Having just returned from the US, my experience navigating what the heck to do about my cell phone when moving to London is top of mind. For future expats, especially those moving from the US to England, I have some tips that made the transition for me much easier.
My first tip: in England they call them mobile phones. While this aspect of moving seems like it will be a nightmare (especially for those who are more technologically impaired), it is actually not very difficult and it is very possible to arrive at a great solution. For me, the process was much easier and cheaper than I anticipated.
Get a phone in the US
If you’re a die hard Apple fan like me, it makes the most sense to buy your iPhone in the US. Since it is an American product, you’ll get a better price. In my case, I was lucky in that my carrier, Verizon, moved away from the upgrade/contract model when I got my latest phone a little less than a year before the move. No longer was I tied to a tricky contract, I only needed to pay off the phone (which I had been paying for in installments each month) to be free of my American phone plan. The phone was jailbroken and I would be able to switch to a UK cell plan carrier once I arrived.
All I had to do to be up and running in the UK was pay off the phone, port my American number which would cancel my US phone plan for me, take out the SIM, put in a UK SIM, boom, done. There is something nice about bringing a device that has all your pictures, all your contacts, apps and everything all set up when moving somewhere new.
Save your American number
I’ve had my cellphone number since I was 16 years old. Going through this process has made me realize how attached I am to that number and how much a part of my identity I consider it!
I originally thought I would have to save my number through Verizon and would be paying something like $5 a month to keep it. That seemed like a pretty crazy expense and maybe I should part with my number. Luckily, my future brother-in-law told me about Google’s number porting service. He had ported his own US number to Google ages ago and used the Google Voice app on whatever phone he had at that time instead of the phone’s number.
Porting my number to Google Voice has exceeded my expectations. When you port your number to Google, it will automatically cancel your cell phone plan, but if you have a US cell phone plan, you have to be in the US to do it. I waited until we were at the airport to set mine up (it is VERY confusing and Google Voice’s help section is very outdated), so it was a little bit of a scramble, but I was able to figure it out. It takes 24 hours to process and costs $20.
The service is honestly awesome. I have yet to set up the app on my phone, because I haven’t really needed it. I can take (and make!) calls for free using my American number on my laptop using Google Hangouts, which has been so unbelievably helpful with banking and wedding planning things. It allows you to receive voicemails and emails you the transcriptions once a voicemail is received (love that! Though, sadly, my dad’s butt dials arrive as blank transcriptions, haha).
Texts arrive as emails in your inbox, all you need to do is reply to the email to respond. This has been great for anyone trying to get in touch with me who doesn’t have iMessage or my UK number. It allows me to stay up-to-date on the family group text, and text for free with my American friends when I’m home, as long as I’m on wifi.
Plan to get a pay as you go plan first
I had heard that EE has the best service throughout England, but knew more people who had O2. The line was shorter when I walked into O2, so I went with that. Within five minutes, I had a to pay as you go SIM card installed and I was up and running on data, text and cell in the UK. Because these plans are so cheap, I am still paying as I go. Andrew has a cell phone plan through work, so it’s just me and it is working out well!
The draw back of the pay as you go plan is that it only works in the UK. I have no international phone capabilities. With iMessage, WhatsApp and Google Voice, I’ve been fine traveling, using wifi when I can get it and relying on Andrew’s international phone when we need navigation or anything timely. For solo travelers, you may want to look into another solution.
I’d love to hear tips from other expats – what tricks and advice do you have for getting up and running on a cell phone when moving abroad?