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Avoiding a large phone bill when traveling

Ubiquitous connectivity has its downside, especially when it comes to the price of using your cellphone abroad.
/ Source: The New York Times

Ubiquitous connectivity has its downside, especially when it comes to the price of using your cellphone abroad. The proliferation of smartphones and the increased use of data have made it easier than ever to rack up huge communications bills while traveling overseas, even on a short trip.

“Many leisure travelers with iPhones are going to Europe, not turning off their data and allowing their apps to continue downloading data,” said Ken Grunski, chief executive of Telestial, a company that provides wireless services for travelers. “U.S. travelers were already getting hammered with expensive voice calls that start at $1 per minute. I know of people that have returned home to $1,000 or more roaming bills.”

Luckily for tech-savvy travelers who want to stay in touch, there are ways to avoid spending a small fortune. Here are some options.

Getting the right phone
Many countries outside the United States rely on a wireless network technology called GSM. But two major American carriers — Verizon and Sprint — use different technologies in most of their standard phones. Owners of those devices will need a special cellphone when traveling to many countries.

Verizon users have a fairly convenient way to deal with this problem. If you’ve been a subscriber for six months or longer, Verizon will lend you a global phone free of charge for trips of 21 days or less; the customer pays only the two-day FedEx fee of $9.99.

Once you receive the phone, call Verizon to activate it and select an international rate plan (with the $4.99 a month plan, a call from, say, France, will cost 99 cents a minute compared with $1.29 without the plan; texts, which cost 50 cents per message sent and 5 cents per message received, are not included). After the trip, just ship the phone back.

AT&T and T-Mobile have GSM networks, so many of their standard phones will work overseas, although you’ll still need to sign up for an international roaming plan to keep rates down. For example, with the $5.99 a month AT&T plan, calls from many Western European countries to the United States are only 99 cents. A package of 50 roaming texts costs $10.

Another option is to buy an inexpensive travel phone from a company like Telestial ( or Planet Omni ( They typically cost less than $50. For example, Planet Omni’s Kit V520 ($49) offers a dual-band GSM phone, SIM card with both a United States phone number and a global phone number, and $5 in airtime. The service allows you to receive free incoming calls in France, Italy, Spain and Britain on the global number, and free voice mail in 60 countries. Costs for outgoing calls depend on the country. For example, an outgoing call from France to a United States landline is 99 cents per minute, while a call to a mobile phone is $1.49 per minute. Telestial’s Passport package (starting at $99) provides free incoming calls in Europe, as well as calls back to the United States for 49 cents per minute.

Data deals
With everything from Internet radio to online maps to multitudes of apps, iPhones and smartphones can consume huge amounts of data. It might not be a big deal at home, but using all those apps on the road can add up quickly. If you plan on using a lot of data services while traveling, make sure you check with the carrier to see if it offers international data roaming plans.

For example, AT&T offers data roaming plans for the iPhone and smartphones that provide 20 megabytes of data usage within 90 countries for $24.99 per month, and up to 200 megabytes for $199.99 per month.

These charges are in addition to whatever your usual monthly charge is in the United States, but the cost pays off if you use a lot of data, especially when you consider that the standard international roaming rates for many Western European countries are about $20 per megabyte (according to Mr. Grunski, of Telestial, some Web pages are half a megabyte, so downloading, say, five pages in a single day could cost you $50 without a plan).

In addition, AT&T recommends that iPhone users go to their settings and turn off data roaming and options to fetch new data. They should also reset their usage tracker to zero so they can keep an eye on new charges, and make sure to use Wi-Fi instead of their phones’ 3G services to check e-mail messages or use the Web.

SIM cards
Frequent travelers may want to consider another money-saving technique: replacing a phone’s American SIM card (the little electronic memory card that identifies and configures your phone) with a local (or country-specific) SIM card. In general, when you do that, all incoming calls will be free and outgoing calls (local or international) can be significantly cheaper.

Be aware that replacing the SIM card means that your phone has a different number, so you may want to let your contacts know, or set your phone to forward all calls to the new number before you go. Your phone also has to be unlocked so it can work with other carriers’ networks — your cellphone company can provide information on how to do this — and it needs to be compatible with the wireless services in the country you’re visiting.

“Even with an international roaming package on AT&T, it can cost 99 cents a minute or more for voice calls,” said Philip Guarino, an international business consultant and founder of Elementi Consulting in Boston. “The moral of the story is, dump your American SIM card and buy a local one instead.”

When Mr. Guarino travels he simply buys a SIM card at his destination airport and uses it for cheap local calls.

“In a pinch, even if I call directly from my phone using a foreign SIM card, the average direct-dial rates are about 60 cents U.S. per minute, which is cheaper than using my original U.S. SIM,” he said.

The VoIP option
Internet-based voice services (VoIP) such as Skype ( or Truphone (, which charge as little as 2 cents for calls to regular phones, are among the cheapest ways for international travelers to communicate. This spring, Skype announced support for the iPhone, allowing iPhone users to make or receive Skype calls over either Wi-Fi or 3G connections.

One good option for travelers wanting to use Skype or Wi-Fi while traveling is Boingo Wireless. For $7.95 per month, travelers can sign up with Boingo ( for unlimited Wi-Fi access in hotels, restaurants, cafes, airports and more in over 70 countries. Coupled with Skype or a similar VoIP product on an iPhone, smartphone or computer, it’s hard to beat the value.

Last, but not least
Don’t forget the old-fashioned calling card. When Mr. Guarino travels, he often uses discounted international calling cards from local cafes or newsstands.

“The rates to the U.S. are about 3 cents per minute, plus the cost of the local call,” he said. “It’s a good option for making a call from a land line, especially if you have a conference call to make where you don’t want to worry about call quality.”

This story, Avoiding a Large Phone Bill When Traveling, originally appeared in the New York Times.