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How To Use A Smartphone In Europe

Use your smartphone abroad the same way you do at home—it can be done, and without paying hundreds of dollars in roaming charges. By Caroline Morse,

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Call Your Provider / Via

Worried about racking up roaming charges? You can call your cell-phone provider and have an associate turn off roaming for you, so you don't accidentally get socked with a big bill. Some providers will also let you temporarily "unlock" your phone, so it can be used abroad with another carrier. I have the iPhone 5 from Verizon Wireless, which comes already unlocked—a great perk for travelers.

Turn Off Cellular Data


In Berlin, I opted to only use Wi-Fi on my phone. I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't accidentally receive calls, texts, or emails abroad, so I turned off cellular data. Here's how to do that on the iPhone 5: Go to "Settings," then "General," then "Cellular," then "Off." This turns off all cellular data and restricts your phone to Wi-Fi, meaning any emails, web browsing, and apps will only use Wi-Fi, not cell-phone networks. This is a really important step, as most smartphones automatically pull in emails, app updates, and other data-hungry things—and you don't want to pay for that!

Or, Buy a SIM Card / Via

I had decided ahead of time to buy a prepaid SIM card when I arrived in London so I would have a British phone number and cheap data, texts, and calls. When buying your SIM card, be sure to have the store's associate give you the SIM card for the iPhone 5, as it is a different size than the SIM cards for other phones. Also, have the associate install the SIM card for you before you leave the store. That way, you'll know that your prepaid amount was loaded onto the SIM card, and you won't have to struggle to open the annoying iPhone SIM-card door with a paperclip back in your hotel room. Returning to the States, I had an extended layover at JFK, and I simply asked an associate at an airport cell-phone store to open my SIM-card door for me—which he did, free of charge.

Research Companies / Via

I didn't plan ahead—I just went with the first cell-phone store I found, which happened to be Vodafone. (The major networks have stores everywhere in London, including in many train stations.) Pay-as-you-go SIM cards are free—you simply pay for the amount you want to use. I spent 10 GBP (approximately $15) and got 300 local texts, 500 MB of internet data, and 100 minutes of calling time, which was more than enough for the five days I was in London. (Prepaid SIM plans vary widely—you can also buy international minutes, if you need to call home.) Start with the minimum amount you think you'll need—it's easy to "top up" your credit online, at many convenience stores, or even by phone.

I wish that I had done some research on providers instead of picking one at random—I later found out that only a few cell-phone companies in the UK have 4G service (the faster cell-phone network), and Vodafone is not one of them. Using a 3G network after becoming used to 4G speed was definitely painful, and I had trouble getting internet data in some areas.

Providers also differ in what they give for the price, so shop around before you go. If you're planning on calling or texting local contacts, check and see which networks they use, as it's often free to call people who use the same provider.

Download Apps / Via

Before you go, load up on apps that can be used offline or without data. I downloaded PocketEarth, an offline maps app, so that I could access maps even when I didn't have Wi-Fi. (In London, I used the Google Maps app, which didn't require very much data.) I also downloaded WhatsApp so I could text over Wi-Fi (with contacts who also have WhatsApp).

See which apps are popular in your destination. I use the taxi-hailing app Hailo all the time to get cabs in Boston, so I was surprised to see how ubiquitous it also was in London. Be aware that your app accounts may be linked to your phone number, so you might have to reregister if you are swapping SIM cards.

Switch to Wi-Fi When Possible


In Berlin, I primarily relied on the free Wi-Fi offered at my hotels to get online, using my phone as a hotspot. (Simply go to "Settings," then "Wi-Fi," then turn it "On"—the iPhone will find all the networks available near you and show you which ones are "unlocked" for public use.) When I wasn't near free Wi-Fi, I turned the Wi-Fi setting off, as constantly searching for Wi-Fi can drain your phone's battery.

In London, many places (like coffee shops, pubs, and tourist attractions) offer free Wi-Fi under a network called "The Cloud." Once I registered (I used a fake email address to avoid spam), I could access free Wi-Fi in many places, thereby conserving my paid data plan.

Make a Note of Your Contacts / Via

When I switched to a new SIM card, my contacts didn't transfer over. My text messages, which were saved to the phone and not the SIM card, did, so I could figure out most contact numbers from those. Don’t forget to write down any contacts you'll need abroad if you haven't saved them to your phone. Most things (like log-ins for email and Facebook) were saved to the phone, so it was a pretty seamless transition between SIM cards.

Pack An Adapter (the Right One) / Via

Although the iPhone 5 is dual voltage (meaning it runs on 110–240 volt power), you'll still need to pack a plug adapter to make your charger fit foreign outlets. England uses a different plug than mainland Europe, so I had to pack two adapters—one for Berlin and one for London.

Should You Buy a SIM Card? / Via

After trying it both ways, I will definitely be buying a SIM card when I travel abroad again. For less than $20, the ability to use my smartphone just as I do at home was completely worth it. I also found that being conscious of data usage meant that I was still "unplugged"—not checking emails and apps as much as I do on my phone at home—but when I was lost and needed to use the GPS feature on Google Maps, having the prepaid data was invaluable.

Also, being able to text and call to meet up with local friends was very handy. Even if you don't know anyone in the country you're visiting, having the ability to call a restaurant to make reservations, your credit card company if it freezes your card, or a tour that you want to book is great.