The difference between American and European mobile phone providers are vast, and the modern traveler is likely to run afoul if they are unprepared, running up a surprisingly large bill! Here’s a rundown of my standard techniques to prepare my American mobile phone for travel abroad.
The first thing to do when considering a trip abroad is checking whether your phone supports the technology and frequencies used by the carriers in the country will visit. The majority of European carriers rely on the 900 and 1800 MHz bands for GSM voice, SMS, and low-speed data, and the 2100 MHz band for high-speed 3G HSPA data service.
Only AT&T and T-Mobile use the same GSM technology as most European and other international providers, but this does not mean that all of their phones will function correctly overseas. Although nearly every American GSM phone is capable of voice calling and text messaging in Europe, 3G data service is another story entirely.
Neither AT&T nor T-Mobile uses the same 3G HSPA frequencies that are standard in Europe. Many phones, including my iPhone 4S, support the European frequencies as well, offering high-speed data in both Europe and America. But others only support one or the other set of frequencies for high-speed data. This is the reason my unlocked Huawei E585 is useless in the USA.
Check the specifications of your phone to see if it supports the 900/1800/2100 MHz bands for both GSM and HSPA. Note that Verizon, Sprint, and many smaller operators using entirely different technology that isn’t compatible at all with European providers. These companies do sell a few “world phones”, including the iPhone 4S. But the earlier Verizon iPhone 4 will not work in Europe.
Preparing Your AT&T Account for Use Abroad
Assuming your phone will work abroad, it is wise to consider the cost of various services while roaming. There are essentially three considerations when using the phone outside its home territory:
- Voice calling can be expensive unless a special plan is purchased at a time. Note that European carriers do not charge for incoming calls, though American carriers do.
- SMS text messaging can also be surprisingly expensive when roaming. Although most Europeans have unlimited messaging plans, and their carriers do not charge for incoming messages, many Americans have only a small allowance of text messages and are charged in both directions.
- Data service can be the biggest shocker when traveling abroad. It is not unheard of for a few days of casual e-mail, navigation, and web use to cost over $1000 while roaming abroad.
When I’m traveling abroad, I always contact AT&T ahead of time and activate features on my plan to offset these costs. Here are my recommended settings:
- AT&T’s “World Traveler” plan costs $5.99 per month but reduces the cost of voice calls from of $1.39 to $.99 per minute. If you plan to talk for more than 40 minutes, this is a win.
- AT&T also offers a variety of “Global Messaging” plans, which allow you to send SMS text messages much cheaper. I usually purchase the $10 “Global Messaging 50” plan, which includes 50 prepaid outbound text messages. This works out to $.20 per message rather than the normal rate of $.50, giving you a break even point at 34 messages.
- Data remains a problem, even though AT&T offers a variety of “Data Global” add-on packages. I usually purchase the cheapest 50 MB “Data Global Add-On” package, which includes 50 MB of data for $24.99. This may seem expensive, but it’s nowhere near as much as AT&T’s normal rate of almost $.02 per kilobyte. 50 MB of Data Global is an astonishing $973.41 (40 times) less expensive!
Don’t Rely on Data Roaming
Even with Data Global, however, it really is not practical to use data roaming outside the United States. This is why I recommend purchasing a local “MiFi” device and 3G data plan in whatever country you will be visiting. I am bringing my Huawei E585 with me to the UK for Dell Storage Forum, recharged with 3 GB of data for just £15.
I’m really only purchasing AT&T Data Global as insurance in case I need data and the MiFi is not available for some reason. You can ring up $24.99 of data roaming charges in less than 5 seconds after using just 1.25 MB without a plan like that. It’s extortion, but that’s AT&T for you.
I will often call AT&T to activate these services a few days before leaving. They are sometimes offered to automatically cancel the service when I return, or at least give me a call back so I can cancel it. If you activate these features online, remember to deactivate them afterwards since they offer no value if you are not traveling.
Before traveling abroad with an AT&T phone, I recommend going online or calling the company and activating 3 features: “World Traveler” for voice, “Global Messaging” for SMS, and “Data Global” for data service. I also advise purchasing a local 3G “MiFi” and turning off Data Roaming on your iPhone, even though this would seem a waste of the $24.99 Data Global plan. I imagine T-Mobile has similar offerings for world travelers, and Verizon and Sprint as well as long as a “world phone” is used.