Data Roaming Fees Explained

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Roaming refers to the continued data service you get when you go outside of your mobile operator's coverage area. In other words, you're roaming when you literally roam away from your covered zone — the area where your wireless carrier provides data services.

For example, you can continue to access the internet or make calls when traveling internationally thanks to cooperative agreements between your cellular provider and other network operators.

Domestic roaming is usually free. Unfortunately, international roaming often involves being charged data roaming fees that can become costly very quickly.

You can trigger data roaming fees in several ways: make or receive phone calls, send or receive text messages, and/or download or upload anything (e.g., read emails, view web pages, stream video, save pictures).

Below is a brief overview of the different ways you can be roaming with your smartphone (intentionally or not).

Voice Roaming and Text Messaging

The following activities could result in roaming charges:

  • You make a phone call.
  • A friend calls you1. In fact, you don't even need to answer the call to be charged for it. If your device is on and the call goes to voicemail, it'll be charged as an international roaming incoming call.
  • You send a text message or multimedia message while abroad.
  • You receive a text message or multimedia message while abroad.
  • If the device is off or in airplane mode (and thus the wireless network is off), and the call goes to voicemail, you won't be charged. Visual Voicemail messages when roaming will be charged a roaming rate, however.

Data Roaming

Data roaming is what sneaks up on many people. We've all heard the horror stories, like the guy who was charged $62,000 for downloading one movie.

The problem is that the price for data is usually based on the volume of data — in kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB) — which is hard to eyeball, so to avoid data roaming charges, you have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on your data consumption. Also, sometimes services and apps we use can keep connecting to the internet without our knowledge, continuing to add to our bill.

Common services that would count under data roaming, if you do it over your phone plan rather than a Wi-Fi network, include:

  • Reading, sending, and receiving email
  • Looking up an address on Google Maps (or other online maps)
  • Doing a web search
  • Visiting any web page
  • Watching an online video
  • Opening an app that connects to the internet.

This last one is pretty important because you might not know that the app is connecting in the background. The only way to check is to go into the app's properties or permissions settings to see if it has internet permissions (or use another app that checks that).

International Roaming Rates and Coverage

Rates for roaming vary depending on where you go and whether you're texting or calling. They also vary by provider.

Here's an overview for the major U.S. wireless carriers:

If you don't use one of those carriers, maybe you're with MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile, or Boost Mobile instead.