Preparation

Cell Phones in Iceland: The definitive guide for your 2018 trip

For the last couple of years, I have been recommending visitors to Iceland purchase an Icelandic SIM card, even if it meant you had to purchase a new unlocked cell phone. In 2018, that’s still a pretty good option, but other options have improved for travelers wishing to use their cell phones in Iceland or other countries. All major US carriers now have options for service that are somewhat reasonably priced, and Sprint and T-Mobile now have totally free choices. (But be careful—if you’re on AT&T or Verizon, you’ll need to do a little bit of work to make sure you don’t get charged what I consider to be exorbitant data rates.) And the option of renting a mobile hotspot has gotten less expensive and more convenient. We’ll walk through all of the details below to help you decide whether a cell phone from an Icelandic company like Siminn, Vodafone, or Nova makes sense for you.

Before we dive in, let me note that this information is specific to people from the United States. If you live in an EU country in Europe, there’s no need to keep reading: The new “Roam like Home” law implemented in June of 2017 allows you to use your plan in any EU country just as if you’re still at home. (No word on what will happen if the UK leaves the EU.)

Don’t forget that you’ll need a power adapter to charge your phone!


The four options for using your cell phone in Iceland

If you are from the United States and visiting Iceland, you have several options for cell phone service; let’s look at the major four.

Option 1: Becoming a Wifi nomad

First, you could disable roaming and just use your phone when you have wifi; most hotels and restaurants will have free Wifi, though it will be harder to find when you’re driving. There are mapping programs that store all data on the phone (like Maps.me) you could use for navigation. Google Maps will also save portions of the Icelandic map for offline use. But you might have to pay a dollar or two a minute to send or receive phone calls, unless you call over Wifi, or use a service like Skype. Texts might also be expensive.  And unless you know you have free international data on your current plan, turn off cellular data on your phone just to be safe. (iPhone: Settings–> Cellular. Android: Settings–> Data Usage) Your AT&T and Verizon plans won’t have free data; Sprint will, and T-Mobile might.

Option 2: Adding an International Data Plan

The second option is to pay for an International plan with your cellular provider, or use one is included with your current plan (Sprint and T-Mobile only.) Do not just start using data when you arrive in Iceland. For example, AT&T will charge you $2.05 per megabyte of data you use while roaming internationally, unless you have an international data plan. How much is $2.05 per megabyte? Well, the homepage at icelandwithkids.com is about a quarter of a megabyte, so it would cost you 50 cents to load. Our article about planning your trip would cost about $1.50. If you’re browsing a lot of web sites and maybe doing some video chat with people back home, it would be easy to burn through a gigabyte of data in a week. Cost: over $2,000. Verizon charges the exact same rate.

On the other hand, if you have Sprint or TMobile as your carrier, international data might be free (depending on which plan you have) though at slow speeds. But that’s much better than an expensive bill. We’ll cover all of the specifics for each of the major carriers below.

Option 3: Buying an Icelandic SIM card

The third option is to buy a SIM card from an Icelandic company. This will give you lots of high speed data for less money than just about any international plan (well, except for the free but slow ones.) The downsides: You need to have an unlocked phone, and you’ll have an Icelandic phone number instead of your own.

None of these 3 options matters if your phone doesn’t work on the cellular network in Iceland. Iceland uses the GSM network protocol, which is also what AT&T and TMobile use. But Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. Most modern phones (and all modern iPhones) can use both, but check your Verizon or Sprint phone at willmyphonework.net to make sure. An older phone like the iPhone 4S may not work if it was a CDMA model.

If you won’t have an unlocked phone that will work in Iceland, you can buy one for as little as $99.99. This new Moto E4 costs $99 if you have Amazon Prime and are willing to have Amazon ads on the phone. Or, it’s $129.99 if you don’t want ads and/or don’t have Prime. That gives you a competent Android phone that is already unlocked. When you get back home, put it on Sprint’s 1 year free program, or T-Mobile’s low usage $3 a month plan as an emergency phone for the kids.

Look for the details below.

Option 4: Renting a Wifi hotspot

This is probably the simplest option you have. You can pay a daily free to rent a Mifi device from a company like Trawire; some rental car companies offer this as an add-on, or you can arrange for a rental yourself. Here you are paying for convenience. Your phone just sees the device as a Wifi hotspot, so you don’t need to unlock your phone, swap SIM cards, or sign up for international plans. (Phone calls and texts would still use your home cell phone plan, though.) And multiple people in the same family or group can share a single hotspot.

Trawire, the company we recommend for Wifi hotspots, has improved their service in recent months, and I can now recommend it. The device is now $9 a day (with a minimum of 3 days), down from $10 in 2017. And you can now pick up the device in the 10/11 store in the Keflavik airport when you arrive in Iceland. (You used to have to pick it up at a local gas station.) They will provide you with a return postage paid envelope; just drop the device in the mail on your way out of the country. There is a mailbox by the oversized luggage area in the airport before security; there should also be one next to the Inspired By Iceland store past security in the airport. Here’s a map that shows the “odd sized” luggage area, and here’s a different map of the airport where the mailbox past security is labeled.

Trawire offers service from Siminn, the best carrier in Iceland. And you can share the service with everyone in your family– up to 10 devices. You do all have to be in the same place, though. Still, for a family with many devices, this can be a real bargain. Just make sure you’re always connected to the Wifi device, and not using data through your carrier’s plan! Turn off cellular data on your phone just to be safe. (iPhone: Settings–> Cellular. Android: Settings–> Data Usage)

Options 3 and 4 might have you at the 10/11 convenience store in the Keflavik airport. It’s past security and to your right as you leave the secured area. Find it on the map here; it’s the yellow #2 circle.  Here’s what it looks like:

Keflavik airport 10-11.

The best option depends on your current cell provider

Below you’ll find information specific to each of the 4 major carriers in the US: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and TMobile. After that, we’ll cover the details of purchasing an Icelandic SIM card, should you decide to go with that option. On our recent trip, we chose to purchase Icelandic SIM cards so we didn’t have to worry about data usage.

AT&T in Iceland

Will my phone work in Iceland? Almost definitely. AT&T uses the GSM network, which is also what Iceland uses.

How much will I pay without a plan? A lot. $2.00 a minute for calls, $0.50 for each text sent, and $2.05 for each megabyte used.

International plans: You have two options to add an international plan and avoid the outrageous data fee. First, you can pay for a Passport plan for a month. $60 gets you 1 Gig of data, or $120 gets you 3 GB. Calls would cost 35 cents a minute, and texts are free. You can make a one-time purchase of a Passport plan, which will be good for a 30 day period of your choosing; no need to worry about your billing cycle.

Second, you can purchase an international day pass. For $10 a day, you can use your existing plan as if you never left home. So if you have a good data plan and a trip that isn’t several weeks, this can be a good option.

Unlocking your phone: If you purchased your phone from AT&T, it is almost certainly locked. That means you can’t use the phone with another carrier until AT&T unlocks it. AT&T won’t unlock a phone until you have finished paying for it; your monthly bill may include an installment payment for the phone itself, separate from the cellular service charges. Once the phone is paid off you can request an unlock.

If you have a prepaid plan and purchased the phone from AT&T, you can unlock the phone after 6 months of usage on AT&T.

Recommendation: Unlock your phone if you can, or buy an inexpensive unlocked Android phone, and use an Icelandic SIM card. Or pay the $10 a day to AT&T and keep your current plan.

Sprint in Iceland

Will my phone work in Iceland? Probably, but you should check at willmyphonework.net, especially if your phone is a couple of years old and is not an iPhone. Sprint uses the CDMA network, but Iceland uses GSM. Most newish phones can handle both, though.

How much will I pay without a plan? Almost nothing! Calls are $0.20 a minute, and texts and (slow) data are free.

Free international plan: Sprint’s Global Roaming plan includes free international data; texts are also free, and calls are $0.20 per minute. Sprint is clear that “all sprint plans include” Global Data, so this should work in a prepaid plan as well.

So what’s the catch? The speed is 2G; given that 5G is going to become more common in 2018, 2G is several generations behind. The speeds may be as slow as 64 kbps. Not only is that not fast, it’s probably about 15 times slower than something you would consider fast. I’ve seen mixed reviews from people who tried it; it’s probably enough to send and receive e-mails (and texting should be great), but it might be frustrating for web browsing.

You may consider trying it for yourself, and then purchasing a data plan if you find it unbearable.

Paid international data plan:

Sprint should send you a text when you first turn on your phone in Iceland. It will provide instructions for how to activate high speed data. (They assume you’ll hate the free plan, and will pay to upgrade!) But the price is very reasonable: Pay $5 a day, or $25 a week for unlimited high speed data. This is the best option you’ll find among the major carriers. Pay $25 for a week for unlimited data and texts; calls are 20 cents a minute. That’s even better than an Icelandic SIM card.

Unlocking your phone: You can of course still consider an Icelandic SIM card. Sprint has a baffling page describing their phone unlock policy. Fortunately, you can ignore almost all of it, because they have a special option for customers traveling internationally.  “For Sprint customers traveling abroad for a short period of time, often their Sprint service can be provisioned to allow for international roaming.”

That sentence doesn’t use the work “unlock,” so be sure not to say anything about unlocking your phone if you call customer service! If your phone is paid off, sure, go ahead and ask for an unlock. Otherwise, ask if they can “provision” your phone to allow you to use an international SIM card. Anecdotal stories online suggest that it might be harder to get your phone provisioned, now that Sprint’s international options are much more attractive.

Recommendation: Pay Sprint the $25 for high speed data.

T-Mobile in Iceland

Will my phone work in Iceland? Almost definitely. TMobile uses the GSM network, which is also what Iceland uses.

How much will I pay without a plan? It depends. If you have a T-Mobile ONE, Simple Choice, New Classic or Select Choice plan, calls are $0.20 a minute, and texts and (slow) data are free. On any other plan, you’ll pay $1.49 a minute for calls, $0.50 per text sent, and $15 per megabyte of data; that data rate is so high that in my opinion, it should be illegal. Make sure you check which plan you have.

Free International Plan: Included ONLY with T-Mobile ONE and Simple Choice North America plans. If you have one of those, you get free sow data (though at 128kbps, it’s not as slow as Sprint’s free offering.) Otherwise, you pay the absolutely outrageous cost of $15 per megabyte. Make sure you are absolutely certain you have the right plan!

Paid international data plan: You have one option for a modest speed boost. For $10 a month, you can pay for T-Mobile One Plus. One of the features included boosts your international service to 256 kpbs. Let’s not call that fast, but rather less-slow. You’ll have to add this to your plan and then remove it once you get home.

But, surprisingly, there is no way to boost speeds in Iceland beyond 256 kbps. You can get an Icelandic SIM card for much faster speeds, or just pay the $10 to get 256 kb. The speed won’t be anything to write home about, but at least you’ll be able to write home. And the prices are very reasonable (free or $10.) Surprisingly, T-Mobile has told me that there is no way to boost your speed beyond 256 kbps in Iceland, even though they do offer high speed data passes for other countries.

Unlocking your phone: In general, a device you bought from T-Mobile is probably locked. Once your phone is paid off (or after 18 months of service under some plans) T-Mobile will unlock it for you. You’ll have to contact support.

Recommendation: If you’re not a heavy data user, and just want e-mail and occasional web browsing, try the 128 kbps data for free and see what you think. Otherwise, use an Icelandic SIM card; unlock your phone or buy an inexpensive unlocked Android phone.

Verizon in Iceland

Will my phone work in Iceland? Probably, but you should check at willmyphonework.net, especially if your phone is a couple of years old and is not an iPhone. Verizon uses the CDMA network, but Iceland uses GSM. Most newish phones can handle both, though.

How much will I pay without a plan? A lot. Calls are $1.79 a minute, sending a text costs $0.50, receiving a text costs $0.05, and data costs $2.05 per megabyte.

International plans: Just like AT&T, if you don’t sign up for a plan, you’ll pay an offensive $2.05 per megabyte used. And (again just like AT&T) you have two options here. First, you can add an International Plan. $40 a month gets you 100 minutes, 100 outgoing texts (incoming are all free) and 100 MB of data. Or pay $25 a month for 100 MB, but no voice minutes.

A second option seems better to me. You can pay $10 a day for a TravelPass, and use your data allotments from your regular plan. The first 512 MB per day will be at 4G speeds. You’ll be downgraded to 2G after that. But 512 MB is a lot of data per day, unless you’re streaming lots of video.

You need to activate TravelPass on your account; log in online or use the Verizon app. You’ll only pay for days you use data in another country. It might be best to just leave it active on your phone to avoid the possibility of a huge data charge in the future.

Unlocking your phone: Some good news for Verizon customers: Your phone is probably already unlocked. Which means you can pop a SIM card in it once you are in Iceland it will work. Verizon generally doesn’t lock devices. If you have an older Verizon phone and you are prompted for an unlock code, it’s either 000000 or 123456. If you have prepaid service, you need to call Verizon after 12 months and they can unlock your phone.

Recommendation: Buy an Icelandic SIM card, since your phone is likely unlocked. Check to make sure it handles GSM by looking at willmyphonework.net. Or pay $10 a day for TravelPass.


Icelandic SIM Cards

Let’s take a look at the logistics if you’ve chosen to use an Icelandic SIM card in your unlocked phone. This is the option we chose for our 2016 trip, and we didn’t have any issues. Make sure you know how to remove and reinsert a SIM card into your phone. Most iPhones require a small paperclip (or SIM card removal tool, which is just a thin metal rod, like a paperclip) to be inserted in order to pop out the SIM card slot.

The three main Icelandic carriers, sorted from best coverage to worst, are: Siminn, Vodafone, and Nova. Of course, that’s also sorted from price, highest to lowest.

If you are flying to Iceland on Icelandair, I think the choice is easy. Buy the Vodafone Starter Pack from sagaship.is. You can order it ahead of time—give them your flight number and they’ll bring it to you on the plane.  For 23 Euros ($27 or so) you’ll get “2 GB of data, unlimited Talk&Text domestically and 50 minutes for overseas calls.“ It also includes unlimited calling and texting within Iceland. It’s a good deal, and you can install it in your phone while you’re still on the plane. Once you land, you’ll be good to go.

All SIM cards kits from all companies here can be adjusted for the size your phone needs. So don’t worry if you need a micro or nano-sized SIM card. The cards in the kits are perforated so you can “punch out” the size you need. Take the card out of your phone to see what size you need; then be careful to create that same size with the Icelandic SIM card.

If you’re not flying Icelandair, then you can buy a Siminn SIM card from the 10/11 store in the Keflavik airport. You should also be able to get them in the Elko electronics store. But Elko is in the secure area, and 10/11 is outside of the secure area. I didn’t even think about buying a SIM card until we had already passed through security and customs.

There should be two options there, though check that link to see the latest offerings. The main card is the Prepaid Starter Pack. For 2900 krona (around $29) you get 5 GB of data, 50 minutes of calling and 50 texts. The calling and texts are good for Iceland or International calling to 54 countries. That should be plenty of data for most trips, though you can always add more.

The other option is a Siminn Prepaid Data card, which gives you 10 GB for the same price. But you don’t get voice minutes or texting options, and there is no way to add them. I don’t see this as a valuable option for most travelers, unless for some reason you need a whole lot of data. (If this is the only card you can find, you can use Skype to make calls and other apps such as Whatsapp to fill in for texts.)

If you are flying Wowair, the Duty Free catalog will offer a Nova SIM card. For $18, you get 1 GB of data plus about a $10 credit to pay for calls or texts. I don’t think you can order this ahead of time, but it might be worth checking to see if you can buy one on the plane. The conventional wisdom used to be that Nova had great coverage in Reykjavik, and nowhere else. I think they still don’t match the coverage Siminn has, and you will have some dead zones in East Iceland. But you should have service most places, though maybe 3G instead of 4G.

Problems with your Icelandic SIM card

When you put in an Icelandic SIM card, your phone should just work. If your phone doesn’t connect, you may need to update your settings manually. Check out the APN Settings web site for Iceland. Click through the carrier you’re buying a SIM card from (Siminn, Vodafone, Nova, etc.) and print out the instructions, or save them to your phone. It’s unlikely you’ll need to do this, though anecdotal evidence suggests Verizon users are more likely to have an issue.

Summary

A few years ago, getting the Icelandic SIM card was the best choice in many cases. And you still can’t go wrong with any of the Icelandic SIM card options, should you choose that option. But all of the major US carriers have improved their offerings for international travel. On Sprint in particular, I think I would pay the $25 for high speed data. If keeping your phone number during your vacation is important, you now have options. And Trawire has improved their offering as well, and it’s now a viable option that doesn’t involve messing with your phone.

Let me know what you think in the comments! Do you have a different cell phone provider? Do you agree with our recommendations?


Other posts you may enjoy:

Planning your Iceland Trip

Our car recommendation in Iceland

Cell Phones in Iceland: The definitive guide for your 2018 trip was last modified: December 21st, 2017 by Eric