Cell Phones in England
Most vacation rentals in the Cotswolds (and the rest of the United Kingdom) do not have telephones so you need a cell phone for calling home or making local reservations. If you are traveling with a group, cell phones make keeping in touch easier. Note that cell phones are called "mobiles" in the UK.
Note that there are online companies who sell affordable UK cell phones/SIM card packages or UK SIM cards that can be used with your own unlocked GSM world phone. I have used Cellular Abroad and Telestial.
Summary - What You Need for a Cell Phone for Europe
The cell phone network in Europe works on different frequencies than the network in North America, so you need a phone that will work in Europe (a GSM world phone or a GSM European phone). You also need a SIM card for Europe. This is a small chip that goes into your phone and contains the European phone number.
You can use your North American cell phone if you have a GSM world phone and your provider has an International Plan - not all do (but this is more expensive for calling).
Using your Smart Phone in Europe
If you use an iPhone or other smartphone in the US for cell phone calls and data, do not assume you can take it to Europe with you. Ask your cell phone company about an international data plan. Some cell providers have high charges for data access in Europe.
Can I use my US cell phone in the United Kingdom?
Yes, if your US cell phone is a GSM world phone that works on the European frequencies (900 or 1800).
US and Canadian cell phones work on different frequencies than European cell phones, but many cell phones sold here work on both North American and European frequencies. Only GSM phones, the kind that have a SIM card will work in Europe.
There are two ways to use your US cell phone in Europe.
- Option 1 - Use your US cell phone and cell phone service. If your US cell phone has an international option, you can take your US phone to Europe and use it. This is a good option if you are not going to make many calls because calls are much more expensive this way.
Disadvantages: You may pay per minute for incoming calls (with European cell providers incoming calls are free). The cost for outgoing calls may be high, usually $0.99/minute. Check with your provider to see what the costs will be.
Advantages: People in the US call your US phone number, but reach you in Europe. You pay the per minute incoming call charge, but no other long distance fees.
- Option 2 - Use your US cell phone with a European SIM card. If your US cell phone is unlocked (you can change the SIM card), use it with a UK SIM card. Purcahse the SIM card either before you leave or in the country when you arrive.
Cell phones are "locked" to the cell service you purchased the phone from. Usually the cell provider will "unlock" your phone if you ask them. If they don't there are online companies that will do this for a small fee. To unlock a phone, you have to type in a special code. Then it can be used with SIM cards from any cell service.
I have unlocked a US cell phone by asking my provider for the code. I followed their directions and entered the unlock code into my phone. I have also used an unlock website where I paid about $20 to unlock a UK cell phone. They gave me the instructions and the code and the phone was unlocked.
Should I Buy a Cell Phone for the United Kingdom?
Cell Phone: If your US cell phone will not work in the UK, buy a cell phone for the UK.
When you purchase a US cell phone it comes with a US-style plug. Get a plug adapter for the UK - that is all you need (this is all you need with most electronics). If you look on the charger plug for your phone, you will see that it works on North American and European voltages (it says "input 100 - 240Vc").
You can also purchase your cell phone in the UK, but it may be locked to the provider.
SIM Card: You have to purchase a SIM card for the UK. Purchase online before you go or when you arrive.
Adding More Minutes: With prepaid SIM cards you add minutes by purchasing them locally ("recharge" or "topup") or from your provider.
The photo below shows my Top-Up card for my UK SIM. I take the card into a newsagent or other shop that does Top-Up, give them the card and pay for more minutes. They are automatically added to the phone.
UK cell phone, two SIM cards and "top-up" card
I thought I would purchase an unlocked phone in England, but it turned out that unlocked phones were very expensive, so I ended up buying a locked phone with a prepaid Vodafone SIM card and was locked into that provider.
The cheapest solution
Buy an unlocked GSM world phone and purchase a SIM card when you get to England.
Advantages: Free incoming calls and the cheapest rates for calling within that country.
Disadvantages: You do not have your phone number before you leave, you have to purchase new SIM cards for each country and you lose unused minutes unless you use each SIM card once a year (varies by cell provider).
Making Long Distance Calls from Your Cell Phone
Whichever cell service you decide on, make sure you know the cost of calling back home. If it is not affordable, consider an International Phone Card.
Toll-Free is not always free from a Cell Phone!!
Toll-free numbers that are free when called from a landline are not free when called from a cell phone in the United Kingdom. Some companies even charge toll-free numbers as a premium call, so you pay more per minute than calling a local number.
If you are using an International Phone Card from your cell phone you have to pay twice - you pay for the minutes used on your cell phone and then for the same minutes on your International Phone Card.
Dialing Long Distance from your Cell Phone
To dial long distance in the United Kingdom, dial the international direct dialing number (00), then the country code, then the phone number. For example a call to the US might be: 00-1-505-999-1212.
On a cell phone you can dial + instead of having to know the local international direct dialing number. The + is usually dialed by hitting the * twice, or holding the 0 - consult your phone manual.
GSM: GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is the type of cell network used in Europe. Some US cell phone companies use GSM (T-Mobile, AT&T), but others do not. If your phone uses a SIM card, it is a GSM phone.
GSM Frequencies: GSM cell phones and networks work on GSM bands (frequencies). Cell phones in the US work at GSM 1900 or 850. Cell phones in Europe work on GSM 900 or 1800.
Locked/Unlocked: When you purchase a cell phone in the US from a cell phone provider it can only be used with that provider. For example, if you purchase a cell phone from T-Mobile, that phone can only be used with a T-Mobile SIM card. The phone is "locked" to the provider. Most providers will let you "unlock" the phone after you have used it for a year. They give you a code and tell you how to enter it into the phone. If your cell provider will not unlock your phone, you can go to a cell phone unlocking website and pay for the code to unlock your phone.
Roaming: SIM cards are specific to a country. When you use it in another country you are roaming and per minute charges may be higher.
SIM Card: A SIM (Subscriber Informaton Module) card is a small computer chip card that fits into any GSM phone. The SIM card contains the phone number and can be moved from phone to phone as long as they are GSM phones and are unlocked.