GSM, SIM, iPhones in Iceland for US folk: Talk down to me
July 17, 2012 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Having trouble making sense of unlocked GSM phones, SIM cards, and unlocking/jailbreaking US phones for travel to Iceland. Please help.

We're traveling from the US to Iceland for a week in August. I need help figuring out 1) if we need cell phone access and 2) if so, if/how we can use our phones or whether to buy/rent one. And I need it explained to me like I'm in kindergarten.

I have an iPhone 4. My husband's is an iPhone 3gs. Both are on AT&T.

Phone use cases for this trip: We have aging parents with health problems in the US and want them to be able to call us in case of emergency. We're also going to rent a car for at least one or two day trips (HQed in Reykjavik, returning at night) and would like to have a phone for local outgoing calls in case we have an emergency like a car breakdown. Another desire, though pretty insignificant, would be using the phone for non-emergency local calls like restaurant reservations, event tickets, etc.

I think number 1 above (incoming calls from US) is taken care of by my husband's Google Voice number. I'm correct in assuming that'll work like it does in the US, right? i.e., They dial the number as usual, and he gets an email.

Number 2 (outgoing local calls in Iceland) is trickier. I don't want to jailbreak my phone because I'm a ways from being upgrade eligible and I generally have no patience with DIY hardware/software stuff. We'd be more willing to jailbreak his if it wouldn't get bricked and if there's a SIM card available for it that'll work in Iceland but that has English menus.

Because my aforementioned patience is low and my risk aversion to breaking our phones is high, should we just buy a phone? Could we get an unlocked GSM phone and SIM card for under $75 total with minutes that don't expire for, let's say, 2+ years? (We don't plan to travel internationally again until probably 2014.) I'm in Baltimore, not somewhere with lots of international phone shopping choices like Manhattan, so will likely need to order online.

Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by ImproviseOrDie to Technology (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When my wife and I visited Iceland last year for 2 weeks, we just used our iphones - without jailbreaking them. You can use your iPhone for voice in Iceland without an unlock. To dial in country, use the Iceland country code. To dial to the US, dial like normal. You will pay like $2 a minute, but it works - esp for emergencies. Incoming text messages are free, outgoing texts are like .40 cents each. Turn off cellular data in settings and use the wifi that is everywhere to check email etc. Getting another phone & plan is not worth the hassle or worry. Have a great trip!
posted by Brent Parker at 8:44 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You'll want to check the frequencies used in Iceland, but Amazon and Newegg both stock unlocked GSM phones that are <$50. However, you should be able to call AT&T and get them to unlock your phones so that you can put an Icelandic SIM in it. Whether this is worth it is a different question entirely. (I bought my phone unlocked from Amazon. I was looking into getting a Canadian SIM for it, but it looks like it'll be cheaper for me to just deal with the international roaming costs if I need to make a call.)

(Famous last words. I believe you're supposed to entitled to the carrier unlocking your phone. Whether they'll actually do it is a totally different issue. You may also need to be out of contract. See this article.)
posted by hoyland at 8:52 AM on July 17, 2012

Brent Parker is right, however you may have to contact AT&T to get them to authorize the phone for international use. Also, be sure to turn off Data Roaming -- international cellular data prices are an order of magnitude above outrageous.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:04 AM on July 17, 2012

I've never found it a hassle to get a local SIM. It's totally worth it to me to be able to make all the calls I want and all the data I want for a price that doesn't involve a second mortgage. I paid around $17 for two weeks of (unlimited) data on my last trip. Beats the heck out of trying to find wifi somewhere. Voice calls were about 15c a minute to the US.

You don't need to jailbreak your phone or anything, you just need to call at&t and tell them you'd like your phone unlocked please. If it works like every other phone on at&t, they'll email you a code you dial in the dialer and, like magic, your phone will then work with SIMs from other networks.

Your iPhone 4 should work with any network there, since it does 2G on both 900 and 1800 and 3G on 2100. It looks like Simminn has decent coverage with reasonable enough rates. It looks like it's 7.9 ISK per call plus 17.9 ISK per minute to call any number in Iceland. SMS to the US appears to be 20 ISK (about 16c right now), while calls are either 30.9 ISK per minute or 70.9 ISK per minute to mobile phones. (I'd be surprised if you were actually billed 70.9 to call a US mobile since we don't do calling party pays here, but be prepared just in case)

If you'd like to add on data, it looks like 300MB is 490 ISK, 1GB is 1,090, and 3GB is 1,690.

Vodafone appears to be a little cheaper, but their 3G coverage is much worse.

Unless you plan to top up regularly from the US, you'll probably lose any minutes you have, but if you're not going back for at least two years, you'll spend more keeping it active than you'll use in two weeks. Plus it's a hassle keeping track of expiration. Unless you have definite plans to return, there's not much point in worrying about keeping the SIM for next time.

Anyway, I think it's silly to not pay $20-$30 to get a big enough data bucket and enough credit for voice minutes on vacation. I'm constantly looking things up on the Internet, getting directions, whatever. Of course, that also comes with taking calls from work and doing work on my cellphone, so there is a tradeoff involved.

Thanks for posting this, btw, you reminded me to check the expiration date on all my prepaid accounts. ;)
posted by wierdo at 11:03 AM on July 17, 2012

Oh, and to put those rates in perspective, for the cost of about 6 minutes through at&t you can get one GB of data and ten 10 minute calls to the US. Plus you get "free" incoming calls. Even with the hassle of setting up forwarding from a VoIP provider and paying for the international leg myself, it's still about a tenth the cost of using at&t's ridiculous roaming rates.

And be sure to take your at&t SIM out of your phone while you're on the plane. If you turn it on there, at&t will start sending your calls to Iceland and charging you a minimum of two minutes for the service if you don't answer (one minute to iceland, one for the forwarding back to your voicemail in the US). Theoretically, when you turn your phone off it should send a message back to at&t telling them to please stop doing that, but it often gets lost. Better to not risk it, IMO.
posted by wierdo at 11:12 AM on July 17, 2012

Response by poster: Brent Parker, I tried that last year in the Netherlands (also Italy, Austria, Slovenia, and Germany), and it didn't work. I'd had AT&T enable international calling before I left. No carrier name ever showed on my phone, and I had no dial tone. No SMS. The phone was essentially an iPod touch for the duration of the trip. I'm wondering what happens differently in Iceland that it worked for you.

I need to call AT&T about a code, but I'm also wary that there's no authoritative answer on this. Even other forums have differing answers about what will and won't work.

Otherwise I'm liking the idea of buying an unlocked GSM phone and buying an Icelandic SIM once we get there. Then I could keep the phone for future international trips and just buy new SIMs when I travel.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:28 PM on July 19, 2012

It's not cheap, but a GSM Galaxy Nexus is a really nice phone and will work in pretty much any country worldwide that has any GSM or HSPA network. A Nokia N8 would be nice for the camera, and they're getting cheap now that Nokia's new camera monster is out. You have to deal with Symbian, but it seems that the last couple of versions have done a lot to improve the platform.

That said, unless at&t are liars, the iPhone 4 sold by them does support the frequencies used in Iceland, so you needn't buy a new phone. I don't know why at&t roaming wouldn't work if you have it on your account. If you log on to the website, click wireless, then select your phone number (this is slightly different than the splash page), you should see some of your features, one of which should be "standard international roaming". If you don't have the roaming feature, that explains why could couldn't roam. Despite my past forceful complaints, their computer automagically adds it after a month or two when I have them take it off.

Note that international roaming and international dialing/calling are two different things. The first allows you to take your phone to another country and use it. The second allows you to dial internationally from the US.
posted by wierdo at 1:49 PM on July 19, 2012

Response by poster: Updating in case it's useful for others:

I ended up buying this unlocked, non-US GSM phone for $35 and plan to buy an Iceland-specific SIM once we land. This is the option I know will work. I have zero confidence in AT&T, and the variability of the answers here tells me that this is my surest option.

Re. international calling vs international roaming on my last trip I mentioned above: I'd called AT&T and asked them to enable my phone for 1) calling out from the US to other countries and 2) using the phone from the specified European countries I was vacationing in to make calls to friends in the Netherlands.

Thanks to everyone!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:49 AM on August 8, 2012

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