The best way to avoid surprises on your phone bill when returning from a trip is to understand what charges can be incurred when roaming with your mobile or smartphone abroad. If you have an international SIM card or phone, or are buying a local SIM card in the country you are traveling to, then it’s still a good idea to know about common charges.
Here is an overview of some of the things you can be charged for while traveling with your phone. Check with your cellular and data service provider for their rates, using this as a guideline for what to ask about. And remember that when you are in a different country, phone calls and texts to your home country are considered as international!
- View our tips for saving money while traveling with your mobile or smartphone
- View our tips for using your phone internationally
Text messages / SMS
Short Message Service (SMS), or “text messages” can be one of the cheapest ways to communicate as a flat rate per SMS is usually how these are charged.
There is often a big price difference per message depending on whether you are sending or receiving a text message, and whether you are sending it to an international or local number. Potential SMS charges include:
- you send a SMS to a local number in the country you are visiting (usually a flat rate per SMS is charged to you)
- you send a SMS to an international number (usually a higher rate per SMS is charged to you, to account for international charges)
- you receive a SMS from a local number in the country you are visiting (most mobile providers do not charge for receiving SMS, but the person sending the SMS to you will be charged)
- you receive a SMS from your home country (most mobile providers do not charge for receiving SMS, and the person sending it will not have to pay international rates if you are using your home SIM)
Tip: Don’t forget to add a “+” with your home country’s international code when sending text messages or making phone calls to friends and family back home. For example, if you would normally dial “555 555 5555” from your home area in the U.S., when you are traveling you would need to dial “+1 555 555 5555”.
MMS / Picture or Sound Messages
These types of messages fall under the category of messages that require data service.
Data service is usually charged based on the number of kilobytes or megabytes sent, rather than the number of messages sent, or the time it takes to send the message. The more data in a message (for example, a large picture vs. a small picture), the higher the cost.
Tip: Reduce the size of pictures you send, and consider sending longer text messages as MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) instead.
Internet and Email
Like MMS, Internet and email are generally charged based on a flat rate per kilobyte or megabyte. Email clients, such as a pop-server, only charge when you send and receive data, and messages are compressed into basic text which is very data light.
If you use web-based email, or surf the Internet, pages have to download. While many mobile pages are much “lighter” than computer-based ones, they are still much heavier than basic email clients that only download and upload text.
Also be sure that your email client does not download images by default. Most mobile email clients do not download images automatically in order to avoid inflating your data usage.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) — that blue dot that flashes on your map — are based on satellite navigation, and are generally not charged by mobile service providers as satellites are beyond their services.
However, if you are using GPS navigation on your smartphone, the map on which the dot flashes is downloaded through your data service and can therefore be charged to you per kilobyte like all data services.
Many specific GPS navigation units, such as TomToms or Navigon, are free to use all over the world, including their maps, usually downloaded via the Internet rather than through mobile service providers. Also consider using an offline map instead.
Phone calls are charged based on the networks the call is being routed through, and charges can vary depending on whether you are making a call, receiving a call, and where you are calling.
For example, if you’re in another country making a local phone call from your home country phone or SIM card, you will be charged a roaming charge to “rent” the local network. If you have a local SIM card you will not be charged for roaming, only a local rate.
On the other hand, if you receive a phone call on your home country phone or SIM card from a local number, that person will pay international charges to be routed through your home country, and you will be charged roaming charges to rent the local network to receive the call, and possibly international charges for your home service to route through to you abroad (many mobile providers will give you one flat rate per minute that combines both the roaming and international rates, just check with your provider).
Potential charges when making or receiving phone calls while abroad:
- you make a local phone call from your home country mobile (roaming charges will be charged to you)
- you make an international phone call from your home country mobile (roaming charges and international rates charged to you)
- you receive a phone call to your home country phone or SIM card while roaming, from a local phone number in the country you are visiting (roaming charges and international rates charged to you, international rates charged to the person phoning you)
- you receive a phone call to your home country phone or SIM card, from your home country (roaming charges and international rates charged to you, but only local charges for the person phoning you)
- you make a local phone call from your local SIM card (regular rates apply, no roaming or international rates)
- you receive a phone call to your local SIM card, from your home country (no extra charges to you, but international rates will be charged to the person phoning your international local SIM cards
Checking voice messages
Most mobile phone companies charge you for checking messages while abroad, either as an international phone call to your voice mail in your home country, as roaming minutes to a local number, or as roaming to a diverted call. Check with your home service provider about which case applies, and check the rate.
Try changing your voicemail message to explain that you are abroad and not checking messages, and ask people to email or SMS you instead, or forward your phone calls to a VoIP service that transcribes your messages into text and emails them to you.
Photo credit: James Burrage