Affordable Mobile Data In Europe

For the past couple years, when I travel in europe I turn mobile data roaming off on my phone and grab wifi when I can. That's the best way to avoid ridiculous data roaming charges.

Last year, on the advice of readers of this blog, I started buying prepaid sim cards in countries where I planned on being for a few days or more. I did that in the UK last summer and it worked out well. I still have my prepaid sim card from that trip. I wonder if it still works.

When my daughter was getting ready to go to Paris for a month in mid June, I got an unlocked iPhone 4 directly from Apple (they had just started to sell it) and sent her to France with it instead of her US iPhone. I figured that our whole family could share that unlocked iPhone and use it whenever one of our iPhone users traveled outside the US.

I also DM'd a friend in Paris and asked him what prepaid plan to get. He suggested Orange's Mobicarte service. So my daughter arrived in Paris, went to an Orange store as I suggested, bought a Mobicarte sim and started using it. Within hours her phone was out of money. She emailed me and asked what was up. I suggested she go back to the Orange store and ask what was happening. Turns out she needed to get something called Internet Max on her Mobilcarte plan. Once she did that, she was in business.

Around the exact same time, my friend Brad Feld was having the exact same problem. He emailed me. I told him what I knew from my daughter's experience. But I didn't have all the details. He banged his head against the wall, broke his glasses, and finally figured it out. Thankfully, he blogged exactly how to do this so the rest of us won't have the same issues.

So I show up in Paris a few days later and confidently walk into an Orange store and buy two Mobicarte sims for the Gotham Gal and me. Armed with my daughter's experience and Brad's blog post, I figure no problem. Well not exactly. I started using mobile data on my Mobicarte sim before the Internet Max kicked in (it takes a while), and ran through all my prepaid money. I had to recharge at the local Tabac this morning and now I am set. Meanwhile the Gotham Gal's HTC G2 is apparently locked (who knew?) and we are waiting for T-Mobile to send an unlock code.

The point of all of this? It is damned hard to beat the man when it comes to mobile data in europe. I'm starting to think that turning it off and grabbing wifi here and there isn't such a bad solution. But if you want to do the local sim card thing, here are my suggestions:

1) Make sure you have a totally unlocked phone. The unlocked iPhone Apple sells online will work. So will the Nexus S. Beyond that, check before you leave home. If you need an unlock code from your carrier, plan ahead.

2) If you are coming to France, read Brad's blog post and print it out for safe measure. I used on O2 sim in the UK and it worked like a charm with no configuration needed.

3) Be prepared for stuff to go wrong. If you don't have the time and patience to deal with snafus while you are traveling, don't go down this path.

I was having lunch with a friend today who lives in Ljubiana Slovenia. We got to talking about mobile data in europe. We both felt that the EU really ought to require all the telcos operating in the region to open up to new providers so we can get a pan-european prepaid sim with a good mobile data plan. Then we'd only need to do this once and it would work everywhere in europe. And on top of that, Google should work to get Google Voice working over here as well. One can dream.

#Blogging On The Road#Web/Tech

Comments (Archived):

  1. Julien

    I believe the EU is actually working on a law to reduce voice roaming charges (I remember reading an article about this a couple days ago)… Let’s hope they include data as well. 

    1. fredwilson

      or eliminate the concept of roaming entirely across the EU

      1. maxniederhofer

        Amen.It’s supposed to be a single market.

      2. Adrian Sanders

        vodafone has a deal like this for their UK customers.As for France, good luck. It seems like every year they get busted for collusion (Bouygues, SFR & Orange) but nothing changes.Also, it is very very hard to get things to change with Orange because they are partially France Telecom, which is partially operated by the state… Things move very slow in Europe, and things are very lucrative for the telecoms. 

        1. Jérôme Derozard

          It will change soon as we are getting a new operator end of this year, finance by Xavier Niel (most successful internet entrepreneur in France).   Expect some major disruptions like we had in the broadband space… (recent rumours: 30€ / month for unlimited data, voice, SMS without any contract).

          1. Adrian Sanders

            Best of luck to him, but I’ll believe it when I see it! Also, adsl was a great disruption in France. Free and all of those guys were amazing but I found Dartybox to be my ISP of choice in Paris. 

        2. Fernando Gutierrez

          In Spain they offer data roaming with their data plans. Depending of the plan you get up to 250MB in roaming. It’s not much and it doesn’t include every country, but it’s a beginning.

      3. RichardF

        you are exactly right Fred, we have free movement of labour  in Europe but ridiculous roaming charges.The networks can’t really even blame that they have to work with a plethora of other networks.  T-Mobile/Orange, Vodafone and Telefonica have an oligopoly.  They only reduce prices when the regulator threatens them.

  2. Jérôme Derozard

    Well actually the EU has just limited the interconnection price for data, the price operators charge one another. Contrary to voice calls and SMS, EU has not limited the actual price charged to end users (yet). One austrian operator in EU is offering a pay as you go plan with this wholesale price: will cost you around 0.59€ per MB, not cheap but useful if you are only in a country for one day or two. Also works in the US.

  3. Travis Choma

    A pan european sim without roaming would be awesome! :-). I literally have a ziplock bag full of sims for when I travel. And with iphone 4 having a microsim it meant having to cut sims by hand on the go since many providers don’t offer that format yet. Also while we’re at it can we get a pan American sim, have you ever been roaming in Canada, one of the most expensive rates in the world.

    1. fredwilson

      i just learned in this comment thread about maxroam. apparently it is a pan european sim with mobile data

      1. Travis Choma

        I’ve used MaxRoam, it’s nice for voice. But for data, they don’t support data plans in many euro countries, and when they do it’s more expensive than a local sim.

    2. Fernando Gutierrez

      I worked in Telefonica and negotiated a few MVNO deals. There were several companies trying to do a paneuropean data business, but with the current system of national laws it’ll never happen because you would need a deal per country. And not an easy one.I don’t work there anymore and would love this to happen, but I don’t believe it has changed a lot since then.

  4. Marcosardi

    There is a similar problem for Europeans traveling in the US: roaming charges, plans difficult to understand, etc…The problem is not to open to new operators (I’m not convinced that bringing the quality of service and the “low” prices of AT&T to Europe would sold anything), it is to force them to acknowledge that when it comes to mobile, world is the market.

    1. Fernando Gutierrez

      The main problem I have when I go to the US is that networks are not compatible. I have a Nexus S and can only use T-Mobile because the other GSM operator, AT&T, uses another band and data is very slow. And Verizon and Sprint are off limits.

      1. Marcosardi

        The problem here is the Nexus S. I can use my iPhone with most GSM carriers in the US and in Europe. And I used to do the same with my Nokia(s) back in the days. 

        1. Fernando Gutierrez

          In Europe I haven’t had any problem, all operators I’ve found work in the GSM band it uses. It’s only AT&T, where it is slow (I think you can only get Edge).What I was trying to say is that with GSM and CDMA in the US the problem is even more complex than in Europe because it has one more variable, the network technology.

  5. Steve Hallock

    The only way I have found to minimize the hassle enough to make it worth it is to have a friend/coworker in the country buy and activate the SIM card before you arrive.  That way you have a native language speaker, plus a passport holder which some countries, like Switzerland, require.I had my coworker get me an Orange CH SIM for Switzerland – with nearly no hassle for either of us I use 3 CFH/day data there every time I travel.  However, for most countries I go the wi-fi route as you suggest.A great website would sell these prepaid SIMs with clear language/specs and fair prices.  There are a few, but they are ripoffs and look very scammy (new word).

  6. ian sweeney

    Fred,check out Maxroam. Its a sim card that work across Europe and offers very low voice and data charges. I’ve no connection to them other that its an irish company (and I’m irish!)I used it last week in both Ireland and Poland and it worked as advertised.ian

    1. fredwilson

      maxroam is all over this comment thread. that’s a good thing. i will check them out

      1. ian sweeney

        Fred,check in with @patphelan:disqus  (CEO of Maxroam). I’m sure he’ll hook you up!Ian

        1. Pat Phelan

          Happy to help Fred, we spoke when your kids were in Londonpat @maxroam:disqus.comcheers for all the support folks 

  7. Peter Connor

    Fred – big problem here. I float between UK and Ireland all the time have brought in cheap data and calls, and meteor and Irish operator have flat rate roaming in UK and Ireland so I think it’s starting to change  

    1. fredwilson

      maxroam seems awesome

  8. AntonioThonis

    Very recognizable problem. It’s a shame u can only use many location-based startups like foursquare that could be particularly  interesting on vacation when u find a wifi spot.There is one Amsterdam based startup called Droam that offers a pretty simple solution to roam around the world withouth having the hussle of getting your subscription right like you described. They rent you a Mifi that allows you to connect up to 5 devices and send along the sim cards for each country.

    1. CamMi Pham

      That reminds me of a Toronto startup. Location based app that allow you to get free wifi. 

  9. Aaron Klein

    MaxRoam can be a great solution. It’s not unlimited but it’s way better than US roaming charges. Add a US number to your SIM and you can have Google Voice connect while you’re in Europe.

    1. fredwilson

      oooh  gotta check that out

  10. Paul Sanwald

    I am going to Slovenia on vacation in September. I hear it’s a good area for technology, and being a software developer, I’m always interested in seeing what folks are up to. Anyone know if there are any spaces like new work city that are cool to visit?

    1. fredwilson

      look up the zemanta guys. andraz tori is my friend who i had lunch with!/andraz

  11. LIAD

    The US for us Europeans is just as bad!Crazy expensive roaming charges and to make things worse, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t get a pre-paid, off contract sim with data – at least for an iPhone.The new data shrinking app Onava does wonders, about 70% reduction, but still not enough to make things economical.

    1. fredwilson

      you are probably right about the iPhone if its lockedi think you can get such a plan for other phones from one of the prepaid guys

      1. NICCAI

        Using the iPhone in the US is a major hassle (or rather $$$$$).  For us Canadians living close to the borders, it is downright criminal to see the bills we get. My unlocked iPhone doesn’t get me far without a sim cutter and who knows what else.  A real shame…

      2. Jan Schultink

        I just spent part of the afternoon getting an unlocked iPhone4 to work in New York city: no luck. Data plans are changed (very recently) and now exclude smart phones. Operators are fighting Apple on prepaid. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile. Crazy: you cannot use an unlocked iPhone4 in NY? This 2011…Well, the device will still be useful for its intended use: roaming charges in Europe.On a different note: NYC is great and am hoping to see the inside of the UVC offices Wednesday at a Covestor event.UPDATE: after some web research:I need to buy a $10 cheap phone with a prepaid voice/SMS packageTrash the phone (but keep the voice package)Buy an additional datapackage $50 for 500MB valide for 30 daysAnd maybe physically cut down the SIM with something like this:

    2. Fernando Gutierrez

      It’s not as bad, it’s worse because there are different network technologies!When in the US I use a prepaid t-mobile. Prepaing $50 you can get unlimited voice, text and data (kind of, after 100MB it’s a bit slower) for 30 days. They also have prepaid unlimited data for around $1.5/day, but it works terribly and I couldn’t connect many days, so opted for the unlimited. If feels a bit stupid to pay 30 days when you are gonna be just a week, but at least you control the total expenditure.

  12. kenberger

    <joke>Here’s your solution (if you throw out the word ‘affordable’):…</joke>

    1. fredwilson


  13. Emi Gal

    You can usually buy a data roaming bundle in your home country. I live in the UK and can pay £10 / month for 25MB / day across Europe. It’s not ideal, but it saves from the hassle of having to do what you just said. I think you have the same type of packages in the US as well.

    1. fredwilson

      i’ve not found that kind of thing in the US except for a plan that T-Mobile sold on Blackberry

  14. Matic Bitenc

    Well they are working on it on the EU level, but it’s going too slow: the added misfortune of dealing with Orange as a mobile operator… They’re horrible. I’ve had a few too many run-ins with them.….

  15. daryn

    Your old Nexus One worked like a champ in Iceland. I got a 2500 ISK (~$20) Vodaphone pre-paid card from an old lady at a convenience store who had no idea about sms/internet/etc, but assured me we’d figure it out. As luck turns out, it all worked right off the bat, the internet there was super-fast, and the $20 lasted me through a week of fairly heavy usage. Definitely a selling point on making sure your phone is unlocked. Another fun trick: I was still carrying around my old iPhone for instagram and some other apps, and my wife had her iPhone, so I just had tethered them to the Nexus One’s mobile connection over wi-fi. Now that was awesome!

    1. fredwilson

      iphone tethered to nexus spoetic justic to that!!!!!!

  16. Kevin

    I don’t know if this was a glitch in 2009/2010 but I was living in Italy and half my friends had unlocked iphone 3’s with vodafone prepaid cards.  They would buy a 20 EUR prepaid sim and run the credit down to zero however the data kept working regardless of whether or not there was credit.  They used FB messaging and stuff to communicate like text messages and basically had a free phone the whole time they were there.Wonder if anyone has tested this recently?

  17. skylar

    It’s equally difficult getting data in the states. You figure that out when you abandon your US operator and commit to a European plan instead. Only this summer did T-Mobile (US) come out w/ a pre-paid option for data. The rest of the US carriers require a US credit history and address. From this point of view there are actually fewer options in the US for those w/o domestic bank accounts.We take for granted how inaccessible wireless mobile data is until we start to travel. For most of the world, this is still not yet a reasonable option, much less one worth the effort. Mobile connectivity still has a long way to go.

  18. Magnus Söderberg

    I pay around $10 for 2 gig of data at 6Mbit/s. After that it doesn’t cost anything except that the speed get’s lowered. Sweden is great when it comes to these type of things.

  19. Julien Theys

    Pay As You Go SIM data Wiki:…

  20. christopolis

    “We both felt that the EU really ought to require all the telcos operating in the region to open up to new providers so we can get a pan-european prepaid sim with a good mobile data plan.”Yes more regulations and government intervention that should fix the problem for sure.It is always such an easy solution X isnt the way I want it, I know what we can do! Use the force of government make my problems go away. Who cares what other people want. Because dammit I am a VC.

    1. christopolis

      I just thought of something else, maybe with enough regulations we can get technology to be as efficient as healthcare.

      1. markslater

        really?….. really?

    2. fredwilson

      not just my problems. everyone’s problems. read the entire thread.

  21. Yalim K. Gerger

    I feel like the “I am the gatekeeper, you need me so f*** you” policy of telecom companies have turned them into barriers in the mobile world that get in the way of users accessing the Internet which is ironic because it is them who actually provide the service. Is it a far fetched dream to imagine Google or Apple or whatever, buying one or two of these in Europe and U.S: and remove the middleman?  

  22. Nilan

    Fred you should check out .  They are disrupting this space by compressing cellular data via an iphone app  – they are founded by @guyro 

  23. Andrew Greene

    SFR also has a recharge specifically for iPhones:…The biggest issue is that salespeople in Telecom Stores are the most uninformed, undertrained, and irritating salespeople in the world.Brad’s advice to just buy the SIM card and not say specifics is a good idea. The salespeople will often try to convince you that it’s not possible to buy pre-paid mobile internet.

  24. paramendra

    Euro before “a pan-European prepaid sim with a good mobile data plan?” Priorities!? 🙂

  25. Jason Hirschhorn

    Fred, why don’t mobile providers offer reciprocal rate plans so that you can continue the same billing or usage as if you were home. I have to believe that what goes on is intended gauge for foreign users. We landed on Mars, I’m sure the telcos *could* make this happen if they wanted to. And even when you sign up to international plans for data, depending on your device, metering is rough. iphone good. blackberry bad. huge pet peeve of mine.

  26. Guest

    Euro roaming charges are a scandal. I live in London and a quick visit to Paris is like stepping back in time if you haven’t arranged a sim card. You have to switch off all apps so you don’t return with a big bill and travelling without google maps is very inconvenient. The EU talks big but this is really holding back european data services

  27. bogorad sells its cards worldwide. it’s not that useful in EU. but there are countries where you just can’t buy an unlimited pre-paid SIM (e.g. Dominican Republic) so it’s a life-saver there.

  28. William Mougayar

    The voice part is easy. It’s the data part that complicates things and makes it more expensive. For voice, I have an Orange phone which I bought for 55Euros and included a number of minutes. You re-charge at any tabagerie. For data, I use free Wi-Fi where available or via a Boingo international subscription. Walking on the street, Wi-Fi is everywhere & you’ll often luck out on a Boingo hotspot. And when on Wi-Fi, use Skype to call out.On landlines, I use a calling card number with GoldLine… . They have free local toll numbers anywhere in the world. I can walk into any public phone or from hotel and dial it, and get charged 7 cents per minute to call the US or Canada.

  29. Juan Miguel Venturello

    If you have a locked iphone, use Gevey. It works very well. Last trip I took to middle east was over 400$ for data, and I limited myself very much. This trip I bought this hack, a SIM tray with a chip, for very cheap, easy to install as well… and bought a local card for dirt cheap.My iPhone 4 is unlockable, this was the only way to do it.

  30. ShanaC

    this post reminds me of the period when I was younger where there were all of these roaming problems. we got sick of it then, and it helped force change. meanwhile, data rates arr being capped/going up in the states. yet I firmly believe, this too shall pass

  31. gregorylent

    it’s just france .. all other countries are cool … of course the place is small, so lots of sims .. unless you are a 15 buck a day max roam kind of guy.

  32. Carl J. Mistlebauer

    “3) Be prepared for stuff to go wrong. If you don’t have the time and patience to deal with snafus while you are traveling, don’t go down this path.”…Yes, and Europeans have a whole network of little cafes with wonderful food and drink all established to teach those “ugly Americans” a little patience!Obviously the whole European telecom industry is supporting these networks of cafes……

  33. Matthew Votsikas

    In the UK I’m on Vodaphone. I pay £10/month on a prepaid sim, with the Text and Web pack. I get 300 texts and 500mb data for the month.

  34. evertb

    Voice is still a bit of a stickler but for mobile data roaming you can’t do much better than Abroadband owned by Austria Telecom. Check them out on Twitter: @abroadband

  35. rosshill

    Meanwhile when a tourist visits San Francisco with an iPhone, the best you can get is an edge connection with tmobile 🙁

  36. rosshill

    Meanwhile when a tourist visits San Francisco with an iPhone, the best you can get is an edge connection with tmobile 🙁

  37. rosshill

    Meanwhile when a tourist visits San Francisco with an iPhone, the best you can get is an edge connection with tmobile 🙁

  38. Carl J. Mistlebauer

    Looks like the Chinese are going to create a VC fund to provide financing for their own social media empire…..http://www.investmentnetwor

  39. Cary

    Non-plan wireless data is insanely expensive in Europe. Plan data is only crazy expensive. I am going to use Boingo WiFi for data on my next trip.In the past I have found good deals on prepaid 3g keys, but they ar only good for a single country.

  40. Jan Schultink

    Someone can make a bit of money from quickly hacking a site that lets you enter phone + country + usage-pattern and links to a package/solution. They could even ship SIMs to you.Or maybe a WiKi with the latest solutions is all you need.

  41. matthughes

    For the love of Pete, this issue has to get resolved. Not just band-aid resolved, bona fide vaccine resolved.I have been walloped by charges after two recent international trips.Unlocked iPhone (or phone c’est comme la mode) and Maxroam are steps in the right direction.

  42. Scott Allison

    Great post Fred, local prepaid sims are the way to go!I wrote a comprehensive guide for people going to the US and wanting to do just that:…Hope it helps some people!BTW, Google Voice used to work in the UK until March this year, I wish they would turn it on again.

  43. evertb

    Another innovative solution is TepWireless (

  44. Carlos N Velez/Lacerta Bio

    Nothing annoys me more than traveling to Europe and dealing with ridiculous roaming charges, etc. Wifi + Skype seems to work ok. I also have a phone I picked up from (NB I’m not an affiliate). I travel to the UK a lot. So with Mobal, I have a UK phone number, and calls within the UK with that phone are dirt cheap. Once I leave the UK and go to France or Spain I run into issues. I’m all for a pan-EU SIM. 

  45. Tom Evslin

    The other option that worked for me was to rent a European MiFi hub before leaving the US. It wasn’t cheap but came with”unlimited data. We were on a boat and everyone was able to use the WiFi from the MiFi hub for their droids, iphones, ipads and computers without having to get separate connectivity for each device. You can also buy a usb “data key”with a sim in Europe for a general purpose MIFi hub and get the same result more cheaply but with some language barriers getting set up. more at

    1. fredwilson

      That seems to be a good solution but also a bit clunky if you are walkingaround cities all the time

      1. Tom Evslin

        Actually the MiFi hub I rented is smaller than a candy bar; fits well in a shirt pocket. But battery life is an issue if you’re walking around – couple hours max. It was perfect for a boat where the boat did the moving.

  46. Guy Rosen

    Not to shamelessly plug my company (OK, I’ll do it anyway), but whatever you end up choosing for your iPhone – roaming with your SIM, local SIMs, “roaming” SIMs, etc. – it’s worth installing Onavo to cut down your data usage and stretch your data plan.<end shameless=”” plug=””>

  47. Mreynolds33

    I have google voice in the US and have been living in London for the past year.  I set google voice up on my UK phone by linking it to my US phone number and it actually works on my UK phone – free of charge.  I can text my US friends, and they can send a text to me on my google voice number and it shows up instantly on my UK mobile in the google voice app

  48. Nate Quigley

    Just got back from time in Ireland and France with Nexus S. Used a service called XCom Global ( It’s about $10/day for unlimited data, so probably not cheapest answer. But totally hassle free because you get the SIMs you need before you leave. Company sends MiFi devices for each country, you pull the SIMs out of those and stick them in Nexus S. Best part is all the attention you get from traveling companions. My wife and her iPhone loved me!

    1. fredwilson

      This sounds great

      1. Nate Quigley

        If gone for more than a couple weeks definitely ask about better pricingthan they have advertised on the website.

  49. Ryan Lackey

    The ultimate solution for roaming data when you need it to absolutely work is twofold:1) Get a blackberry on a BES with an unlimited global roaming BES plan (i.e. T-Mobile USA); it’s $80-90/mo, including third party hosted BES which integrates with Google Apps (assuming you don’t use Exchange)2) Get an unlocked GSM phone (iPhone, Nexus S, etc.) and local SIMs as you go.The Blackberry provides backup connectivity globally, and is useful when you get off a plane and need to research local carrier options, or if you’re only in town for a couple days.Obviously voice is a different issue — I handle that by having a per country local SIM (for local contacts), Google Voice or OnSIP or some other level of indirection in the US, and changing my forwarding number, with SIP as preferred, then a local SIM (changes per country), and as a fallback, the Blackberry (or just do speech to text and then email the message to yourself).

  50. thirtythirtynyc

    The best of my knowledge, you can not get a pre-paid sim-off agreement with the data – at least for the iPhone. Hotel Thirty-Thirty

  51. Graham Swan

    Make sure you ask T-Mobile for an unlock code long in advance of your trip. I’ve called them 3 times and been waiting for over a month and they still haven’t sent me one for my Nexus S.I think the trick is to luck out and find the competent support rep. I haven’t had that stroke of luck yet.

  52. Aseem K Thakur

    Hey Fred, a friend actually did a blog about the same issue. He paid USD  265 for using 981 MB of data as opposed to $4646 which his carrier would have charged. How? He used the service called http://www.iphonetri.comRead his blog here ( about his experience of going through Europe and using this service. Hope you will have something to fall back on during your next trip to Europe. Love your posts. Keep them coming. Cheers!

  53. Parafly

    Great post. I remember even ten years ago it used to be such a nightmare just to call my relatives in Germany – it used to cost 10, 20, 30 cents a minute, even from a landline.Today I use Google Voice, it costs .03 a minute to call Germany and I can actually call from my cell phone (ideal, since I haven’t had a land line in almost five years). It used to cost several bucks a minute.Last year I went to Germany and Italy to visit family and while there I just had a cheapo phone that was unlocked just for calls. Will definitely consider all this in the future so I can get data as ewll!