Control Roaming Charges While Traveling Abroad

Monday Aug 22nd 2016 by Joe Moran
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Learn how to reduce roaming charges outside the U.S. Using your mobile phone overseas isn't quite the expensive hassle it once was, but it can still cost you dearly if you don't plan ahead.

Taking your U.S.-based mobile phone overseas used to be an inconvenient and expensive proposition. Assuming your phone even worked abroad, exorbitant charges for voice calls, texts, and data usage were the norm.

These days the situation is a lot better. Most modern smartphones have global-capable radios that work almost anywhere there's a mobile network, and the major carriers offer global roaming package rates that, while still high, aren't stratospheric. However, your business trip to Beijing, Berlin, or Buenos Aires can still result in a monthly invoice that's much higher than it needs to be.

[Mobile tools for small business: Best Mobile Printers for Business Travel]

In this article we'll review the global roaming options available from the four major national carriers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint (in that order, based on market share). Then we provide a few general tips on how to reduce overseas roaming charges.

Taming Global Roaming Charges

The best way to keep usage charges in check when traveling abroad is to know your carrier's global roaming plans and to put one on your phone before you leave the States. This substantially reduces the cost for voice calls, texts, and data usage compared to your carrier's standard, pay-as-you-go international rates.

Before we get into specific carrier details, a couple of caveats:

Carriers adjust their global roaming plans and pricing periodically, so check yours for updated information before you head overseas. Also, if you get your mobile service from MVNO—companies that lease and resell service from major carriers under their own brands (e.g. Cricket, MetroPCS, and Virgin, among others), their global roaming plans won't necessarily be the same as the host carrier; they may not offer international roaming at all. Again, check with your carrier to be sure.

Finally, just to be clear, in this article we're talking global roaming, which is defined as using your phone to call, text, or access the Internet while located in another country. If you want to make global calls with your phone from within the U.S., most carriers offer special plans for that as well.

How to avoid roaming charges when traveling abroad

Verizon Global Roaming Plans

Verizon's newest global roaming options are arguably the simplest of all the major carriers, if not the least expensive. With Verizon's TravelPass, you pay a daily fee to accrue your international voice, texting, and data against whatever limits you have on your domestic plan. In Mexico and Canada that daily fee is $2. In Brazil and Spain, you pay $5, and in good a chunk of the rest of the world, it's $10. Verizon offers TravelPass in more than 100 countries—here's the list.

TravelPass eliminate the need to manage separate thresholds for domestic and international usage, and it may even be economical if you have generous limits and available capacity on your domestic plan. If not, it may prove a relatively expensive option.

Verizon's International Travel Preferred Pricing Plan provides another option. Two plans—one for $25 per month and the other for $40 per month—cover 140+ countries. The $25 plan gets you calls at $1.79 per minute, texts sent and received for .50 and .05, respectively and 100 MB of data plus $25 for each additional 100MB.

The $40 plan includes 100 minutes of calls, 100 sent texts, unlimited received texts, and the same 100 MB of data. Overage charges for this plan are the same $25 per 100 MB, plus .25 for voice minutes and sent texts.

Verizon offers less expensive plans for Canada and Mexico. Go to this link and look under "Monthly international travel pricing" for the details, as well as for the list of other countries covered by the plan. Scroll down a bit further on this page and you'll find Verizon's most expensive "Pay as You Go" pricing (e.g. $2.99 per voice minute and $2.05 per MB of data, which applies if you don't sign up for one of the above plans, or if you travel to a country they don't cover. Bottom line: you don't want to pay these rates if you can avoid it (100 MB at $2.05 per is a whopping $205).

One last thing—since Verizon uses CDMA technology within the U.S., not all of its phones support the GSM technology needed to work overseas. However, if you bought an advanced smartphone within the past several years it probably does. Use Verizon's Trip Planner to see if your specific phone works wherever you plan to go. In the unlikely event your phone isn't compatible, Verizon offers rental/loaner options.

AT&T Global Roaming Plans

With AT&T you get a relatively straightforward, three-tiered set of global roaming options dubbed Passport, Passport Silver, and Passport Gold, which AT&T says is available in over 200 countries (here's the list).

The standard Passport plan costs $40 and provides voice calls billed at $1 per minute, plus 200 MB of data with overages costing .25 per MB. Passport Silver costs $60 and drops the voice call rate to .50 per minute, and it includes 300 MB of data with a .20 per MB overage. Finally, the $120 Passport Gold plan charges .35 per minute for voice calls, and you get 800 MB of data with overages billed at .15 per MB.

All Passport plans cover a 30-day period and include unlimited texting, as well as unlimited Wi-Fi access at participating hotspots. (The country list above also indicates in which cities you can find those hotspots; you need to download AT&T's Passport app in order to use them.)

The Passport voice and data rates, even for overages, seem reasonable compared to AT&T's "pay-per-use" rates, which are $1, $2, or $3 per minute for voice calls (in Canada/Mexico, Europe, and the rest of the world, respectively), as well as .50 per text sent—$1.30 if a text includes pictures or video—and $2.05 per MB for data usage.

T-Mobile Global Roaming Plans

T-Mobile's Simple Choice (postpaid) plan provides unlimited data (albeit with a high-speed cap) to customers within the U.S., and offers a plan for people traveling overseas that's almost as alluring. Specifically, T-Mobile's Simple Global automatically provides Simple Choice customers with unlimited data and texting, plus voice calls billed at a relatively modest .20 per minute in more than 140 countries across six continents (click here for the complete list).

[Read about these: Productivity Tools for Small Business Travel]

There is, naturally, a catch; T-Mobile limits the data connection to 2G speeds (about 128K per second), which is sufficient only for basic tasks like Web browsing and email. If you need to stream audio/video or use other high-bandwidth applications, you can purchase a high-speed data pass:

  • $15 for a daily 100 MB pass
  • $25 for a 7-day, 200 MB pass
  • $50 for a 14-day, 500 MB pass

On the plus side, unlike with Verizon or AT&T, if you hit the data maximum there aren't any overages, you just revert back to 2G speeds.

If your international travel needs apply only to Canada or Mexico, the parameters of your Simple Choice domestic plan automatically apply in those countries, too. In most cases this will mean unlimited talk, text, and data, including 4G LTE where available.

If you travel to one of the 50-odd countries that aren't on the Simple Global list (or you're on a domestic plan other than Simple Choice), the cost of using your phone overseas can be quite dear; international data costs $15 per MB ($10 per MB for Canada), voice calls run anywhere from .60 to $6 per minute, sent texts cost .50 each, and received texts cost 20 cents each—or they're counted against your domestic text allotment depending on your plan. Be warned; use a lot of data at $10 or $15 per MB, and your mobile bill may easily exceed your rent or mortgage payment.

To get specific T-Mobile plan information, coverage and pricing options for your destination country, visit this link and scroll down to the Check Rates & Coverage button. After entering your country, you can also check whether your specific phone will work there.

Sprint Global Roaming Plans

Sprint's Global Roaming bears some similarities to T-Mobile's offering, but carries important differences too. Sprint offers .20 per minute voice calls as well as unlimited texting and data to more than 120 countries (126 as of this writing). Like T-Mobile, Sprint caps its unlimited data to 2G speeds, and it offers data passes if you need 3G or higher speeds. The prices and data allotments are identical to T-Mobile: $15/100 MB daily, $25/200 MB for 7days, and $50/500MB for 14-days, with no overage charges.

Now here's the big caveat. Opt for a high-speed data pass, because Sprint's standard 2G speed is a mere 64 K/sec, which is barely faster than an old dial-up modem. While that that glacial speed beats not having a connection, be prepared to wait for even for the most basic Web browsing.

If you want to use a Sprint phone overseas, it must support GSM in addition to the CDMA it uses domestically. If you bought your Sprint smartphone within the last couple of years—say, an iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S5—or newer—it probably supports both CDMA and GSM. However, the only way you can know for sure is to check in advance.

You can enter your travel destination here, and then specify your phone model to see if it's global-capable. (Note that Sprint requires you to enter a city, not just the country.) This link also gives you other coverage and pricing information relevant to your destination.

If your travels keep you in the Western Hemisphere, Sprint has another free global plan called Open World. It provides unlimited talk and text along with 1 GB of high speed data (plus a relatively reasonable $30 for each additional GB) to most of North and South America. This site offers additional information and the list of countries included. Be aware, however, that Sprint only allows one international plan on your line at a time.

Mobile Tips for Affordable Global Calling

Now that we have all the carrier plan specifics out of the way, take a look at these additional tips to keep overseas roaming charges in check when using your mobile phone abroad.

Wi-Fi Calling

Even at the relatively low rate of .20 per minute, voice calls cost a pricey $12 per hour. If your smartphone supports it, Wi-Fi calling can help minimize your voice minute usage. Most carriers still charge the per-minute rate for Wi-Fi calls within or between international destinations, but they don't charge for Wi-Fi calls back to the U.S.

Airplane Mode

Remember that smartphones remain hard at work even when you're not using them. Background tasks such as downloading email, app updates, or other information refreshes all use data to some degree, and it adds up quickly over the course of a trip. The easiest way to squelch your phone's data consumption is to keep it in Airplane Mode when you're not using it. Of course, that also disables voice calling, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, but you can turn those latter two services back on individually as needed.

Usage Alerts

Most carriers send you automatic text alerts when you approach or pass a usage threshold that will result in additional billing. However, they don't always do so in a timely fashion. This is due, in part, to the way carriers exchange information about roaming use on each other's networks. The upshot: this kind of alert it may have been triggered hours or even up to a day before you actually receive it. In short, always assume you've used more data than the alerts indicate.

Timing is Everything

Timing matters when it comes to global roaming plans that bill monthly. Overseas trips don't always fall neatly within a carrier's monthly billing cycle, and if you're billing period ends while you're abroad, you may be assessed a new monthly charge for global roaming before you use up your allotment for the first one.

While most carriers let you add global roaming to your line via their websites, it might pay to call customer service to see if you can span the monthly charge between two billing periods, or pro rate charges for a partially-used month. Also, be sure you set the roaming plan to turn off as soon as you return stateside. Carriers generally let you specify the return date in advance so you don't have to make a second call.

Joseph Moran is a technology writer and IT consultant specializing in services for consumers and small businesses. He's written extensively for numerous print and online publications, and is the author of File Management Made Simple, Windows Edition from Apress.

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