Travel like a local is one of my mantras. Eat like one, walk like one, think like one.
One of the best ways to do so is to have a local phone number, and in Europe the process is easy. Phone numbers are attached to the SIM cards inside your phone. If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card at a cellphone store when you arrive and place calls at the local rate. You can top off the card with additional credits you purchase at gas stations, drug stores and even some ATMs abroad.
Using your own phone
If your current cellphone is with AT&T or T- Mobile, you are covered: Call customer service for instructions on using a local SIM abroad as the company may need to unlock something on your phone. When they try to sell you their international plan, politely decline; they tend to be exorbitantly expensive.
Sprint and Verizon use technology that is not supported in Europe. However, if you are using an iPhone, the 4S and 5 versions have both technologies and will work with European carriers. If not, you can buy a pay-as-you-go phone locally, but at about $30, it is not as good a deal.
SIM cards from companies like Vodafone, T-Mobile or Three are available for free. You can put credit on the card in local currency for around 10 Euros ($15). This gives you local calling rates of around 25 cents a minute. If you have a smartphone, Vodaphone and Three will include some local data, so you can use Google Maps when you are hopelessly lost. You also will get a certain number of free local text messages (around 300) that you can use to stay in contact with your travel companions.
Saving money with Skype
A nice European Union quirk: Incoming calls are not charged to your account. This allows you to set up one more money-saving trick for your friends at home that might need to reach you. They probably do not want to pay for international calls (I know that I don’t!).
If you do not have a Skype account, create one here. You can then forward Skype calls to your local number in the Preferences section of Skype. It looks like this on the Mac version:
People trying to reach you on Skype will be forwarded to the phone number you have listed above. You will not be charged time on your cellphone but will pay Skype’s 2.3 cents per minute rate for these calls. For this to work, you need to have some credit in your Skype account, and Skype has a minimum purchase of $10.
One more trick: You do not have to answer this call. If you don’t pick up, you will only be charged for a brief forwarding call based on how long the connection is kept open. You can then go find a place with free WiFi, log on to Skype and call your loved one back for free.
If you are already a Skype addict and have a Skype number ($60 a year) you can give people at home that number, which will be forwarded to your international cellphone at Skype’s low rates.
Total cost for this depends on currency exchange rates, but will be between $25 and $30. In the United Kingdom, the SIM will expire if you do not use the phone number for six months, but in most other places in the EU, you’ll keep that phone number as long as you have credit remaining on the SIM.
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