How to Avoid Crazy Cellphone Fees When Traveling Abroad

What's Hot

2 Types of Black Marks Might Vanish From Your Credit File SoonBorrow

6 Ways the Obamacare Overhaul Might Impact Your WalletInsurance

7 Dumb and Costly Moves Homebuyers MakeBorrow

This Free Software Brings Old Laptops Back to LifeMore

Obamacare Replacement Plan Gets ‘F’ Rating from Consumer ReportsFamily

Beware These 12 Common Money MistakesCredit & Debt

21 Restaurants Offering Free Food Right NowSaving Money

17 Ways to Have More Fun for Less MoneySave

House Hunters: Beware of These 6 Mortgage MistakesBorrow

30 Household Uses for Baby OilSave

25 Ways to Spend Less on FoodMore

Nearly Half of Heart-Related Deaths Linked to These 10 Foods and IngredientsFamily

5 Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in WinterFamily

10 Ways to Save When You’re Making Minimum WageSave

Boost Your Credit Score Fast With These 7 MovesCredit & Debt

7 Painless Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Years EarlierBorrow

The Most Sinful City in the U.S. Is … (Hint: It’s Not Vegas)Family

The True Cost of Bad CreditCredit & Debt

10 Companies With the Best 401(k) PlansGrow

This Scam Now Tops ID Theft as the No. 2 Consumer ComplaintFamily

6 Stores With Awesome Reward ProgramsFamily

6 Ways to Save More at Lowe’s and The Home DepotSave

6 Healthful Treats for Your DogFamily

New Study Ranks the Best States in the U.S.Family

Thousands of Millionaires Moving to 1 Country — and Leaving AnotherGrow

Strapped for College Costs? How to Get the Most From FAFSABorrow

6 Overlooked Ways to Save at Chick-fil-AFamily

Ask Stacy: What’s the Fastest Way to Pay Off My Mortgage?Borrow

Where to Sell Your Stuff for Top DollarAround The House

8 Ways to Get a Good Price on a Shiny New AutoCars

Ask Stacy: How Do I Start Over?Credit & Debt

Secret Cell Plans: Savings Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Don’t Want You to Know AboutFamily

30 Awesome Things to Do in RetirementCollege

14 Super Smart Ways to Save on TravelSave

The Rich Prefer Modest Cars — Should You Join Them?Cars

You’ll Soon Pay More to Shop at CostcoSave

10 Ways to Save When Your Teen Starts DrivingFamily

The cost of calls and data from foreign soil can be astronomical costs unless you have a plan in place. Don't be caught by surprise.

Wireless roaming charges are “outrageous,” to hear travelers like Karen Pliskin talk about them. And she ought to know.

On a weekend visit to Vancouver, B.C., the San Francisco-based anthropologist did everything she could to avoid international roaming charges, declining to make calls or send text messages. The following month, she found an extra $30 on her Verizon wireless bill. It turned out that the apps on her phone had quietly drained expensive roaming bandwidth. After that experience, she started turning her phone off when she crossed the border.

“What can we do about these charges?” she asks.

A lot, actually. The National Consumers League, recently asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate roaming fees charged by American phone companies. An NCL analysis of the market for roaming services found that a “significant” portion of the more than 73  million Americans who travel abroad annually may be at risk of incurring higher-than-expected charges on their wireless phone bills, thanks to these fees.

“Even consumers who are careful and try to limit their mobile-data use can come home to a surprise bill,” says John Breyault, an NCL vice president of public policy.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group for the wireless industry, says it has already taken significant steps to end bill shock. “The wireless industry provides consumers with a host of consumer-friendly protections and service offerings to ensure that they can travel abroad without unexpected international roaming charges,” says Brian Josef, a vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA. “The marketplace is working for consumers.”

It’s hard to know how much American travelers pay annually in roaming fees. But we know what wireless carriers are earning, and it’s a lot. Revenue from global roaming services is expected to reach $90 billion a year by 2018, according to a recent estimate by Juniper Research, a research and analytical services company based in Britain. A study by the IT consultancy firm Ovum predicts that by 2019, mobile data, the same kind that ensnared Pliskin, will account for more than half of all global roaming revenue.

Roaming fees are a rich source of profit for wireless carriers. A study by professional-services company KPMG, cited by the NCL in its petition, noted that international mobile roaming fees should be only 10 to 20 percent higher than non-roaming fees, based on the actual cost of providing the service. In fact, they cost more than five times as much, on average.

Lewis Ramsden, a lifestyle photographer based in Wakefield, England, recently experienced this gross overpricing when he needed to call a client while he was on assignment in Marrakesh, Morocco. He couldn’t find a Wi-Fi hotspot, so he turned on his phone to make a brief call.

“I paid almost $16 for a three-minute call,” he says. “How can that be legal?”

Consumer choices

I’ll answer that in a minute. But first, a word or two about what you can do now to avoid these fees. The only certain method: Don’t bring your phone. Your cellular carrier can’t ding your phone if it doesn’t make the trip with you.

For most travelers, that’s an impractical solution. But you have two other choices: buying a SIM card — or a smart card that allows you to use a local carrier — or skipping the expensive cellular plan and relying on local hotspots. Both require a little technical know-how.

On an iPhone like Pliskin’s, you must switch to “Airplane mode” and turn on Wi-Fi. But a few careless swipes can mean your phone will start roaming, incurring fees. Buying and installing a SIM card isn’t difficult, but some smartphones don’t accept outside cards (in geek-speak, they’re “locked”). The NCL study suggested that wireless companies would rather keep their customers in the dark about SIM card options, noting that it found no instances in which U.S. carriers attempted to educate their subscribers about those alternatives.

There are numerous other options for communicating while abroad. They include using Wi-Fi-based calling and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts or Viber for calls and texting or Apple’s iMessage for messaging. Andy Abramson, a frequent traveler who runs a Los Angeles communications agency, favors Skype as well as voice-over-IP services such as Dialpad, Telzio and Vonage. And there’s Google-Fi, a service I use, as does Abramson. For $20 a month, it offers flat-rate coverage in more than 135 countries with no roaming fees.

International plans — check the details

The preferred solution for wireless carriers is that customers sign up for one of their international plans, which used to be prohibitively expensive but now are becoming more affordable.

“In the old days the rates and plans were so expensive, it made no sense to even turn on the phone when you left the USA,” Abramson says. “That’s changing.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they make sense. I ran into Louis Altman, a longtime reader who runs a satellite communications company, at Toronto Pearson International Airport, where he was mulling the options AT&T had offered him to connect — either a pay-as-you-go choice for $2.05 per megabyte and $0.59 per minute for calls, or spending $40 on a 200-megabyte data plan, including “free” texting and $0.99 per minute for calls.

“Wait,” he told me. “The pay-as-I-go rate for data is 10 times higher than the $40 plan? And calls cost more on the plan? Who thought of that formula?”

Roaming rates falling

One reason prices are falling is that other countries are taking a hard look at high roaming rates and acting to reduce them. The European Union is effectively eliminating roaming charges for calls in Europe to member countries by next June, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are cutting data roaming rates by two-thirds by 2020. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have also pushed their member countries to take action to address high roaming rates.

Will regulation work in the United States, too? The last time the FCC tried to implement consumer regulations, the telecommunications industry voluntarily agreed to implement changes that include better fee disclosures and “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of tools or services that enable customers to track, monitor and set limits on voice, messaging and data usage.

This time, regulators need to either require that wireless carriers offer information on cheaper alternatives or follow Europe’s lead and require that they lower their roaming fees.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum,, or by emailing him at [email protected]

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!


Read Next: 20 Traveler-Approved Destinations for 2017

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 2,092 more deals!