Explanation of Data Roaming Fees

Open road
James O'Neil/Getty Images

Roaming refers to the continued data service you get when you go outside of your mobile operator's coverage area. 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 usually involves being charged data roaming fees that can rack up very quickly and get very costly.

You can trigger data roaming fees in several ways: by making or receiving phone calls, by sending or receiving text (SMS) messages, and/or by downloading or uploading any Internet content (such as emails or accessing web pages). Here's a brief overview of the different types of ways you can be roaming with your cellphone (wittingly or not).

Voice Roaming and Text Messaging

The following activities could result in roaming charges:

  • You make a phone call on your handset.
  • A friend calls you. Note: You don't actually have to answer it for you to be charged for the call. If your device is on and the call goes to voicemail, you'll be charged as an international roaming incoming call.
    • However, if the device is off or in flight mode and the wireless network is off and the call goes to voicemail, you won't be charged (according to AT&T). Visual Voicemail messages when roaming will be charged a roaming rate, however. Yes, this is confusing. It's probably best to put your phone in Airplane mode.
  • You send a text message or multimedia message while abroad.
  • You receive a text message or multimedia message while abroad.

Data Roaming

Data roaming's the one that sneaks up on many people. We've all heard the horror stories (including one about a guy being charged $62,000 after 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 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 cellphone's data card 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 one's pretty important because you might not know it's 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 are text messaging or voice calling. They also vary by provider. Here's an overview for the major US wireless carriers.