Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

Updated November 2019

If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “How can I use my cell phone in Europe?” and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.

What’s easiest and best for European data today?

WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi connection quality varies widely — from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you’re stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing.

Mobile wireless data: You’ll find yourself with 4G (LTE) or 3G (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G coverage in Europe is still patchy compared to the US. European 4G (LTE) coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries, it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 4G and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to 3G outside of 4G areas.

Beware mobile data roaming rates

Mobile data roaming rates on your US phone or tablet plan can be extremely expensive, so beware. When you leave your home (US) network, your costs tend to go up. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile offer you the ability to use your existing data plan for an additional fee. Google Fi allows you to use your additional plan with no extra fee and is the lowest cost international roaming service today.

Before you leave…

If you plan to use a GSM world phone in Europe, make sure you get data services working before you leave. In many cases, your phone comes pre-configured, but you might have to use a web-based tool from your carrier to “provision” it, or call the technical support line. Smartphone users will be fine — the phone basically can’t function well without data services, so it’ll already be set up.

The best way to prepare before going to Europe is to go to the website for your carrier (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) and buying one of their international roaming packages. This normally ensures that your phone is enabled for use outside the US, and you won’t get burned by the default (high) rates, or have a phone that won’t work at all because international roaming is turned off (to prevent fraud).


The GSM Association: trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps for GSM data services.

13 Responses

  1. Hi. Any tip on how I should go about switching from a U.S. number to an Italian one on my iPhone 4S? I just moved to Florence, Italy two days ago for about 2-3 years due to a company relocation. Should I go all the way to the Apple store (25-40 mins outside of town) to accomplish this change or simply march into a certain provider store in the city and ask to begin on their network? If the latter, do you know which network is the best in Florence and/or Italy? And which ones work best with iPhones? Thanks! [email protected]

    1. Is this a Verizon or an AT&T iPhone? If AT&T, you need to get it unlocked first, then go to any mobile phone store and buy a Micro-SIM. TIM has the best service coverage in Italy (IMHO), and they know the iPhone.

  2. Interesting info in both pages. Thanks
    Especially about using wifi.

    What I need to find out now is about gps and maps. Clearly the maps are “data”, but I don’t know how much they add up as I drive.

    I’ve gotten very used to using my iphone 4s or ipad as a gps as I drive. Would it end up being cheaper just to buy a european gps for a 3week trip in scandinavia?

    1. You can find out by looking at the “cellular usage” for Google Maps (or whatever you’re using). Reset the usage data, go for a drive, and see what it says. I tried that this week in Europe and over the past 6 days Google Maps has used about 15MB of data.

  3. question- while in Italy, if I get a sim with a data package for my cell phone, will I be able to use my phone as a hotspot for my ipad as I do in the US

    1. Probably… it depends on your phone and the network operator. With iPhones, the ability to use the iPhone as a hotspot is controlled by the network operator (e.g. Telecom Italia, or whoever you choose for the SIM card). In my experience, most of the time you get to use hotspot capability — after all, it consumes data, which is a positive for the network operator who wants to sell you more data capacity. You can hack Android phones to always allow hotspot capability, and other phone operating systems are different.

  4. That has got to be the best explanation of a complex mess that I’ve ever encountered. Many thanks!

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