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Three Ways to Avoid Roaming Fees

Traveling with a phone does not have to involve roaming fees. Here are a few things I learned about saving money while traveling internationally.

What Roaming Fees Are

If you have a United States phone provider, and you take your phone to another country, you may get extra fees on your bill at the end of the month. Those are roaming fees.

If you continue to use your phone outside the United States, those fees can get ugly. The fees can also get ugly if you just have your phone turned on. Your phone may be doing things on its own like checking email and receiving text messages over the cell network.

The surest way to avoid roaming fees is to turn off your phone completely. Putting your phone in airplane mode and leaving it that way also works.

For three ways to use your phone while keeping fees down, read on!

Solution 1: Make A Deal With Your Provider

Your cell provider may make a deal with you, if you contact them ahead of time. Verizon, for example, offers a service called TravelPass. TravelPass is a flat daily fee you pay in order to avoid normal roaming fees. The service costs $5-$10 per day, depending on the country. I’ve had good luck using this service while traveling in Canada.

This is a very simple way to avoid surprises on your bill.

Solution 2: Using Wi-Fi, Not Cell

If you want to disconnect from the cell network, yet still get internet from Wi-Fi, your phone may allow it. The first time you do this, I recommend checking with your cell provider soon after to see if you’ve triggered any roaming fees.

On my phone, I enable airplane mode to disconnect from the cell network, then tap the Wi-Fi icon to enable Wi-Fi. I don’t know if it works the same way with all phones.

wifi enable icon
On my phone, the airplane icon lights up when I’m in airplane mode. If I tap the Wi-Fi icon, Wi-Fi gets enabled but leaves airplane mode on.

This works well for checking email during layovers. It also works well in cities with a lot of Wi-Fi. This worked for me while traveling in Spain. When I needed internet, I stopped by coffee shops and other places with free Wi-Fi.

What Wi-Fi Can’t Do

In most cases, you won’t be able to make phone calls or use text messages once you’re disconnected from the cell network.

I say, “in most cases,” because there are internet-based services that provide voice and / or text without using the cell network. For example, Skype is a way to do both using the internet. Facebook Messenger works for written messages. This approach will keep your costs down as long as they are accessing the internet through Wi-Fi, not the cell phone network.

If you plan to do the Wi-Fi only thing, it’s best to do a bit of pre-travel preparation. Figure out what apps you want to use, and try them out with people you may want to contact.

Solution 3: Using a Local Provider

If you really need cell phone service in another country, and you will be there for more than a few days, you can temporarily hook your phone up to a local phone provider.

To do this, buy a local sim card. A sim card is a little piece of electronics that fits inside your phone.

sim cards
Four sim cards. The other sides are just cardboard with logos and printed ID numbers.

Any phone I have used has a way to replace the sim card. It might involve a little drawer in the side of the phone, or popping the phone case open. If you Google “replace sim card” and your phone model, you will probably find instructions.

The sim card controls the identity of the phone. So once you replace your USA Verizon sim card with an Irish Vodaphone sim card, your phone will connect to the Vodaphone network, and you won’t be using your Verizon plan any more. Verizon won’t recognize your phone until you put the Verizon sim back in there. Your smart phone will still have all its apps.

Airport shops often sell sim cards for around $25. Some countries require identity verification before buying a sim (showing your passport may be enough.) In my experience, these cards are prepaid. Prepaid cards come with a certain amount of local voice and data. This has been enough to get me through a week, as long as I connected to Wi-Fi for any heavy internet use.

Local Provider Gotchas

I have had good experiences with local sim cards, but there are some things to watch out for:

  • Do not lose your original sim card! You’ll need to swap it back in when you get back home.
  • Read the small print on the local sim card. The service may only be good for a small area;  it may not allow you to phone or text home without extra fees.
  • Your phone number will change! Your original phone number is attached to your original sim card.
  • Applications on your phone may notice that the sim changed, and ask you to log in again (Gmail, for example.)
  • If there is anything that needs to reach you at your old phone number, changing your number may be a problem. For example, if there is a web site you log into that needs to send you a text message when you log in, that text message will go to your old phone number, and you won’t get it.
  • Your phone must be unlocked to take advantage of a local sim. If you don’t know whether your phone is unlocked, your phone provider should be able to tell you.

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