Best SIM Cards For Using Your Smartphone in Europe
January 2nd, 2013
It doesn’t need to be expensive to use your smartphone in Europe. We take a look at some of the best value SIM cards for roaming in Europe.
Your smartphone can be a great asset when you’re travelling. It can help you in planning every part of your trip: whether that’s using Google Maps to get around or checking reviews of nearby restaurants and tourist attractions on Tripadvisor. Your smartphone can also help you to stay in touch with friends and family back home using applications such as WhatsApp, iMessage, ChatOn and Skype.
If you’re travelling abroad to Europe and you’d like to use 3G on your smartphone, it’s often worth picking up a new SIM card for data roaming. These Pay As You Go SIM cards are free – you simply top them up to use them abroad and there is no obligation to continue using it when you return to the UK. With the right SIM card, you can often save about £25 on a 5-day trip to Europe.
Why should I use a Pay As You Go SIM card when travelling?
Depending on which mobile network you’re a customer of, you could currently be paying up to 70p per megabyte when using your smartphone abroad. With the typical smartphone owner consuming around 10 megabytes of data each day, this would add up to a mammoth £7 per day or £49 per week when browsing the web over 3G.
There are various options for saving money whilst travelling abroad with your smartphone:
- Use free wi-fi networks. Your hotel may offer free wi-fi internet access. This is perfect for checking your e-mail and the day’s weather in the morning. It’s the cheapest option but if you’re looking to go online when out and about, you’re out of luck. Many hotels in Europe charge upwards of €8/day for internet access so do double-check to see whether it’s included within your package.
- Buy a SIM card locally in your destination country (around €10). This is the cheapest way of using your smartphone abroad if you’re travelling for a long time (more than 5 days). You’ll need to pick up a Pay As You Go SIM for your smartphone in the country that you’re visiting, though sometimes this can be a hassle: you’ll need to research the best deals before you leave and you may need to present a passport or some proof of ID when obtaining a new SIM card. You should expect to pay at least €10 for a SIM card with one month of 3G internet access. A working knowledge of the local language can also be helpful in communicating with shop staff. You may also need to unlock your phone (see our guides for the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S2 and BlackBerry).
- Grab a SIM card for European roaming when in the UK (£2/day). The easiest and most hassle-free way to use your smartphone in Europe is to grab an appropriate SIM card from the UK. You can grab a prepaid SIM card for free and top up by £10 for 5 days worth of 3G internet in Europe. As it’s on Pay As You Go in the UK, there are no ID checks and you don’t need to provide any bank details. Furthermore, you’ll be able to control how much you spend as charges are deducted from your prepaid airtime allowance. For most trips to Europe, a UK-based SIM card will be the most convenient option. We will focus upon these in this article.
The best SIM cards for using your smartphone in Europe are as follows:
Best Deal: O2 (£1.99/day)
Our top pick amongst Pay As You Go SIM cards for roaming in Europe is O2′s Text & Web. O2 charges £1.99/day to use your smartphone in Europe. This gives you a daily download allowance of 25MB which should easily be enough for browsing maps, checking information on the internet and reading your e-mail (the average smartphone user consumes around 10MB of data each day). If you use more than 25MB in a single day, O2 won’t charge you automatically. Instead, you’ll be given the option to purchase another 25MB of data for £1.99. This means you can have certainty over data costs.
With an O2 Pay As You Go SIM card, a single top-up of £10 should be enough to use your smartphone on a five day trip to Europe. You can grab a free SIM card here to get started. You should avoid the Pay & Go Go Go tariff as this will automatically convert your top-up into a monthly allowance. Instead, pick a tariff such as O2 Unlimited.
- EU Roaming Data Price: £1.99/day for 25MB
- Overages: Option of purchasing another 25MB for £1.99.
- £10 top-up buys: 5 days of smartphone usage in Europe
Note that if you’re an O2 Pay Monthly customer, you can make use of the same £1.99/day deal on your current tariff. Check the O2 Travel webpage for more information.
Vodafone (£2/day with overages)
Vodafone has a similar deal on Pay As You Go called “Vodafone Data Traveller”. For £2/day, you’ll get 25MB of internet whilst in Europe. This is fairly similar to O2′s offering but with the key difference that you’ll be charged 69p/MB automatically for exceeding your 25MB daily allowance. Most users shouldn’t be affected by this (average data consumption is around 10MB/day) but you will need to keep an eye on this. If you go over your 25MB daily allowance, you may run down your credit leaving you unable to use the internet on subsequent days.
If you were to pick up a free Vodafone SIM Card and to top it up by £10 you should have enough airtime credit for a 5-day trip to Europe. Choose the Text & Web Freebee option.
- EU Roaming Data Price: £2/day for 25MB
- Overages: Automatic charge of 69p per megabyte
- £10 top-up buys: 5 days of smartphone usage in Europe + bonus free allowance of 300 texts & 500MB internet which can be used for 30 days in the UK.
If you’re a Vodafone Pay Monthly customer, you’ll pay the standard rate of 69.6p per megabyte when using your smartphone abroad. To benefit from the lower £2/day rate, you’ll need to grab a Vodafone Pay As You Go SIM card. Alternatively you could opt in to the Vodafone EuroTraveller service on Pay Monthly. This allows you to use your price plan (including the data plan) for £3/day in Europe.
T-Mobile (£10 for 50MB)
If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you can buy a T-Mobile travel booster to use the internet abroad in Europe. It costs £1 for 3MB, £2.50 for 10MB or £10 for 50MB. Your booster will last until you’ve used up your entire download allowance, or for a maximum of 30 days.
Most people will be better off on the “£2 for 25MB” deals from O2 and Vodafone. However, light smartphone users could benefit from T-Mobile’s deal by stretching their 50MB download allowance over a longer period of time. For example, somebody consuming 5MB of data each day could use the 50MB booster over a period of 10 days.
Grab a free Pay As You Go SIM card from T-Mobile to take advantage of this deal.
- EU Roaming Data Price: £10/month for 50MB
- Overages: Option of purchasing another 50MB for £10
- £10 top-up buys: Approx. 5 days of smartphone usage in Europe but may vary depending on usage pattern
The same offer is also open to T-Mobile Pay Monthly customers.
Orange provides a £3/day bundle for 30MB of internet in Europe. Orange customers need to text TRAVEL to 1139 to buy a travel bundle on each day that they wish to use 3G abroad. If you do not opt in, you’ll pay 69.6p per megabyte.
We recommend that most users opt for the deals from O2 and Vodafone instead. They provide better value at £2/day and are much more convenient to use.
- EU Roaming Data Price: £3/day for 30MB
- Overages: Automatic charge of 69p per megabyte
- £10 top-up buys: 3 days of smartphone usage in Europe
Bad Deal: Three (~£7/day)
Three charges 69.6p per megabyte when using your smartphone in the EU. The typical smartphone user would spend around £7/day when using their phone abroad on Three.
Three Pay Monthly customers have the option of paying £5/day for all-you-can-eat internet in Europe. Whilst this is cheaper than paying per megabyte, the majority of users would be better off with one of the Pay As You Go deals from O2 and Vodafone.
How do I enable data roaming on my smartphone?
By default, most smartphones will not use data when you’re abroad. If you’re using a UK-based SIM card in Europe, you’ll need to enable data roaming to access 3G internet whilst abroad. You can enable data roaming by following the instructions for your handset:
- iPhone: Go to Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming and select On.
- Android: Go to Settings > Wireless & networks > Mobile networks and check the box for ‘Data roaming’.
- BlackBerry: Go to Device Options > Mobile Network > Data Services and change the setting to ‘On’. Press the menu button and select “Save”.
- Windows Phone: Go to the Applications list and select Settings > Mobile > Data roaming options and change the setting to ‘Roam’.
Do I need to unlock my phone before using a different SIM card?
If you are using a SIM card from a different mobile operator, you may need to unlock your mobile phone first. You won’t need to unlock if you’re simply ordering a SIM card from the same network: for example a Vodafone Pay Monthly customer could use a Vodafone Pay As You Go SIM card without unlocking their phone.
What kind of savings can I achieve by using a different SIM card abroad?
Without opting into any packages or bundles, customers of Vodafone Pay Monthly, Orange and Three could reasonably expect to pay around £7/day to use their smartphone in Europe. By picking up a free SIM card from O2 and using the O2 Travel service, this would be reduced to £2/day.
For a 5-day trip to Europe you could reasonably expect to save £25.
If I use a different SIM card, will I continue to receive instant messages in WhatsApp?
Yes. Although instant messaging applications such as WhatsApp, ChatOn and iMessage are linked to your mobile phone number, they are only linked to the mobile number in use when you activate the service. If you are temporarily using another SIM card you can still continue to use these applications as normal.
The same does not apply for SMS text messages: these will continue to go to your normal SIM card.
If I use a different SIM card, can I continue to receive my phone calls?
If you are temporarily using a different SIM card, it’s worth being aware that your new SIM card will be assigned a different phone number. To receive calls on your normal phone number, you could set up a call divert to your temporary phone number. For most Pay Monthly customers (excluding T-Mobile), calls can be diverted to other UK mobile numbers with diverted calls simply being deducted from your monthly call allowance. Providing you are forwarding your calls to another UK-based number, there should be no additional charges and you will simply pay to receive calls on your temporary SIM card (around 7.9p/minute).
What does the future bring for data roaming in Europe?
The European Union first introduced price limits on using your smartphone in Europe inJuly. These price limits are set to keep dropping over the next two years and it should gradually become cheaper to use your smartphone abroad.
|Effective Date||Max Price (per MB, exc. VAT)||Approx equivalent in £, inc. VAT|
|From July 2012||€0.70||68p|
|From July 2013||€0.45||44p|
|From July 2014||€0.20||20p|
Keep an eye out on Ken’s Tech Tips for all of the latest and best value roaming deals: we’ll be updating you regularly.
Where can I find out more about using my phone abroad?
Where can I get a free SIM card for use abroad in Europe?
Our recommended SIM card for data roaming in Europe is O2′s Text and Web. You can order a free SIM card through the O2 website.
I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.
Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.