Cell Phone Suggestions For Europe Trip

I’m spending some time in Europe (Paris and Tuscany) this summer and trying to figure out the best cell phone approach for me and Amy. We are both iPhone users – me on AT&T and her on Verizon. In both cases, the “use your US iPhone in Europe” seems like a total fail on pricing so we are looking for other options. I’m also a Google Voice user (that’s my main phone number) so I’ve got more flexibility than she does. In both cases, we care about voice, data, and SMS, but don’t have to have an iPhone (e.g. Apps are nice to have but not critical).

Basically, I’m looking for solutions for three different approaches:

1. US iPhone user who uses her cell phone number as her primary phone number.

2. US iPhone user who has Google voice as his primary phone number.

3. US iPhone users who doesn’t care about the primary phone number.


  • I thought you had a full time tech guy on staff?

    • We do. I figured I’d collect as much data as I could!

      • I’m facing the same problem every year. I use a combination of Grashopper as Virtual PBX with Skype-In, a mobile Huawei (or MiFi) router with the respectively local sim cards.

  • Get a throw-away flip phone for local European calls (with your wife basically) and use the iphone skype app for international calls. Use skype to listen to your voicemail on your real US Number (and say on the voicemail greeting that that’s what you’ll be doing).

  • Where in Europe? How long are you staying? Could you be fine adopting a local number while you’re there and occasionally check voicemail etc. from VoIP?

    • Paris and Tuscany. Updating the post now.

      • unlock your iPhone and grab a prepaid mobile sim.

        My preference is for Bouygues mobicart but the Orange version is not terrible. You just need to show your American passport – runs you about 15 Euros for a SIM and you can buy minutes in 10euro increments (I recommend you pop at least 20E on there right away).

        Bouygues is fine for the cities – No problems in Paris. If you go up to Normandy or will spend a lot of time there, get Orange instead.

        Topping up in any Tabac is fine. 

        All incoming calls / texts are free in France.

        Data rates are not terrible, but don’t expect anything amazing in speed or price (it is prepaid after all).

        Set your voice mail on your Verizon or AT&T to mention you’re out of town and provide them with a Google Voice number – That way you can sms / check voice mail with no problems back home.


        Also, lemme know if you need recommendations for off the beaten path stuff in Paris, including good eats. I just moved back to Brooklyn after living there for 3 years. 

  • Hey Brad, 

    I know how painful this can be… believe me it’s the same exact issue when you move within Europe (my case UK to Switzerland)

    Per Jon’s suggestion – probably skype is the safest option but depends on the level of flexibility you are seeking.

    Other option: you might want to opt in a low-roaming solution like truphone – http://localanywhere.truphone.com/buy/default.aspx

    their entire concept is designed for Global Nomads and they do deliver their SIMs in the US. 

    Best bet is to just buy a a throw-away phone where you can just swap the SIM for the truphone one.

    You get to keep the truphone SIM and should be able to do #forwarding once you are back in the US.


  • Unlock your iphone, and buy local prepaid SIM cards when you get to europe. They are readily available and cheap almost everywhere. Bonus: Use google voice to redirect your primary phone number to your new travel phone numbers for each SIM as needed, and also to filter incoming text messages and calls when needed.

  • Sarac

    I’d go with Vonage. You both are going to be there or just you? 

    $15 for the first 3 months.. then you could cancel. 

    Wouldn’t that work? especially if you can use google voice/skype etc.. 
    I worked with a Brit and he and the others used Vonage to call UK, he said it was cheap and good.

  • Data roaming charges are a killer, even between countries in Europe. Are you staying in one country?

    • Paris and Tuscany

      • I would agree with others below – unlock phone and get Italian and French pay as you go SIM cards

  • I spent a lot of time on this problem two years ago; I’m assuming the solution still works. I travel with my old iPhone (in this case, a 3GS) which you can jailbreak. Then you can use a european SIM card in it. Most countries (including France/Italy/Spain) have a special iPhone data plan that’s all-you-can-eat or close to it, that is very inexpensive. When you change countries, you need to buy a new card. France is actually the most annoying, IIRC, because you have to show a passport to get a SIM card. In any event, it’s cheap and relatively easy, as long as you get the right card/plan. 

    (In France, one thing that tripped me up was that most mobile providers won’t accept a US credit card on their website/phone system. You have to buy minutes in a store or at a kiosk.)There is a great website that lists every country and provider, so you can find the best data option: http://www.prepaidgsm.net/en/operators.htmlI found it to be mostly up-to-date and accurate, if a little hard to use. There are a zillion call-forwarding services; I didn’t really find a clear winner. You can forward you US # to an international number (or to Skype), and you can use a “callback service” to place calls into the US from Europe at a very reduced rate. I really wish you could add an international number to your Google Voice account, but IIRC that is not possible. The best you can do is set up call forwarding, and then add the forwarding number to your google voice account. I’m told (but haven’t tried myself) that setting all this up with Twilio is extremely easy with a very modest amount of scripting.Hope that’s helpful, happy to provide more details.

    • This is the same solution I used in Germany last month. Worked fine.

    • buying from the kiosks in france isn’t so terrible i don’t think.

      Credit cards generally speaking are a pain in France because French people don’t use them, everything runs on cash / debit cards.

      All you can eat data prepaid in France can be expensive. 

      If you’re there on holiday, there’s free wifi in every public park (and there are more public parks in Paris than any other city.)

      I think you’ll be surprised at how unimportant complete mobile access is in a big city. But outside of the city, it will certainly be important. 

      • My ipad and iphone both work great on wifi in Paris… outside of that it gets a bit ropey though and I end up using my UK mobile instead.

  • Vodafone has a viable pre-paid option in most countries in Europe. Many of the SIMs/prepaids do include a certain data amount and there is zero hassle involved – just go into the store and buy one. The only annoying thing is that Google Voice currently doesn’t support international forwarding, so what I’ve done is just forward my Google Voice # to a place that allows me to forward to international numbers. Suppliers like Kall8 or Flowroute will let you do this easily so as you travel from country to country and get new SIM cards with new numbers, you can just log in and update the forwarding.

    As an FYI, the Verizon iPhone won’t work at all overseas. It doesn’t have a GSM radio in it. If your iPhone is unlocked, you can use that. If it’s locked to AT&T, you can just pick a smartphone up cheaply as a pre-paid at most cell phone stores in Europe.

  • Alex Portilla

    I always settle for Skype when there is wireless (which there is in many places) and minimize calls and data downloads otherwise.

  • RV

    Fred Wilson did a similar post last summer in regards to his Europe trip, great comments and solutions:  http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/07/international-wireless-roaming.html

  • Bob Hendren

    I just got back from a month in Italy.  When we got there, we got a Micro SIM from Vodafone for my wife’s iPad for only 20 euros.  That was for unlimited data for the month and it worked just fine!

    • Bob Hendren

      As you’ll be in two different countries, you’d probably have to buy one of these in each place.  Hers was only good in Italy.

  • mike

    Hi Brad

    Have you considered line2 (http://www.line2.com/features_overview.html)?

    Case #1: Forward calls to primary number to line2.  In Europe, get a smartphone and install line2 app.  Con: outgoing calls will appear as line2 number.
    Case #2: Forward calls to GoogleVoice to line2.  In Europe, get a smartphone and install line2 app.  Use GoogleVoice app to make&receive calls and texts.
    Case #3: Just buy a throwaway phone when you’re in Europe.

  • Mauricio Korbman

    Take a look at this company: http://www.iphonetrip.com/

    Disclaimer: I did not use their service, but a colleague of mine did and said it was very good.

  • Mauricio Korbman

    In France, if you have an iPad, go to Fnac and buy one of their SIM cards. For a few euros you get a bunch of GBs.

  • Brad
    could you drop me a line and I will fix you up
    [email protected]:disqus .com

  • I’ve tried it all. You’re going to be happiest just pony’ing up for the iPhone native plans. You can buy down cheaper pricing by calling the carrier and getting on the intl plans; not great, but better than off the shelf.

  • I’ve tried it all. You’re going to be happiest just pony’ing up for the iPhone native plans. You can buy down cheaper pricing by calling the carrier and getting on the intl plans; not great, but better than off the shelf.

  • Dave Pitman

    I just got back from spending several months traveling around Europe (but mainly in Italy). Here’s what I figured out:
    Have your iPhone forward to Google Voice and use the Google Voice app on your iPhone, to receive calls at your US number.

    Jailbreak your iPhone. Get a prepaid SIM from Tre/Vodafone/Orange. I’d highly recommend Three if you’ll be primarily in areas they cover (Italy/UK/Ireland), the data plans are dirt cheap and fantastic. I’ve also heard good things about VodaFone. It is difficult to find one carrier that covers all of western europe with a good data plan. Heathrow’s terminal five has a few shops where you can buy SIM cards or wireless modem dongles for Three/Vodafone (and maybe orange), but you’ll pay a 20-30% markup. 

    There are a number of online services that seem to offer the ability to forward calls from US phone number to int’l numbers, and a lot of expats seem to like this but I never tried it myself. I had a fair amount of trouble using Skype to call the US numbers from Italy, but Google Voice worked well. Also, if Skype is part of your solution, a lot of the carriers give you a limited number of Skype “minutes.” I’m not sure if this is them offering a special Skype app, or some sort of data plan filtering.

  • BL

    Check out Line 2 from Toktumi. It works great for me with my iPhone when traveling throughout Europe.

  • Use TextNow Voice. Probably the best I’ve seen with call forwarding when travelling. Its an iPhone app available in the US!

  • Deb

    Some great tips here. I was also investigating this issue and found this post.

  • Anonymous

    You might want to try this US based company: http://www.wirelesstraveler.com/

    You don’t have to run around looking for prepaid SIMs in country, and can have the equipment sent to you before you leave.

  • Michael Dillhyon

    I’m an American who resides in Switzerland (good ole Zug) and has worked btwn the US and Europe for almost 10 yrs…primarily as a telephony entrepreneur.
    Over the years, I believe I have used most of the 17,000 known combinations of VoIP app & SIM card…in a futile attempt to not get royally screwed by both my home and roaming country carrier. 
    Bottom line?  Optimizing the use and cost of roaming cellular data is the variable to solve for.  In central Europe it can be as much as 20 CHF per MB!  Thinking wireless LAN dependent voice/txt apps are the sole answer to roaming in Europe is mostly delusional.  WiFi isnt as prevalent and is certainly never free.  Boingo is a good option though for quick access. 
    Best bet is to get an optimized (for your needs) intl data plan from your US carrier.  AT&T plans start at $25 for 20 MB.  Install a telephony app that uses very little data to connect and talk…GSM network and WiFi capable…such as Line 2, Call Trunk, et al.  Turn Fetch data off.  Do email only when on WiFi.  Ask inbound callers if you can ring them back or have record an OOO msg asking callers to txt you on urgent matters.  Intl text plans are relatively cheap.
    Best, Michael Dillhyon, Call Trunk

  • As a Brit in the US, this is an ongoing and frustrating problem.

    The ideal solution is definitely NOT the iphone international plan – if you go over the data limits it becomes hideously expensive 🙁

    We have two methods that work well for us so far:

    1) UK PAYG mobile, bought in London, works in most of Europe.  You can forward your GV or SkypeOut number to it easily.

    2) Unlocked old 3G iphone that was supplanted by a 4G. Loads of shops in Leicester Sq and Oxford Street will do this for a small fee. Get a new O2 sim card (works best on iphones, Vodafone is crap) and it will work well in most of Europe.  Again, you can forward GV and SO numbers to it while on the road as well as having a UK number for local use.

    These approaches keep 2 of us on the road in a more reasonable, effective and reliable fashion than international iPhone plans.

  • Bjorn

    Dear Brad,

    a) regarding to your handsets:

    if you want to keep using your iPhones, consider the different network frequencies in use in Europe vs. North America. 

    Your AT&T iPhone will work if jailbroken, as Eric Ries wrote. You will only get the lower EDGE speeds , though, if this is an older model (prior iPhone 4). iPhone 4 supports the European 3G frequencies, but I am not sure if it supports the band class required for the faster 3G speed. Maybe somebody has tried?

    Amy’s iPhone is on Verizon’s CDMA network and will not work in Europe. iFixit found out that the Qualcomm chipset used actually supports both CDMA as well as GSM. However, most likely the hardware has undergone modifications which a simple jailbreak cannot undo.

    Solution: you could get 2 unlocked, provider-independent GSM phones running Android. They start around 100 Euro (no contract, you just buy the phone hardware without any provider ties). When travelling you just put in a local SIM card. Can be used as travel phones in many other countries worldwide, too, and you could  keep using your Google services (emails, docs, Voice…) in an easy way.             

    To get an idea for European hardware prices & models you can have a look at this list: http://geizhals.at/eu/?cat=umtsover&bpmax=&asuch=&v=l&plz=&dist=&sort=p&xf=145_Quadband~148_Android#xf_top

    b) regarding data plans:

    as mentioned before data charges are ridiculous if you are roaming across European countries and it would be best to just get pre-paid SIM cards (without contract, pay-as-you-go) for each country you are in. Some plans you can buy in stores, some are only offered via Internet.

    Besides price & coverage (and the occasional lack of 3G support), European pre-paid plans tend to be different when it comes to data volume (excess speed/charges) and whether you can use VoIP/chat/IM. 
    – included data volume: many ‘unlimited’ plans have hidden caps. If you use more data they throttle you to the good old modem speeds (64 kbit). Some fixed volume plans charge you per MB if you exceed your limit, which can get expensive quickly.
    – support of Voice over IP. Some networks block Instant Messaging and VoIP, incl. chat applications.

    A month ago I came across a useful overview of no-contract European data plans by country. I don’t have the article with me (physical paper), but can share the insight in a few days as it might be useful for many.


    • Bjorn

      Some suggestions for data options from mentioned article:
      Source: http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/gadgets/0,1518,765297,00.html

      Orange 3G Mobicarte with InternetMax Option (500MB for 30 days, 12 Euro)
      in any Orange shop

      Wind with Data Option Internet No Stop (1 GB for 30 days, throttled beyond, 9 Euro)
      Three with Super Internet Option (5 Euro for 30 days, max. 100 MB per day)

      Great Britain:
      Three (5 GBP for 500 MB/month)

      Sunrise go dayflat with Sunrise Internet option (7.50 CHF for 250 MB in one month)

      MÁSmovil (smartphone: 5 Euro for 300 MB per month, orh 15 Euro for  1GB)

  • Johnbmtl

    You might feel that not having your iphone isn’t a problem, but you’ll quickly miss access to your contacts, email accounts and apps. I have a factory unlocked iPhone which I bought in Canada. They are now available from AT&T.

    When I travel overseas or to our condo n Florida ( I’m Canadian ), I pop a prepaid sim card into the phone and I’m all set. If you’re nt happy with the data charges, you’ll find a lot of Wi Fi availability in Paris.

    Before I leave Canada, I forward my local number to my Vonage line. Then, once I’ve purchased my prepaid sim card, a quick visit to the Vonage site andl forward from Vonage to the foreign number. So, anyone calling me on my local number can reach me. ( just remember to shut off the ringer at night. I’ve had people call me at 3 am when I was in China)

    Bon voyage!