This is part one of two posts on traveling with your phone. (Part two is about Apps for travel.) This post is written from a Canadian perspective for people traveling to Europe, but applies to most travel. Updated March 2019.
What are my options?
- Cheap: get a SIM card with a European phone number and a prepaid plan from a mobile service provider in Europe. The monthly charge is probably less than you pay for regular mobile service in Canada! Having a European number is an advantage—people in Europe can call and text you without paying high charges to reach a North American number. Disadvantages: you have a new phone number, calls to Canada from your European plan may be expensive, and it is more expensive for people in Canada to call you.
- Easy But More Expensive: just take your phone and use it. Some Canadian carriers (e.g. Telus, Rogers) offer roaming in Europe plus calls to and from Canada for a flat daily fee. When this was written (March 2019) both Telus and Rogers charge $12/day, only charged on days you use the phone, up to a maximum of 15 days per billing cycle (Rogers) or $150 per billing cycle (Telus) — after that it is free. Advantages over a European SIM card: your phone number doesn’t change, you have cheap calling to Canada, you can start using your phone the moment you arrive. Disadvantages: people in Europe will pay extra to call or text you and European emergency numbers may not work. Check carefully with your carrier before you depart as each carrier has a different plan. Note that most carriers limit flat-fee European calling to just the country you are currently traveling in. For example, if you are in France and call a number in Italy, you will be charged $$ as if you made the call from Canada.
I’ll focus on the option of using a prepaid SIM card, but the advice on apps (see part two) and how to prepare apply to all the options.
Will my mobile phone work in Europe?
Modern mobile phones will work on the European mobile system. If in doubt, check with your carrier or search the Internet with the make and model of your phone.
If you plan to use a European SIM card, your phone must be unlocked.
- If you bought your phone directly from Apple or Google without any service plan or contract, it is probably unlocked.
- If you got your phone from a carrier before December 1, 2017, it will probably be locked and won’t work on any other network. As of December 1, 2017, Canadian carriers cannot charge an unlocking fee, and all new phones must be provided unlocked. If you have a pre-12/17 phone, ask the carrier to unlock it.
- Caution: many phone repair shops offer unlocking, but it is risky—it will void your warranty, you may be unable to update your phone’s software, and your phone may be susceptible to virus software. Get your carrier to unlock your phone.
If you can’t figure out if your phone is locked, find a friend using a different carrier and try swapping SIM cards. If your phone works with your friend’s SIM card, it is unlocked.
Getting a European SIM card
With your unlocked GSM phone in hand, you can go to a mobile phone store in any European city to get a European number. The store will put a new SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module) in your phone and give you your Canadian SIM card. Don’t lose your Canadian SIM card—you must put it back in your phone when you get home.
Typically a European prepaid mobile phone plan with with lots of calling minutes, several GB or more of mobile data plus texting will cost €15 to €30 per month. In Spain, on the Camino Frances, you will find phone stores in Pamplona. Vodafone and Orange are good carriers. Get the store to set up your phone. Make a test call before you leave the store. Also ask the store to explain how to pay for additional months and how to top up if you exceed your monthly quota. Usually you can do this on the Internet or by purchasing a voucher in any tobacco store.
Roaming in Europe
As of June 15, 2017, a SIM card from any EU country should work in all EU countries without any surcharge for voice, text or data. You can, for example, use a Spanish SIM card in Portugal or Italy without any extra charge. Some exceptions apply; check when you get your SIM card if you plan to use it throughout Europe.
Before you go
- Back up your phone! If your phone is lost, damaged or stolen, you will have your backup of all your data waiting for you at home.
- If you haven’t already, set up a password for your phone. Set your phone so it requires the password whenever you put it to sleep or stop using it.
- If you have an Apple iPhone, set up Find My Phone. You’ll be able to locate it if it is lost or stolen. It is a free service. You can even use it to erase and lock your phone if you’ve lost it and think you won’t get it back.
Care and feeding
Keep it charged. You will need a small adapter to make your North American plug fit European outlets. Don’t take a bulky worldwide plug adapter; all of Continental Europe uses the same two-pin outlet. Don’t take a voltage converter; modern phone chargers work anywhere. If you lose your phone charger or plug adapter, ask at the desk of your hotel or hostel. They probably have dozens left behind by other travellers.
If you plan to use your phone heavily (for example by using its GPS function to track your progress), a small battery powered recharger can be handy. If you are planning to hike in remote areas, a recharger can be essential as your hostel may have limited power.
Make your battery last. Your phone battery will last longer if you shut down apps you aren’t using, especially those that use the GPS, and if you turn down the screen brightness. If you aren’t expecting calls or checking email, switch your phone to airplane mode; your GPS will still work, you can view any information stored on your phone, and the battery will last much longer.
Keep it clean and dry. Using your phone outside and in every kind of weather can be hard on it. A simple ziplock bag will keep your phone dry and you can use it without taking it out of the bag. A waterproof protective case is more expensive but lets you use it without worry—you can even take photos in a downpour.
You can find detailed information about prepaid plans for most countries, including prices here: http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/Prepaid_SIM_with_data.
Read part 2: Apps for Travel