If you want (or need) to stay connected with home or work while you’re traveling in Europe, or you want the ability to easily call ahead to hotels/restaurants, you may want to invest in a European SIM card. Though it is possible to use your North American phone plan in Europe, it is often prohibitively expensive. You are generally looking at 5-20 cents per minute and about the same price per text. Here are a few tips from American travel guru Rick Steves to simplify things:
Make sure you have the proper phone. Your phone must be an unlocked, quad band gsm phone. If you’re not sure, ask your carrier. If the phone is “locked”, find a cell store that will unlock it for you before you depart. Failing that, you can buy a cheap phone with a European sim card as part of a package from a North American dealer like Roam Simple or just buy one when you get to Europe.
Buy a SIM card. SIM cards are sold in Europe at mobile-phone shops, department-store electronics counters, some newsstands, and even at vending machines. Costing about $5–10, they usually include about that much prepaid calling credit, with no contract and no commitment. Certain brands — including Lebara and Lycamobile, both of which operate in multiple European countries — are reliable and provide cheap international calls, including to the US and Canada.
If you have a smartphone, look for a SIM card that also includes data. Expect to pay about $15-30 for a SIM that includes one month of data within the country you bought it. Be aware that many smartphones (especially iPhones) use smaller micro-SIM or nano-SIM cards. Make sure you get the right size card for your phone.
Before buying a SIM card, ask the clerk about rates for calls within the country; to and from other countries you’ll be visiting; and, if you plan on calling home, to the US and Canada. Also check the rates for data use and for sending/ receiving a text message (called an “SMS” in Europe). Make sure you get rates for data and texting both within and outside the card’s home country. Rates can vary wildly from brand to brand and store to store.
Set up your SIM card. Once you buy your SIM card, ask the clerk to insert it, set it up, and make a test call to be sure it’s working properly. Turning on the phone, you’ll be prompted to enter the SIM PIN, which you may be asked to enter every time you start up the phone. If text or voice prompts are in another language, ask the clerk whether they can be switched to English. Also find out how to check your credit balance (usually you’ll key in a few digits and hit “Send”). Remember to record your new phone number so you can pass it on to friends and family.
Note that many countries require you to register the SIM card with your passport as an antiterrorism measure. If that’s the case, it may take an hour or two after submitting the information before you can use the phone.
Top up your SIM card. When you run out of credit, you can top it up at newsstands, tobacco shops, mobile-phone stores, or many other businesses (look for the SIM card’s logo in the window). Tell the clerk how much credit you want. You’ll either get a voucher with instructions (in most cases, to top up credit, you’ll punch in a long string of numbers on your phone), or the clerk will send the credit directly to your phone. Some providers let you top up online.