How to get a SIM card with data in Amsterdam

If you are visiting Amsterdam, it’s convenient to have data on your phone so you can use Google Maps and find your way around. Yes, there’s wifi in many places, but there’s also a lack of wifi in many places. I have split a lot of hair and lost a lot of Euros experimenting with the different services available to visitors and I’ve finally figured out the best way to do this right. This post assumes you have an unlocked phone and you already know why you need to get data on your phone.

The most common card that people go for is Lebara. They are the easiest to get started with. You can find Lebara folks at the airport, at the railway stations, on the street etc. They do a good job marketing, have the best prices, are easy to recharge and have the best customer service. Yet, Lebara didn’t work for me. Why? The internet speeds are very slow. And Skype/Facetime calls are blocked on them. Lebara resells bandwidth from KPN, but it caps it at a speed that’s just barely enough to use Google Maps and to load pages very slowly. It was always between 0.2MBPS – 0.9MBPS. Everything is very slow, things time out. If your internet needs aren’t heavy, then sure, go wit Lebara. If you need more, read on.

The only real alternative is to go with KPN directly. Now, KPN has a larger set of resident customers and they haven’t yet figured out how to make things really work well with transient/visitors. Amsterdam, outside of the very touristy central area, is like the rest of Europe when it comes to customer service. To an American, “appalling” or “severely lacking” are the nicest words to use for the customer service in Europe. I think it’s a cultural thing, the expectations are just very different. And yet, KPN does have the best speeds and the best network in Amsterdam. So here’s how to go about it:

  1. Find a KPN store – they are a few in the centre and also in most neighborhoods
  2. Get a new SIM and ask them you also want to get a dataplan with it. They will inform you that the max package is for 1GB for a month. That’s the one I usually get. But now, pay special attention to the next part.
  3. Most KPN staffers are actually clueless about what actually happens when you activate a new SIM and try to get data on it.
  4. $10 is the cost of a new SIM. $16 is the cost of the 1GB data plan. So you basically pay $30 to get a new card and data.
  5. Before you put the SIM card in, make sure you go into Settings>Cellular and turn off Cellular Data. This is super super important.
  6. Now put the SIM in and see that it works, finds the KPN network and you may get a few welcome text messages. You can now use the phone to make phone calls etc. But keep your cellular data turned off until you activate the internet bundle
  7. You have to dial *147# to enable the data bundle.
  8. You will get a message back in Dutch confirming that your request was received. This is a very misleading looking message. If you have ever done this before, you might think it’s already active at this point. But it is not.
  9. No one will tell you this, but it actually takes more than 24hrs for the data bundle to be active. You have to keep cellular data turned off until that happens.
  10. Wait until you get one more message from KPN about the 1GB data plan.
  11. If you don’t get a message, try again after 24hrs with the *147# call.
  12. While you wait, install the MyKPN app from the app store. Create an account, sign-in, and associate your new SIM card and phone number with that account.
  13. I have found this to be the only reliable way to know what’s going on with your account. Here, you will see your balance, and if the data plan is truly active or not.
  14. Only once you have verified that the data plan here is active, you can now go ahead and turn on cellular data. If the settings are missing, use these below
    1. APN: portalmmm.nl
    2. Username: <blank>
    3. Password: <blank>
  15. Now you are set

It takes longer to get a new KPN connection, but if you are planning to be in Amsterdam for more than 3-4 days, and do need a faster connection, I recommend this approach.

Demystification: GPS and GPRS

[This post talks about the difference between GPS and GPRS. If you already know the difference you may skip it.]

As an engineer, I would like to apologize to everyone for confusing acronyms being shoved down normal people’s throats. GPS and GPRS is one such pair of acronyms in the mobile domain which normal people tend to use interchangably. But these terms are totally different and have nothing in common and I will try and make it clear and easily distinguishable.

Global Positioning System (GPS):
GPS is used for establishing your location in the world.

General Packet Radio Service (GPRS):
GPRS is a service offered by your cell company which allows transmission of data to/from your phone.

If you have Internet on your phone – it’s probably coming through GPRS (or EGPRS, EVDO or all the new fancy high speed methods). If your phone has a special system by which it can accurately find out it’s location in the world then it is GPS.

Facts:
GPS is a free service. GPRS costs money. GPRS connects your phone to the Internet. When you check your mail, browse the web etc. through your phone, then you are using GPRS.

Tip to Remember: GPS does only one thing and it is a shorter acronym. GPRS lets you do many things and it is the longer acronym.

Confusing but perfectly correct usage:
I get my location coordinates through GPS. I get information about this position through GPRS.
So, my GPS tells my phone that I am in Ann Arbor. My phone uses a GPRS connection to get a list of restaurants in Ann Arbor from the Internet.

… I love you … Please Repeat?

Me: What time is it?
She: It’s 10:48 pm

Me: What day is it?
She: The date is Tuesday, December fifth two thousand and six.

Me: When is my next appointment?
She: Tomorrow at 4:30 pm in 2260 USB

Me: Play music
She: Do you want to listen by genre, album, artist or anything?
Me: Artist
She: Do you want to listen to U2, Phil Collins, Collective Soul, …
Me (interrupting): U2
She: Playing U2 … (Windows Media Player opens up and Zooropa starts)

Me: I think I am falling in love with you!
She: Please repeat!
Me: I said I think I am falling in love with you!
She: Please repeat!
End of converstation.

I had the above conversation with my phone after installing Microsoft Voice Command on it. It really is one of the most amazing voice command softwares I have seen. It’s a good example of the serious research microsoft has been doing in “speaker-independant voice recognition”. You do not need to train this software, just speak to it in natural english and it works fine (if she can understand my Indian accent, I think she is pretty good).

Oh yes, I call the software a “she”. I just can not bring myself to calling her an “it”. Examples of other things I can ask her to do:

“What is my schedule for today”, “Change profile to silent”, “Turn off all reminders”, “call john at work”, “start calculator” etc. She even reads out the contents of emails that I receive. This software is a good reminder of the fact that we really are getting somewhere with digital assistant technology. I would really recommend watching the demo video to get a sense of what it really feels like.