I’m back after my PSC hiatus! I am now officially living in Germany, and I have a lot of good information to pass along to those of you heading to Europe. One of the first issues with settling in was getting in contact with people. Getting a “handy” in Germany is very easy to do, but there are some differences in cell phones that you should know in order to make the right decision on what kind of phone and plan to buy.
First, if you have a cell phone contract in the U.S., it’s easy to get out of your contract with military orders. As far as using your current phone overseas, it gets a little tricky. Europe uses GSM technology, which is why many times US phones don’t work in Europe. If your phone uses a SIM card, chances are you can get it unlocked and use it in Europe. You can go to your cell phone provider to have it unlocked, or you can look up how to do it online. T-Mobile uses GSM technology, while Verizon does not. You can tell if your phone uses GSM technology if it contains a SIM card. To check, pop out the battery, and if there’s a little card behind it, then you may be able to use your phone. iPhones and most smartphones contain a SIM card.
Even with the SIM card, your phone may be locked. Cell phone companies don’t want you to switch carriers, so they “lock” the phone. You can unlock it by taking it to a cell phone sales representative to get it unlocked, or you can research online how to do it.
In Germany, T-Mobile, Vodafone, and O2 are the largest companies. T-Mobile is available on-post and is also sold through TKS. Before you choose a carrier, I highly suggest you check to make sure you can get good reception in the area you’ll be living and working. My husband purchased a pay-as-you-go phone through T-Mobile when he arrived and found out once we moved into our home off-post, it got no reception there. We were lucky we waited to sign up for a two-year contract. If you plan to move off-post, ask your landlord what cell phone companies work the best in your specific area. If you have options, you may want to ask you and your spouse’s friends what company they use because you can get free or discounted calls within the same network.
Cell phone contracts in Germany work differently than in the U.S. Most contracts are for two years, and once that is up, it automatically re-enrolls you for another year, unless you contact them in writing no later than three months before the contract is up for renewal. Also, cell phone companies in Germany do not honor canceling contracts due to military orders.
If you plan to get two cell phones to use between you and your spouse, be advised that there’s no discounted “add a line” deal to a contract like there is in the US. Each cell phone has its own contract, but you can get them listed together on one bill. Really consider how much you and your spouse will be using your phones, as pay-as-you-go may be a better option for you.
Pay-as-you-go phones and SIM cards are readily available in Germany and can be purchased at a cell phone store or electronics store like Media Market or Saturn. You can also add minutes to your phone at many convenient places, including shopettes. I suggest getting a pay-as you go phone when you first arrive. Not only are you not bound by a contract, you can also see how much you spend on i, and from there make the decision to sign up for a plan. I personally use pay-as-you-go because I have no need for a smart phone, and I plan to call the U.S. on my home phone.
When purchasing a pay-as-you-go, get a phone without a SIM card, then purchase the SIM card separately. This guarantees your phone to be unlocked so you can switch carriers without having to buy a new phone each time (the no-frills models go for about 30 Euros here). Sometimes T-Mobile phones purchased on-post will have the SIM card included, which means it’s locked. Having an unlocked phone can be convenient if you plan to travel around Europe and want a phone. All you have to do is buy a SIM card in that country, put it into your phone and add minutes. Also, it’s easy to switch carriers this way.
Having a home phone is another option that can save you money. Many cable and Internet companies have phone bundles you can add to your home service. My DSL package includes home phone, and I added unlimited international calling for five Euros a month.
Much of this information is applicable to all of Europe, so if you are headed to Germany, Italy, Belgium or wherever the Army may send you, this should give you a base to make your communication decisions. If anyone has any good tips for all other OCONUS locations, please add them in the comments.