An American Smartphone in Europe

An American Smartphone in Europe

It’s easier than ever to just use your own smartphone while traveling overseas

Each summer, my family swaps homes with another family from Europe, and this year we’re in Amsterdam for three weeks. There are many interesting aspects to such a trip, but I’m particularly happy about how much easier and more affordable it is to bring smartphones overseas and use them normally. Compared with just a few years ago, it’s gotten notably better. Look back a decade, and it’s like comparing the Dark Ages to the Renaissance.

Ten years ago, my wife and I spent a week in Germany, and we needed to rent an international cell phone from a firm in East Boston. Our experience doing so says a lot about how things have changed. We printed out MapQuest-based directions to the company’s offices but got lost while driving there because the roads described no longer existed thanks to then-ongoing construction related to Boston’s “Big Dig” project. The phone we used was just for phone calls; texting and Internet access were still many years away. When we got home, we mailed the phone back in a tube container.

Within a year of that trip, my wife bought me an international cell phone for future travel. We could inconveniently add to the balance on the phone’s SIM (it was still voice only) and, over time, started hunting around in Europe for pay-as-you go SIMs that were a bit more affordable.

In 2007, I switched to AT&T when I purchased the first iPhone, which wasn’t yet available anywhere outside the US, and brought it to France. Back then, the iPhone supported only EDGE-type connections (which is basically “2G”), and there was no way to easily purchase international plans for voice, text, or data, or while traveling to figure out what you were using. So I kept the thing in airplane mode for the most part, and prayed. (You might recall that some early iPhone users reported getting fees of multiple thousands of dollars from international traveling that summer. I was not among them.)

Since then, the smartphone story has steadily improved. People still seem to hate on AT&T for some reason, but AT&T has the best compatibility with international networks and the best prices on international plans by far. I’m still experimenting with which phone and text plans to choose when traveling overseas (and there are weird new nuances to those, given the dual-factor authentication text messages that both Google and Microsoft like to send so frequently now), but the data plan is easy: I opt for the 800MB plan, which costs a reasonable $120, and then I can just leave my phone’s data on for the month and read and respond to emails as they come in like normal.

A couple of years ago I was describing this option to a friend from Europe who was visiting the US for a similar time period and was scouting out pay-as-you options at AT&T and other services. He was surprised by the price—$120! Outrageous!—but I don’t get that. In the scope of a three-week trip, $120 is nothing. It’s the price of one lunch for four in Paris. And the service you get is the difference between “normal” and “completely cut off.” It’s perfectly reasonable.

This year, I have two phones with me. And I had to divvy up phone, text, and data plans between the two for personal and work usage. The total cost, minus the normal monthly fee, will be about $300, I bet. But again, for a three-week trip where you can simply use two phones essentially normally, this is an amazing capability. And it’s allowed my family to stay in touch when we’re separated or doing different things.

Speaking of amazing capabilities, if you read the SuperSite for Windows, you might know that I successfully replaced a point-and-click camera on this trip with a Nokia Lumia 1020. This superior smartphone boasts a 41-megapixel camera, and my vacation shots have never looked better. So instead of carrying two devices, I just carry the 1020. Perfect.

(Random aside: Walking around Amsterdam and various other sites in Belgium and The Netherlands, I’m surprised and thankful that I didn’t see very many iPads being used as cameras on this trip. This practice seems silly to me, because of the sheer size of these devices compared with a phone or camera, the relatively low quality of the resulting photos, and the all-too-easy ability for a quick-moving thief to snatch and run. Truth is, I saw more Lumias than iPads. That’s my kind of trip.)

The international plans will pay off when we’re ready to go home as well. When we leave for the airport Friday morning, I’ll use Nokia Drive+ to find the most efficient route to Schiphol. Unlike the navigational devices we used to use in borrowed cars in Europe, this app is always up to date, and it’s in my native language. That’s no small advantage, as anyone who has ever been lost in a foreign country can tell you. Especially someone who’s trying to catch an early flight.

Like the pervasiveness of Wi-Fi over the previous decade, more accessible smartphone voice, text, and data while traveling internationally has really made the world a smaller place. I can’t wait for the next trip.

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