Avoiding Cell Phone Data Roaming Charges While Traveling In The United States – Success!

by Mike Holman

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I’ve written a number of articles about my experiences with attempting to reducing my iPhone data charges while traveling in the United States and I”m happy to say that this year, I didn’t have any data “surprises”.

Last year, I got some unexpected charges because I wasn’t monitoring the data usage correctly and I also didn’t realize the excessive amounts of data used in Skype phone calls.

Read about last year’s experience:  How to avoid cell phone data roaming charges when traveling to the United States

How I saved on roaming charges this year

Roger’s has changed their roaming data plans signicantly from last year.  I decided to purchase a 20 MB one month data pack for $30.  Not exactly cheap, but a lot better than the roaming charges.

20 MB isn’t that much data for four days, but this time I had wifi available at the conference as well as in my hotel room.  One of the best things you can do to save on data charges is to use wifi, even if you have to pay for it.

One of my concerns from last year was a lack of data monitoring and no alerts from Rogers.  To fix this I bought an app for my iPhone called Data Usage Pro ($1.99), which measures your data use and categorizes usage by cell or wifi.  The cellular data usage is the number you have to monitor, since wifi data doesn’t cost you anything.

By monitoring my data usage and limiting my non-wifi data use, I was able to make the 20 MB last until I got to the airport in Denver on the way home.  At that point, I realized that a good friend of mine from Calgary was also in Denver so I gave him a call using Skype.  This ended up using a lot of data and my 20 MB data pack ran out. 

Roger’s sent alerts telling me this and made it easy to purchase another 10 MB for $10 day pass.  The other problem I had is that I got to the airport way too early and ended up doing quite a bit of surfing there which is why I bought more MBs.  All was not lost as it was a Sunday afternoon, so I spent a couple of hours drinking beer, watching football and surfing.

Better confirmation of data package purchase needed

My only complaint about this whole process was that the 20 MB data package doesn’t get activated until you cross the boarder.  The problem is that you don’t know if your purchase went through or not.  Why can’t Rogers acknowledge your purchase with an email, so you don’t have to worry?

I ended up buying two packages because I thought the first purchase didn’t work and had to phone to get one of them refunded later on.

Next year will be different

This will be my last year with a locked iPhone.  My plan in early 2013 is to buy a new iPhone once my current contract runs out and unlock the old iPhone and use that for foreign travel.  Once the phone is unlocked, I’ll be able to buy a local sim card and pay very low American data rates.

Summary – Ways to save on roaming charges

  • Make sure you understand exactly what data usage is and how to monitor it on your phone.
  • Buy a data package from your wireless provider.
  • Consider an app to monitor data usage.
  • Use wifi as much as possible. 
  • Avoid Skype or other Voip calls unless you are using wifi.
  • Leave phone at home or put it in airplane mode and just use it for calls.  Make sure you have a long distance calls package for this.
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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jake

I found the best solution – http://www.roammobility.com – it is a sim card you put into an ulocked phone and talk + text costs $20 for 7 days. VERY cheap. Can add data, too. I bought a cheap gsm phone on kijiji for $50 and while it doesn’t have smart phone capabilities, the hotel we’ll be at has wifi so my bberry will be on wifi only. Voila! Problem solved.

2 Preet

Yep – unlocking is the way to go. For our Eurotrip earlier this year I just bought a SIM card from Orange (France) and Vodafone (Ireland) and used my phone without a second thought. The SIM card and an unlimited data plan for a week for each country was about $20-$30 (each), so about $50 for two weeks of not worrying about overage or anything. Well worth it for my needs (and peace of mind).

3 Simon

T-Mobile offers cheap SIM cards and inexpensive voice & data plans. If you travel to the US frequently, you can get a dedicated number this way with pay-as-you-go instead of switching SIMS or numbers every time you travel. They even have a pay-by-the-day option for shorter trips! They have a nation-wide network that supports most unlocked iPhones and smartphones (incl micro SIM).

For just voice, I use a company called TracFone. They offer super-cheap handsets and service packages based on amount of minutes and expiry date, which can be up to a year. Quality is not the greatest but it works and it’s cheap. Handsets and vouchers are available at many convenience / department/grocery stores state-side.

Whatever the case may be I’d recommend getting your own US phone number (or use your Canadian phone while traveling as Mike suggests in this article) so that friends & family know how to get hold of you in emergencies!

4 Simon

@Preet: Hope your Oprah show is going well but where have your podcasts gone??! Last one was AUGUST! You’re missed buddy!! I really enjoy your show.

5 Mike Holman

@Jake – Thanks for the tip.

@Preet – Good to hear. I agree – paying any reasonable amount without worrying about overage is what I want. I don’t care if it’s the best deal going or not.

@Simon – I usually only go once a year, so not sure if I’ll bother with getting a dedicated number. Thanks for the info.

@Simon- I agree – very much enjoyed Preet’s show. I hope to be a guest on there soon.

6 Billy

Hey Mike
I don’t pay anything because I don’t have an iPhone. That’s the best plan of all!

7 Preet

@Simon – This is the last big week of production. After a few days off, we may have a few days of additional footage to shoot, but the heavy lifting ends Sunday. The podcasts will indeed resume! I love making them (and thanks for your comment!)

@Mike – Yep – we are still on for Burger’s Priest and a podcast interview! Late October or November should be doable.

8 Sheldon

This works for me.

I bought a smart phone from T-mobile. Pay by the day when in the US for unlimited data, voice and text. I take the SIM out when I am in Canada and it only costs me when I get spam calls telling me I won a cruise to Cancun or a text telling me that I won a free ??. This costs me about $2.00 per month.

9 Mike Holman

@Billy – That’s the cheapest plan for sure. I would argue that for my purposes, it isn’t the best plan.

@Preet – Mmmm….burgers.

@Sheldon – Sounds good.

10 LifeInsuranceCanada.com

Absolutely unlocked. When I travel to the U.S. I simply go to the nearest AT&T store and buy a sim card for the week. Pick up unlimited calls, texts etc for cheap. It gives me a new number, but when I’m travelling it’s only my family calling inbound, any business calls are outbound.

Cross the border back home I just throw my original sim card back in and I’m back with my original carrier.

Way cheaper and better than getting a U.S. plan on a Canadian carrier.

11 Jake

BUT – those who are getting im cards from the US, you probably don’t get unlimited calls back TO Canada, do you? (AT&T and T-Mobile)

12 Donna

The expenditure and the shock of loosing that MB is really a pain. Paying for a wifi connection can definitely allow us to save more. Thank you for the tips and I really like the app. It is great that I can monitor my data use.

13 Kevin

Good article. This subject is very confusing, as the providers don’t provide much help. I traveled to England in September (1 week) and started searching in July for the best method to have phone/data capabilities while in the UK. The amount of conflicting information out there is astounding! Not to mention all of the business ventures that come out of the woodwork claiming to have the Ideal Solution !
After much analysis, I determined that an unlocked phone was the way to go, as the Sim cards in the UK are really cheap. I have an old iPhone 3 which was locked to Fido. A good friend in the UK has the same phone and had the phone unlocked at an Apple Store in the UK (Yes, they unlock them there!) I tried to do the same in Toronto and was treated like a common thief! Even Fido gave me the runaround. In the end, I ran out of time and simply took my iPod Touch and used available wireless and Skype to communicate.
When I got back, I searched again and found out how to Jailbreak and Unlock the phone… but what a twisted journey.

14 ken

if you go just want data, you can do what i did: buy the truconnect device from walmart. it piggy-backs on the sprint network. you pay 100$ +tax for the actual device. then you pay 45$ for 4.5 GB that does not expire provided that you use it at least once a year. that’s $0.01 per MB.

if you go to the states even on a semi-regular basis, i think this is the system to go for. it works about as fast as 3G though … so don’t expect LTE service.

15 ken

Sorry — it’s the “internet-on-the-go” system … not truconnect …

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