How to Get Cellular Phone Service in Europe (That Won't Break the Bank)

When leaving the U.S., navigating cell phone service can be tricky. Here are some options that won't leave you broke.

Traveling overseas from the United States? Well, that's exciting. What's not exciting, however, is figuring out how to stay connected to your friends and family back home and how to use your mobile phone while traveling internationally. There's a lot of confusion on this subject, and while there are dozens of options for how to keep phone service while abroad, not all of the mobile options will be kind to your wallet.

To help you out, we dug into the choices for mobile phones abroad and here are the top tips.

Option 1: Use Your Phone Exclusively on Wi-Fi

If you’re not going to be in Europe for more than a few weeks and are comfortable with not being constantly connected to local cell coverage, use Wi-Fi networks with your U.S. mobile phone. Hotels, hostels and some restaurants are a typical source of open Wi-Fi and, if the Wi-Fi isn’t public you can always ask for a password.

Using Wi-Fi will save costs on buying a European SIM card and phone while allowing you to check in on social media as you find Wi-Fi. Apps like Google Voice (on Android and iOS) and Skype (Andriod and iOS) make calling and texting internationally possible via Wi-Fi either for free or at competitive calling rates.

Skype calls between Skype users are free, only a connection to the internet is needed. Accepting incoming calls from cellphones and landlines is a small fee—an example is the “World Unlimited” plan for $13.99 per month with access to landlines in more than 60 countries and mobile numbers in eight of the countries. For access to a single country’s landlines and mobile numbers, there are plans that offer a fixed number of minutes for rates under $5. Using Google Voice, calls inside the U.S. are free with the highest call rate being six cents per minute to call mobile numbers from France.

If you’re using this strategy to save money while abroad, don’t forget to turn off your cellular data offered by your carrier in the U.S. Tutorials for iPhones and Android devices give step-by-step instructions on how to turn off data in order to avoid roaming charges. 

Skype call

Option 2: Buy a European SIM card for Your Phone

A SIM card gives you access to a company’s network for calls and data usage without having to find the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot. Most of Europe uses the Global System for Mobiles, or GSM technology, and while most U.S. providers are onboard, some U.S. companies use Code Division Multiple Access technology, called CDMA. CDMA tech doesn't work in Europe. If you have a phone with dual technology (both CDMA and GSM), the device will typically work on European GSM networks.

If your phone is a on a GSM network (or dual technology with GSM) it will work in Europe if it's unlocked, meaning it can be used with other GSM carriers. If it's unlocked, you can usually remove the U.S. SIM card and install the European card after purchasing a card with a prepaid amount of minutes and data allotment. The phone number won’t be the same as your U.S. number—and it may be more expensive to make direct, international calls back to the U.S.—but you’ll have the ability to make local calls and connect to data as much as your temporary plan allows.

Buying a SIM card when you get to your destination, instead of buying the card through a U.S. company, will save money and give you a better chance of getting any issues fixed that might arise with your service. Companies like LeFrenchMobile and TIM offer SIM cards for GSM phones throughout Europe. Installing a SIM card in iPhone and Android devices is a fairly simple process.

SIM cards from different countries

Option 3: Buy a Pre-Paid Phone in Europe 

Buying a pre-paid phone may save the hassle of unlocking a GSM phone, which would void some companies’ warranty and incur extra charges. A range of mobile phones, depending on the user’s needs, is available from a multitude of companies that also offer SIM cards. Keep the phone and you’ll have a device to use for future travels just by buying a SIM card for each trip. Donating your cellular phone after using it also is a way to keep your tech drawer from unnecessary clutter. Programs set up all over Europe take phone donations and, for some, will reimburse you part or all of the value of the device.

An average price to expect for a phone and SIM card in Europe would be roughly $30 for a cheap, low-tech phone that allows for calling and texts only. Budget to spend between $80 to $150 for a phone that allows internet use and app downloads if you can’t live without email and Facebook check in. Spending the equivalent of roughly $10 for a SIM card is the average in most of Europe, not including the cost of the actual call time or texts.

Option 4: Get an International Calling and Data Plan

Many U.S. carriers offer international plans with calling and data options. These plans are on the pricier than a pre-paid SIM card plan. Sometimes the international plans can rack up to 50 cents per text message and $3 per minute of talk time.

Like we’ve seen with T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan, about $50 per month buys call and text coverage to more than one country.