Cell phone options for European trips

Q and A

Q&a

July 23, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

We will be in Europe this summer and would like a pay-as-you-go cell phone that will work in England and other countries. Can we buy a SIM card in Britain that will work in our North American handset?

The simplest option is to buy a basic cell phone, such as a Nokia or Motorola, at one of the many retail outlets in Britain such as Carphone Warehouse or Dixons; it should cost less than $75. Service providers such as T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone are clamoring for your business with pay-as-you-go options. This should give you automatic roaming in Europe and most parts of the world, although not in the United States or Canada unless you have a tri-band phone that works in the U.S. system. (You may need to register a British address and have a minimum of 50 pounds, or $94 at $1.88 to the pound, on the card.)

Many travelers have found it cheaper to buy a local-network SIM card for their GSM handset. Prepaid SIM cards, which give you a local phone number so you pay local rates, typically cost the equivalent of $25 to $40, and you can easily add credit.

Of course, you will need to give your new number to those who need to know, and the card will expire if not used within six to nine months. But you will get cheap local calls, and free incoming calls from the United States.

The downside to buying local SIM cards can be coping with the local language, crucial to understanding instructions for adding credit to the card. A solution is to buy a country-specific or global SIM card with English instructions before you travel, available through sites such as SIM4travel.com, 0044.co.uk and gosim.com. You should be able to save up to 80 percent on normal roaming charges by making calls at local rates and receiving most calls free in most countries.

SIM4travel.com sells SIM cards for about $56, and Nokia 1100 phones for $75, and you can buy up to $375 of credit at one time.

You can use your own handset, but it must be "unlocked," that is, open to all networks. You can unlock your phone from a specific network at activatemyphone.com (from $5.95).

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