Using Your Own Phone When Traveling
Would you go anywhere without your cell phone? I'm pretty sure most of us won't even go to the washroom without it. Whether it's Facebook, Instagram, or Candy Crush, staying connected is part of travelling now. We use our phones to navigate with maps, take pictures, Google information, and most likely, talk with our friends and family back home. Learn how you can keep using your own phone in Europe and most importantly, without going broke.
I have stayed in vacation homes, and in hotels in Europe. Relying on the WiFi can be frustrating. I've sat in the shower, likewise, on the toilet (just for Wifi, honest) and in the hallway because, that was the best spot I could get Wifi. I was blogging while in Europe and the WiFi was so spotty that it took forever uploading things. Having a better connection would have been nice. Here are some trip tips on using your own phone in Europe or anywhere in the world.
Thing to Consider When Using Your Own Phone in Europe
Before deciding what option is best you, you need to consider a few things.
Useful Phone Apps
There are endless apps that can help you use your cell phone while traveling. Here's is just a snippet. When you travel you can get by with just data alone by using certain apps. Here are just a few apps that can really help on your trip.
This app is very data friendly. You can text others that use the app. With over 63 million people using it just on Android, there is a good chance your contacts are too. It works across all platforms. You can send pictures, videos, text, make phone calls (to those on the app), video calls all for free with data.
This is similar to Whatsapp. Likewise, you can make calls, text and video calls to Viber users for free or to external numbers with Viber Out for a rate. All through data. Starting at 2¢(CAD)/min to a landline - 8¢(CAD)/min to mobiles. See rates here.
You can make phone calls, video calls, through the app. It is free calls to your contacts. Conversely, you can load credit on to it and make calls to external numbers much like, Viber. See rates here.
Hangouts Dialer (Google)
You can make calls and texts through this app to existing contacts and external for cheap rates. Starting at 2¢(CAD)/min to a landline - 2¢(CAD)/min to mobile. Calls within Canada and US are free. See rates here.
If you use the Offline Maps feature, you can download maps in advance and still use the navigation features.
Tips on Managing Your Data Usage
Here are some simple ways to manage your data using your cell phone while traveling that will help you save money.
Extending Battery Life
When you are using your own phone in Europe probably, will be using it more than you would be at home. You are taking pictures, using maps, and these things eat away at your battery fast.
Things you can do include:
More than likely, you aren't going to be around a plug to charge while you are out and about all day. So get yourself a battery backup. It will be a life saver. Going into Airplane Mode to charge will help speed up charging time. There are lots of different kinds and sizes out there, so what do you need?
What Size of Battery Backup to Get
This is always a good question. In the 2500-5000 mAh range, they are often smaller, so they are easier to carry in your pocket. A 10,000 mAh size will be bulkier but give you more charges. Where a 15,000 mAh size often has two outputs, so you can charge two devices at the same time.
Here's how many full cell phone charges on average you can get out of each:
Keep in mind this depends on your device's battery size, and these are just a rough guideline. You can even charge a tablet with these, but for that, get the 10,000 mAh or large sizes.
Here are my favourite ones. They 10,000 mAh version from Anker is both compact and gives you multiple charges. It's a great balance or size and strength.
What Are Your Options to Stay Connected?
Depending where you live, and who your local carrier is, can change some of the options. Here are some general options regardless where you are from. There are five main choices to choose from.
Using Your Current Plan
Out of all the ways of using your cell phone while traveling, this is the worst. Just start lighting five dollar bills every minute or so, because that will give you as sense of how fast you will burn through money using your home phone plan as is. Some countries may have a "legal cap". For example they may not be able to charge you more than $100 roaming charges in a month. Question is, do you know if your plan has a cap? Don't assume it does.
How much money are you burning? Here are some pretty standard examples, it will vary from provider to provider.
- Calls - $2.99/min for calls
- Texts - $0.05 per text $0.25 per Media text
- Data - $2-$3/MB
Put it this way, the average app size is 11.5 MB (Android) and 38 MB (iOS). So if you forget to turn off automatic updates on your phone, it could cost you $34 (Android) or $114 (iOS) for one app update. Of course apps always update four at once, never just one. Yikes. You could just be turning on your phone after a flight, and get caught with a flood of emails, and updates. I've seen it happen, it's not pretty.
Roam Like Home
Many North American providers offer these now. They are convenient in that you don't have get your phone unlocked. You have your same phone number. All you do is just call your provider and ask for a Roam Like Home plan for wherever you are going. From some providers you may get a message when the phone detects that you are roaming, and offers you the Roam Like Home option via text.
They aren't cheap though. When it comes to using your phone in Europe, you'll have to check what countries that covers. So for example, a local provider I was looking at, their Roam Like Home plan didn't cover Andorra, Belarus, Bosnia, Cyprus, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, St. Pierre and Miquelon. Always read the fine print.
Each company will have their own rules and regulations. On average the cost is about $12 CAD per day ($10 USD) for most European countries. It often can exclude certain countries so check with your provider as to which countries are included or excluded. This cost is an add-on to your current plan. So basically you are using your phone in Europe, with your existing plan.
If you have 3 GB of data per month, you are using from that pool of data. The nice thing is there are no additional SIM cards needed, and your phone doesn't need to be unlocked.
Depending where you live, some laws state that cell phone providers can only charge you so much a month in roaming fees (a cap, for example $100 maximum).
If they don't consequently, you can see that at $12 a day, a two week trip it could cost you $168 per phone. That's $336 if there is two of you. To put that into perspective, that could be the equivalent of about four or five nights in a vacation home.
A Mobile Hotspot
A portable mobile hotspot when using your cell phone while traveling is an interesting option. It has some flexibility, it's easy to use, but that comes at a cost. Whether that cost makes sense to you depends on what you need. There are many different options out there.
My favourite is Skyroam. It's a company that you can buy or rent a mobile hotspots from. Now this only gives you unlimited data (4G LTE, after 500 MB a day throttles back to 2G), but not texting or calling (you can use other apps for that). With the rental option, you can always try it out and see if it's something you'd like to invest in.
The beautiful thing about this is, if you are traveling with others or have multiple devices, you can connect up to five devices at a time. This gives you unlimited data in almost all of Europe, excluding Andorra, Bosnia, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, St. Pierre and Miquelon.
First you need the unit
If you are planning on traveling more than 17 days in the next couple of years outside of your home area, it's more economical to buy it (17 days times $11 CAD = $187 CAD) than rent it. Now you can use it on any trip, and just pay for daily fee.
At $9.95 USD ($12.50 CAD) a day, how is that any different than Roam Like Home? Just like a Roam Like Home plan, you don't need any SIM cards, just use your phone as is. You can also use it with any WiFi enabled devices, like your tablets and laptops. You just show up and turn it on, which makes it super simple.
The biggest pro is that you have unlimited data. The other advantages is you can connect up to five devices. Imagine traveling with a family of four and two of them are teenagers who "have to be connected". A Roam Like Home plan would cost you $40 a day for everyone at a minimum. With the Skyroam plan, everyone is connected and the kids can Snapchat away for $9.95 USD ($12.50 CAD) a day.
Do you need to stay connected for work? If you are running multiple devices such as, a phone, laptop, and tablet, you can be connected to all your devices. Therefore, you digital nomads can keep working. Also, you could be the hero at a hostel 😉
Bonus: The Skyroam Solis acts as a battery backup too!
The disadvantage is that you don't have regular calls or texting. This is where you could use other apps like Whatsapp, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts or Viber to make calls or texts back home with your existing contacts. Look into Google's Hangouts Dialer. It allows you to make calls using data at very cheap rates. The rates varies from country to country. Check out the rates here.
Also if you aren't all together near the hotspot, then you aren't connected. It provides high speed data for up to 500MB a day, at which point it throttles back to 2G service (good enough for email, surfing, social media). So it's not really meant for streaming Netflix and things like that. Besides you are traveling! Who needs to stream! So using a portable mobile hotspot will take some planning, and change how you use your phone when you travel.
Getting a European SIM Card in Advance
Another way of using your cell phone while traveling in Europe is getting a European SIM card in advance. If you look up European SIM Cards, this option often come up on a search first. European SIM cards you would order online before your trip. They'll ship to you in 3-7 business days.
In order to use them you need to have an unlocked GSM or 3G capable phone. If you don't have an unlocked phone, you can either purchase one that you use just for travel, or you can ask your current provider to unlock it. Some providers may not do it while, others may but there is a fee involved. Usually it costs around $50 to unlock a cell phone. If your plan is less than 3 months old, some providers will not unlock it.
SIM Card Sizes
So these are the questions you will have to ask before you order a European SIM card. Also depending on which company you order from make sure you know what SIM card size you will need. There are three sizes. Nowadays, most SIM cards come in a package that includes all three sizes. So before you insert the new SIM card, pull your existing one out and check the size.
- Standard SIM card 15mm x 25mm (largest)
- Micro SIM card 12mm x 15mm (medium)
- Nano SIM card 8.8mm x 12.3mm (small)
You also will have a different phone number, so that is a small thing to consider. If you need people still to get ahold of you on your home cell number, give them your European number, or call forward your home number to your new number. Standard SMS texts won't forward, so keep that in mind.
You will have to read up on how to set up the card. It usually is not just a plug and play. You will have to change the APN most likely, so the card should have instructions on how to do that. If you are moving between countries the card may switch between different mobile providers, which may require you to change the APN. So if you find it not working in a new country, look into the local provider that the SIM card is operating on and if you need to adjust the APN.
Pre-Paid SIM Cards
Pay for a set amount of data, and/or voice and text.
There are two main options:
Pre-Paid Bulk Package
So you really can pick what suits you and your trip needs best. You can always top up if you run out. One thing to check is, if you run out of data, sometimes they run on 2G speeds. So really you are paying for x-amount of high speed data.
Pay As You Go
Pay per usage i.e. $x per text, minute, MB.
These can really vary from company to company in pricing. Do your homework!
You really have to know how you will be using your phone, in order to decide what to get. You can always top up if you run out. Some of these cards you can even find at Staples and Amazon online. So the options are endless.
Many SIM card plans are for a certain amount of days. For example, you may get 3GB of data and 100 minutes of talk, but it's only valid for 15 days. Make sure you get a plan that lasts the duration of your trip.
Getting a European SIM Card in Europe
This is probably the most economical option for using your cell phone while traveling, but like all of the above comes with some asterisks. First you need to have an unlocked phone. The SIM card you can then purchase at the airport, gas stations, mobile shops and magazine shops. Cell phones are referred to as "mobiles" in most of Europe. In Germany they are called a "handy" (which really is the best name IMO).
Where to Get a SIM Card in Europe
Getting a European SIM card at the airport when you land, is sometimes best way (just make sure they are open when you land, I made that mistake). There you can have a person in the shop help you do the initial set up (changing the APN) and they most likely will speak English. I did this in Munich, it was great.
Other than that you can find cards at grocery stores, gas stations, and mobile phone kiosks. You can also buy top up cards at any of these places. Most cards allow you to top up via text or internet too. Just be aware, that the it may all be in a language you don't understand. If you are on a computer, you can always have the website translated. Google does this really well.
European Union Roaming Laws
The laws have changed in Europe in recent years that roaming between countries is much easier now with a cell phone. Most European cards are covered across EU countries. Albania, Armenia. Belarus, Gibraltar, Iceland, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Norway, Russian Federation, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and Vatican City (UK soon due to Brexit) are not part of the EU so the roaming freedom may not apply. So look into it if you are traveling to those countries. Here is a link that talks about Roaming in the EU. In particular look at the Data Limits - PrePaid Cards section. They have some good examples to help you understand how it works.
You also will have a different phone number, so that is a small thing to consider. If you need people still to get ahold of you on your home cell number, call forward your home cell number to your new European number.
The way these work is very similar to the SIM cards you buy in online in advance. These cost less than the ones you buy in advance, but the drawback is you don't have it when you land. You can get them for as little as $8 CAD. Again it varies from company to company, but that cost gets you the SIM card and then you can choose how you allocate the money. 1GB might cost €9 (of the initial €15) and then calls and texts are a per min/text rate, so the remainder of the €6 can be used for that.
When it runs out you can reload, by getting a top up card, load up through the phone or on the internet. Be aware that some countries, for example, Sweden require you to have a local Swedish credit card in order to load up online. So this doesn't mean you can't load up, it just means you have to go to a retailer.
Some SIM card plans can be used for just data or a mix of data and calling/texts. You can buy some cards that come with, for example, €15 on them. Then you decide how much to allocate to data versus talk and text. It really comes down to what you need.
With so much variety out there, it is best to research what companies have to offer in the country you will be in the most.
Data Will Take You Further
You can survive just fine on data. Most communication with AirBnB hosts is done via the app. You can order an Uber via their app. You can even have the local transit app available and load it up with credits to take the subway or buses. The biggest factors are how long are you going for and how much will you be using your phone. Save the data intensive stuff for free Wifi.
Many Pay As You Go cards expire if you don't use them for a certain amount of time, meaning you need to buy a new SIM card after so many weeks or months of not using them.
Get the Best Bang for Your Buck
Many SIM card plans are for a certain amount of days. For example, you may get 3GB of data and 100 minutes of talk, but it's only valid for 15 days. Make sure you get a plan that lasts the duration of your trip, or just prepare to load up.
I recommend checking out the country you plan on landing in (spending the most time in), and then researching the mobile providers. The providers have different coverage, plan prices, and availability. So see what suits your needs best.
Here is a fantastic resource for European SIM cards when you land. Click Here.
It's hard to compare apples to apples when it comes to using your own phone in Europe. These two charts can give you a snapshot idea of roughly how they compare. Always do some additional research to know what the current cost will be. It is always changing.
Using Your Own Phone in Europe Comparison
Using Your Own Phone in Europe Data Rate Comparison
In the cost comparison below it is only comparing DATA plans. It does not include the cost of unlocking a phone, or buying/renting the mobile hotspot. You will have to consider that in your decision making. The chart below is the best comparison that was available at the time of writing.
For the SIM card in Advance and SIM card in Country, keep in mind you could just pay for 1 GB of data and that last you two or three weeks. So you have to decide how much data you would use.
The Roam Like Home and Mobile Hotspot are charged a daily rate.
If you can save money on using your cell phone while traveling, that money can be used for many other things on your trip. So what option is best for you? You have to consider what's most important to you. If you need to keep your phone number or don't have an unlocked phone, then a Roam Like Home is best. Maybe you are traveling with a family, or group of five or less, the Mobile Hotspot might be best. When you data well, getting a SIM card in advance or when you land is the best. It is a balance between budget and convenience for most people.
Cheapest: Getting a European SIM card in Europe - you can get a cheap plan to start, manage your data and reload if you need. Using certain apps can really reduce your data usage, thereby reducing your cost.
Most Versatile: Mobile Hotspot - the ability to connect any device, and multiple users with virtually no set up. Unlimited data. Use apps to make calls and text and you won't mind the one short coming of this unit.
Most Convenient: Roam Like Home - No set up, no unlocked phone, no new number, but you pay for the convenience.
Most Ridiculous: Just using your phone as is - At least consider Roam Like Home. Please.