Using a cell phone in Iceland, Part 1: What NOT to do

Iceland weather app

If you plan to use any data at all, don’t just turn on roaming on your phone. Here’s why.

You don’t truly need to have a cell phone with a data plan when you’re in Iceland.  You could just bring your current phone,  disable roaming data (this is critical! see below as to why), make an occasional quick phone call, download some offline maps, and become a Wi-Fi nomad. Almost all hotels will have Wi-Fi available. If you are using Reykjavik as your home base for bus tours, most of the buses will have Wi-Fi as well. (For example, the 2 biggest bus tour companies in Reykjavik, Gray Line and Reykjavik Excursions, both offer Wi-Fi on the buses. See and

These days, many hotels and tourist attractions outside of Reykjavik also have Wi-Fi service, though quality can be hit or miss. (Let us know of any good or bad experiences you have had!)  But I still recommend you have a data plan. It’s nice to always have the option to look up an address no matter where you are, or to send a quick e-mail or send a message through Whatsapp or another data-based texting service.

Option 1: Your existing phone without an international plan. That is, just show up in Iceland without doing anything to your phone or phone plan.

(If you already know you don’t want to just use your existing plan, and you don’t have a morbid curiosity for how to generate an exorbitant phone bill, feel free to skip to the next option, International Calling Plans.)

Up until a couple of years ago, the universal advice for people with cell phones in the United States was to never, ever, just use your phone internationally without planning ahead. And this is still true for AT&T and Verizon (and some TMobile customers). Take a look:

Talk (per minute) Data (per megabyte) Text (per outgoing text) Text (per incoming text)
AT&T $1.50 $19.97 $0.50  $0.00*
Sprint $0.20 $0.00 (slow) $0.00 $0.00
Tmobile Simple Choice $0.20 $0.00 (slow) $0.00 $0.00
Tmobile other plan $1.49 $15.00 $0.50    $0.00**
Verizon $1.79 $2.05 $0.50 $0.05

* AT&T doesn’t cover this, so I’m just guessing here. I assume it comes out of your normal texting plan, like Tmobile:
** TMobile says: “If you do not have a domestic texting plan, messages received are 20 cents each; if you have an unlimited texting plan, messages received are free.”


Let’s jump right to data, since this is where the issue is. I spent a week in Ireland last year, with an Irish SIM card (more on the local SIM card option). Now, I checked my e-mail a lot, loaded lots of GPS maps, and generally made the most of my virtually unlimited data plan. I ended up using about 800 megabytes in a week.  Had I just used my regular AT&T cell phone, the cost of this would have been about $16,000.

Verizon’s data rate is a little lower, and I “only” would have spent about $1,600.

About 2 years ago, TMobile made this interesting, and offered free data for those on its Simple Choice plans. Now, they do limit you to “web speeds”, which means you are limited to 2G speeds. The limit for 2G seems to be about 200kbps. How fast is that? It’s most likely 10 times or more slower than the speed you currently have on your cell phone, and you will notice the difference. But, it’s still perfectly usable, especially just to check e-mail.

And Sprint followed through in January 2016 with a similar option for Iceland. Slow data is free, and calls are $0.20 a minute. The main issue with Sprint is that they use a different cellular technology (CDMA) that isn’t used in Iceland; your phone may not work at all unless it also supports GSM.

So unless you have TMobile Simple Choice (and confirm 100% that you are on a Simple Choice plan), or a Sprint phone that can handle GSM, don’t use data. You can disable roaming to make sure you don’t end up paying these exorbitant fees, but I think it’s nice to have some data access while you are traveling.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at international plans you can add-on to your existing cell phone account.

Using a cell phone in Iceland, Part 1: What NOT to do was last modified: August 15th, 2016 by Eric