Saturday, September 5, 2009

First Few Hours in London

Flight arrived on time with no apparent problems whatsoever. The walk from the gate to Passport Control took as much time as if you’re walking to another dimension – I think I spent 15 minutes walking (fast) just to meet the Passport Control line-up of another 15 minutes.

It seems that becoming a Canadian Citizen and obtaining a Canadian Passport has been a very wise choice. I have never been stopped at any Passport Control station anywhere. Here in the UK, it turned out that they have recently revamped their procedures so their Passport Control is tougher than before (hence the longer lines); to my surprise, the only question I was asked was “what are you here for?”.

- “For a concert”, I replied.

And that’s it. Boom, bang, stamp the passport and I’m on my way. I guess that the huge backpack on my back, as well as the Baby Taylor guitar wrapped around me, didn’t really create the impression that I’m going to settle in the UK and work illegally. I don’t know… if I was working in Passport Control and I was seeing a guy with a huge backpack and a guitar, I would require more convincing than “I’m here for a concert”.

A quick check on the hotel’s website revealed that I can get there using the Piccadilly underground. Checked the schedule; 52 minutes from the airport to the station – an ultimate fail, considering the fact that I was extremely tired and hungry. Another option that cost 5 times more was to take the London Express train that takes you to the Paddington Station in 15 minutes and from there getting to the hotel is a no-brainer. It was an enjoyable ride.

Countering any known strategy for coping with jet lag, I arrived at the hotel and immediately crashed on the bed. Woke up a couple of hours later for my first walk in exploring the city.

So I took a small backpack, packed my Netbook and a camera and off I went. My first goal was to find & purchase a local SIM card for my Blackberry, so I can avoid the tremendous roaming charges imposed by Rogers Wireless (my Canadian cell phone carrier).

So after spending 2-3 hours exploring options and troubleshooting problems, here is the deal guys. For any of you planning on going to Europe and would like to use your phone, let me save you hours of research and mistakes:

First of all, ensure you have a GSM phone. CDMA/TDMA and such simply won’t work here, and if they do, your reception will suck. GSM is the de-facto mobile standard in Europe. In Canada, of the major carriers, only Rogers are GSM.

When you buy a GSM phone, ensure you’re buying a phone that is capable of working in all GSM frequencies (this is called “Quad-Band”, as there are four GSM frequencies used around the world).

Before you leave Canada, unlock your phone if it hasn’t been unlocked already. Otherwise, you can only use your carrier’s SIM card, which means you pay stupid amounts of roaming charges outside of Canada. Remember, you only need to unlock it if you’re planning on using other companys’ SIM cards (see below).

Now: If you have no interest in having BlackBerry services (this is true if you don’t have a BlackBerry, or if you have a BlackBerry but couldn’t care less about BlackBerry applications working while you’re away), then ignore all the ads in your home country enticing you to buy international SIM cards. It’s a waste of time and money. In Europe, the mobile phones’ world is much, much more advanced than in North America. You can buy SIM cards at supermarkets here.

Your best bet would be to buy a “Pay As You Go” SIM card with a major carrier. In the UK, that would be Vodaphone, T-Mobile, O2 or Orange. The SIM card in the UK would cost you 5 pounds (approximately $9 CDN), and you can “credit” your Pay-As-You-Go account pretty much everywhere. VERY cheap. Also, if you need Web access through your phone, you can add it to your Pay As You Go plan for very cheap.

The problems become when you have a BlackBerry and would like to use BlackBerry Services, so neat functionalities such as BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk and the other variety of BlackBerry applications. As it turns out, at least in the UK, there is no Pay-As-You-Go plan that provide access to BlackBerry Internet Services. You simply can’t do that. Of course you can stick a local SIM card and browse the Web for very cheap (see the previous option), but BlackBerry applications won’t work.

So if you insist on using BlackBerry Internet Services, you have two options:

  1. Go on a monthly payment plan. This doesn’t make sense at all if you’re just visiting for a short period of time; however, if you stay for a long period, it’s by far the best approach.
  2. Buy an international data roaming add-on from your Canadian carrier.

I stuck with option number (2). Contrary to whatever they say about Rogers’ customer service, their service was FANTASTIC. Not only they added it right on the spot, they also agreed to credit me for the roaming data charges I incurred so far today.

So now I’m travelling Europe with my own phone number, using my neat BlackBerry with its useful applications (Google Maps for BlackBerry is so helpful that it is worth it to pay extra just to make it work). Not worried about being charged hundreds of dollars for roaming, having a great time, and can even use my BlackBerry as a modem, so I can publish to my blog where Internet access isn’t available.

Dinner time now…

Isaac

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is great advice! I was wondering though did you still get a sim card for your blackberry so that you could text and make phonecalls? Or did you have two phones - 1. the pay as you go phone and 2. the blackberry. Thank you!

Isaac said...

Hi Anonymous,
Well, as I mentioned, I ended up using an international data roaming plan from my cell provider back in Canada. That way I could simply continue using my phone as usual, without changing SIM's or anything.

I should say though that, in retrospect, it wasn't the most brilliant idea. Turned out that my data usage was higher than usual, which resulted in huge roaming fees even after the discount of the international roaming plan.

I am a bit unsure as to what you're trying to achieve, so I'll take some assumptions (feel free to contact me directly to discuss further). If you live in country X and own a BlackBerry, and you're going to temporarily reside in country B, and you can tolerate a temporary phone number change, here is what you should do:

First, unlock your BlackBerry so it's no longer bound to one particular provider. This will cost you about $5.

Then, buy a SIM card in country Y. The types of SIM cards (prepaid, subscription etc) available really depend on the country you're in. In the UK, you can buy a prepaid SIM card with lots of phone and text and even Web access for 15 pounds.

The only trick left is whether you want BlackBerry services (BIS). If you do, then you'll have to do some research ahead of time, because most cellphone carriers will not provide you with BIS unless you go on a monthly sort of plan. I am in Israel at the moment and was able to get a non-commitment BIS access through Orange Israel. Not sure who can provide you with that in the UK...


Isaac

Anonymous said...

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