There’s no faster way to lose your post-vacation glow than to get a shudder-inducing phone bill. The problem is that figuring out how to post Instagram photos without paying for Data Roaming can be really complicated. It requires research and occasionally talking to your phone company on the phone (the horror!). So we spoke with Helena Stone, editor in chief at ChipChick.com, to get her best tips on how to use your phone internationally without going into debt.
1. Adjust your phone’s settings
You may already know to turn off Data Roaming while you travel, but it’s still worth mentioning because it’s the single most important thing you can do to save yourself from big international data bills. Simply go to Settings, tap Cellular and slide Data Roaming off.
For an extra layer of protection, turn off all Cellular Data, too. That means that your phone will only connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi. Once again, head to Settings, tap Cellular and this time slide Cellular Data off.
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2. Get an international data package
This is a great option if you need to check your email or want to Instagram to your heart’s content without worrying about finding an open Wi-Fi network.
Contact your cell phone company before leaving for your trip to discuss your options for international data plans and to find out how much it will cost you to answer the phone if your mom calls while you’re in the Louvre. Some cell companies offer very competitive packages, says Stone. Only thing: There may be a couple of catches, so be sure to read the fine print before you go.
3. Control Cellular Data for each app
Even if you’ve shelled out for a data package, you may want to block some apps from updating while you’re traveling. If your phone uses iOS 7 or a more recent operating system, you can let some apps use cellular data but not others. Head to Settings, tap Cellular and then scroll to the Use Cellular Data For section. Here, you’ll be able to turn off any of the apps you don’t want eating up your data while you’re traveling.
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4. Monitor your Data Roaming use
If you buy a data package, you’ll want to keep track of how much data you’ve used while roaming. To do that, go to Settings, tap Cellular, and look at the section marked Cellular Data Usage, Current Period Roaming. Just be sure to tap Reset Statistics (it’s all the way at the bottom of the screen) before your trip so the tracking starts at zero.
5. Download maps before you go
If you rely on your phone mainly for directions, there’s no need to shell out for a data plan. “You can always download your maps via Wi-Fi before you head out so that they aren’t using cellular data,” says Stone. Find out how to use Google Maps offline.
6. Use a messaging app
Apps like WhatsApp and Viber make it so that you won’t have to pay for texts to your friends and family who are using the same app. Similarly, iMessage is free, as are Google Voice and Skype when you use them over a Wi-Fi network.
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7. Buy a local SIM card
“If someone has an unlocked phone, they can pretty easily purchase a local prepaid SIM card while they are abroad,” says Stone. “This provides them with a temporary local phone plan. Local prepaid plans are generally much, much cheaper than using your carrier’s roaming plans.” Remember that if you do use a foreign SIM card, you won’t receive calls or texts coming into your regular number—but you can set up forwarding if necessary.
Stone notes that if you don’t have an unlocked phone, buying a SIM card may not be worth the hassle—and she suggests researching businesses like GlobalGig and KnowRoaming, which can send you a “sticker” to be applied to your existing SIM card. “I highly recommend it for travelers visiting multiple countries,” she says.
Leaving your phone off isn’t practical these days. But you won’t come home to a whopping bill if you follow these tips.
It’s a surefire way to dampen the holiday cheers: Spend a week on a dream vacation abroad, then come back to find an additional several hundred dollars on your cellphone bill.
Although some U.S. phone plans cover international travel, especially to Canada and Mexico, many don’t. Leaving your phone off isn’t practical these days. But you don’t have to pay a fortune if you follow these tips. You might find some of these steps annoying, but they’re surely less painful than an unexpected data bill. Start planning well before you leave.
Get a plan abroad
This is the most economical choice, but also the least practical for many people. With the exception of Verizon, carriers typically block your phone from other carriers’ plans until you’ve paid off the hardware, typically after two years. They might make a temporary exception if you’re traveling, but it’s on you to get that set up. You might have an old phone to use instead, or you can rent or buy a cheap one for your trip.
This route gives you a lot of data at competitive prices. Upon arrival in Bangkok, for instance, I got 2.5 gigabytes of data for a little less than $13. Two more gigabytes would have cost just $3 more.
Just visit a kiosk at the airport when you arrive, or stop by a cellphone or convenience store in town. You’ll be assigned a phone number for that country, though, so friends and family will need that to call or text. But Facebook, email accounts and messaging services such as Apple’s FaceTime should work just as they do in the U.S.
If you’re visiting multiple countries, you’ll need a separate local plan for each.
Step up your U.S. plan
Check with your carrier on an international package. For instance, Verizon offers 100 megabytes of data for $25. Ten minutes of streaming video can wipe that out. But it’ll get you email and basic messaging, and it’s much cheaper than the $205 Verizon would charge for 100 megabytes without an international plan. You keep your U.S. number.
You might find this adequate for emergencies, such as when you need directions back to the hotel. Use your hotel’s Wi-Fi as much as possible; your Instagram pictures can wait, especially if your friends are asleep anyway. For a two-week trip to Italy, I had plenty of data left after taking additional data-saving measures. Verizon even refunded me nearly $16. But I got socked with another $25 because I wasn’t careful on a separate trip to Barcelona, Spain.
This option is good for multicountry trips. You can still get a local plan for the country where you’ll spend the most time.
Leave cellular data off most of the time
Turn off “Cellular Data” under the “Cellular” settings on iPhones, or “Mobile data” on Android (the location in the settings varies by device). In Italy, I turned cellular back on for the brief times I needed it. You can go further by enabling airplane mode, but that also blocks incoming calls and texts, as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Limit data use
Even if you have cellular on just briefly, tons of data-hungry messages could still flood in while the gate is open. To prevent that, you can prevent apps from using cellular data at all.
On iPhones, go to “Cellular” in the settings, then turn off as many items as possible in the list of apps. Also turn off “Wi-Fi Assist.” In Italy, I turned off all apps. When I needed to check or send Gmail, I just turned that app back on temporarily. Otherwise, the phone waited until I got back to the hotel’s Wi-Fi. Notifications still came through, but they don’t use much data.
On most versions of Android, turn on “Restrict background data” to block apps from using cellular data while running in the background. To let certain apps override that, you need “Data saver” on the latest version of Android, Nougat, which isn’t yet available on most phones.
While you’re at it, disable automatic video play on Facebook’s app. Tap the three horizontal bars. On iPhones, choose “Settings,” then “Account Settings,” then “Videos and Photos.” For “Autoplay,” choose Wi-Fi only or never. On Android, check under “App settings.”
And be sure to disable automatic app updates over cellular. It might already be set to Wi-Fi only, but double check in the “iTunes & App Stores” settings on iPhones and the Play Store settings on Android.
Download before you go
Get and set up apps for museums and other places you’re visiting before you leave home or the hotel. Using the apps will consume data, but not as much as starting from scratch.
Likewise, download map data for Google Maps ahead of time. You can get driving directions and basic information on businesses without a data connection. The offline mode isn’t meant for walking directions, though what I got for driving was often close enough (The exception was Venice, Italy, where cars are banned). Also, there’s no offline transit support, but I got transit directions by enabling cellular briefly and used offline mode to get to my stops. Otherwise, Google Maps alone would have eaten up my 100 megabytes with Verizon.
You can also download any video you’ve bought or rented through iTunes, Amazon or Google Play. Amazon’s Prime members can also download up to 25 of the videos available for free streaming. Netflix recently updated its app to offer similar downloads for offline viewing. You’ll want to do this before leaving home, even if you plan to use Wi-Fi, as streaming rights for many titles don’t extend outside the U.S. A service called PlayOn Cloud also lets you download video from various services for 99 cents each (iPhones only).
Track your usage
Check the settings regularly to see how much data you’re using and adjust accordingly. On iPhones, check “Current Period Roaming” in the “Cellular” settings. Hit “Reset Statistics” at the start of your trip. On Android, check “Data usage.” Android also keeps track of which apps use how much data, so you can identify culprits more easily. These are estimates, though, and your phone company might measure differently.