The Internet is filled with stories from people who returned from their foreign trips to find a mobile phone bill bigger than their mortgage payment. It’s a phenomenon known as “bill shock.”
While there’s little sympathy reserved for communications providers that offer sky-high rates for international roaming, at least a little of the blame has to fall on the users themselves – who utterly neglected to investigate their carriers’ roaming rates for voice and data prices. To help you avoid bill shock, here are some helpful tips…
- Turn your phone off – really off. Newer smartphones will sometimes retrieve mail and automatically contact the Internet in other ways. You could do the research on how this is possible and hope for the best, or just pull your battery out and be 100-percent sure that you won’t get charged for services while your phone is buried in your luggage.
- Get it in writing. Will you pay roaming rates in Canada, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. territory of Guam? You need to find out before you leave, but be careful calling the carrier. One common thread that runs through many bill-shock tales is that the customer called the provider and was quoted one policy or rate, but other terms applied to their bill. Simply put, never trust a telephone representative unless you’re recording the call (with permission, of course). If you must contact the carrier by phone, ask them to point you to supporting documentation rather than to quote you a rate.
- Be careful near the borders. Since cell signals don’t care about national boundaries, it’s possible to pay roaming charges without actually leaving the United States. For example, it is not uncommon for phones to find Mexican providers while on whale-watching cruises in San Diego or other border locations.
Other foreign calling strategies
Here are three ways that you can phone home without paying the exorbitant roaming prices…
1. Rent a local SIM card. Your SIM card is a thumbnail-size chip that hides inside your phone and constitutes the identity of your device. When you visit another country, the networks there treat you like a gullible tourist and charge your carrier many times the normal rate. To have your phone act like a native when traveling, rent a compatible SIM chip before you leave home. There are many companies that rent SIM chips that are compatible with foreign networks. You receive a better deal on calls, and there are no contracts to sign. To do this, your phone must first be unlocked, but you can receive the unlock codes for free from most mobile service providers. While I have had T-Mobile unlock several of our family’s phones, AT&T will not provide the codes for the iPhone.
2. Use Skype. Skype is a program that runs on your computer and allows you to communicate by both voice and video with other Skype users. If you need to phone the same person every day, just set them up with Skype and use your laptop to chat for free. Skype can also allow you to make calls from your computer to a regular phone line for a few cents a minute, using their service called Skype Out. Obviously, you must have an Internet connection to use these services, but they are also compatible with smartphones when they are connected to a WiFi signal.
3. Google Voice. Gmail users can download a program that will enable voice calls to anyone. As with Skype, calls to other Gmail users are free. But calls to telephone numbers are possible too. Gmail offers an even better deal on calls to phone numbers in the United States – 1 cent a minute!
Cell phone providers know they have you at a disadvantage when you leave the country or even approach the border. Use these tips to fight back.