Ways to Avoid Big iPhone Data Roaming Bills

What to Know

  • To turn off data roaming, go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Data Roaming Off.
  • To turn off all cellular data, go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Cellular Data Off.

This article explains several ways to avoid data roaming on iPhones.

What Is iPhone Data Roaming?

Your regular monthly plan covers the data you use when connecting to wireless data networks in your home country. Even if you go over your data limit, you'll probably only pay US$10 or $15 for a relatively small overage.

But when you take your phone overseas, even using a tiny amount of data can get really expensive, really fast (technically, there can also be domestic data roaming charges, but those are less and less common). That's because standard data plans don't cover connecting to networks in other countries. If you do that, your phone goes into data roaming mode. In data roaming mode, phone companies charge outrageously high prices for data—say $20 per MB.

With that kind of pricing, it would be easy to rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in charges for relatively light data use. But you can protect yourself and your wallet.

Turn Off Data Roaming

The single most important step you can take to save yourself from big international data bills is to turn off the data roaming feature. To do that, follow these steps:

  1. Tap the Settings app on your home screen.

  2. Tap Cellular, then Cellular Data Options.

  3. Move the Data Roaming slider to Off/white.

    Cellular, Cellular Data Options, Data Roaming toggle OFF in iOS Settings app

With data roaming turned off, your phone won't be able to connect to any data networks outside of your home country. You won't be able to get online or check email (though you may still be able to text), but you won't run up any big bills either.

Turn Off All Cellular Data

Don't trust that setting? Just turn off all cellular data. With that turned off, the only way to connect to the Internet is via Wi-Fi, which doesn't carry the same costs. To turn off Cellular Data:

  1. Tap the Settings app.

  2. Tap Cellular.

  3. Slide Cellular Data to Off/white.

    Settings icon, Cellular button, Cellular Data toggle in iOS Settings

This can work in conjunction with, or separately from, turning off Data Roaming. Whether you want to turn off one or both will depend on your situation, but turning this off means you can't connect to cellular networks even in your home country.

Control Cellular Data for Each App

You may be willing to pay for a couple of crucial apps you have to check but still want to block all others. In iOS 7 and up, you can let some apps use cellular data but not others. Be warned, though: Even checking email a few times in another country can lead to a large bill. If you want to allow some apps to use cellular data when roaming:

  1. Tap the Settings app.

  2. Tap Cellular.

  3. Scroll down to the Use Cellular Data For section. In that section, move the sliders to Off/white for the apps you don't want to use data. Any app whose slider is green will be able to use data, even roaming data.

    Settings icon, Cellular button, and app use of cellular toggled to OFF in iOS Settings app

Use Wi-Fi Only

When you're overseas, you may want or need to get online. To do this without incurring major data roaming costs, use the iPhone's Wi-Fi connection. For anything you need to do online—from email to web, text messages to apps—if you use Wi-Fi, you'll save yourself from these extra charges.

Monitoring Data Roaming Use

If you want to keep track of how much data you've used while roaming, check the section right above Use Cellular Data For in Settings > Cellular. That section—Cellular Data Usage, Current Period Roaming—tracks your use of roaming data. 

If you've used roaming data in the past, scroll to the bottom of the screen and tap Reset Statistics before your trip, so the tracking starts from zero.

Get an International Data Package

All of the major companies that offer monthly iPhone plans also offer international data plans. By signing up for one of these plans before you travel, you can budget for Internet access on the trip and avoid exorbitant bills. You should use this option if you expect to regularly get online during your trip and don't want to be forced to find open Wi-Fi networks.

Contact your cell phone company before leaving on your trip to discuss your options for international data plans. Ask them for specific instructions on using the plan and avoiding additional charges while on your trip. With this information, there shouldn't be any surprises when your bill arrives at the end of the month.

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