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Essential tips to avoid mobile roaming data bill shock

Mobile data costs are still a barrier to using your phone abroad -- but how can you limit the expense, or avoid it entirely?
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1 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Unlock your phone and buy a local or international SIM card

Now legal in the United States after becoming illegal in 2012, cell phone unlocking allows a user to use their device with any carrier they chose. Even if you're happy with your carrier in your home country, by unlocking your phone you can use your handset abroad with local or international SIM cards, which can result in cheaper call rates — as well as inexpensive data charges. If you're staying in a country more than a few days, it's a good idea to purchase a simple pay-as-you-go local SIM card, or to consider international cards like World SIM, which gives you cheaper international rates. 

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2 of 11 Eric Franklin/CNET

Set up your phone beforehand

Setting up your phone with the correct settings and apps can save you roaming charges if you plan ahead of time. Whether you need to download a travel guide or New York's metro map, taking an hour beforehand to decide which apps are crucial for your trip — and updating them to their most modern state — is a good idea, as well as turning off automatic updates when you're connected to mobile networks. 

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3 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan

If you want to stay with your standard carrier, T-Mobile offers US customers international plans called Simple Choice. The plans offer users 1GB of data (with a choice to upgrade), music streaming that does not count towards data charges, texting at no extra charge, and flat-rate calls for 20 cents a minute in over 120 countries. 

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4 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Use wi-fi as much as possible

With the rising popularity of internet-ready mobile devices, many businesses across the West are now offering free hotspots to lure customers through the doors, and searches can be made through apps and the web to find the nearest free source of wi-fi.

 

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5 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Download maps and travel information before you leave

Unwittingly checking Facebook and your emails can add high volume — and therefore cost — to your roaming usage, and when you're in a tight spot and lost in a new city, looking up maps can also demand vast amounts of data being sent through a mobile network. To avoid charges, download a few Google maps beforehand so you can view them offline, or seek out applications that will download maps and routes for offline viewing. 

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6 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Turn off roaming

As simple as it sounds, it's easy to forget to turn off roaming before you board the plane. If you have automatic updates and a number of apps on-the-go, even before you've begun your holiday, you may discover roaming charges winging their way to you. Turn it off completely, or consider going into flight mode, which shuts down cell phone transmission completely. 

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7 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Use voice-over-IP and wi-fi based messaging services

Using voice-over-IP (VoIP) technologies and internet-based messaging services can save you phone call charges while you're abroad. Seek out a free wi-fi spot or pay for access at your hotel, and keep data roaming costs to a minimum. Keep in mind that calls and messaging services used with mobile networks are likely to cost you, so stay with free internet access. Some services worth mentioning are below:

Skype | iCall | FaceTime | WiCall | Viber

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8 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Use apps to streamline travel plans

TripIt, Kayak, TripCase and TripAdvisor all have something in common — they are mobile applications that can keep all of your bookings, itineraries and maps in one place. If you find you need to double-check a booking, at least by organizing your flights, hotels and trips beforehand using such an app, you can save yourself data costs resulting from accessing email and different accounts individually. 

In addition, apps such as IM+ Pro are useful to connect all of your messaging contacts in one place. 

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9 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Keep an eye on your usage

Most mobile devices these days have an area that allows you to track your mobile data usage, and it's worth keeping an eye on abroad, especially if you're forced to use it on occasion. For example, owners of Samsung devices can access their usage levels through the settings panel, and Apple's iOS 7 will also track individual apps through a similar system. 

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10 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Stay away from data-heavy downloads

It's easy to forget how much data we use when accessing basic applications on our mobile devices, but this can be a costly mistake when you're using mobile data abroad. If you need to check your email here and there, stay away from attachments unless its necessary, and keep in mind that automatic updates can hog your data, as can staying connected to Facebook and Twitter feeds — which are often full of pictures and vast amounts of text pulled from different sources. 

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11 of 11 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Consider using data compression applications

If all else fails, consider using data compression apps like Snappli to reduce the amount of data sent across mobile networks — and hopefully reduce your bill as a result. 

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