On a recent trip, I spent two weeks visiting Paris and traveling around Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. To stay connected with my American iPhone this time around, I decided to try out a new strategy and buy a SIM card in Europe.
Rather than purchasing what was then a $70 “Passport” package from AT&T before leaving (the company has since switched its international plan to a $10/day International Day Pass, as we discussed in this series of posts), I instead bought a SIM card package in Paris from a French phone carrier for €39. Once I popped it into my phone, I just used my smartphone as I normally would, although I now was dialing with a French phone number.
The experience was actually much simpler than I had imagined. In the end, it provided me with a much more cost-effective way of using my iPhone while traveling outside the States. The biggest difference? I used my phone freely for calls, emailing and even browsing the web, and never even got close to exhausting my plan. All that fretting over data use — gone.
I’ll explain how I did it, and the various options I had below. But first, let’s quickly review the choices you face when traveling abroad with your phone.
This article was updated in November 2021 with new information and prices.
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Traveling abroad? Your smartphone options
As we’ve discussed in this series of posts, travelers from North America have several options for using their smartphones when visiting Europe.
Purchasing an international package from your carrier
You could sign up for an international phone/texting/data package from your carrier (for example, AT&T’s International Day Pass package). You will pay for these packages as an “add-on” to your normal bill. They will usually grant you some combination of data transfer (for emailing, using the web and apps) and text messages. They will also usually lower your per-minute charge for using your telephone, although it’ll still probably cost you about $1 per minute. Some plans will offer free calls to certain countries, including the U.S. (Read about AT&T’s and Verizon’s plans.)
Winging it without a package
Many American tourists just wing it, and plan to simply limit their phone use or “try to keep it turned off”. While this is an option, be advised that without a package, charges for texts and phone calls are more expensive. Data transfer charges are usually astronomically high. If you plan to use data (rather than Wi-Fi) to check your email or use the web during your trip, this isn’t a good idea. (One notable exception is T-Mobile, which offers its “Magenta” customers free international data and calls for only $0.25 per minute.)
Some travelers who “wing it” place their phone into “airplane mode” for most of the trip, restricting email and web browsing to times when they’re connected to a Wi-Fi network. Others just keep their cellular data and roaming off, and use their phones for texting and calling. Still, expensive dangers lurk (especially if you haven’t set up your phone correctly).
Purchasing a SIM Card abroad
You can also purchase a SIM Card from a local phone carrier in Europe. As we’ll discuss below, you can either use it in your regular U.S. smartphone (if your phone permits it), use it in an old phone that is SIM-card compatible, or buy a cheap phone (either back home before you leave or once in Europe) for the new SIM Card.
The benefits of buying a SIM card in Europe
Why would you go through the hassle of all this? Because buying and using a SIM card in Europe will almost certainly be far cheaper than using your home carrier while traveling abroad. When using a SIM card from a European carrier, you’re buying a new phone number. This means you gain access to the same low-cost dialing options available to locals.
There are many, many European phone carriers, and each offers different SIM cards, packages and options. Broadly speaking, to make this work for you, you’ll need to purchase two things:
1. a SIM card (which gives your phone the actual phone number), and
2. credits to make phone calls and use data.
• a SIM card with a French phone number
• Unlimited calls throughout Europe
• 120 minutes of phone calls globally (placed or received)
• Unlimited text messages throughout Europe
• 1,000 text messages globally (sent or received)
• 20 GB of mobile data throughout Europe
Sounds great, right? I didn’t even come close to using all of my minutes, let alone my text messages or 20 GB of data! (I could dial #123# to track my usage.) If, however, I had exhausted my plan, I could have recharged it by buying Orange credits at any newsstand.
Note: This is by no means the best deal out there, nor are we promoting this particular offer. This was the most convenient for me, as I was a bit hesitant about setting up my phone for the first time. Orange operates stores throughout France and is staffed with friendly folks who will set your phone up for you.
How does it work?
A SIM (“subscriber identification module”) card is a small chip that you place inside your phone that controls your actual phone number and can also store your contacts. These are sold by cellular carriers and are used in all phones that operate using GSM technology (and some newer CDMA phones, as well).
Europe’s mobile phone carriers use GSM technology. In the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Verizon and Sprint use another technology, CDMA. If your phone uses CDMA, you should verify with your carrier whether or not your phone operates using a SIM card. (Many of the newer smartphones do.)
(Note: All iPhones use SIM cards, except for a CDMA version of the iPhone 4 produced for Verizon and Sprint customers.)
For an iPhone with GSM technology, you can unlock the phone (see below), pop open the SIM card slot (on the right side of the phone), remove the card, and pop in a new SIM card you buy abroad.
When the phone reboots with the new SIM card, you’re in business and operating with a brand new phone number.
What about locked phones?
Before you get too excited about using your phone abroad, you need to make sure that it will work with European SIM cards! Unsurprisingly, U.S. cellphone carriers are not exactly eager for you to start shopping around for cheaper calling options. To make the SIM swap more difficult, many carriers “lock” their phones. This prevents the customer from using a SIM card from another carrier. If your phone is locked and you load up another carrier’s SIM card, it simply won’t work.
To get around this, you’ll need to “unlock” your phone. Many American phones are eligible for being unlocked as soon as they go out of contract, or once any service or payment installments are paid off.
Read the conditions for unlocking your phone here. Note that T-Mobile requires you to download a special app to unlock your phone. (As noted above, T-Mobile customers with “Magenta” plans already get free texting and data throughout Europe and calls at $.25 per minute. You might not want to go through any of this — lucky you!)
Many Verizon phones are not locked after 60 days of purchase. Read more here.
In my case, my iPhone was out of contract. I filled out AT&T’s form, received detailed instructions on how to unlock it, backed up my phone on iTunes, and then reinstalled my data from a backup.
If it sounds complicated, it wasn’t. Within about an hour, I had backed up, jumped through some hoops, restored my backed up data to my phone, rebooted… and voila, it was unlocked and ready to go.
What happens if you can’t unlock your phone?
If you can’t unlock your phone, don’t despair. You can simply use another phone. Some people prefer to use a second phone anyhow, leaving their regular phone on standby throughout their trip in case it receives important calls or text messages. (Remember, if you swap a SIM card into your normal phone, you’ll be changing your phone number.)
Here are some other phone options you could use.
Use an old phone
Most people have an old mobile phone sitting around at home in the back of a drawer somewhere. While it might not be a cutting-edge smartphone, it could still do the job for your trip. Check out your collection of old phones to see if any of them operate with SIM cards.
Buy a cheap phone in Europe
Really cheap phones are easy to come by in Europe. Some SIM card packages aimed at tourists even come with a phone to use! In France, for example, the carrier SFR offers a package with a SIM card and cheapo phone. While some of these phones won’t be the most current models on the market, they can be used to make calls, send text messages, and even check in on your favorite apps.
Buy a cheap phone before leaving for Europe
You can also pick up a cheap SIM card-compatible smartphone for as little as $20 at major retailers, like Walmart and Target, in the U.S. When shopping for a cheap “no contract” phone, just make sure it takes a SIM card.
How do you install the SIM card?
So you have an unlocked phone and have purchased a SIM card in Europe. Now you just need to install it in your phone.
While the installation process is different for every device, the process should be as simple as powering off your phone, locating the SIM compartment, popping it open, removing the current card, and placing your new SIM card inside. When you power on your device, you usually will need to dial an activation number (provided with the card), and you should be good to go.
On iPhones 4 through 11, the slot is located along the right-hand side of the device. On newer models (iPhone 12 and 13), the slot is on the left side. Regardless of the location, the slot can be opened by inserting a small point (such as the head of a pin or paperclip) into the hole. (Read more about loading a SIM card on Apple.com.)
Important note: It’s very important that you put your old SIM card in a safe spot! Don’t lose this card — it’s your home phone number!
Buying SIM cards in Europe
Although rules and regulations about the buying and selling of SIM cards vary depending on the country, in most European countries, you can easily buy a SIM card in just minutes from cell phone stores, newsstands, tobacco shops… even vending machines in some relaxed countries! Other countries may require that you register with a passport or other form of identification.
Most commonly, you can buy SIM cards at:
• Newsstands and unaffiliated cellphone store: In France, for example, most newsstands at train stations and airports sell a variety of SIM-card products, including the cards, credits, and packages. These shops will sell you SIM cards offered by <!––>Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, low-cost Lycamobile, and other carriers.
• Carrier-specific stores: Don’t be afraid to drop into mobile carriers’ stores. Be aware, however, that they’ll obviously be limited to selling only their particular SIM cards and credits. They won’t be able to offer the objective advice you’re likely to find from a newsstand or unaffiliated phone shop. (On the other hand, they’re more likely to spend time with you talking through the options and helping you set up your phone.)
• Buy before you leave. Many international companies will sell you European SIM cards before you leave home for your trip. These can be convenient, saving you the hassle of hunting down a SIM card once there. But they rarely present the same savings you’d find simply by buying directly in Europe. (And, as noted above, you can also order the <!––>Orange SIM Card before your trip.)
Considerations when shopping for SIM cards
With so many carriers and so many choices, you’ll need to do a bit of comparison shopping to figure out which carrier will work best for you. I would suggest heading for the nearest newsstand or unaffiliated cellphone shop once you’ve arrived, check out the SIM card options, and strike up a conversation with the cashier.
There are several things to keep in mind when deciding on a SIM card.
Package or pay-as-you-go
Are you buying a SIM card that needs credits or a SIM package that’s already loaded with a set number of minutes, texts and data?
How much do calls cost
When you buy credits, how much do calls, texts and data cost? (These credits usually come in increments of €5 / €10 / €15 / €25, and often include small bonus credits that increase the more you purchase.)
Are you going to be assessed an initial “connection charge” each time you make a call? (Lycamobile, for example, offers very low per-minute charges, but also charges to make the connection.)
Will your SIM work in other countries, or will you need to buy another card if you cross borders? With policy changes in June 2017, SIM cards can be used throughout the EU without extra roaming charges. In the past, you might have had to buy a new card for each country, depending on your plan. You can see the details of the new EU rules here.
Does your SIM card grant you access to Wi-Fi hotspots? Many packages from larger carriers will offer this, which could come in handy.
Finally, don’t forget…
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re obviously serious about using a SIM card abroad. However, there is just one more major, if obvious, point worth considering.
When you place a SIM card in your phone, your phone number will change.
At the risk of repeating myself: The SIM card that you buy dictates your phone number. When I slipped the French SIM card into my phone, I now had a French phone number. (You can now see why some people prefer to bring along an old phone or purchase a cheapo “travel phone” expressly for SIM card use.)
This also means that if you swap a new SIM card into your phone, your normal U.S. number will not work. When people try to call your U.S. number, it will go straight to voicemail. You’ve basically just taken your number “offline.” You could prep for this by changing your voicemail message in advance to state that you’ll be traveling, and include your new number. (This can be tricky, as you usually won’t know the new number until you buy your new SIM card.)
And the same goes for text messages. As your phone number will have changed, your texts will be coming from a number that your friends will not, at first, recognize. This can be a touch awkward at first, but they’ll catch on. Some people get around this by sending text messages through an app like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger. But these will only work when using data or connected to a Wi-Fi network.
Your SIM card questions and stories
Do you have an experience buying and using a SIM card in Europe? Share with us below! Have questions about how it all works? Ask away — we’ll try to help!
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