Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: A quick guide to using your cellphone when you arrive in Europe

It’s the height of the summer travel season, and we’ve been meaning to post about using your cellphone when you arrive in Europe.

Because we know from personal experience that arriving in a foreign country where you might not really know anyone – and don’t know the language – is about the scariest thing ever. Moreover, “will I be able to use my American cellphone in Europe?” is the most common question we get from friends coming to visit.


You could do it this way:

It’s July 1999 when we land in Izmir, Turkey. No one bothers to meet us at the airport. We don’t speak Turkish yet. We’re totally on our own.

The only thing we have going for us is Lucy, our blonde, blue-eyed 22-month old, who – we are soon to learn – makes Turks squeal “kuçuk oyuncak (little doll!)”

A security guard spots Lucy, exclaims “kuçuk oyuncak!” hands his MP 5 submachine gun to his buddy, grabs her and sets off across the arrival hall to show his friends.

This. Really. Happened.

He comes back awhile later (quite awhile later, come to think of it), figures out we’re completely lost and pulls out his calling card so we could use the payphone, which didn’t accept coins. Voilà! We’re saved …

In 2017, it’s a little different process and you can come to Europe for fun or profit with the peace of mind knowing you’re immediately connected.

Most new phones can now connect to both Europe’s GSM networks and the CDMA networks in the U.S. So, yeah, you can use your phone as soon as you get off the plane.

Also, more and more phones come equipped with dual SIM (subscriber identification module) cards. The phone simply prompts users to select the appropriate SIM.

This is from a friend, who just visited in May:


I want to clarify what I should or should not do purchasing a SIM card for my Verizon cell phone when I get to Frankfurt.

I know how to remove my Verizon sim card and have a small zip lock bag handy to put it in.

1.  Should I buy a SIM card at the Frankfurt airport (it’s really the only place where I’ll get the chance to)?

2.  If I do get it there in Germany, will it operate in The Netherlands?  (i.e. can I call you from Frankfurt to give you my train schedule?)

3.  How many minutes/credits should I buy?  Figuring I’ll be using it probably just that first day to contact you guys.  I don’t plan on calling anyone else at this time.

4.  What is a guesstimate for the cost of the SIM card?

5.  If I should try to buy a SIM card in the Netherlands, will I find them available at the first Dutch train station where I change trains?

As you can see I have zero experience in this.

Talk to you soon.


My wife Cheryl responds:

Download the app Viber on your phone.

Viber is one of several free apps that allow you to call or text other users for free. This works abroad also.

You can connect to Wifi, then either call or text for free.

If you don’t have Wifi, you use the data plan you have already, in which case, you should get the international data plan from Verizon.

Since we used our international plan nearly two years ago, they’ve improved it at Verizon.

Now you are charged a flat daily fee of $10 for international data but only if you use your phone to make or receive a call, a text or use the data.

Here’s the way it will work:

Download Viber. They’ll send you a text for verification, and you set up your account.

Call Verizon or go online to your account and sign up for the $10 per day international data plan.

You fly to Frankfurt, get through customs, grab your bag and are ready to head to the Netherlands. You sign on to the airport wifi. You go to the Viber app and either call me or text me through Viber. You get on the train and can use the wifi on the train (which will hopefully work) and you can text me updates about where you are and if you will arrive in Eindhoven on schedule.

If it happens that you can’t get to wifi, you can use your int’l data plan for the next 24 hours for $10 and either call or text me using Viber as we know those are free services.

Don’t bother getting a SIM card in Germany. We have SIM cards that were free and all we have to do is load 10 euros on and that will more than carry you for the week you’re here. With any luck, you won’t need your data plan from Verizon often since there is ample wifi and Viber calls and texts are free.

My answer would have been a little different:

In 2015, we made our first exploratory visit to Europe to set up Dispatches, and man, did we get killed using Verizon. I think we ran up a bill of something like $300 in three weeks.

When I moved permanently to the Netherlands on 8 March 2016, I went directly to the Lycamobile kiosk at the arrival hall in Schiphol Airport.

The woman working at the kiosk extracted the American SIM card from my iPhone and inserted a Lycamobile SIM. Then I had her load up 20 euros worth of credit. I got a new Dutch phone number, and bang … within five minutes, I could make calls anywhere whether I had wifi or not.

I think I went more than a month with that first 20 euros because I was careful to use wifi, which is everywhere in the Netherlands. But there were times when I had to use the Lycamobile system and was glad I had a carrier.

Why Lycamobile? Because it was the first place I saw. And it turned out to be fine. Lycamobile is one of the largest telecoms companies targeting ethnic groups in Britain and across Europe by offering cheap international calling rates as opposed to more expensive subscription phone service.

This London-based pay-as-you-go provider claims 15 million customers in 21 countries. I know from using it for a few months that it’s popular here with immigrants from Africa and Asia. You can find convenience marts, as well as supermarkets, all over the Netherlands where you can top up your data.

Finally, Lycamobile has people on the streets hustling half-off SIM deals.

If you’re an expat, you’ll transition to a big telecom provider such as Ziggo that gives you the full TV/internet package. If you’re just hanging out for the summer in Europe, you get an SMS when you cross the border to shift data to the local Lycamobile provider should you go from, say, Amsterdam to Brussels or Paris. But it’s easy to do.

Here are some additional pay-as-you-go options

• T-mobile offers its Go SIM Only service starting at 19 euros for 1 gigabyte of data.

Vodafone also offers a SIM-only deal starting at 3 gigs for only 15 euros.

Website | + posts

Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

Most Popular

To Top

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest news and updates from Dispatches Europe. Get lifestyle & culture, startup & tech, jobs and travel news dispatched to your inbox each week.

You have Successfully Subscribed!