors, software, and service providers. I'll update this as he learns more.

Other Options   
    If you are in Europe a relatively short time, getting set-up with a cell phone isn't likely worth the considerable trouble. When we inquired in 2001, it was impossible for us to buy a cell phone in Europe without a European address and the necessary GSM phones weren't available in the US at that time. Since then, we've noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of pay phones on the streets because of the increased cell phone ownership.
Calling Cards
    Instead of using cell phones the last 6 years, we've used hotel phones and pay phones with European prepaid land line phone cards to make our weekly call to our home phone number to update a brief trip report and to pick-up messages. But using calling cards can be a nightmare.
    Few hotels can tell you in advance what they will charge you for using their phone with a phone card and yet you get a better rate at a hotel than at a pay phone. Sometimes it's free, other times it is $3-4 for a 10 minute call using the hotel phone with the phone card (yes, you are paying twice for the call). Some hotel phone systems won't allow phone cards to be used at all. Some hotel rooms don't have phones; some are incompatible, rotary phones.
    The price per minute per call varies wildly from pennies a minute to as much as $1 per minute depending on the country and whether you are using a pay phone or a hotel room phone. (In Poland we'd have a fist full of phone cards in hand to make 1 call.) Some countries have 2 different kinds of phones requiring 2 different kinds of cards. Some phone systems and cards are incompatible with the key-pad punching we do to access our voice mail system at home. So, the time and money we've invested in using prepaid land lines has been considerable and the source of many gray hairs.
Call Shops
    One other option is phoning from a call shop. Those are usually only available in the larger cities and are often within a few blocks of the main train station. They are especially popular with people making calls to Africa. They often have very good rates for international  calls though their phones aren't always compatible with our voice mail system. The shops are also good places to buy land line phone cards.
Hotel Room Phones
    For a short trip to Europe, it's easiest to plan on not making calls back to the States at all and just pay your hotel's rates if you are calling domestically for the next night's reservations.

Connecting To The Internet
    Once back in Italy in October of 2007, Bill was motivated to again tackle using cell phone services to connect to the internet and he was successful. It required a phone with GPRS capability, software from the phone manufacturer, and a cable to connect phone to computer. He bought 15 hours of internet time for 10 from his Italian cell phone service provider, Vodafone. The 15 hours must be used within 1 month or are lost. If he goes over the 15 hours, the hourly rate more than doubles. Each connection is billed for a minimum of 15 minutes. In 2008 he bought 100 hours of internet access from TIM for about 30.
    The technical fiddling to make it work involved downloading software updates from the phone manufacturer  and getting the  phone communicating with the laptop. This technical process was easy, the hard part was communicating with the Vodafone folks as to what he wanted and what the issues were--the conversations were a mix of English and Italian. For the risk of $14, it became easier just to try it.
    So, now while in Italy, we can connect our laptop to the internet anytime we can get a good phone signal, which is often. We sometimes must hang the phone out the window, because of the thick stone walls and stone alleyways. The service is however at those slow, dial-up speeds, which is a major deterrent to surfing when the meter is running. We will use it primary for up and down loading emails. His next challenge is mastering the translation of the speedy Italian message on his phone which states how much time he has left on his internet account before he is billed at a higher rate.
 Upon our return to Europe in the spring of 2008 Bill upgraded both his hardware and software for better access to the internet via cell phone. See the "Internet Via Cell Phones" file for more detailed information, by country, as we experience it.

France June 2008
    Cell phone service in France was so expensive that we didn't participate. Orange, which was the best deal in Spain, didn't even sell SIM cards for unlocked phones in France--we could only sign on with Orange if we bought one of their phones. The phones were cheap enough, 39 and 49 for starters, but we already had 3 phones and were accustomed to buying a SIM card for 5 or 10. Plus the per minute charge was steep, about .55/minute.

     In Sicily, we'd gotten hooked on cheap cell phone service with TIM, Wind, and Vodafone and on TIM's relatively cheap rates for connecting to the internet via cell phone. We were shocked to learn that the cell-phone-to-the-internet-for-our-laptop service option didn't exist in France except by buying an Apple I-phone and connecting with Orange. "It's coming" we were told about generic cell phone-internet connection by the SFR brand. Bill later read that high speed internet service has recently become available in French cities but is not available in between--unlike in Sicily.

     Our understanding is that the only way we could connect our laptop to the internet via the cell phone services in France is if we were residents with a 1 year cell phone company contract and bought a USB device to plug into our commuter. Instead, we settled on WiFi ('wee-fee' in much of Europe) hotspots for our internet connection for which we paid 15 for 10 hours of usage over 30 days.

France June 2009
    Things changed in 2009--Bill bought SIM card for his unlocked phone for 15 from "mobiho" at a "tabac". The card came with written instructions in English. Calls were 0.39/minute--time will tell how complete their service area is.

Croatia 2008 & Montenegro 2009

     Croatia is the cheapest country in which to get going with a cell phone: $5 and no paperwork, you're out the door with a SIM card for your unlocked phone and 50 minutes of rechargeable voice calling or enough data time to surf or send emails. In Croatia the SIM card is effectively free and unlike in France, wanting to transmit data rather than voices doesn't create an obstacle. Italy is cheaper for doing a lot of online work but getting underway in Croatia is far simpler.
    Promonte was the service we used in Montenegro. It was 5 to get a data SIM card and enough time to see how it worked. We then bought the 25 package and were set for weeks of online work.

 


 

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