Will your American cell phone work in Europe? Or most other countries throughout the world, for that matter? The short answer is: yes, they're almost certain to work. If your phone was made in the last five years, it's going to work in different countries, and most will operate with almost no impedance or issue. Back before the iPhone 4, which launched in 2014, there were issues with Europe's cell networks running on a wireless technology called GSM, which wasn't standard across the US. While some carriers used it, others opted for a different technology called CDMA, and certain phones were unable to accept signals from both.
Nowadays, this isn't an issue. Modern phones can happily connect across both types of network, and some even have dual-sim variants - like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus - which allows you to keep your regular US sim card AND add an additional European sim when you visit. However, you can only use this option if your phone is unlocked, which means you need to be out of contract or using a prepaid sim on a handset you bought outright.
Most of the best cell phone providers offer plans that accommodate calling home from abroad, and if you're going to be there for a while, making calls to European numbers, you can always pick up a pre-paid or low-fee sim when you arrive, which will definitely save you money.
Here are some of the options available to you, if you're looking to use your cell phone in Europe and beyond.
Option 1: Use roaming data and calls
This is the 'do nothing, and pay a fortune' option. When you head to a different country your cell phone will automatically connect to a partner network in whatever country you arrive in. It will then act as a normal phone does, using data and accepting texts and calls. If you'd rather it didn't do this, both iPhones and Android phones have the option to switch off different aspects of roaming - from restricting certain apps, to deactivating any type of roaming usage. Most carriers will message you when you arrive in a new country to notify you of the cost of using data, the cost of texts and calls, and any add-ons in your phone plan that impacts this.
Using roaming data is very expensive, and even with plans that make it cheaper, you're looking at around $10 per 100MB. You can buy bundles of data, on some networks, and they are also eye-wateringly pricey. If your network just allows free use of data, with no limits or warnings, you can potentially incur huge bills from only limited use. We do not recommend using roaming data unless absolutely necessary. If you do, try to buy bundles, and save some money.
Some network providers will actually give you free data roaming and calls while out of the country, so in these instances you don't need to worry at all. T-Mobile and Sprint offer plans with free roaming data and calls, providing you add these options to your plan before you travel.
Option 2: Buy a pre-paid phone or sim at your destination
One of the most cost effective ways of using a phone in a different country is to go local. In some instances you can buy the cheapest, most basic Android phone for around $30, and get a sim-card for it with 500MB of data (or more) for less than $20 in the equivalent local currency. The disadvantage here is that you will need to use a new number, which means you won't be able to use WhatsApp, which is locked to your specific phone number. You will be able to make unlimited local calls and texts, and 500MB of data will probably be fine for staying in touch with your digital life for a couple of weeks.
If you're lucky enough to have an unlocked phone, there's an even cheaper option. Simply buy a local sim-card at your destination, slot it into your phone, and use it as normal. This is effective for calling usage in the country you're in (there's no point buying a sim at your destination and using it to call back home, because you'll burn through your pre-paid credit just as fast), and for data use. As we mentioned above, some of the best smartphones even have dual-sims, so you won't need to remove your US sim-card and potentially lose it. They are VERY small nowadays.
Option 3: Switch off everything except WiFi
One super-cheap option is to disable all roaming functionality on your phone completely. In fact, disable your network calling entirely. From here, you can safely switch on WiFi, and only use data when you're within range of public or private WiFi (for which you will need a password). If you're travelling for business, most offices in Europe have private WiFi, for which you can easily get the password. If you're there for vacation, most hotels will also have it, but you may need to pay, and it likely won't be suitable for streaming or other data-heavy activities.
Most areas in European cities are covered by some kind of public WiFi, but they're usually operated by different companies. Signing in usually gets you free access, for a limited period, but be aware that you are repeatedly giving away your personal data here, which we wouldn't really recommend.
The advantage of going WiFi only is that services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other data services will all work with no cell network connection, and you'll keep your login for all of them, as they're attached to your cell number. The main drawback? You'll spend most of your trip hunting for WiFi...
So, what's the best option for an American cell phone in Europe?
This really depends on how you will be using your phone. If you want to call home frequently, we recommend looking for a roaming package with your existing cell company. You're looking to save money on calls here, so it's best to see what your network offers, because it costs just as much to contact a US number from Europe, regardless of what kind of sim you're using.
If data is more of a concern, definitely choose the 'buy a local phone or sim' option unless you can guarantee you'll be around WiFi for the majority of your visit. Sure, you may need to temporarily use a new number and won't have access to WhatsApp, but you'll save a packet if you use a lot of data and make a lot of local calls.
For very occasional use of data and calls? We recommend switching off all roaming options and just using WiFi when you can. Some message systems, and Skype, allows calling purely via data too, so you'll be able to get in touch with loved ones using one method or other.