Travel with iPhone to Europe

For my Germany trip, rather than pay expensive roaming rates using my mobile phone with its US-based AT&T SIM, I looked into using a pay as you go SIM from Germany. (Swapping out the SIM on an iPhone sold in the US requires that the phone be jailbroken to then be unlocked, a subject for another post.)

The best deal for US travelers is FONIC (see links below), which only costs 9 cents a minute to call a landline in the US, and incoming calls are free while you are in Germany. The default data charge is 24 cents per 100kb, but there is the option to book a “day flat” for €2.50 or a month for €9.95. Each of those plans has a certain allotment of high speed data (more for the day flat), and after that is exceeded you have unlimited data but at a lower speed. So definitely one of the two plans is the way to go, rather than the 24 cents per 100kb.

Now the not-so-good news. You need a German address to activate the SIM, so if you buy the SIM in Germany you’ll need a friend to activate it, or you will have to buy in advance from an Ebay seller and probably pay more. (Though it’s even better if you’re able to borrow one from someone else who has traveled there and has returned home!) Also, the refill vouchers are only available in €20 and €30 denominations, a bit on the large side for travelers. But not a huge issue with proper planning, checking your balance, etc.  (I found at later that according to this site, O2 “Loop Up” vouchers can be used, which are available for €10.)

Activating the data plans requires sending a text to FONIC. They then send back a text in reply, and I don’t know much German, but I could tell that I needed to text “JA” (yes) in reply to confirm. Then another message came back, and I was good to go…

Now My War Story

…or not. When I first checked the airtime, it was about €3 less than I had started with, that seemed about right for the day flat and a couple of calls. But then I checked again later and the airtime balance was a bit lower. Then later, the balance was a bit lower again. Something wasn’t right, so as a precaution I disabled all data (can only be done on jailbroken iPhones from what I understand – also a topic for another post) until I could figure out what was going on.

I went back to the second confirmation text message and put in the iTranslate app. What I had assumed to be a message confirming my subscription to the data plan was instead a message telling me they had received my request and that they would send another text when the data plan was active!

I assumed my request went into a black hole, so Sunday night I checked my balance and made/confirmed another request. I didn’t get a text message saying my subscription was activated, but Monday morning I saw that the package price was deducted from my balance, and my account balance wasn’t continuously dropping anymore.

Using FONIC Elsewhere in Europe

I spent a day in the Czech Republic as part of my trip. The text I got after entering the Czech Republic indicated that roaming rates for the EU were 46 cents a minute to place calls, 17 cents a minute to receive calls, 13 cents per SMS (text message), and 69 cents per MMS (picture message).  In addition, data rates were 50 cents per 100kb up to a maximum of €59.50 a month.  Enough to make you keep the phone turned off for a short excursion across the border. At least data roaming is disabled on my phone by default, and so I have to make an effort to actually turn it on.  I did turn it on to do a “checkin” in Gowalla to earn the Czech Republic  badge, then I immediately turned it off. That checkin cost me €2.50.

Other Tips

With a fixed price for data, it then makes much more sense to make a shift in usage from voice/text to data. One example is the TextFree app, which allows me to “text” people using an app, and they can text back using a “dummy” phone number, and you get notifications of your “texts” via push.  Another example is making calls with Skype, if you have a jailbroken phone and have 3G Unrestrictor and can trick the app into thinking the phone is on Wifi instead of 3G.

And on another note, the Virgin Mobile UK SIM that I bought about six years ago still works!  I guess the (small) balance on it is enough to keep it active! In the USA, the rates are £1.40/min to make a call, £0.80/min to receive a call, £0.35 per text, and mobile web/broadband is £5 per MB.  In the EU, the rates are £0.38/min to make a call, £0.14/min to receive a call, £0.10 per text, £0.30 per picture mail, and a separate travel pass is needed for web/data access.

We’ll see if the German SIM stays active after my trip is over. The one I had from France way back when “died”.  I read something saying the German SIM will stay active up to a year before you have to refill it again, but I can’t seem to find the link now.

Key Links

This English language website about the German phone market was very helpful.  Also, this English language page gives the particulars of rates and where to buy SIM cards and top-up vouchers.