Traveling abroad? Here’s how to avoid cell phone bill shock.

By | January 30th, 2017

Wireless roaming charges are “outrageous,” to hear travelers like Karen Pliskin talk about them. And she ought to know.

On a weekend visit to Vancouver, B.C., the San Francisco-based anthropologist did everything she could to avoid international roaming charges, declining to make calls or send text messages. The following month, she found an extra $30 on her Verizon wireless bill. It turned out that the apps on her phone had quietly drained expensive roaming bandwidth. After that experience, she started turning her phone off when she crossed the border.

“What can we do about these charges?” she asks.

A lot, actually. The National Consumers League (NCL) recently asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate roaming fees charged by American phone companies. An NCL analysis of the market for roaming services found that a “significant” portion of the more than 73 million Americans who travel abroad annually may be at risk of incurring higher-than-expected charges on their wireless phone bills, thanks to these fees.

“Even consumers who are careful and try to limit their mobile-data use can come home to a surprise bill,” says John Breyault, an NCL vice president of public policy.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), a trade group for the wireless industry, says it has already taken significant steps to end bill shock. “The wireless industry provides consumers with a host of consumer-friendly protections and service offerings to ensure that they can travel abroad without unexpected international roaming charges,” says Brian Josef, a vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA. “The marketplace is working for consumers.”

It’s hard to know how much American travelers pay annually in roaming fees. But we know what wireless carriers are earning, and it’s a lot. Revenue from global roaming services is expected to reach $90 billion a year by 2018, according to a recent estimate by Juniper Research, a research and analytical services company based in Britain. A study by the IT consultancy firm Ovum predicts that by 2019, mobile data, the same kind that ensnared Pliskin, will account for more than half of all global roaming revenue.

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Roaming fees are a rich source of profit for wireless carriers. A study by professional-services company KPMG, cited by the NCL in its petition, noted that international mobile roaming fees should be only 10 to 20 percent higher than non-roaming fees, based on the actual cost of providing the service. In fact, they cost more than five times as much, on average.

Lewis Ramsden, a lifestyle photographer based in Wakefield, England, recently experienced this gross overpricing when he needed to call a client while he was on assignment in Marrakesh, Morocco. He couldn’t find a WiFi hotspot, so he turned on his phone to make a brief call.

“I paid almost $16 for a three-minute call,” he says. “How can that be legal?”

I’ll answer that in a minute. But first, a word or two about what you can do now to avoid these fees. The only certain method: Don’t bring your phone. Your cellular carrier can’t ding your phone if it doesn’t make the trip with you.

For most travelers, that’s an impractical solution. But you have two other choices: buying a SIM card — or a smart card that allows you to use a local carrier — or skipping the expensive cellular plan and relying on local hotspots. Both require a little technical know-how.


On an iPhone like Pliskin’s, you must switch to “Airplane mode” and turn on WiFi. But a few careless swipes can mean your phone will start roaming, incurring fees. Buying and installing a SIM card isn’t difficult, but some smartphones don’t accept outside cards (in geek-speak, they’re “locked”). The NCL study suggested that wireless companies would rather keep their customers in the dark about SIM card options, noting that it found no instances where U.S. carriers attempted to educate their subscribers about those alternatives.

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There are numerous other options for communicating while abroad. They include using WiFi-based calling and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts or Viber for calls and texting or Apple’s iMessage for messaging. Of all the major carriers, T-Mobile has the most roaming friendly pricing, with no roaming fees on some of its plans.

Andy Abramson, a frequent traveler who runs a Los Angeles communications agency, favors Skype as well as voice-over-IP services such as Dialpad, Telzio and Vonage. And there’s Google-Fi, a service I use, as does Abramson. For $20 a month, it offers flat-rate coverage in more than 135 countries with no roaming fees.

The preferred solution for wireless carriers is that customers sign up for one of their international plans, which used to be prohibitively expensive but now are becoming more affordable.

“In the old days the rates and plans were so expensive, it made no sense to even turn on the phone when you left the U.S.A.,” Abramson says. “That’s changing.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting more reasonable. I ran into Louis Altman, a longtime reader who runs a satellite communications company, at Toronto Pearson International Airport, where he was mulling the options AT&T had offered him to connect — either a pay-as-you-go choice for $2.05 per megabyte and $.59 per minute for calls, or spending $40 on a 200-megabyte data plan, including “free” texting and $.99 per minute for calls.

“Wait,” he told me. “The pay-as-I-go rate for data is 10 times higher than the $40 plan? And calls cost more on the plan? Who thought of that formula?”

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One reason prices are falling is that other countries are taking a hard look at high roaming rates and acting to reduce them. The European Union is effectively eliminating roaming charges for calls in Europe to member countries by next June, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are cutting data roaming rates by two-thirds by 2020. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have also pushed their member countries to take action to address high roaming rates.

Will regulation work in the United States, too? The last time the FCC tried to implement consumer regulations, the telecommunications industry voluntarily agreed to implement changes that include better fee disclosures and “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of tools or services that enable customers to track, monitor and set limits on voice, messaging and data usage.

This time, regulators need to either require that wireless carriers offer information on cheaper alternatives or follow Europe’s lead and require that they lower their roaming fees.



  • Jeff W.

    Airplane mode is the easiest way to remove the risk the data charges.

    On my Verizon/Samsung phone, there are also options for Data Usage and Mobile Networks. The last option includes a feature to turn off data roaming while outside the US. This should prevent apps from sucking in the data should you need to make that quick call.

    You can always go to your carrier’s store and have them show you what to do for your phone. The sales/support staff in the stores, for me, have always been more helpful than phone support.

  • GrokGrok

    I also have Google’s Project Fi for one of my phones, largely because it will be useful during upcoming travel to Europe. It’s important to note some limitations. First, the regular voice calls/texting part of Project Fi will only work with the last two generations of Google phones (the Pixel or the 5X/6P). If you have or switch to anything else (iPhone, Samsung, etc.), you’re out of luck. Second, this is not the plan for heavy cell data users, as there’s also a $1 charge per 100MB cell data (domestic and international are the same price) on top of the base $20. That’s fine for me with 300MB for typical data usage, not so great for my daughter with her gigabytes. Third, I’ll be sticking to texts/calls in WhatsApp while I’m there, because while I know the costs for me will be via regular cell service (free), I’m not sure what my friends with French cell service will pay (i.e., will their carrier charge them as if they’re calling/texting the U.S. because I have a U.S. number, even though I’m in France?). On the plus side, you can get a free data only SIM card, which seems to work in my wife’s iPhone, and which is charged on the plan at the same $1/100MB rate. Thus, she won’t have normal phone service, but I’ll be able to WhatsApp her, and she also can Google the Eiffel Tower — or that’s the plan.

  • Bill___A

    I am surprised that more options aren’t mentioned in the article. The article seemed long on problems, short on solutions and big on complaining about the situation. Fortunately, I see some commenters have stepped up to the plate with some viable solutions.

    For people who travel, there are options and carriers to deal with in order to mitigate these costs to a minimal amount. I used to change sim cards when I would travel but it is no longer necessary for me.

    As far as airplane mode, that’s a good option and also turn off data roaming. One should make mention that on some carriers, you get charged even if the call goes to voicemail, so some “smart consumering” and research is in order.

  • Dutchess

    On your iPhone you can also go into Settings > Cellular and click off Cellular Data. You should also make sure Data Roaming is off under Cellular Data Options. This allows you to still make a call in an emergency without the risk of your phone trying to pull a bunch of data from the network.

    I combat this buy making sure I keep a previous generation phone that’s unlocked once my contract is up or just buying my phone unlocked without a contract. This way I can just buy a sim card at my destination. It has worked really well for me. Orange France sells a Holiday Sim card for around 40 euros and you get two weeks of coverage that includes 2 GB of data and 120 minutes of calls and 1000 texts. You get a french phone number that works through most of Europe. You can top up 20 euros and you get another 14 days of the same data/voice/texts. I have a similar set-up for my mexican sim card.

  • jmj

    to be fair to the cell phone companies, when you cross into Canada, you get an immediate text message (free) that warns you of roaming.

  • sirwired

    Correction: Google FI absolutely DOES charge roaming fees for voice. It’s just data and text that has no roaming fees. Roaming voice is 20 cents a minute. Not extortionate, but not exactly free either.

    (And, in my experience, the Fi data roaming (which piggybacks on TMo’s agreements) didn’t work very well. It had very poor coverage outside of cities in the UK, and in France it broke entirely after 24 hours of use.)

  • DReid

    This is not always an option. I live where the ONLY service that has a signal is Verizon. There are many customers who live in rural or semi rural areas without the options you talk about.

  • Bill___A

    Verizon has Travelpass. $2 day in Canada and Mexico, $10 a day in more than 100 countries (this is per device) and it looks like you can use it just like in the USA (read their website to find out more). If there is complaining about $10 a day (or $2) – well that is so much better than it used to be.

  • Bill___A

    “options AT&T had offered him to connect — either a pay-as-you-go choice for $2.05 per megabyte and $.59 per minute for calls, or spending $40 on a 200-megabyte data plan, including “free” texting and $.99 per minute for calls.” I note that this article is published January 30, 2017. It would be far more useful to readers if the article contained timely information about roaming. This information is not what I see on the AT&T website, so I fail to see how this information is useful to people wishing to travel. I have checked the Verizon and AT&T websites, both of them offer far more advantageous roaming packages which allow you to use the same data you have on your plan at home for pretty much $10 a day. I am really disappointed in the complete lack of timely and pertinent information in this article. Roaming is something I deal with a lot, and I’ve followed it for years. Sadly, this article is very dated…

  • Annie M

    Every time I add an international plan when I travel, I always am told by A T & T to keep it in airplane mode to avoid roaming charges. Didn’t the letter writers phone company advise her how to avoid the roaming?

  • PsyGuy

    There are some other options. First, from the settings menu on your iPhone you can disable “background refresh” this was likely the issue with the LW’s initial problem, her apps were accessing data in the background even if the app isn’t loaded.
    Second, you can activate airplane mode and then turn on individual services like WiFi but be warned even if you are exclusively using WiFi to make calls, and texts, there are still system resources on your phone such as GPS that will access your data and voice connection and just a very small amount of data can add up to pricy cumulative charges. The best solution in these cases is to take out the SIM card in your phone entirely, turning it into an iPod. As long as you don’t have to reboot the iPhone while you will have to deal with some annoying “No SIM” messages you know you won’t be getting charged.

  • PsyGuy

    Not all the plans you find on the AT&T website are what an individual customer may qualify for, such as an affiliation plan or discount.

  • PsyGuy

    You get one in Japan as well.

  • PsyGuy

    This option is available in many countries (China has some of the cheapest), but this doesn’t work so well in a place like Japan. You need a resident card to get mobile service, the only option for travelers is to either 1) Rent a phone or SIM card at the airport (expensive but cheaper than roaming) or visit a Softbank store and you can buy a prepaid phone that you can use for text and voice only, and you have to buy the phone which is typically a dumb phone and it costs you about $100.

  • PsyGuy

    Take the SIM card out of your daughters iPhone, she will be able to use the phone on WiFi only. She will need to use a messaging app for texts and voice. If you want to she can then connect to your phone as a “hot spot” as you consider it needed.

  • PsyGuy

    This isn’t always so easy, even in airplane mode your phone will still access the network for system resources such as GPS.

  • PsyGuy

    True but the service can be so poor that it’s not worth using.

  • Bill___A

    My point is that there are some decent ones. I realize that not every plan will qualify. However, on the carrier I use,(not ATT), they had only certain plans and recently made it “all” postpaid plans. Are the qualifying plans so different that is is not a good idea to cut over to them and have the roaming options? I should think that if an individual wants to roam and use their phone when they travel that there is a way to do it with a plan. One can always find a way to make it fail, or an excuse as to why you can’t roam, but one needs to find solutions that work and what I’m saying is I do see solutions that work. Having waited decades for decent roaming plans, I have chosen to find a way to make it work, and I urge anyone who whats to have these things with a reasonable cost and minimum effort, to find a way. It is certainly better than getting a big bill and trying to get it adjusted.

  • Mark

    Surely the simplest way to avoid roaming bill shock is to ask your carrier before you leave home?

    Some networks have quite reasonable packages, others don’t. My UK carrier, for example, allows me to use unlimited data and make unlimited calls whilst travelling for $6 / day, which feels reasonable to me.

    Asking the question and figuring out how much it might cost would then allow you to figure out whether the hassle of getting different SIMs / switching airplane mode on/off is really worth it.

  • rwforce

    I had a different experience in Australia– Fi worked great everywhere. One difference between Fi and T-Mobile international roaming: T-Mobile data is throttled to 2g speeds unless you pay extra, whereas Fi gives you the fastest bandwidth available.

  • Carchar

    When I visited Australia for a month in 2015, the first thing I did was to pick up a Vodafone (not a smart phone) at the airport to make calls within Australia. If I remember correctly, it cost about $60 for the month. When I went back this past year for another month, for $15, I had them reactivate the phone I bought last year. In both cases I turned off my Verizon phone on the plane leaving LAX and turned it on when landing back at LAX. I realize this is not ideal for everyone, but I used to be totally incommunicado when I left the USA before the digital age. I did have a tablet, so I did use wi-fi to communicate with home every so often.

  • Dutchess

    In Japan, I would just recommend renting a portable wifi device online before you leave. They’re relatively inexpensive and you simply pick it up in the airport Post Office when you arrive and drop it in the mail box before you depart. Also, many many hotels and vacation rentals come with free portable wifi devices as part of the room amenities.

    These have the added benefit of being available for multiple people in your party during your visit. I rented one (to be guaranteed higher speeds) and simply left it on all day. I had it plugged in a back-up power bank and was never without an internet connection (except in all those darned tunnels on the Shinkansen!)

  • Lee

    Without having to pay any extra money at all, t-mobile allows unlimited free texting and 20cents per minute phone calls but when I travel overseas – I only text or email (via wifi wherever I am) – and unlimited data (to where I travel which is usually Italy)

  • “The NCL study suggested that wireless companies would rather keep their
    customers in the dark about SIM card options, noting that it found no
    instances where U.S. carriers attempted to educate their subscribers
    about those alternatives.”

    Ain’t that the truth.

    There is a lot of merit in picking up a phone when you arrive at your international destination, but you probably want a phone with all your apps and contacts, right?

    That’s where an unlocked smartphone comes in that takes a SIM card.

    Even then after purchasing a SIM at the destination, I turn off data use, and look for wifi connections.

    For traveling you do not need data to use your GPS. Just use an offline GPS app, of which their are many now.

  • cscasi

    But, a lot of times it is as good as everyone else’s; especially T-Mobile in Europe as it is a part of Deutsche Telekom.

  • PsyGuy

    Roaming T-mobile users are on the bottom of the priority list, their data is the first to get throttled.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, WiMax is pretty common in Japan, and you do not need a residence permit to get one. It can also be substantially cheaper than renting a handset. It doesn’t give you a local number though, and you still need an app to make phone calls. I don’t know of any property that lets you borrow one for free, but I don’t know all the hotels.

  • DReid

    I just returned from a 25 day trip to the UK. There’s no reason to pay Verizon’s $10 a day charge which by the way has very limited data included in that price. I purchased a UK sim card before I left which including shipping was $60 and had 12 gig data and more phone minutes & texting than I would ever use. It worked perfectly and I was able to use google maps for navigation instead of a sat nav in the rental car which was also $10 per day. So, for $60 I saved over $400. All-in-all, a much better way to go than my Verizon’s option.

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