For our recent trip to Europe, Yvette and I tried the seasoned-traveler technique of swapping out the SIM cards in our phones, rather than paying AT&T’s fairly extortionate international roaming fees. It was an interesting experience, and we learned a few things along the way, which I’ll share here.
We used Telestial, which is apparently Jersey Telecom. Not New Jersey: JT is headquartered in the Jersey Isles, off the coast of Britain. JT/Telestial’s claim to fame is really their wide roaming capability. Their standard “I’m traveling to Europe” SIM is good pretty much across all of Europe. It definitely worked just fine in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Estonia, Russia, and Finland. They claim a few dozen more, and I don’t doubt it works equally-well in those countries.
Why not just get a local SIM in the country you’re visiting? Isn’t that cheaper?
People who frequently travel overseas will often just pop into a phone retailer, or buy a SIM from a kiosk in the airport. Based on the comparison shopping I did while we were traveling, this is definitely cheaper tan the Telestial solution. However, it’s not at all clear in many cases how well an Austrian SIM is going to work in Finland (for example), and just how much you’ll be paying for international roaming.
So, I think if you’re traveling to just one country (especially one with really cheap mobile phone service costs), buying a local SIM is definitely the way to go. I didn’t really want to keep updating people with new contact numbers every other day as we switched countries. I might look into one of the “virtual phone number” solutions, like Google Voice, for the next multi-country trip. Being able to give people one number, and still roam internationally, seems like it’d be useful, but I don’t know what the restrictions are.
What does setup look like?
First of all, you need a compatible phone. Not all American mobile phones will wrk in Europe. You can check the technical specs for the particular phone mode you have, to see which radio frequencies it supports. Alternatively, you can buy any iPhone more-recent than the iPhone 4s, all of which are “world phones”, as far as I know. Verizon and Sprint still some phones that are CDMA-only, which means they can’t work anywhere but the USA, but most CDMA smartphones also have a GSM SIM slot, so it’s worth taking a look to see, even if you’re on Verizon.
Secondly, your phone needs to not be “activation locked” to a particular carrier. Most phones sold on contract in the US are set up this way, so you can’t just default on the contract and get a phone you can use on another network. Ideally, your phone would get unlocked automatically at the end of the contract, but US law doesn’t require this, so you’ll need to request an unlock from your carrier. AT&T has made this process a lot easier since the last time I tried to do it, which is great, because I forgot to check that Yvette’s phone was unlocked before we left. I did manage to make the unlock request from the other phone while we were in a taxi on the freeway in Austria, which is a testament to how easy this stuff is these days, I guess.
Assuming you have a compatible phone, then process is basically power off phone, pop out the SIM tray with a paper clip, swap the SIMS, turn on the phone, and wait. For the Telestial SIM, you probably really want to activate it and pre-pay for some amount of credit before your trip, which is easy to do on their website.
What kind of plan did you get?
We had a pre-paid fixed allowance for calls and text, and 2GB of data for each phone. Calls were $0.35 a minute, and texts were $0.35 each. Pre-loading $30 on the phone was enough for and hour and a half of phone calls, or a fairly large number of texts. When we had data coverage, we could use iMessage or WhatsApp fro basically free text messages. I don’t know whether Voice Over LTE actually worked, and if it avoided the per-minute charge, since we just didn’t call that much.
Did you actually save any money?
Compared to what it cost to pay AT&T for an international roaming plan while Yvette was in the UK for a month, we definitely did save a substantial amount of money. This is true even with the crazy cruise ship issue (see below). Without that, it would have been massively less-expensive. And compared to AT&T’s “no plan” international rates (which I got to try out in Israel), there’s absolutely no comparison.
What happened on the cruise ship?
Most of the time, the cruise ship did not have cell service. Which was pretty much fine – we had good coverage when we were in port, and there was WiFi on the ship, if we wanted to pay for it (we did not). We had, on two occasions, a weird thing were our phones managed to connect to a shipboard cell network (maybe on another passing ship?), where we were charged truly outrageous roaming data rates – several dollars a megabyte, which obviously burned through the $30 in prepaid credit really fast. On the other hand, prepaid means that we didn’t lose more than $30 (twice, so $60 total). I still don’t know exactly what happened there, but if I do this again sometime, I’m going to keep data turned off on the phone when not in port.
Pre-paid, which limits crazy bills
Easy to recharge, either over the phone, or using the app
Per-minute and per-text rates not too terrible
Works pretty much anywhere in Europe
Cruise ship roaming will use up your data allowance right quick
Fixed recharge sizes, and monthly expiration
Forwarding doesn’t work for texts
Some weirdness with “from” numbers on texts (apparently Austria-only)?
Email support non-responsive
Conclusion: would we do it again?
Overall, the process was fairly-painless, other than the cruise ship issue. If there’s a simple way to fix that, I’d have no problem doing this again. Otherwise, I’d have to recommend during cell data off when you’re not in port, to avoid accidentally costing yourself a bunch of money.