I don't tend to have good experiences purchasing cell phones. Hamburg has been no exception...
The apartment where we live has two phone lines. Great. But the one in my room has no voicemail. So it wasn't quite the set-up that I would need. Thinking that in Europe prepaid cell phones would be cheap, we went shopping. Whereupon we found out that they were not.
The best plan we could find was at the O2 store. If you prepaid 30 euros, for the next 4 weeks your calls would cost only 19 cents – whether or not it was to a landline or a cell phone on another carrier. But the phone selection was pretty grim. And expensive. So we decided it wasn't worth it, and I decided instead to get an answering machine for my room.
But then my roommate reported that because our phone is ISDN and not analog (huh?), a new phone with an answering machine, which I thought might be about $20, would be more like $80. Not a good plan. So what to do?
All that was last week. Then Saturday at 9pm I saw my roommate and she had a cell phone. "I thought you weren't getting one?" I queried. "Didn't I tell you?" she responded. "Saturn [an electronics superstore] has O2 phones for 40 euros." She showed me her phone. It was worth 40 euros to me. "But that special rate plan expired tonight at 8pm." Damn! Damn damn! I was too late!
Or was I? On Monday I got up early to go to school to get my passport. They had collected passports the week before to send out for our residency permits. Word had it though that they weren't going out until Monday, so maybe I could get mine real quick, run out to the store, and then bring it right back. Why? Because word also had it that you needed to show a passport to buy a cell phone. The gossip chain was a little uncertain about how strict this requirement was, but just in case, I thought I'd go get my passport before going to Saturn. Except I was too late, and when I got there to school the passports had already gone out.
I rushed to Saturn anyway, though, to see if I could still get the deal. I found a clerk who spoke English. "Where are your 40 euro phones?" "We don't have any 40 euro phones." "But my friend just bought one here!" "No, we don't have any 40 euro phones."
Of course, it turned out he was wrong, and he just hadn't noticed the 100 or so of the 40 euro phones piled behind him... But he assured me that the promotion continued. "Great, I'll take one then."
But without my passport, he wouldn't give me one. It was never fully explained why the passport was required and how hard and fast this rule was, but he did seem to mumble that only German residents could buy the phone. Of course, my passport wouldn't say I was a German resident. Still, maybe I could give them the next best thing and so the next day when I went back I brought with me a copy of my passport, a copy of my lease (residency in Germany!), and a letter from the school saying I was a student there. But they still wouldn't sell me the phone.
Fortunately my German friend had come with me, and so we used his passport to buy the phone. Which is dumb, because now my phone is registered to him. But if that's how Germany wants to do it... The sad thing is, I would suspect this nonsense is probably due to 9/11 and the terrorist cells hanging out in Harburg, coordinating their plots with disposable cell phones. I suppose this registration requirement is designed to keep that from happening again. But like many other anti-terrorist measures, it has its greatest effect on innocent behaviors.
So I bought the phone, after some discussion about which rate plan to get. I thought about a different one, but in the end I opted for the 19 cents/minute one. But even with the phone in hand there was nothing I could do to set it up because the battery was dead. So they sent me away to charge it overnight, and I could come back the next day to set it up.
The next day I did. The clerk turned on the phone, helped me put the SIM chip in, and set the interface for English. This I needed him to do, because the manual was all in German. But that was all he would do. For voicemail set-up he sent me to one of the O2 shops. So across downtown I went, back to the O2 shop. (This was now the second time I'd been there, and the third I'd been to Saturn for this so far.) The clerk there helped me set up my voicemail, which unfortunately is also all in German, and load in my prepaid cards. There was some concern that Saturn had sold me three 10 euro cards and not one 30 euro card, but it turned out to be fine. What was not fine is that I realized I was not on the 19 cent plan - I was on a different plan. And it was going to cost 5 euros to change it, despite the Saturn guy having said that the first call to change it would be free.
So once again I had to enlist the help of my German friend to go back to Saturn to have them fix this. Fortunately my friend, speaking German, was easily able to get them to agree to do it. Unfortunately, it couldn't be done that day. It would happen overnight, the clerk said, and I would get an SMS message in the morning when it was fixed. More delay... but ok. Only the next day my friend wouldn't be there. What if I didn't get the SMS? Still, they were willing to fix the problem so my friend said "Great! But please put that in writing." Only the clerk refused, saying that his telling us this should be enough. However my friend – a lawyer in training – dug his heels in and insisted. And a short time later the clerk acquiesced and hand-wrote a letter for me. I think his change of heart was in part because of my friend's fine lawyering skills. And in part because at that point the clerk would probably have done whatever he needed to make sure he never saw me again...
This morning the SMS did arrive, and I now am properly cell phone endowed. I've since used it to make and receive a call or two, but I've mostly been playing with SMS. We don't use SMS much in the US, but because in Europe it costs money to check your own voicemail, people use SMS instead.
In retrospect, however, I'm not entirely thrilled with the phone. My first cell phone ever was a kludgy Nokia, and I was excited to upgrade to my current US-based Audiovox. Unfortunately, though it improves on a few of the Nokia features, it's also worse on others. So despite it being a newer model with a few more features, I feel like I traded down. But now I got to get a snazzy, evolved European phone, a Siemens model. And it's even worse! Even with the menu in English I can't understand what's going on. This is so aggravating – cell phone technology has made great strides in advancement, yet all the cell phones I get keep getting more stupid.
Oh well. All I really ask from my portable telephony is that it be easily portable, and this phone does fit into my pocket. And makes and receives calls. And SMS. So it will work for me for the next few months. I hope.