What Is Data Roaming?

Data roaming and related fees explained

Domestic roaming is usually free on all the major cellular providers. Unfortunately, international roaming often involves being charged data roaming fees that become costly quickly. Learn what data roaming is and what you can do to avoid charges while traveling. Data roaming is different from an extended network.

What Does Data Roaming Mean?

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

You can continue accessing the internet or making calls when traveling internationally, thanks to cooperative agreements between your cellular provider and other network operators. However, fees are usually involved for international usage.

You trigger data roaming fees in several ways: make or receive phone calls, send or receive text messages, and download or upload anything to the internet. This includes reading emails, viewing web pages, streaming videos and saving pictures to the cloud.

A brief overview of the different ways you can be roaming with your smartphone (intentionally or not) may help you avoid these charges.

How Voice Roaming and Texting Affect Data Roaming

When you are traveling internationally, the following activities could result in roaming charges:

  • You make a phone call.
  • A friend calls you. You don't 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. However, Visual Voicemail messages when roaming are charged a roaming rate.

Other Activities That Affect Data Roaming

Data usage sneaks up on many people. We've all heard horror stories about travelers who racked up huge phone bills.

The problem is that the price for data is usually based on the volume of data—in kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB) or gigabytes—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 connect to the internet without our knowledge, adding to your bill.

If you use certain services over your phone plan rather than a Wi-Fi network while you travel internationally, they count as data roaming and 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—opening an app that connects to the internet—is 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 service provider.

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

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