I Got Hit for $450 in Phone Data Roaming Charges: What I Learned

data roaming charges

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Travelers who use smartphones like the iPhone and the Google Nexus to check their e-mails or find their location on an online map may be slapped with unlimited charges while traveling in Europe and elsewhere. With millions of Americans now carrying Web-enabled phones, travelers are looking for money-saving tips when it comes to data roaming charges. Follow the easy device tips below to make sure you have no nasty phone bills after your vacation.

I speak from personal experience. In summer 2010, I was hit with more than $450 in charges from my wireless provider when I used my iPhone 3GS during a visit to Naples, Italy. My phone burned data even when I wasn't using it. Online functions, like checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and using GPS to find my location on a map, are normally included in data packages for subscribers in the United States. But overseas, it was a different story. My phone was burning a hole in my pocket while I was cluelessly using it to look up information.

"My phone burned data even when I wasn't using it."
I'm not the only American to suffer from "bill shock," though the U.S. government has not reported statistics on how many consumers have been affected. No wireless provider in the U.S. currently caps the data-roaming charges, so the sky's the limit on how much you might have to pay for accidental charges, such as a famous $3,000 bill.

Since last spring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been investigating "data-roaming" billing practices by U.S. wireless companies. Consumer advocates hope that the government one day requires companies to deliver "real-time" usage alerts whenever data-roaming happens, following the lead of the European Union, which has already put this law into practice for European citizens. In the meantime, you're on your own.

Learn from my mistake! Here's how to make the right call, so to speak, when traveling internationally.

What Settings to Change

Switch off data roaming: Before your plane lands in a foreign country, turn off the data roaming option in your phone settings. The average Web page takes 320 kilobytes (KB) of data to download, says a software engineer at Google. Using social media to upload a photo can eat up 500 KB of data, according to AT&T's international data roaming calculator. Given the typical data rate of about $0.0195 per KB, that works out to $6.25 to see one webpage and $9.75 to share a photo with friends. Ouch.

Turn off your GPS service: Sometimes "off" doesn't mean off. Let's say that before you got on a plane, you were using a weather forecast app, a Wi-Fi finder app, and an Internet radio app. But imagine that you stop using these apps when you board the plane and you obediently activate "Airplane Mode" during the flight. Then, once you land, you turn your device back on. Surprise! The apps may start running again in the background, and periodically download data, running up your bill.

Prevent surprise chargess by changing the settings on your device. On iPhones, look for the Location Services option under Settings and switch it off. On Android phones, look for "Security & Location" tab under your device's settings menu, and de-select the "Enable GPS" option.

Turn off your stealth apps: True, when you've turned "data roaming" off, everything is shut down. But let's say you decide to briefly turn on data roaming to send an e-mail or do a quick Web search, accepting that you will be hit with a small charge. Beware! You may also accidentally fire up these other services without knowing it.

Don't get me wrong, though: Data-hogging stealth apps are not a huge problem. Most apps store data locally and do not need to connect to the Internet to work. But many apps that are popular with travelers, such as ones for weather forecasts, currency calculations, and location-plotting tools, generally do need to connect to online to operate. Worse, they usually will not prompt you that they're ringing up data-roaming charges. Use them with caution.

On the iPhone 3GS, for instance, you can double click the home button to see a view of running apps. Little red slashes will appear above each app. Click on the "slash" icon that appears above any app you truly need turn off. On other phones, you may need to hold your finger on the app's icon until an "x" appears to make it disappear.

Droid users should look under Settings for "Accounts and Sync" and then shut down the option worded somewhat like this: "Background data: Applications can sync, send, and receive data at any time." To find instructions for other types of devices, consult with your wireless provider or the site of the device's manafacturer.

Cheaper Ways to Use Your Smartphone Overseas

Buy a data plan when visiting Canada or Mexico: Wireless providers have done a good job of offering reasonable-rate, international data plans for visiting Canada and Mexico. For a set fee, you can reduce the per-minute rate for using data in these countries. For example, Verizon Wireless has a data plan for traveling to Canada that, for $30 for one month, lets you download data at only $0.002 per KB -- or about a tenth the per KB cost of downloading data without the plan.

Use Wi-Fi when using an app like Skype to make international calls: The cheapest way to call home from abroad is to use a voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) app, such as the Skype for iPhone app and the Skype mobile app for Android. (No headset or microphone necessary.) But use it in a Wi-Fi hotspot, such as at your hotel, rather than face roaming charges for roaming on a wireless provider's data connection.

Give up looking for the equivalent of a pre-paid card for data roaming: To be sure, if you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a local SIM card to make calls within the country cheaply. But SIM cards rarely include a Web data options, and the few pre-paid card solutions for data usage usually require following instructions that are nearly incomprehensible that they're not recommended.

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