HOW DO I SIGN UP FOR OVERSEAS PHONE SERVICE?
This is part 2 of a 4-part report on communication for travelers.
No—the girl in the Renoir is not really on her cell…but you can be!
Usually, the first question most people ask about traveling with a smartphone is “Can I use my own?” After all, you’d like to have your familiar contacts and apps and all the rest, and besides…who wants to spend when you already own?
The good news is that, in general, you can use yours—but the real question is whether to use it on your home carrier’s plan or by installing a prepaid SIM card from another carrier. In another part of this blog we’ll discuss what you have to do.
The not-so-bad news is that you probably want to use a local prepaid SIM—unless you don’t mind paying rates of around $1.50 a minute and $25 for 100 Mb of data (that’s Verizon, but others are similar.)
SIMs ARE NOT ALL THE SAME!
Not talking about the three sizes (mini for most, micro for early iPhones and a few others, and nano for iPhone 5). We’re talking about a few serious differences in what you pay and who you buy from.
Nothing personal, but I have a hate on the companies you’ll see first if you start searching online for a SIM to use overseas. You’ll see Telestial, Mobal and a few others, offering both country-specific SIMs and “regional” cards that can be used in multiple countries. They’ll be glad to ship to you right at home before you leave…but they’ll charge you around $30 to $50 for a SIM, and then have rates per call not enough less than your carrier. The rates for data are also expensive. Also, the “regional” cards leave you with a UK or other number that’s not local in other countries you visit.
BUYING A LOCAL SIM MAKES SENSE
So, you’ll note, I’ve led you down the garden path to buying local prepaid SIMs. So now to the next questions? How hard is it to get one? Where do I go? How will I get help? Gumbo has answers. First the general info, and then two websites to help you choose.
- SIMs are cheap. Usually no more than 5-10€ with that much or almost that much credit included. Nearly all carriers have the mini-SIM and micro-SIM sizes used by most phones; if you have an iPhone 5 that needs a nano-SIM, check with the carrier you’ll be using!
- They are available nearly everywhere, from carrier stores to independent phone shops and even small local stores and newsstands in some countries.
- Rules vary: In some countries, such as Spain or France, you’ll have to show identification. In others, including Portugal, you buy it and that’s all.
- Your best choice will be to buy at a company kiosk at the airport or a main rail station, because that’s where you’re most likely to find English-speaking help, and staff that know the most about travelers needs—and the most up-to-date info on data plans.
These two websites provide up-to-date (or nearly so) information on available carriers and plans in most countries around the world. Check the website of carriers you’re interested in (If you use Chrome it will translate for you). It’s worth doing; a couple of summers ago I arrived in Italy expecting to pay a chunk for data usage; the clerk at the TIM store at Milan Central Station hooked me up with a “free data for the summer” plan!
http://www.prepaidgsm.net (click on the “national operators” list)
http://prepaidwithdata.wikia.com (has detailed information on many plans)
WHICH CARRIER IS BEST?
No easy answer: It depends on what country, what your calling pattern will be and how much data you want. One company or plan may offer you a lower call rate to the U.S., but if you’re not planning to make many calls home (or if you take the advice in the last of this series) that may not be as important to you as cheaper data or cheaper rates to local phones. Often, your best resource will be at the counter when you buy the SIM. I’ve found the sales staff at both carrier-brand stores and big electronics retailers quite good at matching me to plans based on my needs…be sure you let them know what yours are!
It’s a good idea to pick one of the two biggest carriers in the country…they’ll have the most stores and the most active customer service options. You really don’t want to get bogged down trying to find someone to make your phone work! The biggest are also the most likely to offer an option to speak to customer service in English, to have at least one English-speaker on staff in their major stores and to have good website options.
PAYING FOR IT
After your first payment, you’ll have some time and some data available. Plans are set up either as so many minutes and so much data for a flat daily or weekly rate, or as so much per minute or megabyte, pulled from the money you put in. What if you run out? No fear. Prepaid is the norm in Europe as much as postpaid, and refills (“Top Up") are available at stores of all kinds all over. Usually, you’ll get a text to let you know you’re running low. At the store, you’ll give your number, the clerk taps away at a keyboard, and in a few minutes your time has been added. If you register on the carrier’s website, you can usually do it from your computer or directly from the handset.
In the next part of this report, we’ll cover what you have to do to get your U.S. phone ready (and unlocked) for its vacation trip.