Going mobile in Europe

In lines and on buses throughout Europe, you can hear bits of Euro-pop hits – it’s the sound of cell phones ringing up and down the aisles. Europeans love their phones, and it’s easy to see why: Mobile phones (as they call them) keep people in touch – an especially important idea for travelers, too. You can call home anytime or even book a room in Madrid while you’re on a train in Spain.

If you already have a cell phone, it probably won’t work in Europe. But if it’s “tri-band” and “unlocked” (confirm with the store or check the paperwork that came with the phone), you can call for pizza in Europe and have it delivered to your hotel.

When you buy a mobile phone, you’re actually getting two separate things: the phone itself and the card that makes it work. European mobile phones use the GSM standard, which allows Europeans to use their phones from country to country with no additional roaming charges.

T-Mobile is the major manufacturer of GSM-enabled phones in the United States www.tmobile.com). But you can also shop for all kinds of GSM-ready phones at www.world-import.com, www.telestial.com and www.amazon.com. I find it simpler to buy a phone once in Europe. Try the ubiquitous corner phone marts or the mobile phone counters in big department stores. Ignoring the pricey tri-band phones, I got a simple phone that works only in Europe (you can even get cheapies that work just in the country where you buy it). Next, you need to buy a phone card (unless it comes with the phone). Phone cards store your digital “identity” – your phone number and account information – on a removable thumbnail-sized chip, called a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. Think of the SIM card as your phone’s driver’s license.

Many SIM cards work best in the country where purchased. When you use the same card in another country, you can be charged for roaming. If you want to use your phone in multiple countries, get a local SIM card for each, or find a European carrier that has roaming agreements in the places you’ll be visiting.

SIM cards usually cost $20-50 and can be bought at European phone shops and refilled with more minutes at newsstands and gas stations.

Domestic calls in Europe usually cost 10-20 cents per minute. International calls are expensive, averaging $1 per minute to other European countries and the United States. If you get an incoming call on your mobile phone, it probably won’t cost you anything; instead, your loved ones will foot the bill (but you’re worth it).

Mobile phones aren’t for everybody. For most travelers, phone booths are the cheapest and easiest way to make calls in Europe. But if you travel frequently, a mobile phone is a great convenience. I bought my cheap one in Italy four years ago and have used it in more than a dozen countries. Count me among the many, traveling through Europe as mobile as my phone.

Rick Steves of Edmonds (425-771-8303, www.ricksteves.com), the author of 27 European travel guidebooks including Europe Through the Back Door (published by Avalon), hosts the PBS-TV series Rick Steves’ Europe, airing weeknights at 7 p.m. on Channel 9.

Tuesday: Amsterdam and Holland

Friday: The Rhine and Mosel regions

Phone tips

What to ask when buying a mobile phone

* What is the cost per minute for domestic and international calls?

* Are there different calling plans with different per-minute costs? Which one is right for me?

* How do I get a tally of the remaining credit or time on my card?

* How can I get more credit when I run out? Is there a way to get more credit when I’m in another country?

* What are the extra costs for calls when I’m roaming in another country?

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