On a recent trip to the U.K., I turned on my smartphone shortly after clearing customs. Almost as soon as the phone booted up, a text popped up on the screen:
International data rate of $19.97/MB applies. Unlimited domestic data rate plan does NOT apply in this location. Details: att.com/global. AT&T Free Msg
Twenty bucks a meg is a pile of money for a trickle of data. If you are not up to speed on data measurements, consider that the average iPhone camera photo is just under two megabytes in size. So if I take a photo and send it over my cell phone, it will cost me nearly forty bucks — that had better be one good photo. (At least AT&T’s notification text message was free…)
Simple phone call costs aren’t much better — if you can figure out the tortured packages offered by most cell phone carriers, you are way ahead of the game already. As for pricing and plan variations from carrier to carrier, it’s a bit like the first line from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every carrier offers a very different but also very reliably muddled and expensive plan.
Editor’s Note: In October 2013, T-Mobile announced that it will be eliminating roaming charges in more than 100 countries for its customers traveling abroad.
Muddled and Expensive Is Right
One serious problem facing consumers is that the Web sites of these companies are almost impossible to figure out. Even for a simple calling plan, AT&T’s “World Traveler” program appears to any reasonable person to cost $5.99/month at this page. But when you keep clicking, you discover that the $5.99 just lowers the per-minute cost for each call, usually by about 20 – 40 cents per minute. In the end, in addition to the $5.99, you are still usually paying $0.99 or more per minute when you make a call while overseas.
It just gets worse for the international data plans; I spent a couple of hours on the AT&T Web site, with multiple browsers open — and in the end, I had to call them to fill in the gaps in both the information they posted and my understanding of that information.
The truth is, the carriers like it this way. They know they have you by the wallet, and they’re not inclined to loosen their squeeze when you go overseas; rather, they see your attachment to your smartphone as a unique profit opportunity. They know no one wants to have a different phone number while overseas, or to spend their trip haunting Carphone Warehouses trying to unlock their phone, buying SIM cards, and losing access to all the contacts, information and apps on their smartphones.
Focus on the Smartphone
For information on figuring out the basics of making and receiving international mobile phone calls, see our International Cell Phone Guide. From here out I’ll focus on smartphones, which folks use for a lot more than phone calls, especially while traveling. Indeed, for many, their smartphone is never so critical than while traveling, as we have replaced paper with data in almost every respect while traveling. Confirmation numbers, flight times and notifications, maps, car service phone numbers, hotel reservations, restaurant searches, coffee shop locations, the length of lines at Disney World — more of this stuff happens on smartphones than even on computers these days, for many travelers.
But when you go overseas, all of those things that you count on from your smartphone instantly cost $19.95/megabyte as soon as you get off the plane. Assuming that none of us is interested in these predatory prices, here are my suggestions for workarounds and data plans for the smartphone-reliant traveler.
My Recommended Strategy
Before going into all your various options, in hopes of saving you some time and money, I want to share my recommended workaround for all this stuff. One important caveat — my system depends on occasional to frequent access to Wi-Fi. I almost always travel with my laptop, and need access anyway, so this really works for me.
I will outline this in bullet format, as I think it is simple enough on the face of it. The very short version is: “Get a mobile VOIP phone number, forward everything to that, and then access that number over Wi-Fi.”
1. Get a U.S.-based voice over IP (VoIP) phone number of some kind, whether it be Skype, Google Voice, Tango or Line2 (I use Line2 and occasionally Skype; I recommend choosing one that forwards voice mail to e-mail and/or converts to text, merely for another layer of convenience).
2. Forward your “regular” cell phone number to this number; do this while still on your home network, or the system may track you wherever you actually are.
3. Turn off cellular data, 3G and roaming, and even put your cell phone in airplane mode.
4. Investigate Wi-Fi options where you are traveling, whether it be in your hotel room, at an Internet cafe, in a coffee shop, from pay services like Boingo or BT Openzone (I used this in the U.K. last month, as it worked for both my laptop and phone for three pounds/day), or from a MiFi account. Check outfor international Wi-Fi spots; searching by your destination makes it really easy to figure out what companies offer Wi-Fi services where you are headed.
5. Consider an international text message package from your carrier if this will be important on your specific trip (although services like Line2 do allow texting over Wi-Fi).
6. Do your calling and texting on your VoIP number over Wi-Fi.
7. Accept that the occasional essential “normal” call will cost some money, but it shouldn’t be too much, and will be only about 30 – 40 cents more than if you paid for an international plan.
There can still be some costs involved; for example, if I call a landline in the international country using Line2, the cost is two cents per minute; if I call a cell, it is 38 cents per minute. However, a call to any U.S. number is free so long as I have a Wi-Fi connection, even if that person is physically located outside the U.S. The same applies to text messages; it costs 10 cents per text to international numbers, and no charge for texts to U.S. numbers. Also, there’s a monthly fee ($9.95) for Line2, though the company does offer a free trial period that you could use for a short trip.
As I suggest above, a very similar approach can be used with Google Voice; a nice feature of Google Voice is transcribed voice mail, which is even easier to deal with on your computer. Google Voice international calls start at a couple of cents per minute, and go up to approximately $0.25/minute.
Skype is free for computer-to-computer voice and video connections, and has a few different pricing options for other types of connections, starting at 1.2 cents/minute.
If you have a special circumstance that requires you to be accessible (your company needs to contact you, your kids are at home with grandparents, your wife is expecting, etc.), turn your phone on, turn all roaming services off, and use caller ID to let you decide which calls to take and which to ignore. This will let you see if an important call is coming in.
I know this scheme balances entirely atop the potentially wobbly point of reliable Internet access, but if you don’t need to be always-on during your trip, batching your calls and contacts at times that you have Internet access works extremely well, and saves you heaps of money. Still, if this is still not convenient enough for you and you need an always-on smartphone plan, read on.
First Off, You Need a GSM Phone
It is important to understand that not all phones are capable of connecting to international cell carrier systems. You specifically need a GSM phone, which is the standard for international cellular networks. Of the two biggest U.S. Carriers, AT&T has the edge here, as most of the Verizon network is on the CDMA system, although Verizon does offer GSM/CDMA dual phones.
If you are on Verizon but have a CDMA phone, look into its Global Travel Program; Verizon will provide a GSM-capable phone that will use your same phone number, just for the charge of shipping, and of course any applicable calling and data charges as well.
Things to Do Right Before Leaving
From experience I know it is very easy to leave off changing your phone settings until you are already abroad — at which point voice mail, texts and other data that is automatically “pushed” to your phone will start downloading as soon as you have signal. These can cost you a lot of money pretty quickly — I paid more than $20 for a photo of my nephew playing in a plastic swimming pool a couple of weeks ago. To avoid these instant charges, before turning off your phone stateside, you should do the following:
- Turn off 3G (or 4G)
- Turn off cellular data
- Turn off data roaming
- Reset all your usage statistics
The first three changes will prevent you from running up data charges without even knowing it; the last will allow you to track how many minutes/how much data/how many texts you have used during your trip. You can usually find these in the Settings section of your smartphone.
Dealing with Text Messaging
While traveling so far this summer, I found I did not much miss making regular calls; however, on these particular trips, where a large group of folks had a lot of different and very fun things going on, I did miss texting, as this was the best way to decide on meeting places, find each other in crowds or public spaces, and notify folks of fun activities.
Most companies offer a package that includes a finite number of international texts; AT&T, for example, has a $10/month package that includes sending 50 messages while outside the U.S. That’s 20 cents per text; inbound texts are “free,” in that they are simply charged against your normal domestic text account. If you text without having purchased a package, each outgoing text is 50 cents, and each incoming text is 20 cents.
On Verizon, the international plan costs 25 cents per text for outgoing messages, and 20 cents for incoming messages.
In most cases, you will need to arrange for these packages to be added to your plan before you leave home; you can provide both a start and end date for your package, but be aware that there may be some billing anomalies that could cost you, as I will explain below.
Big Data Requirements: Web Sites, E-mail, Attachments, Mapping and More
If you want full access to all functions of your smartphone with or without a Wi-Fi connection, you will need an international data plan. On AT&T these typically cost a little more than $1 per gigabyte of data, which is expensive, but still a whole lot less than the $20 per megabyte. Verizon’s costs are quite a bit higher, starting at $30 for 25 MB/month.
One challenge is understanding how much data you will actually need. This Data Calculator can help you estimate what you will need based on your typical usage patterns; for a different (and slightly more limited) look, try Verizon’s calculator. Even veteran smartphone users will find these to be very handy little applications.
Mapping apps in particular can be essential while traveling, but they are definitely data hogs; you will want to use them sparingly. Some inventive folks are figuring this out; for traveling in major cities, check out, an offline mapping app that uses a phone’s always-on GPS without needing a data connection.
Other Gotchas to Beware
When you make a connection overseas, you are typically not connecting to your own carrier’s service, but to a third-party carrier, which then bills your carrier, which bills you. Some of these carriers will not bill your account in an entirely timely manner, such that data connections made in July might show up on your August bill. As such, you will want to make sure the dates for your data package extend long enough after your trip to cover these late-billing companies, and you will want to watch your account to make sure all charges have been applied before turning off your international package.
How likely is this to happen? Well, in the U.K. alone, your iPhone is likely to connect to four different carriers at some point: Hutchison 3G, O2, Orange and Vodafone. Each of those will bill your account on its own schedule.
On the same point, your own carrier will often sell packages according to your monthly billing dates, so if you are traveling in overlapping billing periods, you may be required to purchase part of a plan for part of one month and part of the next. Add to that the straggler carriers billing you well after the fact, and let the invoice juggling begin.
Even at a time when mobile phones and smartphones are booming internationally, and mobile costs are dropping on the whole, no one will argue that phone companies are making this easy, oof. However, if you combine a modest data plan with a small battery of Wi-Fi tactics, you should be able to contain costs and hassles alike.