When it comes to using your phone on your home network, mobile data usage is pretty straightforward.
You set up a plan with your provider that determines your monthly data, how many minutes for calls, and how many text messages you can send.
So why do additional charges get so out of hand, so quickly, when it comes to using a new cellular network while traveling abroad?
This is commonly referred to as data roaming, international roaming, or just plain old roaming. (Either way - It's all the same).
What is data roaming?
Data roaming is when you use a foreign wireless/cellular provider's network to access your smartphone services (typically charged at a premium rate).
Here's the simplest way I can explain it - carrier relations are extremely complex, and foreign carriers have no incentive to be market competitive with your local rate if they don't have a network agreement with your network.
This is done to keep users from making the switch to another country's network. Restricting voice calls, data, and text by region keeps user information in line with governmental cellular policy and saves providers money by not needing to compete with other providers outside of their jurisdiction.
However, for short-term international plans, providers will allow roaming access of their services with other areas they have cellular agreements with.
But what if you don't have that information?
The lack of transparency between networks and the complex nature of each agreement between cellular providers remains the largest part of the problem.
Because you have little control over how contract connections are set up from country to country, your cellular and data usage in a new destination could be charged at the same rate as your local provider, or at a rate 10X to 100X higher for the premium of using their services. Whether it's roaming on an Android device or roaming on your iPhone, you could return home to a phone bill exceeding your rent.
The $13,000 roaming charge
If you think I'm joking, a San Francisco family was traveling overseas, and while they thought they put their son's smartphone in Airplane mode, apparently his iPhone had access to a carrier network in the Philippines. As a result, the son was hit with roaming charges for not being within the T Mobile global network. On their next phone bill, they got slapped with a $13,000 roaming charge.
After reviewing the case, T Mobile ended up dropping the charges, but you might not be so lucky with another wireless carrier.
See, the reason the charges were so high to begin with, is that while the plan this family chose did cover cellular network service in 210 countries - it turned out the Philippines was not one of those regions.
The app the child was playing was a chess game on his phone. The app in question ran ads and communicated data despite the phone being in airplane mode. Allegedly, the phone still had access to the global cellular service plan the family had set up, which caused the unfortunate connection to a network outside the plan.
I think you can start to see the picture of the data roaming problem!
The type of mobile networks your phone can talk to
Think of your phone operating as a vehicle with a license plate.
At every step of the data connection journey, your phone, SIM card, Wi-Fi address, calls, texts, and messages apps all have some form of numerical identification to determine who you are and importantly what you're allowed to connect to.
It all starts with your ICCID. ICCID stands for integrated circuit card identification number that determines the following about smartphones:
- Country of origin for any SIM cards
- Who the local service provider is by country
- and a unique number to identify the account of the specific SIM card
As users, the type of providers (local or international) we can connect to depends on the type of data plan we have with our provider.
Locked vs unlocked phones
There are two types of phone contracts you can set up with your provider, locked and unlocked.
What are locked phone contracts?
A locked phone contract is when you and the provider enter into an agreement of using their phone services at a given rate, for a set amount of time. Typically, this is done in exchange for supplementing the cost of a new phone upfront.
For example, instead of paying full price for a new phone, instead, you would pay $0 upfront in exchange for a locked contract for the next 2 two years.
In the short term, you pay nothing, but by the end of your contract, you've paid a monthly premium exceeding the initial cost of the phone.
Rarely are locked phone contracts worth it in the long-term (if ever).
What are unlocked phone contracts?
An unlocked phone contract is when you own a mobile device outright and can choose any cellular data options from any provider.
You can switch SIM cards or eSIMs at your discretion based on your connection needs.
Ultimately, while the price of a new phone is more expensive outright, the freedom to change plans and use multiple SIMs at the same time is well worth it for the avid traveler.
Difference between Sim vs eSIM?
We've talked a bit about SIM cards, but what about eSIMs?
What's an eSIM?
Much like a traditional SIM card, an eSIM stands for an "embedded" SIM card. This is when the SIM is embedded into your phone. So, instead of having to swap chips to change data plans, instead, you can download plans from the Airalo Store for wherever you're traveling in the world!
No more having to find vendors in new countries, spending time switching cards, or managing multiple SIMs while traveling. It's easier, time-efficient, and cost-efficient. No more roaming charges - now you can buy data you plan to use and not get overcharged.
When roaming charges occur and how to avoid them:
As mentioned in the travel story above, data roaming is risky even with an international plan from your home provider.
The more information you have about your usage plan and the networks you can connect to, the less likely it is you'll use your roaming in an unauthorized network.
That being said, to avoid roaming charges, you should be extremely cautious of the apps you use and at what times your phone connects to mobile networks.
Consider the following so you don't incur roaming charges:
- Turn off data and utilize airplane mode: Traveling between providers is one of the riskiest times to use your data. When on an airplane, or traveling to another region, make sure that both your cellular data is turned off and you've engaged airplane mode. Go to your settings app and make sure your device does not "receive data" or "send data". Monitor in your settings if any other apps are still connected and communicating any type of data.
- Stay within your range: Be sure that use your data plan as intended and avoid exceeding the length of the plan and going over your roaming limit. You can always log into your account with your cellular provider and see what the terms are of your agreement.
- Use an Airalo eSIM: Instead of worrying about getting hit with outlandish roaming charges from your home provider, you can simply switch over to an eSIM, download a digital sim card (eSIM), and be on your way. Check our list to see if your device is eSIM compatible.
Conclusion: be rid of data roaming once and for all
Here's what we recommend at Airalo, get a data plan that makes sense for your journey by paying for what you need.
You have our word you won't come home to a $13,000 bill.