If you've been stung by roaming charges in the past when using a U.S. cellphone abroad and you've recently heard about new, supposedly fair roaming caps in Europe, beware: It's not what it seems.
As of July 2013, European-carrier SIM card roaming rates are capped in Europe at 0.45 euros, or about US$0.60, per megabyte for data and 0.24 euros, or about $0.32, for one minute of voice.
You'd think that should mean that if you buy a SIM card in one EU country for use in an unlocked phone, you would get the same super-duper voice and data rates as you travel around Europe.
The truth? Well, yes, you do get the same rates. However, they're not good rates. These new EU capped rates are the "rack rates" -- to use a hospitality industry term. They are the inflated standard retail prices, not the discounted price you get if you negotiate or watch for offers.
Think of it like an airline increasing its time-tabled flight times to make on-time records look pretty. It ain't real.
The EU bureaucrats are lauding it around like these new rates are some kind of gift from God. They're not, and here are the numbers: At those prices it still will cost 614 euros, or a shocking $814 per gigabyte of data -- not including taxes -- if you take advantage of this supposed EU gift.
In other words, official EU roaming rates are still a ripoff. Here's how to obtain the best voice and data prices when in Europe.
Step 1: Understand the Market
Despite the 1957 Treaty of Rome creating the EEC, or European Economic Community -- later renamed the EU -- that was supposed to usher in a unified common market across Europe, it didn't do that when it came to many things, including cellphone deals.
Each country has differing phone companies and consequently schemes. Even pan-European outfits, like Vodafone and Orange, have separate entities that set their own discounted prices.
Step 2: Look for Local Deals in Each Country
Perform an Internet search for website landing-page deals before you go, or use free hotel or cafe WiFi when on the ground. Look for prepay rates rather than any kind of contract.
Don't bother trying to order anything on the Internet in some countries, like France -- many operators' websites don't take foreign cards. Again, welcome to the EU.
Aggregator stores with fair prices include Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U in the UK, and The Phone House in eight countries. Major pan-European carriers with their own stores include Orange and Vodafone.
Country-specific carriers include T-Mobile, EE and O2 in the UK; SFR in France; Hutchison 3 in the UK.
Tip: Reckon on paying Pounds 10, or about $15, for a T-Mobile SIM card with 1 GB of data and 100 local minutes that lasts 30 days in the UK.
Step 3: Purchase a Country-Specific SIM Card
This doesn't have to be an onerous exercise because all major phone companies have a brick-and-mortar presence on the best shopping streets. So, combine a pleasant morning perusing a city center and drinking a street-side coffee while waiting for your number to come up in the usually long lines at the phone shop.
Tip: Bring your passport for identity verification, and you'll likely need cash if you don't have a non-swipe, chip-and-PIN-enabled, European-style credit card.
Step 4: Get the Clerk to Set Up Your Device
See the SIM card functioning in your phone or tablet before you leave the store. Some stores, despite the branding, aren't company-owned, and you'll have no redress if there's a problem. Indeed, even if they are company-owned, management can be ruthless, so reckon once you've walked out, that's your lot.
Tip: Some hole-in-the wall outlets, despite major-label branding, are open to haggling.
A Few Warnings
Things to watch out for include how long the credit lasts; how long the SIM card lasts if you don't use it and want to on a return visit; and whether all usual services are included. For example, Orange France charges extra for Web-client e-mail on its Mobicarte SIM card, yet Web-browser e-mail is included.
If you buy a bucket of service, find out how long it takes for services to become provisioned and start, so you don't snort up available credit at full rates. Often you'll get a confirmation text -- assuming it isn't lunchtime. Keep the phone turned off until then.
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