An American Geek In London: Mobile Data on the Road,

published at 10:01pm on 01/31/12

Getting online on your mobile phone in London is the easiest thing in the world, provided you have an unlocked phone.

So here I am, an American, heading to London for a week. Like most of my friends, I live on my mobile phone and I can’t imagine being without instant access to my email for more than a few hours, let alone a day at a time. In addition, in a city like London, land of nooks and crannies, having instant access to a location-aware map is the most awesome thing in the world. And let’s not forget Foursquare Explore. So I know I need data.

And I also know that I’d rather not get screwed by my mobile provider with foreign data charges.

So what to do?


The answer turns out to be really quite simple if you’re coming to London. I got off the plane, onto the Tube, headed into central London and went immediately to a Carphone Warehouse, which are apparently on every single block in this city. I told the nice clerk behind the counter that I would be here for a week and that I wanted a pay-as-you-go SIM card that would give me lots of data.

£10 later, I had an O2 SIM card with 500MB of data, 300 free text messages, free incoming calls (which is standard across all carriers), and £10 to spend on phone calls or any overage charges. All they needed was a name (completely unverified), and money – cash will do.

I can’t tell you what joy it is to wander around the city with my phone checking its email, figuring out where I am with Google Maps and checking in on Foursquare without having to worry about how much it’s going to cost me. 500MB is plenty for a week, and if you need more, you can just top up for more. And as long as my friends and colleagues in the US know to text my Google Voice phone number, I’ll get the texts here just as if I was back at home.

There are really only a few caveats if you want to do this yourself:

First of all, you’re going to need to have a GSM phone. Sorry Verizon and Sprint users.

Second, you need an unlocked mobile phone. If you’re not aware, most carriers will lock their phones so they’re only usable with their own SIM cards. You need to unlock it if you want to use another carrier’s SIM, which you definitely do in this case. I lucked out with my unlocked Nexus One, but most US carriers will lock their phones. I know that T-Mobile will give the unlock code to customers in good standing, or there are services that will unlock your phone for you for a fee. You probably want to get this done before you leave the US.

Third, you might have to change your APN settings, which are the settings that tell your phone how to get on the Internet. I didn’t leave the store until they helped me get it working properly. They had to Google for the right settings, but they got it working almost immediately.

Fourth, ask the folks at the store about the different SIM options. Most of the carriers have comparable pay-as-you-go plans, but I know that T-Mobile has one that has really cheap international calling, for example. Most likely there will be a plan that works for you.

Finally, on O2, my phone will not pick up the time automatically and I have to set it myself. What gives?!

And there you have it. Now go enjoy some fish and chips.

Filed under: Technology

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