Avoiding High Smartphone Bills Abroad

Spend money on your next trip, not on your phone bill

Most of us want to stay in touch when we’re abroad – after all, part of the fun is sharing our adventures (or misadventures) in real time by texting, posting to Facebook, Instagram-ing sights (or meals), tweeting or even making an old-school phone call.

And our smartphones have taken the place of so many gadgets – phone, email, music player, camera, even a compass – so it’s no surprise travelers want to use their phones on the road.

While smartphones are easily one of the handiest travel tools you could bring on a trip, they can also be the most expensive. It’s not just making international phone calls that will rack up your cell phone bill, either: oftentimes, the true culprit is data roaming. Even light usage or just leaving your data on can rack up major charges, since background features and apps on your phone are constantly using data to ping the servers.

Just how high a bill can seemingly light data usage abroad incur? Consider these cautionary tales of cell phone users who were hit with monstrous mobile phone bills for their data usage overseas:

We all love bringing home souvenirs of our trips, but an outrageous cell phone bill shouldn’t be one of them.

How much data does social media and web activity use?

You might not think a quick Facebook status update or Google Map search would use much data, but the actual figures might surprise you. Here’s a sampling of various smartphone activities and how much data* they use:

Activity Data Used
Send one email without attachment: 20KB
Send one email with standard attachment: 300KB
Upload a photo to Instagram: 2MB
Updating Facebook: 50 – 200KB
Upload a photo to Facebook: 8MB
View a photo on Facebook: 1.5MB
Upload a photo to Twitter: 6.5MB
View a photo on Twitter: 0.5MB
Send a 10 second Snapchat video: 400KB
A Foursquare check-in: 180KB
A Google Map search: 150-200KB
View a web page: 1MB
An hour of web surfing: 15MB
5 minutes on YouTube: 5-10MB
A minute of streaming music: 1MB
An hour of streaming video in HD: 306MB

These numbers may seem small, both in terms of size and action, but they can add up very quickly, especially since most people perform these actions multiple times a day.

How much does roaming really cost?

Most of us have unlimited, all-inclusive plans at home, but we don’t pay attention to how much each individual minute or megabyte of data costs. If you decide to use your smartphone abroad for calling, texting or data usage without an international plan, though, your next phone bill might shock you. Check out these per-use rates from the four major mobile service providers in the U.S.:

Per-Use Rates:

Carrier Voice per Minute Sending a Text Receiving a Text Data per KB Data per MB
AT&T $1.50 $0.50 $0.20 $0.02 $19.97
T-Mobile $1.49 $0.50 $0.20 $0.02 $15.00
Sprint $1.99 $0.50 $0.05 $0.02 $20.48
Verizon $1.50 $0.50 $0.05 $0.02 $20.48

Without an international phone plan, each text, tweet, check-in or search from your smartphone abroad will incur high costs that quickly add up.

Fortunately, the four big carriers in the United States offer plans that include international data and voice coverage.

Options for International Plans

Each of the major U.S. carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – have international roaming plans based on usage, as well as location. When selecting an overseas plan, consider how often you’ll be using your phone and what you’ll be using it for, as well as the length of your trip.

It’s important to note that international voice and data plans are often sold separately, so be sure you’re not signing up for a voice plan if data will be your main use.

Here’s a sampling of the four major U.S. carriers’ data and voice offerings:

GSM AT&T T-Mobile
Voice: Data: Voice: Data:
Plan: Europe Data Global Simple Choice Simple Choice
Monthly Cost: $30, $60, $120 $30, $60, $120 $0.00* included
Units Included: 30, 80, 200 (Minutes) 120, 300, 800MB unlimited 1GB to unlimited
Per Unit Cost: $1.00, $.75, $.60 per minute $15.36 per MB n/a n/a
Overage Cost: $1.00 $30 per 120MB n/a none
1MB = 1,024 KB *included w/monthly Simple Choice plans at $50 – $80
CDMA Sprint Verizon
Voice: Data: Voice: Data:
Plan: Worldwide Voice Multi-Country Pack Global Services Global Data
Monthly Cost: $4.99 $40, $80 $4.99 $25
Units Included: per minute charges only 40, 85MB per minute charges only 100MB
Per Unit Cost: $.99 with plan, $1.99 without $0.019 per KB $.99, $1.29 per min $0.02 per KB
Overage Cost: n/a $10 per MB n/a $25 per 100MB
1MB = 1,024 KB

How to Save Money When Using Your Phone Abroad

If you choose to bring your phone, be sure to follow these basic steps:

  • Turn off Data: Do this before your flight takes off. When switching your phone to airplane mode, also turn off any “push” or “fetch” functions. Upon returning, just remember to reset your phone to its home settings.
  • WiFi: Use WiFi as much as possible, as it doesn’t incur additional costs. Use a WiFi-finding app, such as WiFi Finder or Open Signal. Long a phone-toting traveler’s best friend, it is available in most hotels and many public spaces. It can be a good idea to consolidate your emailing, map checking, social sharing and surfing into sessions when you’re in Wi-Fi range. Wi-Fi is typically available even when your phone is in airplane mode.
  • Use Messaging Apps: There are several apps that let you send text, picture and video messages by accessing the Internet over WiFi, rather than through your phone carrier’s network and without the per-message usage charges. Some of the most popular are: Whatsapp, Kik Messenger, Line, Viber, GroupMe and even Google Voice.
  • Check Network Compatibility: If you’re traveling with your phone, make sure it’s compatible at your destination. The two global standards for cellphone signals are CDMA – the main one used in the United States – and GSM, which is standard in Europe and Asia. To find out if you can use your phone, check which signal your phone operates on. Many phone handset models are “dual-mode” meaning they have the capability to operate on both GSM and CDMA. The iPhone and many of the higher-end Android models are dual-mode.
  • SIM Cards: A popular money-saving option is unlocking your existing phone and buying a SIM card loaded with voice and data use at your destination. These are widely available and can be reloaded with additional minutes and data.
  • Unlocked Smartphones with SIM cards: Most people don’t realize it, but cellphone companies allow users to unlock their phones before going abroad, though this depends on variables such as carrier, type of plan, and phone model. Check with your carrier for details.

For more ways to save, check out our tips on using your cell phone while traveling abroad.


(Featured image: pyxopotamus)

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