Choosing an unlocked GSM phone
August 26, 2010 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I'll be spending at least several months in Europe, and I'd like to buy an unlocked Android phone and use prepaid SIM cards in each country I visit. Data access (not just voice) is important. What are the best phones on the market for this purpose?

This question seemed simple at first but after browsing retail locations the last time I was in Europe (for Vodafone, etc) it seemed like some carriers offer only prepaid voice, not data, and some carriers also sell certain phones only with a monthly plan.

It seems like the Nexus One is the closest thing to what I'm looking for, but where can I get it unlocked now that Google has closed the online store? And are there other models I should consider? It seems like after a year there should be something newer/better/cheaper, right?

I have a CDMA (Verizon) phone here in the US, so I think that's not an option.

Also, the reason I need data access is mainly Google Maps and Gmail, so I don't need a huge screen or a ton of data usage, if that matters.
posted by pete_22 to Technology (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Bonus question: are my contacts and settings stored on the SIM cards or on the phone itself? Like when I get a new card/number/carrier, will my phone book still be there?
posted by pete_22 at 10:57 AM on August 26, 2010

I just bought a couple of HTC Desires, and they were incredibly simple to unlock ($20 each). Now works with any sim card.

If your android phone is setup with your google account, then all your information is stored in the "cloud", and definately not on the SIM.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:18 AM on August 26, 2010

Also, if you sign up as an Android Developer (free) you can buy a developer version of the Nexus One directly from Google. Unfortunately it's T-Mobile USA only frequencies, so wouldn't have great support in Europe.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:20 AM on August 26, 2010

Best answer: You could get an unlocked HTC Desire, which is nearly identical to the Nexus One. I ordered mine online from Clove UK (pretty sure Amazon has them too) and have been happily using it in Germany for the last few months. You can probably find that model (or similar; the European version of the Droid, the Motorola Milestone, is also quite good and should be reasonably cheap now) in brick-and-mortar stores if you shop around a bit, although in that case you'll probably want to look at shops which are not affiliated with a specific operator.

As long as you buy it unlocked, you shouldn't have a problem using your phone in any European country. Simply slap in a local SIM card when you arrive at a new destination and everything should be fine and dandy.

As far as using data is concerned, that will depend on the operator you are using in each country you visit. Unfortunately, there's no single European operator that will allow you to use roaming data in other countries without paying extortionate rates, so you'll have to shop around and pick the best pay-as-you-go deal for each country you visit. This site should help you choose - personally, I'd recommend for Germany and Simyo for Spain; no clue for other countries.
posted by doctorpiorno at 11:30 AM on August 26, 2010

The T-Mobile Nexus One works just fine in Euro-land, and they're still being sold through the dev program ($25 fee). AFAIK, you can also buy the Desire (the N1's twin sister) unlocked in Europe as well. Amazon UK lists it for 430 GBP.
posted by ConstantineXVI at 11:34 AM on August 26, 2010

Also, as blue_beetle mentions, Android phones store all your contacts and messages in the phone memory itself and synchronise them with Google's servers when an Internet connection is available, so that should not be a problem.

One more thing: you may have to adjust the mobile Internet settings on your phone (under Settings\Wireless and networks\Mobile network settings\Access Point Names) every time you change your SIM card. Nothing terribly complicated, though, and the second site I linked should provide you with the settings you need for every major operator.
posted by doctorpiorno at 11:35 AM on August 26, 2010

I did this in Spain in January with my T-Mobile G1 (which phone, of course, I'm not recommending -- that's so last year!). It worked fantastically well. I bought a SIM from MasMovil and had it mailed to me before I left.

A word of advice: if you're not fluent in the languages of every country you're visiting, learn how to pronounce the digits 0-9 clearly in all those languages (for giving your account number) and write down some very simple versions of some things you might need to ask the carrier for in those languages.

For example, in Spain I had to activate my data plan separately from the voice, in-country, after the voice plan was activated. I thought ahead of time that it would be automatic, and so when it didn't work immediately I had a very confusing conversation that eventually ended up with the data plan activated. My Spanish is pretty good, but the cell-phone and data-plan lingo is rather specialized.
posted by gurple at 12:44 PM on August 26, 2010

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