An American Cell Phone in Europe

By Erin Monaghan
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When the cellular phone phenomenon began, there were various choices with regards to network technology. Europe decided to focus on one network; whereas, the United States branched off into several, each provider offering different types of technology. For years, the United States and Europe have operated on different cellular networks and until recently it was practically impossible to use your phone in another country. Now, there are at least two options to take your expensive PDA Smartphone overseas. One, you could get an unlocked world phone or two, you could extend your current plan to include international coverage, but only if your phone is compatible with overseas networks.

In order to understand why your smartphone won’t work in Europe, you have to understand how cellular phones work.

Option 1: An Unlocked Phone

The most popular and suggested method is to get an unlocked GSM “World” phone that supports quad-band frequencies. Switch the American SIM card with a European SIM card and use the European SIM card like a phone card with pre-paid minutes.

However, this all may be easier said than done. American carriers do not like people leaving their services; therefore, they lock their phones. You can’t just walk into the cell phone store and ask for an unlocked phone, they don’t sell them.  Locking phones enables providers to have the upper hand. If you switch services, you are forced to buy a new phone.

With an unlocked phone, this wouldn’t be a problem. You could simply switch services then trade out your SIM card. A SIM card is a small chip located inside your phone, usually somewhere under your battery, that contains all your phone’s information including contacts, messages, pictures etc.

Often you have to go to eBay or Amazon to find unlocked phones. Or, if you already have a phone you absolutely love, you can call your carrier and ask them to unlock your phone (which they don’t like to do and may refuse to give you the code) or you can search online. Often you can find someone selling unlocking codes for most major phones and carriers. This will usually cost between $20- $30. As a suggestion, find a service that works with PayPal or Google Checkout so you are not giving away credit card information.

But obtaining an unlocked phone is only the first part of the battle. The United States and Europe do not always speak the same cell phone language.

All of Europe and most of Asia use a GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) network. This is a standard and it enables all phones from any country in Europe or Asia to work across various boarders.

The United States, on the other hand, has two main networks. Some carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM network; whereas others like Verizon use CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Phones with CDMA cannot work in Europe.

In addition to being on different networks, both continents use different band frequencies. The U.S. uses 850/ 1900 and Europe uses 900/ 1800. Most cellular phones only have dual frequencies, which means they could only work in one place or the other. However, in the later part of 2005 manufacturers began to produce tri-band and later quad-band phones. This enabled American phones to be used on European frequencies.

Once you obtain an unlocked phone that works on a European network, you can simply change your American SIM card for a European one. When you come home, switch them back. However, your number will change with each SIM card switch, and it is unlikely people in the States will be able to reach you without dialing and being charged with additional long distance fees.

Option 2: Expand Your Plan

The second option is to speak with your carrier and discuss their international plans. Most services that offer a GSM network have some kind of international plan that enables you to make phone calls while overseas. However, there will be an additional monthly charge to your account in addition to international roaming fees for every call sent and received. This may be an expensive way to go, but you can keep your phone number.

Again, your phone has to be a GSM quad-band phone in order for this to work.

With the rate of globalization, it is expected that soon cellular phone coverage won’t be so complicated. Let me rephrase, technology will probably be complicated, but switching between networks and band frequencies will not. Just remember it wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t get coverage outside our own neighborhoods, now coast to coast is standard with most providers.

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