Over our last two sabbaticals, we’ve learned a lot about mobile phones in Germany.  We’ve had three mobile phones and two data sticks, and have dealt with O2 and Vodafone, though we’ve considered other providers as well.

I wish I could say we’d pulled everything off without incident.  At any rate, the mistakes are good lessons in what not to do. It also led me to do a lot of research before the latest sabbatical. I won’t say I’m a mobile phone geek, but I do have some thoughts:

Get a pay-as-you-go phone for stays less than two years.

Contracts are for a minimum of two years (at least while we were in Germany).  Unless you’re staying that long, do not sign up for a contract.  You will be committed to it for the duration, even after you leave the country.

The employees at the mobile phone provider’s store will tell you that you can easily break a contract.  They are wrong.  Do not trust them.

Cell phone store employees in Germany are no different than in North America. They are short-term employees who are on commission.  All they care about is putting you into the plan they’re best compensated for, and they’ll tell you anything to sell you on it.  On the 2008 sabbatical, my spouse signed up for a contract for his data stick through O2.  The O2 employee at the shop swore than all he’d have to do is prove he’d left the country, and the contract would be terminated early.  This was not true, and O2 continued to bill us for months even after he provided his Abmeldeschein.  On our latest sabbatical, the Vodafone employee also tried to put us on a contract and insisted that we could break the contract with an Abmeldeschein, as long as we were providing our own equipment.1

All the reading I’ve done on expat forums matches our experience. Once you’ve signed up for a contract, the company expects you to pay for the entire duration of the contract, whether or not you’ve left the country.  You can try to tell them that their employees told you that you could break the contract, but by the time you get to that point, the employee who sold you the contract is long gone. In our case, O2 finally waived the charges after months of back and forth with them, but I’ve read stories from others who’ve had Vodafone or T-Mobile insist on full payment.

Get a pay-as-you-go and avoid the hassle.

Bring an unlocked phone if you can.

This probably seems pretty obvious, but it does take some planning.  Our contracts were ending just after we moved to Germany.  Fortunately Canada had recently enacted legislation that meant we wouldn’t have to pay early termination fees in the last six months of our contract, so we were able to cancel the contract and get the phones unlocked (for a fee).

Showing up with your own hardware makes things easier. If you travel at all, you’ll be able to swap SIM cards in and out, if you’re going to other countries for extended periods.  And you won’t have to deal with the expense of buying a new phone.

That said, iPhones do not always travel well.

Don’t assume your old iPhone will work well in Germany, or that it can be fixed. I learned, much to my dismay, that North American iPhones, even the latest models, may not be on the same frequencies as European iPhones2. When we arrived in Germany, my old iPhone was completely unable to connect to 4G, even though we were paying for 4G plans, and this is why.

Also, Apple is very picky about fixing iPhones from different geographies.  I brought my unlocked iPhone 5s over from Canada, hoping to eke out another year on it before going on a new contract with a new phone at home.  Soon after we arrived, the standby button stopped working.  Apple has a free repair program for this problem, because it is a known hardware issue. But none of the Apple authorized repair places here will handle a Canadian phone.  Apple’s support says even the Apple stores may choose not to handle an out-of-country phone. I’m welcome to ship it to Canada, though, and then be without a phone for two months.

You should be able to keep your number at home.

At least in Canada, Rogers will put your account on hold for a year while you’re gone.  It will cost you a small amount each month, but you can keep your number. We spent a lot of time on the phone with them when we first arrived, because our first plan was to switch to a cheapo prepaid plan, since we were out of contract anyway. However, they informed us that doing so would change our phone numbers. I have no idea whether this is actually true, but we went through multiple associates on a couple of calls and this seemed to be the one consistent solution.

I’m not sure if other carriers will do this, but it’s worth asking if you want to keep your number at home without paying full freight.  It probably helps if you’re already out of contract, as we were, though.

Thoughts on carriers in Germany.

We went with Vodafone for this sabbatical.  Their pay-as-you-go plan was less expensive than T-Mobile and had more 4G coverage than O2.  All of this, of course, changes at the drop of a hat.

Things I’ve liked about Vodafone:

  • They’re recently introduced roaming throughout the EU on your home plan, so you don’t have to buy a travel package when you go to Spain or France.
  • Their 4G availability for pay-as-you-go plans has been decent compared to other providers.

Things I haven’t liked about Vodafone:

  • Their coverage isn’t great:  The minute I get outside a city in Bavaria, reception gets very spotty.
  • Their app is awful, crashes constantly, and it’s hard to keep track of your plan and usage.  I also can’t top up through their app, even though supposedly it’s an option (it crashes the app).  Also, you can’t get their app unless you’re in the German iPhone store, and if you don’t have a German credit card, you can’t access the German iPhone store.
  • If you have to buy extra data one month, they sign you up for auto-renewal of that extra data every month, without asking you — so you have to make sure to always unsubscribe as soon as you’ve bought the extra plan.

Honestly, what provider you use is going to depend on your needs, and on whoever’s running the best deal at the time.  One thing I would recommend is just walking around to the different providers’ stores in your city.  You may find them advertising rates that aren’t on their websites.  I’ve often seen T-Mobile advertising special “tourist” rates outside their stores; these were comparable to what I got from Vodafone, though the normal plans on T-Mobile’s site cost more than Vodafone.

1 He also tried to put us on a business plan without telling us what it was, probably because he thought our German wasn’t good enough to figure out what had happened and that was the plan that paid best that day. Fortunately I knew their personal plans well enough going in to know that what he was proposing was not one of their advertised plans. We walked away and went home to research whether what he was proposing was legit.
2 Most are, but depending on your provider and plan it may not be. At last check, the AT&T model of the iPhone 6 is on the wrong frequencies but other providers’ phones match European phones.