Cell Phones in Europe (from a USA perspective)

When ever I call someone on a "land line" and talk to them on their cell phone, I'm amazed at how poor the quality is. There's this huge multibillion dollar cell phone industry based on a medium of communication that is little better than a bad walkie-talkie.

Given poor quality of cell phone connections, the cost of a monthly cell phone contract and the fact that I work in an area where cell phones are not allowed means that so far I don't own a normal cell phone. The only cell phone that my wife and I own is a cheap cell phone that one buys a "recharge" card for. Call me a techno-dinosaur, but those are my reasons and I'm sticking to them.

I first purchased a cell phone that worked in Europe when I visited Barcelona, Spain in 2005. In Barcelona I rented an apartment. One of the problems with staying in an apartment in Spain is that not all apartments come with telephones (the people renting the apartment don't want to expose themselves to the unreimbursed long distance telephone charges of their guests). Having access to a telephone would be useful for making restaurant reservations and, most importantly, to talk to my beloved wife, who was not be able to travel with me (she does not fly except in extremis).

An obvious solution to the lack of a telephone while in Barcelona was to use a cell phone. But the cell phone that we have is not compatible with the European cell phone network.

The cell phone standard in Europe is referred to by the acronym GSM. You can buy GSM phones in the US, but they do not necessarily use the proper GSM frequency. But European compatible GSM phones can be purchased or rented. Unfortunately the phone alone is not needed. Apparently the phone takes an electronic plug-in card known as a "SIM card" which must be purchased. Some vendors who handle sales and rentals of European GSM phones also sell SIM phone cards. The SIM card comes with some amount of time and additional time is purchased on a phone card.

This page was originally written in March and April of 2005, so current details may differ.

When I first wrote this web page I was considering renting a cell phone. Like the cell phone business itself, the cell phone rental business is full of hidden charges, which makes comparision difficult. For example, The Planet Omni phone has free incoming calls in Spain and calls are billed at the local cell phone rate. Some cell phone rental people charge for incoming calls in some countries. They also have a high charge for local calls. Of the rental vendors I found on the web, Planet Omni appeared to be the most attractive.

When you rent a cell phone you have to purchase the SIM chip and put down a deposit. Considering these costs and the weekly rental rate, it does not make much sense to rent a cell phone for anything but a short trip which is unlikley to be repeated.

Telestial

Instead of renting a cell phone, before going to Barcelona in 2005, I purchased a cell phone and a SIM chip from Telestial, a company in San Diego, California. They gave me a great price on a cell phone. I also purchased a SIM chip for Spain which came with 30 Euros worth of time, so I did not have to buy any additional time while I was in Spain. I would call my wife in California, and she would call me back. Incoming calls are free, so over two weeks I only just managed to use up the € 30 of cell phone time.

In the spring of 2006 I purchased an Italian SIM chip in preparation for my trip to Italy. The Italian SIM chip only came with € 5 of time. There are tobacco shops scattered around every city and these stores sell cards that allow you to add time to the phone. I purchased a € 30 card, which allowed me to add € 25 of call time (I still don't understand what the other € 5 went to). Telestial provided instructions on how to add time and how to change the voice prompts on the phone from italian to english. As with my trip to Spain, I called my wife and she called me back. Calls into an Italian cell phone are free for the cell phone user, so there was still a balance on the cell phone when I left Italy.

Telestial customer service has been very good. When my cell phone battery did not charge properly at first, I phoned Telestial and they mailed me a replacement, no questions asked. On another occasion Telestial's president went out of his way to make things right when I had a problem. He is strongly dedicated to customer service, which is something I really appreciate. Telestial's business seems to be booming, but the company founder has not forgotten that his customers are important.

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