If you’re travelling to Europe from North America or parts of Asia, your mobile phone may not work in Europe. And, even if it does, you may find it cheaper and more convenient to buy a prepaid phone there. You can actually either buy both a phone and SIM card in Europe, or bring a compatible phone and buy a SIM card that works with it. In either case, do some online research to figure out the specific processes for buying SIM cards (with or without phones) in your European destination(s). In many cases, thankfully, it’s as easy as walking into a convenience store and handing over some Euros!
Buy a New Phone & SIM
Research your phone-buying strategy before reaching Europe.
Although there is some standardization across the nations in the European Union (EU), buying a prepaid phone depends a great deal on which nation or nations you’ll be travelling to. A few days or (better yet) weeks before departing, search “buying a prepaid phone in …” and the names of the countries you’ll be visiting. Keep the following in mind as well:
- All European mobile phones (EU and non-EU) operate on the GSM system, as opposed to the CDMA system used in North America and some parts of Asia. CDMA-only phones won’t work in Europe.
- GSM phones always require an installed SIM card that’s affiliated with a mobile carrier in order to operate on a mobile network.
- You can buy a new SIM card (with or without a phone) in each country you visit, or use the same SIM card throughout the EU without incurring roaming charges—up to a set limit.
- SIM cards are easy to buy in most European countries, but some, like Germany, have significant security-related restrictions that make the process much less convenient for tourists.
Shop for the best deal at convenience stores and corner shops.
Retail shops throughout Europe sell prepaid phones, unlocked phones, and standalone SIM cards. You’ll usually have your choice from among several carriers that operate in that country, with phone-plus-SIM card price points that may start as low as $20 USD.
- The shops at your arrival airport usually sell phones and SIM cards, but the prices may be a bit higher.
Shop at mobile provider retail stores for expert guidance.
Not all convenience store clerks can give you the best guidance on buying a phone and SIM card. If you’d like more assistance, head to a retail outlet for one of the mobile providers in the country you’re visiting. You’ll find them at airports and in retail districts in towns and cities throughout Europe.
- These carrier-specific shops, of course, only sell phones and SIM cards linked to their network. This means you’ll have fewer options and may end up paying more as a result.
Buy a reloadable prepaid phone and SIM as the budget option.
If you simply want to be able to make affordable phone calls and text messages while in Europe, this is probably your best bet. You can buy a no-frills feature phone, a pre-installed SIM card, and an initial amount of talk/text/data in one package for as little as $20 USD.
- If you prefer a prepaid basic-model smartphone, expect the starting price point to be closer to $100 USD.
Get an unlocked GSM phone and SIM for added functionality.
If you prefer to get what’s likely to be a higher-quality phone, you may want to buy it and the SIM card separately. The GSM phones sold in Europe come unlocked by default, so you can buy your preferred phone model and then get a carrier-specific SIM card with a pre-loaded talk/text/data plan.
- An unlocked feature phone (without SIM card) may start as low as $40 USD. A basic unlocked smartphone may be $100-300, while higher-end phones tend to be in the $500-$900 USD range.
Make sure the phone and SIM work before leaving the store.
If you need it, ask the clerk for help in setting up the SIM card and phone. For prepaid phones, this usually involves simply turning on the phone and entering the PIN number that comes with the phone-plus-SIM card package.
- If you buy the phone and SIM card separately, you’ll have to first install the card in the appropriate slot.
- Make sure the phone is set to your preferred language. The clerk should be able to help with that if needed.
Reload your data or minutes in stores or online.
It’s easy to “top off” the talk/text/data loaded onto your prepaid SIM card when you run low. Simply go into any store that sells SIM cards from the same mobile carrier as yours and pay to have more talk/text/data loaded onto your card. This may cost as little as $10-$20 USD, depending on how much you reload onto your card.
- Some mobile carriers in Europe permit you to “top off” your talk/text/data online instead. Check the package and/or inserts that come with your phone-plus-SIM card combo to see if this is an option.
Bring Your Phone & Buy a SIM
Bring your own phone only if it’s unlocked and GSM compatible.
CDMA-only mobile phones, which are the standard in North America and parts of Asia, won’t work in Europe. Some newer phones, however, are both CDMA and GSM compatible, and will work in Europe if “unlocked” (that is, untethered from a single mobile carrier). Call your carrier to see if your phone is both compatible and unlocked (or capable of being unlocked).
- Some carriers do not permit phones on their network to be unlocked. This is more likely if you purchased your phone as part of a 2-year (or alternate time period) contract.
- You’ll still need to buy at least one SIM card that is compatible for use in Europe once you arrive.
Buy an unlocked GSM-compatible phone if yours isn’t one.
If your current phone won’t work in Europe, you can, if you wish, buy a phone in your home country and get a SIM card when you arrive in Europe. Just make sure that the phone you buy is unlocked and GSM compatible.
- Don’t buy a SIM card with the phone, unless it is clearly labeled as compatible with a particular European mobile phone carrier. SIM cards intended for use in North America, for instance, normally won’t work in Europe.
- Buying a phone at home to bring to Europe versus buying a phone in Europe really comes down to personal choice. The prices are usually fairly comparable.
Compare the rules for buying SIM cards in your destination nation(s).
Many European countries make it extremely easy to buy SIM cards, while others—most notably Germany—have restrictions that make it much more challenging for the average tourist. Search online for “buying a SIM card” in your destination country or countries to get a better idea of the specific process.
- If you’re travelling to multiple European Union (EU) member nations, you can buy your SIM card in a country where it’s easy to get one and use it throughout the EU. There won’t be any roaming charges until you reach a predetermined usage limit.
Shop for SIM cards at corner shops and mobile provider stores.
In the majority of European nations where it’s still easy to buy SIM cards, you’ll find them for sale seemingly everywhere. Shops at the airport, in city business districts, and along the highways usually sell SIM cards from a variety of mobile phone carriers. Alternatively, you can buy a SIM card directly from a particular carrier at one of their retail stores.
- You’ll still find SIM cards for sale throughout Germany, but you have to provide both a valid photo ID and proof of a German mailing address, then wait for the SIM card to be mailed to that address.
Compare several different SIMs before making your choice.
Choose a SIM card that is affiliated with a recognized mobile phone carrier in that country. Take price into consideration, but also ask the clerk (or any locals you may know) about the caliber of service offered by different carriers.
- Also make sure that the SIM card fits your phone! The standard SIM card is a common size that fits most phones, but some newer phones use micro SIM cards. Compatible major phone brands should be listed on the SIM card package.
Replace your phone’s SIM card while still in the store.
Turn off your phone and remove the current SIM card. You’ll usually have to either open a small tray by poking an unbent paperclip into a small hole or, if the phone has a removable battery, take out the battery to find the SIM card underneath. Reverse the process to insert the new SIM card, then power up the phone.
- Do this while you’re still in the store where you bought the SIM card. Ask the clerk for help with installation or troubleshooting if necessary.
Inform friends and family of your new European phone number.
After you power up your phone and enter the PIN number provided with your new SIM card, your phone should function as normal on your chosen mobile carrier. However, keep in mind that you’ll have a new phone number. Tell your primary contacts about this new number so they can get in touch with you, and so they know to accept calls or texts from this new number.
- You’ll get a new number every time you buy a new SIM card.
- Calls to your normal number will go to voicemail, and you won’t be able to access these voicemails unless your mobile provider at home offers a means for getting them online.
- In some cases, you can use a North American SIM card in Europe depending on the type of rate plan and international features you have. Contact your mobile phone provider to verify rates and to check if your rate plan supports your ability to roam on networks in Europe.
- Although prices and rates may vary between all options, using prepaid European SIM cards is generally the less expensive option compared to using a North American SIM card.
- You may need to purchase a plug adapter for your mobile phone if you are using a North American phone in Europe, or if you want to charge your European phone in North America before you travel.