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Foreign SIM Cards Come with Censorship

Bringing an unlocked, out-of-contract smartphone on vacation and buying a temporary local phone number remains far and away the cheapest way to use a mobile phone in Europe. Just be warned: If you use social networking apps, though, you may have to waste time jumping through hoops to circumvent child protection measures.

That's because travelers who purchase SIM cards for lower-cost mobile phone rates in Europe are finding their ability to surf the Web freely has been curtailed.

As of 2013, all the big mobile phone providers in the U.K. use the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to judge which websites are "adult" themed and which are deemed pure for all eyes. Anything with an adult classification is blocked and won't come up on travelers' smartphones. Sounds good on paper, but in practice, single travelers and gay travelers, in particular, are discovering that some of the social networking apps and websites they use to meet locals are being censored—despite the fact that in the case of iPhone apps, Apple already has its own censorship rules in place.

I's very difficult for adults who live outside of the United Kingdom to change the settings on purchased SIM cards. T-Mobile, Orange, and EE, for example, claim customers may prove their age by taking their credit card information. Yet, tourists soon discover, it won't accept cards that are registered outside of the U.K.

It also doesn't matter if users have purchased the SIM card with a credit card to begin with since most of them are sold by third parties who don't report the method of payment. 

The only practical way to remove a block is first to "register" your card, usually on its website. Same problem there, though—you usually have to have a U.K. address, which few tourists have. Foreign credit cards aren't accepted as proof of identity.

Tourists have taken to registering the address for their hotel instead (but write it down, because if you need to call for phone support later, you'll have to be able to supply that postcode to verify your identity). In some cases, customers have had to email photos of their passports to prove they're as old as they say they are, which is a privacy concern.

Customers can theoretically get a block removed by visiting a storefront operated by that particular network. However, many big players that sell a lot of SIM cards, such as the low-cost player Lebara, have nearly no retail presence. And these phone companies are set up for volume transactions, not customer service—if you telephone them, you get only a maze of recordings and menu options, and to speak to a live person, you have to pay extra.

Increasingly, the better way to avoid censorship is to simply use your regular SIM card when you travel—but that, of course, comes with its own financial penalties.