Every tourist guide tells travelers to be wary of pickpockets when they travel overseas. What they don’t tell you is that sometimes you can get your pocket picked just by pulling out your mobile phone.
That’s especially true if you live in America and travel occasionally to Europe with a Verizon or AT&T mobile account. (T-Mobile offers free international data access, but only at 2G speeds, which are glacially slow. You have to pay extra for tolerable 3G access.)
I’ve read nightmare accounts of travelers returning from a European business trip and discovering astronomical roaming charges on their next mobile phone bill. Hundreds, even thousands of dollars added to the normal total, just for off-the-cuff checking of email and social media.
It usually only happens once, because the consequences of not planning for international data access are so extreme that they sear themselves into the poor victim’s memory.
My fellow Americans, do you know what happens if you don’t pay for an international data package and instead just set your smartphone to roam as soon as you land, blowing right past the warning messages?
- AT&T charges a tiny fraction less than 2 cents per kilobyte of data you use. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize it adds up to $19.97 per megabyte.
- Verizon charges $20.48 for each megabyte of overseas usage, and the meter begins ticking as soon as you make a data connection.
To put that into context…
A few weeks ago, my wife and I set out on a European adventure built around the IFA tradeshow in Berlin, with stops in Southern Germany, the Alsace region of France, and a few days in the Netherlands. Over the course of a little over two weeks, we collectively used nearly 2.5 GB of data over mostly high-speed mobile networks. (That’s an average of 175 MB a day, divided between two phones and an occasional tethered device. That total doesn’t count data usage for the many times we were connected to Wi-Fi networks.)
Had we blithely set our Verizon phones to indiscriminate roaming mode, I would now be facing a bill of more than $50,000. Had we done the same using an AT&T phone without worrying about pay-as-you-go roaming costs, the bill would have been roughly (in every sense of the word) $49,000.
We could have trimmed our data usage to an average of 10 MB per device per day. But even at that minuscule level of use the pay-as-you-go roaming bill from either company would be well over $5000 for a two-week trip. And if I had been traveling on business, maintaining steady contact with the home office, that data budget would be unacceptable on just about every level.
The official solution offered by Verizon and AT&T is to pay for an international data plan.
Yes, that would have saved a lot of money. If I had carefully coordinated our travels with Verizon first, I would still have been on the hook for something like $625 (plus taxes), added to my normal monthly bill.
You read that right.
See the next page, where I show the math and explain how I managed to stay connected for more than two weeks at a quarter of what Verizon would have charged.
As I explained on the, using AT&T or Verizon's pay-as-you-go roaming rates can lead to nightmarish bills. The official alternative is to sign up for an international data plan.
If you sign up for Verizon's "flexible Global Data Plan that automatically replenishes your data based on your usage," you'll pay $25 for each 100 MB of data you use (uploads and downloads). Our 2.45 GB of carefree data usage equals 25 blocks of 100 MB, each charged at $25 a pop. That's $625, which would bring the month's bill up in the $800 range.
If we were AT&T customers, the bill would be more tolerable but still high. AT&T charges roaming rates that are similar to Verizon’s but offers some discounted packages. An 800 MB package, for example, would have added $120 to our monthly bill (compared to $200 for the same amount of data from Verizon). If I were to buy that package from AT&T for each of my two phone lines and used the same amount of data, I would need seven additional 120 MB blocks of data at $30 each, for a total of $450 (plus taxes).
Update: T-Mobile owners with qualifying Simple Choice plans get unlimited free roaming at 2G speeds, which the company claims average 128 Kbps. If you want 3G access, you have to purchase a data pass while you are overseas. The price list is here. The $15 per day per phone option would have allowed us 100 MB per day per phone at a total cost of $450. There are better deals, including a 14-day pass that offers 500 MB of data for $50. I do not know whether that plan can be renewed before the two-week period is up, however. If it can, then the total cost would have been around $250. The T-Mobile network in Germany is especially good, so that would be a fine option for anyone with an existing T-Mobile plan.
But I didn’t pay anywhere near that much. In fact, our total bill for online mobile data access for 15 days of European travel was shockingly low. Here’s the country-by-country detail:
- Germany: I paid Ortel Mobile $35 for a prepaid SIM card that allowed 3 GB of data usage over a 30-day period. We used about 1.1 GB of that allotment. My lovely wife Judy used about 550 MB of data from a Vodafone CallYa card with 850 MB of available bandwidth that cost around $50 total.
- France: Using the remaining balance on the Ortel card I enabled 100 MB of data usage while roaming in the Alsace region of France, which is just outside of Ortel’s German network, and used it all. During that period Judy switched back to her Verizon SIM and used virtually all the data (92 MB of 100 MB paid for in advance) on her $30 Verizon international roaming plan.
- The Netherlands: When we landed in Amsterdam I stopped at a shop in the airport where I spent $35 for a local prepaid Lebara Mobile SIM card with 1 GB of 3G data access. I was able to share that connection with other devices by turning my Windows Phone into a mobile hotspot. We used roughly 600 MB of that allotment in less than three days.
Our total bill was about $150, or about $5 a day each, and I could easily have trimmed the total to under $100 without sacrificing any connectivity.
In exchange for that relatively modest bill, we had virtually uninterrupted access to data connections everywhere we went. We uploaded photos, chatted with friends via Facebook and Twitter and Skype, and had nonstop access to maps and information. I also was able to check email regularly to stay in touch with our house sitter, file several stories from IFA, and continue research and coordination for an upcoming project.
We could have chosen to cut our data usage to a bare minimum of 15-20 MB per day and probably gotten by with 300 MB each. But that requires constant, almost obsessive monitoring of data usage and scanning for Wi-Fi hotspots, which are considerably less secure than mobile networks. And even with all that work, we would still have wound up paying Verizon $75 each for the two lines of service.
The good news is that I didn’t need to do anything special with either of our phones before leaving for the airport: All modern Verizon smartphones are unlocked for global use. (If you have a phone that's locked to AT&T's network, you’ll have to convince them to send you an unlock code before you can use it with a prepaid SIM card from another service.)
On the next page, I explain how I did it, in Q&A format.
As I explained earlier, buying prepaid SIMs when you travel can save you from being slammed by excessive roaming charges by a U.S. carrier.
Here's what you need to know.
How do prepaid SIMs work?
A SIM card is a chip that contains identity and authentication information to connect a device to a mobile network. (The acronym SIM stands for subscriber identity module, but no one ever uses the formal name.)
Inserting a SIM card into a mobile device allows that device to connect to a mobile network, where the SIM card can be associated with an account that allows access to specific services.
A prepaid SIM allows you to connect to a mobile network and then pay in advance for specific services. Typically, you buy a starter kit that contains the SIM card and an amount of credit. You can "top up" the account by buying prepaid cards at tobacco or phone shops or using PayPal or a credit card on the web.
You then use your credit balance to order service packages, typically by punching in codes or sending specific text messages to the network. The service might or might not offer support in English (most are built for residents of the local country), so if you're not fluent in the local language, make sure you get help setting up all necessary options when you purchase the SIM card. I had no trouble finding SIM card starter kits at train stations and airports in larger cities. Getting everything set up took just a few minutes.
A prepaid SIM can (temporarily) replace the SIM in your existing unlocked phone. Or you can use a secondary phone. In either case, the prepaid SIM comes with a local number in the country where you’re traveling.
Does this work the same in any country?
The United States has finally caught up with the rest of the world in adopting GSM as a standard, so hooray for that. Meanwhile, a patchwork of laws and regulations means every time you cross a national border you confront a different set of rules and legal requirements.
In France, for example, we chose not to buy a local SIM card. Unlike in the other countries we were visiting, French law requires that a foreign visitor register a new SIM using identification such as a passport. And the activation process can take up to 48 hours, or half the time we were planning to stay in France.
Getting reliable information from Google or Bing is a lost cause, but fortunately there’s a site that is both active and accurate, at least for now.
The Pay as You Go Sim with Data Wiki is a treasure and was insanely useful in my research for our travels. I might even add some updates of my own.
Will a prepaid SIM work with my phone?
Assuming you have a reasonably modern smartphone from AT&T or Verizon, you should be able to swap out your existing SIM card for a replacement from a local carrier in the country you’re visiting.
Your phone has to be unlocked. All Global-Ready phones and devices from Verizon are unlocked from the factory, as required by FCC network access requirements for the 700 MHz spectrum Verizon uses for its LTE network. You can check the capability of any Verizon phone on the Verizon Wireless web site and find a full list of currently available global phones there as well.
Earlier this year, new legislation made it mandatory for carriers on other networks to allow their phones to be here.)that you wait out a two-year contract. (AT&T's procedures are
You’ll need a SIM in the right form factor. My Lumia Icon, like all recent iPhones, uses a nano SIM, which is significantly smaller than the standard micro SIM size. This is no big deal if you buy a SIM card at a phone dealer, where they have a specialized punch to convert the larger SIM card to nano specs.
You’ll also need to be certain that the frequencies used by the overseas network are supported by the device you have. For most modern smartphones from AT&T or Verizon that are sold as Global-Ready, this shouldn’t be an issue.
What happens to my phone number?
If you swap your U.S. SIM for a less-expensive prepaid SIM from the country you’re visiting, you have no ready access to your U.S. number. Your prepaid SIM has its own phone number, which you can use to call co-workers or family members who are traveling with you and also using local SIMs.
You can forward calls from your U.S. number to your temporary overseas number. (You’ll pay extra for those international calls, so be conscious of how much they cost.) Be sure to turn off forwarding when you return.
I just assumed that any callers to my regular number would leave a message (which gets forwarded to me via email) or try me on Skype, Twitter, or email. It worked out fine. YMMV.
Should I use my own phone or carry a second phone?
There’s no easy (or demonstrably correct) answer to this question. Your choice is based on your preferences and your budget.
If you need access to calls and texts on your U.S. number, then you should keep that phone at hand, with data access turned off. Get a second, unlocked phone for your prepaid SIM.
My personal preference: Put the prepaid SIM in your regular mobile phone (assuming it's unlocked). All your apps will be at hand, you’ll be familiar with the user interface, and you’ll feel right at home. Put your regular SIM in the cheaper secondary phone, and just use it for occasional calls and text, with data off. You can transfer the regular SIM to its normal location when you get back home.
What happens to text messages, especially those used for two-factor authentication?
This is a very big gotcha.
Many essential online services use text messaging as the second factor in their multi-factor authentication systems. If you can’t receive a text message at your regular number, you might get locked out when you try to log in from a strange location.
You can switch many authentication systems to use email messages or an authenticator app instead of text messages. But for services that support text messages or nothing, you’ll need to plan in advance. Or carry a second phone just so you can maintain access to your U.S. number.
What about getting a portable hotspot?
If I were staying for more than two weeks in one place, I would consider renting or buying a mobile hotspot from an overseas provider. But most tablets and phones allow tethering a mobile connection, which makes the case for a mobile hotspot less compelling.
How fast is the coverage?
I found 3G speeds to be mostly quite acceptable and usually faster than Wi-Fi hotspots, especially in large cities with good coverage. If you want 4G/LTE coverage, you'll need to plan very carefully, and it's probably not worth it unless you have a specific use case, such as uploading video files from a remote location for breaking news.
You can use the Speedtest.net app (available on every mobile platform) to check your data speeds periodically. But be aware that the app uses part of your data allotment.
Is there any sane reason to buy a global data package from a U.S. carrier?
There are hassles, mostly small but nontrivial, associated with swapping SIM cards. If your time is precious, the premium that your U.S. carrier charges might be worth it for seamless roaming. And you get the bonus of being able to send and receive calls and texts from your familiar number.
You’ll want to learn how to budget your data wisely to avoid spending more than you need to. But the convenience can definitely be worth paying a reasonable premium.