Public service announcement – do not use the Internet on your phone when you are abroad

The title of this post should probably be in big flashing red letters, because no matter how many times it has been posted, there are always people who ignore the warnings.

When you travel abroad, turn off International data roaming on your phone.

We live in a world where mobile phones have really become global; I can fly to the heart of Africa, turn on my mobile phone, and people who call my local US number will be able to reach me without giving it a second thought.

The technology behind all of this is mind boggling. Of course, everyone knows that it is expensive to “roam” when you are abroad, and most people use their phone judiciously. There is nothing wrong with making the occasional mobile phone call back home from Europe, or using it to call your airline to change a reservation when you are stranded 1000′s of miles from home; the $2 per minute charge is something you can deal with.

Mobile International data is different. The cost of “International Data Roaming” borders on insanity. AT&T charges $19.50 per Megabyte of transferred data in most countries, T-mobile is only slightly cheaper at $15.36 per Megabyte.

To put this in perspective; if you are abroad, and you visit your favorite travel web site 10 times, AT&T will charge you a little over $18 (plus taxes). If you are abroad and you click on that popular Youtube clip of the sneezing panda, you’ll be worth $12 less by the time the clip is over.

Things get worse when you use a 3G phone (like the new iPhone) – when you can download faster, you can also run up a massive bill much faster. Imagine landing at your sunny destination, and turning on your iPhone. The phone instantly begins to download all your email, updates the weather, and fetches the latest prices of your stock portfolio. With 3G speeds, you’ll be able to download information so fast, that you’ll be paying around $60/minute. If you have an awful lot of email, then by the time you reach passport control, you’ll owe AT&T $500.

But don’t take my word for it, there are countless reports from people who did not educate themselves before leaving on a trip, and arrived back home to a phone bill delivered in a box.

There is good news, and there is some bad news when it comes to mobile International data. The good news is that some operators have discounted International data plans, the bad news is that those plans usually don’t come close to offering the amount of data most people need when they are abroad.

The best, and most reliable way to prevent these massive charges, is to completely disable international data on your phone. Many phones have this feature built in, so dig up your user manual or call your mobile operator customer service line. If you can’t find the feature, or the phone does not allow you to disable it, call you operator again and see if they can put an account based block on this service. As with all interactions with your operator, be sure to write down the agent ID you talked to, and call them back the following day to be sure they did the right thing.

Of course, not all phones depend on a cellular network for access to data, many modern phones also have Wi-Fi, so use that when possible.

Here are some of the discounted data packages available from the 2 largest GSM operators:

AT&T
International data packages

  • $69.99 for unlimited email on a Blackberry smartphone in 150 countries
  • $24.99 for 20MB data in 65 countries (available for all smartphones)
  • $59.99 for 50MB data in 65 countries (available for all smartphones)
  • $119.99 for 100MB data in 65 countries (only available on the iPhone)
  • $199.99 for 200MB data in 65 countries (only available on the iPhone)

(The 65 countries where this plan can be used are listed here)

T-Mobile Blackberry data package (T-mobile does not have discounted data packages for non-Blackberry devices)

  • $19.99 for unlimited email on a Blackberry smartphone in any country with a T-mobile roaming agreement

Needless to say that the T-mobile plan offers the best value for money of any operator in the country. $20 for unlimited International email is a real steal, and if you travel abroad relying on access to your email, then switiching to a Blackberry is highly recommended. If you purchase a Wi-Fi enabled T-mobile Blackberry, you’ll even be able to make unlimited phone calls back home when you are connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot and add the $10 T-mobile Hotspot@Home service to your account.