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On the Spot: Smart phones have a hang-up about Europe

Your latest-generation mobile device may be a dazzling multi-tasker in the States, but technical differences abroad can complicate wireless communication.

February 20, 2011|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • It's your call.
It's your call. (Mark Shaver / For The Times,…)

Question: I am going to Switzerland (and a little Italy and Germany) this summer. I now have a Sprint Droid Evo smart phone that I love. It is 4G and Wi-Fi and receives calls, texts and e-mails. What's the best way to communicate with the family in the U.S.? Everyone will adore clear and simple answers.

Joan Lutz

Fountain Valley

Answer: Carrier pigeon? Smoke signals? Message in a bottle? All are simpler and clearer than the answers about using cellphones in Europe. Unless, of course, money is no object and your phone actually works in Europe.

Which the Evo will not. It is a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) phone. In Europe, you need a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) phone, preferably one that is unlocked — that is, it can be used with more than one carrier if you change its SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) card, which you can buy at a local phone store in Europe, although you may need one for each country.

Those carrier pigeons are starting to look good right now. Plus, when you're done with them, you can call them squab and eat them, which is definitely more savory than the prospect of a big phone bill. That's probably what you'll get if you have an unlocked phone and you end up with roaming and data charges from your U.S. carrier.

I turned to three experts for help: Andy Abramson, chief executive of Comunicano, a marketing communications agency working with high-technology companies; Philip Guarino, an international strategy and business consultant; and Michael McColl, founder and chief executive of McColl Communications. As business travelers, they must stay connected and they know the ropes. Here are some of their more expedient suggestions:

Buy a phone when you get to Europe. If you plan to use the prepaid mobile (don't call it a cellphone) in just one country, buying a locked phone is fine and less expensive. If you need it to work in multiple countries, buy it unlocked and switch out the SIM cards. Prepaid phones start as low as $25 locked, double that or more for unlocked plus the cost of the SIM card. Disadvantage: You'll have a different number that you'll need to communicate when you get there.

If your personal phone will work from Europe, get it unlocked here in the U.S. and buy SIM cards when you get there. Disadvantage: Some phones (iPhone is one) can't be unlocked. (You can "jailbreak" an iPhone, but that's not recommended. Or you can buy an unlocked iPhone abroad, but that will set you back a grand or so.)

If your phone won't work from Europe, buy an unlocked GSM phone here just for the trip and buy SIM cards there. Disadvantage: You already have a perfectly good phone. But, the experts noted, you can always resell your phone on Craigslist or EBay when you come home. Or you can buy it used and resell.

These are only some of the options. Simple? No. Clear? Maybe. Easy? Definitely not. But far more reliable than the bird, bonfire- or bottle-based solutions.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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