Using Mobile Phones in Europe

Some thoughts on the Question of using Mobile Phones whilst cruising in Europe.

In the UK, Cellnet and Vodafone form part of the international digital cellular system known as GSM. (Global System for Mobile Communications). This system now extends throughout Western Europe and much of Eastern Europe, the Far East, Africa and Asia. In the three years since we left the UK we have only spent one night out of range of a GSM aerial, a clear indication of the extent of the network. Users of One2One or Orange can also log on to GSM networks provided they have a dual-standard handset. The system in America is different again but handsets are being developed that can be used with all three systems.

Using a mobile phone abroad, known as 'Roaming', is simplicity itself. One switches the phone on, waits for it to log on to a local network and dials the number required. It is, however, expensive. In October 1999 calls made with a Cellnet phone whilst in France cost 46p per minute within France and 91p per minute back to the UK. Furthermore, incoming calls cost 50p per minute as one has to pay for the leg from the UK to France one's self.

It is the high cost of incoming calls that imposes the greatest limitation on the use of a UK mobile phone whilst abroad as callers may not appreciate that one is paying to receive their call. One solution favoured by those who remain in one country for a protracted period of time is to buy a rechargeable card from a local company. Provided your phone has not been 'locked', (One2One and Orange lock their handsets, Cellnet do not, - I'm not sure about Vodafone) this can be inserted into your UK phone giving it a local number e.g. a Spanish number if the card was bought in Spain. If you only use the card in the country of origin, incoming calls will be paid for entirely by the caller. However, it should be remembered that he/she will now pay approximately twice as much as he/she did when you had a UK number!

We have opted for a different solution. We have a One2One GSM phone on board, but we have it permanently set to 'Unconditional Divert'. This means that the phone never rings and we can leave it switched off most of the time. However, we make use of two other features of the GSM system, namely e-mail and the Short Message Service (SMS). We have a laptop computer on board which we can connect to the GSM phone using a PC card and a cable. We use CompuServe as our Internet Service Provider as they have local numbers throughout Europe that make logging-on much cheaper. Surfing the Web is not practical as the GSM link only provides a 9600 b.p.s. baud rate, but sending and receiving e-mail is both cheap and efficient. An average session during which we might both send and receive three e-mails costs around £1.50 provided the call is made off-peak. We log on twice a week making the system very cost-effective indeed.

One added advantage of e-mail is that the same message can be sent to any number of different recipients for no additional cost. We have made use of this by sending regular 'Passage Reports' to friends and family to keep them in touch with our progress

E-mail can be sent to recipients who have a fax number but no e-mail facility of their own. The format is as follows:


where name_name can be anything you please and telephone number is the country code (without the access digits 00) and the telephone number as dialled for an international call, i.e. without the leading zero, and without gaps.

We have our own personal fax number with a company called eFax. An incoming fax is converted into a graphics file and sent to us as an attachment to an e-mail message. Details of this free service can be found on

E-mail solves many of the problems of communication whilst away including, in particular, receiving information. To receive e-mails from friends and relatives whilst sitting at anchor in a remote bay is a real joy. However, unless one were to log on every night, it does not solve the problem of emergency communication. For this we make use of the Short Message Service.

Most, though not all, GSM phones can send and receive text messages of up to 160 characters. Messages can also be sent from a computer equipped with a modem using a simple piece of software that can be downloaded off the Internet. Any messages sent to your phone whilst it is switched off are stored for up to 17 days. They are received within a few minutes next time the phone is switched on, wherever in the world you happen to be, provided it is in range of a GSM aerial and provided the local operator's system includes the SMS service which most now do. Messages cost nothing to receive and, in the UK, only 12p to send. It is amazingly cheap for a messaging service that covers half the globe!

One of our children acts as a point of contact for us in the UK. If she receives an urgent message for us she sends us an SMS message either from her mobile phone or from her computer at home. We switch our phone on for 10 minutes a day during supper. If our daughter has sent us a message we receive it at that time and can take action accordingly. More importantly, if as is usually the case, there is no message, we know that there is no problem. To receive such reassurance every night at no cost is a great blessing.

The combination of e-mail and the SMS service solves almost, though not quite all of our problems over communication whilst cruising. For relatives without e-mail or fax we send letters and postcards. There are also times when only a chat will do. On these occasions we use public telephone boxes. In Spain, BT have a pre-paid system that enables one to telephone the UK from any public telephone for the equivalent of 22p per minute, day and night charged by the second. To set up the system dial 900 94 89 25 from any phone in Spain (it is a free call) with a credit card to hand.

In France, almost all public telephones are now operated by a smart card known as a 'Télécarte'. If You buy a 'Télécarte Grande' (120 units for 97.5 FF) calls to the UK during off-peak hours cost the equivalent of 23p per minute. Télécartes can be bought from any 'Tabac' (tobacconist shop).

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© CRB Ltd. Updated - Monday, 07 Sep 2020