Internet while travelling

Internet access while travelling is pretty important to us–probably more important than mobile phone service. All of the hotels we are staying in advertise Wifi availability, but we’d really like to have internet access on our phones, for things like navigation, as well as posting to Facebook!

Both Anne and I have unlocked GSM phones that support European frequencies. Our service at home is through T-Mobile, which offers “free unlimited” international roaming. The “unlimited” is in quotes because it’s throttled to 2G speeds unless you pay quite a bit extra ($50 for 500 mb). But it turns out our plan isn’t eligible for it anyway and it’s not a good enough deal to make it worth upgrading.

Luckily, I found the Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki. While the name doesn’t roll off the tounge, it is filled with great information about plans all over the world.

While I think of the European Union as being sort of a United States of Europe, at least when it comes to travel and economic issues, the cell phone industry there has elements of the US circa 1997. Each country (think US state) has several providers, but once you cross a border you’re roaming at exorbitant rates. (The situation is starting to change, so read on!) On the other hand, the rates in each country are generally cheaper than here. For that reason, the recommendation for travellers is generally to buy a cheap SIM in each country you visit. I originally planned to do it that way, buying a SIM when I got to Rome. (It’s impossible to buy and register an Italian SIM from outside the country.) Then I’d buy another one when I got to Germany and perhaps a third in Austria.

Luckily, I heard about Ortel Mobile’s Cross Plan here. For €20 a month they offer a plan with 300 minutes of calls and 750 MB of data that covers all the EU countries plus Switzerland. The data can be topped up with another 500 MB for €9.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered one from an Ebay seller based in Berlin. The package included the SIM card with a German phone number written on the attached folder. With that in hand, I went to the Ortel Mobile website (English version) and tried to activate the SIM. That failed. I eventually figured out that the card had already been activated. I was able to go to https://mein.ortelmobile.de/ and register. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have an English version of that site so if you don’t speak German, Chrome’s auto-translate function is your friend.

The steps to register were:

  • Click on “Jetzt für MeinOrtel registrieren” (Register now for MyOrtel)
  • Enter my phone number (Meine Rufnummer) and the PUK1 number from the materials I received, plus my email address.
  • Click the “Registrierien” button.

They emailed me a temporary link to log in and change my password–my phone number became the user name.

Once I logged in again, I was able to access the site, with options to add a credit card or set up Paypal, purchase plans, etc (again all in German). I didn’t sign up for the Cross plan now, because it’s only good for a month, and I’m not leaving until mid-April. But I think I’m good to go. I’m confident enough that I ordered another card for Anne’s phone.

I placed the card in the phone and it prompted me to unlock it with a PIN. It turns out you need the PIN1 value printed on the plastic SIM card holder. It eventually registered as roaming on AT&T. I tried making a call but got a fast busy. I also tried calling the number from my home phone, but that didn’t go through either. I did notice that my credit balance declined by one Euro after my fooling around, so I don’t recommend you try it before you get to Europe.

I’ll update again once I get to Europe and try it for real, but if all goes according to plan we will have working phones when we land in London to change planes and for the rest of the trip. So if you’re travelling to Europe check out the wiki. If you’re going to a single country, the best options are probably on that country’s page, while if you’re moving around, check out the EU options.

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