5 Tips to Reduce International Data Roaming Charges

by on July 19, 2010 · 8 comments

in How To Guides, Points Guy Pointers

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Like most travel bloggers, I am addicted to my smart phone  (IPhone). So much so, that when in Europe several times this summer, I’ve irrationally turned OFF airplane mode when I couldn’t find a free WiFi connection, so I could download my latest tweets, feeds and emails. These quick gulps of data seemed like a good idea at the time, but reality came knocking when I received my AT&T bill this month… $180 in roaming for turning my data on TWICE in London. Ouch!

Apparently in those two sessions, my Iphone downloaded and sent a total of 9 megs of data, which doesn’t seem like much, but at $19.99/meg, increased my normal $85 bill to $265. Not only that, but I used my phone even more when in Paris recently, so I had a panic attack about a four digit bill in the pipeline.

I immediately called AT&T to sort the situation out, though I knew it was my own fault for a) Not getting an international data plan and b) Having no idea how much data is actually used when doing simple tasks.

Luckily, the AT&T agent understood my situation and really worked to help me out. In the end they slashed my $180 bill to $90 and added a $24.99 20 Meg international data package to my account, which would proactively cover the 12 megs I had used in Paris (which I would have been charged $240 for). They also told me how to monitor my data usage:

Settings -> General -> Usage -> Reset Statistics. This way, each time I travel and use my phone, I can track my data usage.

For kicks, I wanted to see how much data simple tasks used:
1) Check Twitter feed: 200kb
2) Check Facebook feed: 60kb
3) Send a 5 line email: 12kb
4) Did a Google search for “What to do in Paris on a Monday” and opened the first Tripadvisor article: 120kb
5) Load mobile and open main headline: 150kb

If you did each of these, it would cost you $10 on AT&T international roaming pay per use (and let’s be honest, who loads their Twitter feed only once?).

My tips for avoiding heinous roaming data charges:

1) Get a data plan before you travel
I checked out the four main US providers to see what they offer:

AT&T- $19.99/ meg pay as you go international roaming (pretty much everywhere- including Canada).
Also offers straight forward international roaming data packages, where you can get data for as low as $1 meg.
20 Megs- $24.99 ($1.25/meg)
50 Megs- $59.99 ($1.20/meg)
100 Megs- $111.99 ($1.12/meg)
200 Megs- $199.99 ($1.00/meg)

Verizon- Has less options, but their unlimited plan is much cheaper than AT&T and Sprint. They offer an “unlimited email (which includes web data)” option for $64.99 a month.
Pay as you go data is $2.05/meg in Canda, $5.12/meg in Mexico and $20.48 in most other countries.

Sprint- Recently cancelled their $40/month unlimited international data plan. $16.38/ meg in most countries.

T-Mobile- Only has pay-as-you go- $10/ meg for Canada and $15/meg for everywhere else.

2) Know how much data you are using. If your phone can’t track data usage (see above for how to do it on the Iphone), try monitoring your normal data usage before your trip, so you know how much you use. Most providers allow you to track your current usage online in case your phone doesn’t allow you to track data.  There are also several Blackberry apps that can track your phone data.

3) Use WiFi as much as possible. If you phone is WiFi enabled, try searching for free hotspots because you turn on your data. For visitors in the US, all Starbucks now have free WiFi. Many hotels also offer free WiFi in the lobby (like most Ws).

4) Don’t roam while drinking. For some reason, my urge to data roam increases after a couple drinks. Especially when you are traveling to a great destination, you may not be able to resist NOT mobile uploading a classic shot of the Eiffel tower to make everyone at home jealous. But just think to yourself- is it worth $8 to upload that picture 30 minutes before you go back to the hotel and have free WiFi access?

5) Don’t be afraid to ask for forgiveness. Like in my situation, AT&T sliced my roaming charges in half and all I had to do was ask nicely. I think they all know how ridiculously priced international roaming is, so there is definitely wiggle room. Just be as nice as possible and hope for the best.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Pat Phelan

    Why not get a maxroam SIM card from
    we can give you one simple price of €1.50 per megabyte for 40 countries of Ireland.
    we have created a discount code for you readers
    just enter “Thepointsguy” whilst checking out and get 10% off
    great post by the way

  • Eric

    I have Verizon and use their roaming plan when traveling abroad. I think it’s fan-freaking-tastic, actually. As you point out, it’s unlimited data–so all the internet and email you want–and their coverage has been pretty good across Europe, Australia, and even Peru.

    One of the best things is, they only pro-rate you for the time you’re gone, so they’ll refund you the part of your normal domestic plan that you don’t use, and they’ll only charge you the portion of the $64.99 per month that applies to the number of days you actually used international roaming.

    I will say, however, that they’re not the best about making sure everything is in place before you go, and I’ve had to call back to a friend in the U.S. to call Verizon because they’ve forgotten to activate my SIM card. Twice. Not cool.

  • The Points Guy

    Thanks for the feedback Eric! I know people who have had the same issues with Verizon- and its not a nice feeling to be in another country and not have your phone working. However, the unlimited plan is a good bargain, especially since you can turn it on and off as you see fit!

  • david

    I would add that through T-mobile’s blackberry services, you can use only the WiFi feature when you are in a Wifi zone, you can call anyone in the US for free when you are out of the country. You have to wait until the bb says that it is using UMA as it typically takes about a min or so depending on the strength of the network. Only T-mobile offers it so no luck on ATT or Verizon network.

  • The Points Guy

    Hi David- so any call to the US is free when you have wifi??? Sounds too good to be true…

  • Lucy

    Last weekend I just tep pocket wifi, it was amazing. I had my own hotspot anywhere i travelled in Europe. Check it out –

  • Pingback: How to Minimize Costs When Using Your Phone Internationally and Top Apps for Communicating Abroad | The Points Guy()

  • Veronica Mars

    The tips listed above are quite useful, tried them myself. Now Im using a roaming sim card and see more advantages here, because it 1) allous you to have one fixed phone number by which people can reach you (or enable a call forwarding from your number) 2) can be used while travelling to more than one country without changing anything in the phone itself 3) offeres a wide range of different services 4) saves money on roaming and 5) has a 24/7 customer support service
    My sim card is purchased from

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