How to Avoid Data Roaming Charges

Don't end up with a massive bill

Illustration of man on mobile phone in front of world map

 Mohamed Hassan / Unsplash

Making calls or using data services outside of your cellular provider's coverage area can get very expensive. Smartphone users have to be especially careful when traveling: automatic data syncing and third-party apps running in the background can rack up enormous data roaming fees. Follow the steps below to prevent this from happening to you.

Know When You're Roaming

Be aware that data roaming fees can apply even if you are traveling domestically. If you're not leaving the country, you may think you're in the clear regarding roaming charges.

However, you can still be charged roaming fees in some instances; for example, US providers may charge roaming fees if you go to Alaska and they don't have cell towers there.

Another example: cruise ships use their own cellular antennas, so you may be charged by your cell provider as much as $5 per minute for any voice/data usage while onboard a cruise ship.

Many mobile services provide a data roaming alert that notifies you when your device is roaming. Check with your service provider to find out if notifications are enabled by default.

Call Your Provider

Contacting your service provider or researching their roaming policies online is essential because fees and policies vary by carrier. You also want to confirm before you travel that your phone will work at your end destination and that your plan has the appropriate features for international roaming, if applicable.

For example, because T-Mobile uses the GSM technology prevalent in most countries, your cell phone will work overseas. However, you need to contact T-Mobile to have the international roaming add-on (which is free on their service) activated.

Data Usage Numbers

Now that you have the roaming rates and details from your service provider, consider your voice and data usage needs for this trip. 

  • Do you need to be able to make and receive calls?
  • Do you need real-time GPS, internet access, or other data services on your device?
  • Will you have access to Wi-Fi hotspots or Internet cafes and therefore can use wi-fi on your device instead of using the cellular data service?

How you proceed depends on how you will be using your device on your trip.

Turn Off Roaming

If you want to be able to make and receive phone calls, but don't need data services on your trip, turn off data roaming and data synchronization on your device. Although the settings vary between phone models and operating systems, these options will most likely be found in your general device or connection settings.

Turn Off Sync

Keep in mind that even if you turn off data roaming and data sync, third-party apps can still turn these back on. Therefore, you need to be sure you don't have any apps installed that will override your data roaming settings.

If all you want to do is make/receive phone calls and you're not absolutely sure you don't have any apps that would turn data roaming back on, consider leaving your phone at home (turned off) and renting a cell phone just for your trip or renting a different SIM card for your cell phone.

Alternatively, if you won't be making outgoing calls but just want to be reachable, follow the step below to have access to voicemail over Wi-Fi.

Airplane Mode

Put your phone in Airplane Mode if you only want Wi-Fi access. Airplane Mode turns off the cellular and data radio, but on most devices, you can leave Wi-Fi on. So, if you'll have wireless Internet access (e.g., in your hotel or perhaps a free Wi-Fi hotspot like a coffee shop), you can still go online with your device and avoid the data roaming charges.

Virtual phone features found in VoIP software/services and web apps such as Google Voice can be a godsend in this instance. They allow you to have a phone number that can be forwarded to voicemail and sent to you as a sound file via email--which you can check via your wi-fi access.

Turn Roaming Back on As Needed

If you do need cellular data access (e.g., for GPS or Internet access outside of Wi-Fi hotspots), turn data roaming on only when you use it. You can put your device in Airplane Mode, as above, and then when you need to download data put your phone back to its default data-capable mode. Remember to turn Airplane Mode back on afterward.

Monitor Your Usage

Monitor your mobile data usage with an app or special dial-in number. Several smartphone apps for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry can track your data usage (some also track your voice and texts). Learn how to monitor your mobile data usage.

Unlock Your Phone

You can also ask your carrier to unlock your phone (they may charge a fee for this and it may take a while to take effect); this will allow you to buy pre-paid cellular service from a local carrier at your trip destination and insert their SIM card into your cell phone.

This will only work with phones that use SIM cards; in the US, this is mostly GSM phones carried by AT&T and T-Mobile; some CDMA phones from carriers such as Sprint and Verizon, have SIM cards, however. You'll need to ask your provider about this capability.

Plan Ahead

Before your trip, reset the data usage meter in your smartphone's settings to zero so you can monitor how much data you are using. This data usage meter should also be under device settings.

Wi-fi access may not be free at your hotel, cruise ship, or other location. Wi-fi usage charges, however, are usually less than cell phone data roaming fees. You might also consider ​prepaid international mobile broadband.