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How to Use Your U.S. Cellphone in Ireland

If you intend to travel to Ireland and use your cellphone -- be warned. Roaming costs for US cellphone users in Ireland can be astronomical. You could face a bill of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. The bill will be even greater if you call other Americans in your group on their US cellphones while they are in Ireland. To avoid these roaming costs, there are two popular options. The first one involves unlocking your (current or old) phone, the second involves buying a cheap prepaid cellphone in Ireland. If you don't like the idea of unlocking a phone, scroll down to the section on buying a pre-paid Irish cellphone. 

Cellphones, Mobiles, Smartphones - What do People in Ireland Call Them?

First, let's clarify some language, to avoid "lost in translation" difficulties. In Ireland and the UK cellphones are called mobiles or, more usually, just phones. Irish people will probably understand when you say "cellphone", but won't use that word. As in the US, the term smartphone is now widely used in Ireland/UK to refer to iPhones or similar phones, such as Android phones, e.g. Samsung Galaxy. Cellphones that are not tied to a monthly payment plan are called, in Ireland, prepaid phones or pay-as-you-go phones. The alternative is a bill pay phone.  You may wish to buy a SIM only. SIM cards may be prepaid or pay-as-you-go.  This language is all used, and well understood, in Irish stores.

Method 1: Unlocked Phone With Prepaid SIM Card

If you want to use your cellphone in Ireland, and avoid the exorbitant charges from your local carrier, you will need to

  • a) Get your phone unlocked
  • b) Buy a prepaid SIM card that will work in Ireland.

The tricky part of this method is unlocking your phone. 

What does unlocking the phone mean?

If you've bought your phone on a contract, the phone is linked to a specific company -- the service provider or carrier -- e.g. AT&T. If want to use a signal from a different (i.e. Irish) carrier, the phone won't work. It is locked, or tied to a single service provider. American carriers like AT&T don't have a local presence in Ireland, so you have to pay huge roaming fees while you are in Ireland. American carriers are also reluctant to unlock phones for you, even if you tell them you are travelling abroad. After all, they stand to make a lot of money from your vacation usage. 

Unlocking pay-as-you-go cellphones and older model cellphones

For older phones, or pay-as-you-go phones, you simply need the unlock code. If you have an old cellphone, it may be an idea to try and unlock this one with the aim of taking it to Ireland, assuming you can get a SIM to work in it. For the purposes of simply making /receiving calls and texts, an old phone like this may be all you need. For example, if you own a Nokia 9500, you can unlock the phone by typing an unlock code into the phone. To obtain the code, first try to do a little Google research on your phone model and see if you can figure out the code yourself. Alternatively, you can try calling your service provider (again, they may be reluctant, but be insistent), or go to a local phone store, where you may be charged a small fee (typically around $15). Note: you may need the IMEI or serial number of the phone. This is a unique, 15-digit number located under the battery. On Nokia phones, it is found by typing  *#06# on the keypad. 

Unlocking smartphones and newer model cellphones

For iPhones, smartphones and newer phones in general, unlocking is more difficult. For these types of phones, unlocking means "jailbreaking" the phones and is not recommended for the average consumer. Not only is jailbreaking your phone a legal gray area, it is a formidable technical challenge -- a bit like trying to install Linux on a Windows computer -- not a task for the regular Joe or Jane! 

Where Can I Buy a Prepaid SIM Card That Works in Ireland?

Once you've unlocked your phone, you will need to buy a SIM card that works in Ireland. As my question suggests, the best thing to do is to buy a pre-paid SIM card, so that you know exactly how much you are going to be spending in advance. You can buy pre-paid SIM cards from Tesco, which is one of Ireland's largest supermaket chains -- a sort of Irish Walmart: https://www.tescomobile.ie/sim-cards.aspx Other stores in Ireland, such as newsagents and corner stores, or mobile phone stores, will also sell prepaid SIM cards. Note: I am not endorsing Tesco, nor (sadly) am I receiving any commission. I am just sharing local knowledge :) Start out with a SIM card for somewhere between €20 euros and €50 euros. Many people find this is all they need for a two-week stay, to cover call calls and texts -- unless you are making a lot of lengthy calls to the US. If you buy the €20 euros SIM card to begin with, wait to see if you run out of credit, then go back to a supermarket or newsagent and buy another SIM, perhaps for a larger amount if you ran out of credit quickly! If you are using your phone (and not Skype) to make calls to the US, even with a prepaid SIM, you should use it in conjunction with an international calling card to reduce the call costs. International calling cards can be bought in Tesco, starting from around  €5 euros http://www.tescocallingcard.ie You may find similar calling cards in local Irish grocery stores/newsagents. Tip: Don't forget to pack an adapter, so that you can charge your phone up.

 

Method 2: Buy a Cheap, Pay-as-you-go Cellphone when you arrive in Ireland

Okay, this doesn't answer the question "how do I use my U.S. cellphone in Ireland?" But it's an option worth considering. If you're travelling with others, it may be worth considering buying individual Irish cellphones for each member in your group -- cheap but functional models, to use during your stay. This will give you Irish phone numbers, which you can use to call each other at local rates for the duration of your stay. 

Tesco Phones

You can pick up a pay-as-you-go cellphone from Irish supermarket chain Tesco (which, as explained above, is Ireland's nearest equivalent to Walmart) for as little as €10 euros / $11 dollars - http://www.tescomobile.ie/shop.aspx?type=prepay Tip: sort by lowest price first. Important Note: I've put the link above to show available models only. You won't be able to order Irish phones from the U.S. as Tesco ships to Irish billing addresses only. Once you arrive in Ireland, you will be able to purchase a pay-as-you-go cellphone from Tesco, which has branches all over Ireland, including one in Temple Bar, a popular tourist area right in the centre of Dublin. Here is Tesco's store locator: http://www.tesco.com/store-locator/ie/ Note: Again, I am not endorsing Tesco, nor (sadly) am I receiving any commission. I am just sharing local knowledge :) 

Purchasing Pay-as-you-go Credit

You will also need to purchase credit for your phone. But, for a basic €10 euros (€11 dollars) credit package, calls and texts between each Tesco phone are free. So, at a minimum, with a €10 and €10 credit (€20 total each), your group will be able to make unlimited calls and texts to each other for the duration of their stay in Ireland. 

Remember, you will now have an Irish Number

Once you've purchased a pay-as-you-go Irish phone, you will need to pass on your new Irish phone number to the folks back home if you want them to be able to reach you on your Irish cellphone. 

Topping Up

If you do need additional credit you can top up your Tesco phone, or any Irish pre-paid phone, quite easily. The simplest way is usually to top up by text message. You will usually get printed instructions when you receive your phone.  If you are unsure, ask at the store when you purchase the phone for details. Another method is to return to a store and purchase more credit in the store. Other Tips

  • Take your regular phone with you anyway, so that you have access to your contacts
  • If you have a smartphone or tablet, you will be able to use Skype, WhatsApp, etc. to call and send messages for free in free wifi areas, typically your hotel room

Images

  • Girl on a cellphone, St. Patrick's Day, Ireland. Image by spatialpan.
  • Irish grandmother on phone. Image by Sarah Le Clerc

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Comments

  • Judy on August 09, 2016

    I’ve never had a throwaway phone before and have an additional question. Do these phones from Tesco also have data? We would like to be able to access Google (or some equivalent) maps option for walking and driving directions. Is this possible?

  • Brian (of course) on July 25, 2016

    This is a great post. Do Tesco stores sell the SIM card for a smartphone? Or only topup vouchers? (Tesco’s website seems to contemplate that one would order the SIM card online and have it delivered overnight. Do the stores have phone service kiosks with people on duty there?)

  • Linda on June 23, 2016

    Thanks for this very useful information.

  • Adam on June 16, 2016

    Thanks for writing this. Going to Ireland in a week and needed to know where/how to get a SIM (my phone’s unlocked). Very useful, and good timing, too!

    Thanks,
    Adam

  • Larry on June 14, 2016

    Thanx for the info. Knew of Tesco but could not pull up their Ireland locations w/o ur link. Good info.

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