Using Cell Phones in Germany

by Josh Spaulding

I have a lot of people asking me about cell phones (known as a “Handy”) in Germany. In order to find out if your cell phone will work in Germany you need to know a few things.

Is my cell phone Tri-Band? To find out if your phone is Tri-Band you need to contact your cell phone manufacturer, dealer or just refer to your user manual. Once you identify that your cell phone is Tri-Band you must find out if you need a separate SIM card. To find out if you need a separate SIM card for use in Germany once again you would need to speak with either the cell phone manufacturer or dealer. Most cell phones are able to send and receive text messages whether they are Tri-Band or not.

If you know that your phone will work in Germany you should find out how much you will have to pay to use it, it can be expensive if it is not a German phone. If you plan to stay in Germany for two weeks or more it may be in your best interest to just buy the cheapest cell-phone that runs off of pre-paid cards you can find. You should be able to find one for around 50 EUR at most phone shops, ie. Telekom, With a pre-paid phone you can use a normal long distance calling card by dialing 0800callatt and reach back home for a reasonable rate.

One good thing about cell-phone use in Germany is that you are not charged for incoming calls. If your friend back home has a good rate to call Germany, have him/her call you and you will not have to pay a penny.

In the very worse case scenario, if you have an emergency, you can contact the police at any time with any cell-phone, with or without a SIM card by just dialing 110. All phone service providers are configured to transmit the signal dialed from 110 even if your phone is not activated and/or does not have a card.

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Cellular Service In Germany

Approximately 20% of North American cell phones currently work in Germany and those that do are quite expensive to use, as international roaming rates are typically over $1 per minute to send and receive calls. Hotel phones are also not practical or cost effective. However, there is a way to be able to enjoy the convenience of cellular service in Germany at an affordable price.

Currently, there are three main cell phone carriers – O2, T-Mobile and E Plus. The vast majority of Germans use one of these three carriers. However, while their service is practical for German users, travelers, who typically need to call internationally, do not benefit from the these carriers’ international rates exceeding $2 per minute. In 2007, a smaller telecom company has sprung up that caters specifically to foreigners and tourists traveling to Germany who need to make international calls. In fact, international calls to most countries, including the US and Canada cost only 0.09 Euros (currently about $0.13) per minute. As Ortel uses the E Plus infrastructure, coverage and quality is not compromised. So how does one actually tap into this service?

The good news is that it is quite easy to do so and since it is a pay as you go service, one does not need to sign a contract or get into a long-term commitment. The not-so-good news is that this is a smaller, niche carrier and their services are not easy to find and, if your current phone is incompatible, you may have to rent or purchase a phone to be able to access the rates.

Using Your Own Phone

Germany uses the worldwide GSM standard while North America uses a number of different standards. Currently, only AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM in the US and Canada . However, North American GSM works on a different frequency than in most other countries. Some of the newer or more expensive phones also have the international 900 and 1800 GSM frequencies.

If you do not use one of the above two carriers, it is highly unlikely that your phone will work in Germany unless you have one of the rare hybrid phones offered by, for example, Verizon. Check with your current carrier and verify that your phone has the 900/1800 frequencies. If it does, you will need to ask them for the “unlock code” so that you can swap out their SIM card with a new Ortel SIM card.

Typically, carriers initially lock their phones so that you are forced to use their service – and pay their high roaming rates. If you are not a brand new customer, these carriers will provide you the unlock code. Once you have verified that your phone will work in Germany , you can either pick one up in Germany (although they are hard to find), or through www.cellularabroad.com located in California before your trip.

Having everything before your leave is advantageous as you can give your new German phone number prior to your departure and also you will be ready to use the service as soon as you land. The SIM card will have some initial outgoing talk time on it (incoming is always free). To purchase more talk time, you can either get a scratch off recharge card from the underlying carrier which is E Plus or call Cellular Abroad 24/7 and they will sell you a code and dictate it to you over the phone.

Rent a Cell Phone

If you have determined that your North American cell phone will not work for you, you can either buy a new cell phone or rent one. If you are traveling for only a week or two and do not plan on traveling internationally any time soon, it is probably recommendable that you rent a phone. If you travel frequently or will be in Germany for a month or longer, it probably makes sense to purchase an inexpensive cell phone. There are several online companies that rent phones but the vast majority of them wants you to use their service with the phone and not Ortel’s. Cellular Abroad also rents cell phones. You can rent a cell phone together with the SIM card at www.cellularabroad.com/germanyRcell.php.

Buying a New Cell Phone

Rates have dropped dramatically for GSM phones that will work in Germany . In the larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles , many cell phone shops sell unlocked, tri or quad band GSM phones. You can also go online and buy one. The most important thing to remember is that the phone has to have both the 900 and the 1800 Mhz networks and it has to be unlocked. Even E-bay sells unlocked GSM phones but, a word of caution is that many of the vendors are not even sure of what they are selling and you may arrive in Germany with a phone that does not work. Play it safe and purchase from a company that specializes in overseas cellular service. Cellular Abroad also sells SIM/phone packages.

In sum, having cellular service can be a useful tool for trip planning and convenience while in Germany and a pay as you go solution can help you avoid getting “bill bummer” when roaming on your own phone. If you plan on getting cellular service before you go, be sure to order your SIM card, rental or phone well in advance of your trip as not to accrue hefty priority shipping costs. If your phone can roam and you want to go that method, it is recommended that you speak to more than one customer service rep in order to confirm that your phone indeed does work and exactly what rates (including taxes and surcharges) they will be charging you.