How to Avoid International Roaming Charges When You Travel

Sophie Ross

Incurring massive cell phone charges when traveling abroad is frighteningly easy, and even seasoned travelers sometimes get caught off guard. Often, this happens without you knowing until you receive your bill later on.

Why does this happen? Because your cell phone is constantly receiving data, whether you are actively using it or not. Phone calls, emails, and text messages are the obvious ways that data is used. But there are different apps that operate by a “push” method so that they are always being updated with information. These are silent data hogs.

All of this, coupled along with the fact that your phone is “roaming,” can really escalate that phone bill. You may end up paying far more than you initially thought. Thankfully, there are several different precautions that you can take, and strategies to plan your usage, so that you can enjoy your trip without worrying about your cell phone bill.

Cell Phone Plans That Work Internationally

 

If you are a frequent traveler, choosing a cell phone plan that travels well is a smart move. T-Mobile’s One plan is the most comprehensive and flexible for international travel. Sprint also offers a plan with excellent international coverage. Learn more about international cell coverage before you commit to a plan.

Beginning with a flexible international plan is your best bet. If you’re stuck with a plan that’s great at home, but kind of terrible when you travel, then you’ll want to keep reading and form a strategy to limit your costs.

Strategies for Avoiding International Roaming Fees

Speak to Your Phone Provider

Before you ever leave the country, call your cell phone provider to make sure you understand the roaming agreement for the countries you are visiting. They may be able to offer a few different options that can help you save money while you are gone. Major phone carriers have different international phone plans. Sometimes it makes sense to change your phone plan while you are gone, and then just change it again once you are back.

Changing your plan might incur a cost, however, this is nothing compared to what you may end up paying once you cross over into another country. Roaming and other international phone charges can become rather pricey, very quickly. Jenn, Packsmith’s Editor, racked up over $500 in roaming charges in less than one day when she landed in Kenya.

If you decide that you would rather not change your plan altogether, then you should at least upgrade the amount of data that is allowed on your phone. You are going to use more data than you normally would, so you may as well be sure that you have it completely covered.

Turn Off Roaming

Turning off the roaming feature on your cell phone will drastically cut down on the amount of data being used. By “data,” this really means cellular data, which is taken into account your overall data plan. The data used while you’re connected to WiFi doesn’t count against your phone plan’s cellular data limits.

When you turn off the roaming feature on your phone, you will no longer be able to make phone calls or send text messages unless you manage to find a Wi-Fi hotspot that you can connect to.

 

No Texting

Each text that you send takes up some amount of data, regardless of whether it is an iMessage or just a regular text. Simply leave the phone in airplane mode when you land. It’s that easy, problem solved.

If you own an iPhone, there are a few different things that you need to check on to be certain that you won’t be receiving messages. Disable group messaging, MMS messaging and iMessage. Any of these three can individually be received, which will use up data.

Kill Unnecessary Apps

There are many apps that you have on your phone that may run in the background without you ever knowing it. These apps are constantly sending and receiving small amounts of data. They are really receiving data more often than not, which is why you always get these small notifications to inform you of anything relevant that may come up with the app.

This is another way that you can use up some very valuable data without knowing that it is happening. When your phone is roaming, if these apps are using up data, this can become costly.

Depending on your device’s operating system, you have options for selecting which apps to shut down. If you use an Android phone, you need to disable each individual app. If you have a phone that operates using iOS, then you can go into your settings and find the “Cellular” option. From there, you can choose which apps you want to turn off.

Receive Emails Manually

Usually, your phone has a setting allowing you to receive emails immediately as they are sent to you. Under normal circumstances, this is not a big deal. More often than not, you are in an area where you have Wi-Fi coverage anyway, so this won’t even penalize your data usage. However, once you start to travel, this is one way you can really burn through your data quickly.

Each time you receive a new email, you are actually downloading the data required for your phone to show you the contents of the email. If you automatically receive emails, your phone is set to the “push” option. Go into your email settings and be sure that this option has been changed to “fetch.” In doing this, you will only receive new emails when you decide that you want to.

No Streaming

While you are on your trip, you should not be taking part in any streaming activities at all,  unless you are connected to WiFi. This will use up your data more quickly than anything else. It takes quite a bit of data to stream media to your phone.

If there is anything that you want to watch or listen to, download it before you leave so that you can simply watch or listen offline. Netflix has its own offline download feature you can use, as does Hulu.

This way, the content will already be stored on your phone and will not use up any data.

Set Data Usage Alerts

There are different alerts that you can use for your phone to help you keep up with the amount of data that you are using while traveling internationally. Set up alerts on your phone to let you know when you are beginning to come close to your data limit.

In doing this, you can just shut down your phone altogether, or you can decide that you want to keep up with the usage of your phone all the time. There are apps that you can download that can show you how much data you have used, and how much you have left.

The data usage alerts are what saved Jenn’s bacon in Kenya. As soon as the first notification came through, she put that phone on airplane mode and used WiFi to call the company. Because she called right away and spoke to someone, that $500 in accidental charges was lowered to $250. Still bad, but it could have been a lot worse.

Data usage alerts: set them.

Find Wi-Fi

Virtually every cafe and hotel has Wi-Fi, regardless of where you may be traveling. Set your phone to look for open Wi-Fi hotspots you can join.

Many places offer free public Wi-Fi. However, if you have to pay to use Wi-Fi, you should be told so before you log on and get started. Even if you are charged, there’s a good chance that it will be much cheaper than if you were to go over your data allowance for the month.

If you don’t see public WiFi, ask for it. Often businesses are willing to let you use their Wi-Fi while you are a customer. You never know until you ask.

Consider an Unlocked Phone & SIM Swap

If you decide that you don’t want to change your plan for an international plan, and you would rather not dig deep into your phone’s operating system to disable a bunch of things, there are still some options. 

International Phone

An international phone is specially designed to be used overseas. These phones feature pay as you go calling and data usage, so there are no surprises. 

Often, these phones also come with a great international rate plan, often cheaper than the package that you could have switched to with your phone provider.

Unlocked Phone & SIM Card Swap

An unlocked cell phone will allow you to swap out the SIM card. This is a simple and inexpensive option that provides “local” coverage. The downsides are that your phone number will change (which could affect some of your app usuage) and it’s kind of a drag to have to set up in every new country. But, it will definitely save you money in roaming charges.

 

Use a Messenger Service

There are a number of different messaging services that you can use to help offset the cost of phone calls and text messaging. 

  • Google Hangouts,  is great if the people that you want to talk to have a Gmail account
  • Facebook Messenger seems upbiquitous
  • WhatsApp is a leader in free international texting that’s encrypted

Google Voice is another tool you can use. Calls will cost as little as $.01, depending on international calling rates.

 

TL:DR

Be very careful with how you choose to use your cell phone while you are out of your home country. It’s easy to rack up a massive bill in a short period of time, without knowing that you are doing it. However, there are many different options and a few strategies that can keep you connected without breaking the bank.

  • Choose your plan with travel in mind
  • Know your plan before you go
  • Eliminate background data usage while you are abroad
  • Eliminate automatic updates
  • Set data usage alerts
  • Consider traveling with an unlocked phone and getting a local SIM
  • Become a ninja at finding WiFi
  • Use messenger services that don’t suck data

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