Tips for minimizing cellular roaming charges on iPhone

updated Nov 2017

International roaming (using your home mobile phone on a foreign carrier's network while you're traveling) used to be insanely expensive. It's gotten a lot cheaper the past few years, but it takes a bit of planning to make sure that you can stay connected abroad without running up a big bill. Here's a few very American iPhone-centric tips.

Planning

  • Know generally how much you use before you go. At home, I'm a fairly light user but I have Wi-Fi access most of the day and I usually use around 1.5GB a month (i.e., 1500 MB ÷ 30 = 50MB a day). Your cellular bill detail should show how much you use. Think about how you're going to be using your phone differently abroad and then:
  • Get on a good plan. Don't go without getting on SOME kind of plan. Roaming is generally quite expensive without one. Plus, being on a plan usually means that any further usage beyond the plan is discounted well below the rate you'd pay without one. So if you have to make an unexpected rash of voice calls or roaming (work/emergencies happen...), it won't kill your bill. 
  • AT&T lets you roam to Canada and Mexico for free with certain plans. They also just announced their new International Day Pass, but at $10 per day, per device just to access the data pool on your US plan, I'd avoid it. For now, their original Passport plans are still active. The $30/month for 120MB + unlimited text + steeply-discounted voice is a great deal if you're mostly going to use Wi-Fi but still want the security of having mobile data in a pinch. 
  • T-mobile offers "free, unlimited, 2G-speed roaming" in lots of the world. I've tried it out in the UK, Taiwan, Japan Korea, Germany, Poland, and the Philippines and it worked as advertised. 2G speeds are agonizingly slow when you've, say, jumped into a cab at the Taipei airport and your driver is anxiously waiting for Google Maps to finally... respond... to... your... search. They have a new plan (fall 2017) called One Plus International that offers "twice the speed" – so, 2.5G speeds? For $25 a month, I'll definitely spring for that next time I go.
  • Information about Verizon is here. Given Verizon's network differences, it's a good idea to call them ahead of time to see if your smart phone can connect to your destination's network at all. 
  • Do a bit of research about free Wi-Fi in the areas you're going to. In Tokyo, for example, most of the urban JR and subway stations have it, as do nearly all of the convenience and department stores, so connectivity is rarely more than 5 minutes' walk away. 
  • Once you've looked that over, decide if it's worth it to rent a Mi-Fi. If you're a heavy data user and can't curb your usage while abroad, this is certainly a good deal. Likewise if you're a couple or group who'll spend most of the trip together, it's also great deal since all of you can split the $5-ish a day cost. Do note that most of these drop to 2G speed after you hit a daily usage cap, so some of the tips below might still be relevant. 
  • In some countries you can rent SIM cards, but most require an unlocked phone and most Americans don't have those. Furthermore, Japan doesn't allow the sales of SIM cards that have normal phone numbers – they're data-only.

General Usage Tips

  • Viewing or uploading pictures or video uses data very quickly, do that only on Wi-Fi. Same thing with streaming music (e.g., Spotify), FaceTime and Skype.
  • Large file transfers (like email attachments, App updates, iOS updates, Dropbox and iCloud file uploads) can also use a ton of data. 
  • Laptops have almost no controls for limiting data usage, so be very careful if you decide to enable Tethering (called "Personal Hotspot" on iOS).
  • The front-facing (i.e., "selfie") camera makes much smaller photos than the rear-facing camera, so you can halve the size of your iMessage pictures by using it instead.
    Use the selfie camera to take smaller pictures

Settings

  • First and foremost, use the Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options to completely disable roaming except when you're actively using it. If you don't care about incoming SMS messages or calls, you can put your phone into Airplane mode instead. Remember, closing all your apps and locking your phone's screen does NOT stop your phone from accessing the internet – lots of background tasks will eat through your roaming data while your phone sits in your pocket. Completely disable Roaming when not in active use!
    Turn off all roaming when not in use

  • Also, do NOT leave Roaming on when you're back at your hotel Wi-Fi. If your phone becomes disconnected from the Wi-Fi, it will fall back to Roaming and could eat up data while you sleep.
  • Enable Wi-Fi calling. Settings > Phone > Wi-Fi Calling (requires an iPhone 6 or newer and iOS 9.3). If you're on a Wi-Fi network, you can make or receive normal phone calls for free. You can also use FaceTime to do free voice or video calls when you're on Wi-Fi. More information is here.

    Enable Wi-Fi calling to avoid paying per-minute talk charges

    Once Wi-Fi calling is enabled, your carrier banner changes
  • Go in to your iOS Settings > iTunes and App Stores and disable Use Cellular Data. No need to pay Roaming charges to download Music or Apps...
  • In Settings > Cellular, disable Roaming for every app except the ones you're actively using while roaming. Lots of apps will passively use your data even when they aren't launched and you don't want, for example, AirBnB sneaking on to the network when you all you wanted to do was enable Roaming to send a quick iMessage. Yes, you'll have to manually switch on Roaming for apps you want to use, but you'll have better results by starting with everything turned off and selectively enabling apps versus leaving them all on and hunting through the list trying to guess which one is hogging your data.
  • If you're using iCloud photo sync, make sure you also disable cellular for the Photos app, otherwise every photo you take will be uploaded and counted against your roaming!
  • While you're there, find Wi-Fi Assist (it's at the bottom) and turn it off. This function encourages your phone to hop onto the cellular network when the Wi-Fi gets weak and you don't want that.
  • Use Reset Statistics to zero out your counter and track your usage as you go. You can also use the myAT&T app to track their count versus yours (note that their count is usually delayed by a day or two, but it can help you spot a problem before it becomes a huge overage bill) 
Turn off Wi-Fi Assist, disable all apps except the ones you're using; use Reset Statistics when you land to help monitor usage
  • Go to Settings > Notifications and turn most/all of them off. If you're using Line, or Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp to talk to your traveling companions, then leave those enabled. Most apps can't send you Notifications when Data Roaming is off, but this also prevents apps from luring you away from your trip – you don't need to read or reply to those FB comments right now! Sidenote: I disabled Facebook Notifications years ago and it's the single best thing I've ever done to improve my personal productivity and phone battery life.
    Disable unneeded Notifications
    • Go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Fetch New Data, turn off Push, and set Fetch to Manually. Manually launch Mail when you are on Wi-Fi to get your mail.
    • Turn off Air Drop and Bluetooth (Swipe up to see the controls for both)
    Swipe up to turn off Air Drop and Bluetooth
    • In the Facebook App, click the More button at the bottom, then go to Settings > Account Settings > Videos and Photos, and change Autoplay to "Only Wi-Fi" or "Never". While you're there, you might want to edit the Upload HD preference if you're going to upload while roaming. For the T-Mobile Unlimited 2G users, this might make uploading at 2G speeds a lot faster.
      Turn off Autoplay!

    Other tricks

    • Download map (like this one for Tokyo) and subway apps (like this one) for the area you're visiting. These usually let you find your way without needing the network
    • Use the "Save for Offline Use" feature of Google maps so you can find your way without cellular service. Some areas (like Japan) don't permit that, sadly. 
    • While you're there, turn off Satellite view in Google maps
    • Also, if you haven't done so recently (and you're an AT&T customer), install the AT&T Passport app. YES, I said that. If you've installed it in the past, YES, it was crappy and useless, but the new one is actually quite good. (You may need to fully uninstall the old one off your phone if it's still on there). It installs some iOS-level extensions that let your phone hop on to password-protected Wi-Fi networks of AT&T's partners, not just open public Wi-Fi spots. Our phones were automatically jumping onto Docomo and Wi2 networks without any intervention on our part. 
      AT&T Wi-Fi partners are flagged after installing AT&T Passport
    • Load up directions to your next destination before you leave the Wi-Fi at your home, hotel, or cafe so you can navigate without connectivity.
    • Another good thing to do before leaving comfort and safety of Wi-Fi is to open Safari and close all of the open "tabs" there. Since you'll likely use it when you're roaming, you don't want it to run back and reload or cache any of those other sites while you're looking something up. 
      Close all those browser tabs before you roam!
    • Don't be shy about asking restaurants or cafes for their Wi-Fi password, the worst that can happen is they say no.

    Final Thought...

    Remember that once you account for flights, hotel, missed work, souvenirs, and heaps of dining and drinking, your vacation is probably costing you north of $40 an hour, even while you sleep. Don't waste a $40 hour of it trying to save $2 in data roaming.






    Comments

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