How To Avoid Cell Phone Data Roaming Charges When Traveling To The United States

by Mike Holman

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Or more accurately – “How to get ripped off a little bit less by your phone provider when traveling to the US”.

I’m going to be traveling to the United States in the near future and one of the things I’ve been researching is data charges for my iPhone in the US. I need to use my iPhone when traveling, but I was quite worried about the mysterious data roaming charges and the various associated horror stories that I’ve heard of.

Just to clarify, if you have a “smart” phone like an iPhone or Blackberry – there are separate charges for voice calls (ie normal phone calls) and “data” usage.  “Data” refers to the amount of information that you download from the internet through emails or web surfing. A short text email will have a small amount of data, whereas an email with several photos attached will use a lot more data.  Text messages are in another charge category altogether.

In my case, I need to check emails, monitor my web sites and use my Skype application to phone home, since we aren’t taking the kids with us (thanks Mom!).  If I use the phone in the US, I will be paying a rather high fee of $30 per MB of data.  My average data usage in Toronto is about 500 MB per month or 17 MB per day.  I don’t plan on using the phone as much as I normally do, but I anticipate using 5 MB of data per day. At $30 per MB of data, three days at 5 MB per day would cost $450, which is quite excessive.

I decided to give my friendly Rogers call centre a ring and see what the deal was with US data plans.  I felt a bit of trepidation, since the last time I dealt with Rogers about the phone, they made up a bunch of stuff and then denied it later. I was worried they would sell me a data plan and I would still end up with some ridiculous bill after my trip because they just pretended to add the data plan to my account.

The roaming data plan I bought

After a number of phone calls, I decided to buy a data plan which costs $10 for one month. With this plan, my data charge is $1 per each MB of data that I use.  Since I roughly estimated I’ll use 15 MB data on my trip, the total charge will be $25. I’m fine with that.

I can check my usage from my phone via my Rogers account, so I should be able to monitor my data costs as well.

Use WIFI to save roaming charges

If you can tap into a WIFI network when using your smart phone in the US, there will be no data charges. The hotel I’m staying has WIFI, so I’m hoping to use this as much as possible.  If you are visiting relatives in the US that have WIFI or can find free WIFI spots, this could save you some money.

Summary

If you are going to be traveling outside Canada – consider the following tips:

  • Find out what international roaming packages are available for your needs – data, voice, and text messaging (which I just learned how to do).
  • Look at your regular usage and try to estimate your usage while traveling.
  • If you use Rogers – phone several times with your questions (see next section of article).
  • Use WIFI wherever possible.
  • Use a Skype app for voice calls – then you only have to worry about data and possibly text packages.  Don’t do this!  As I found out, Skype uses a lot of data – a long distance plan will be far cheaper.

The journey to the answer

One of the fun things about calling Rogers is that you can call several times, ask the same question and get a different answer each time.  It might be an interesting game to see how many times you have to call before getting an answer that you heard before.

I ended up calling four times about roaming data plans and it was clear that three of the four reps had no idea about any of the data plans and were just reading (incorrectly) from various web pages. Or perhaps they were just making it all up.

Rep #1 told me that I could pay $25 and get a 10 MB roaming data plan which would last for one month.  This plan included alerts if you approach and reach the 10 MB level. This sounded good to me, but I wanted to think about it.

Rep #2 agreed that I could buy a 10 MB roaming data plan, but it costs $30, not $25. She did offer that if I bought it online, I would save 5%. Unfortunately, when I went online, I could not find any kind of data roaming plan like this.

Rep #3 said the first two reps were mistaken and the 10 MB roaming plan was a summer offer which expired. When I told her I had just been told about the plans an hour prior, she then said it was only available to business accounts. This rep then told me about the roaming data plan which I ended up buying. She seemed to know what she was talking about, except for the little white lie about the summer offer/business account.

Rep #4 – I called again to ask a different question, but asked to confirm the roaming data plan which I had signed up for.  He confirmed it was set up, but he thought the $10 monthly charge included 10 MB and only cost $1/MB in excess of 10 MB.  When I questioned him, he reread the web page and agreed that my initial understanding was correct.

After all these phone calls, it was clear to me that I hadn’t been mislead when I initially bought the phone. The rep I talked to at that time  just didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

I would like to clarify that I use several Rogers services (internet, cable and iPhone) and they are all excellent. It’s just the call centre that can be a bit frustrating at times. I don’t mind if a rep doesn’t know the answer to a question, but I wish they wouldn’t just make stuff up.

Anyone have any more tips for travelers? Any roaming charges horror stories out there? Any fans of Rogers out there?

 

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike

Is it a problem with the training of large telecom company call centre representatives ? I asked Bell 3 times how much it would cost to install and suscribe to basic satellite TV at our cottage, and got 3 different prices within 3 calls in the same week. 2nd call was to accept the first offer, but the price had changed. 3rd call was to accept the 2nd offer, but the price has changed again. There was no 4th call.

2 Alain

You should buy a prepaid simcard (7$) from a AT&T and buy a data package of $15 for 100 MB and pay as you go for voice/sms. Otherwise, they also offer an unlimited bundle (sms, voice, data) for $50/month.

3 Echo

I had the exact same problem with Rogers before I went down to Orlando in June. My phone charges are paid for by my employer, and this was a work trip. When traveling to the U.S. we are strongly encouraged to get the roaming plan, or we’ll end up paying for the extra charges. Plus I need to phone my wife and kid from time-to-time and, like you, I’ve got a blog to manage.

I ended up buying the $10 data plan for one month, even though I’d only be there for 5 days. I was also talked into a $30 voice plan that would still charge me $0.10/minute.

So, I was all set up now…and like you I was going to use Wi-Fi to take advantage of the free data. Unfortunately, that’s where it all went wrong. I couldn’t pick up the Wi-Fi, even at YYZ where we flew out of. I was ready to check my Blackberry at the giant RIM signs in the airport.

At the hotel in Orlando, it was even worse. Couldn’t pick up Wi-Fi, couldn’t use 3G (“Searching for Network”). My co-worker is on the TELUS network and didn’t have any issues.

So I think I ended up paying $75 to avoid the potential of $1,350 in roaming charges…but even that was a waste of money since I wasn’t able to use my phone the way I intended to.

Good luck in Chicago! ;)

4 Mike Holman

@Mike – I think the problem is that people shop for cell phones, internet and cable based on price alone. There is no incentive for communications companies to put more money into their call centres above the bare minimum.

@Alain – Will that work for a Canadian iPhone?

@Echo – So much for all the planning. :) I hope I don’t have any problems picking up WIFI – I hadn’t thought of that.

5 Mike Holman

Here is an email from Ron

Mike, I migrate from Vancouver to Palm Springs every January and have had to solve the problem of how to get free internet and free phone calls back to Canada. In the past there has always been an internet connection in the condo and free local phone calls, but in this year’s condo, internet use is not included. However, I’ve just purchased an iPhone 4 and that will solve all my communication problems. There are 3 steps needed to get free internet and long distance calls to Canada:

1) Find a WiFi hotspot (as you pointed out so well in your blog). That’s easy these days. If my iPhone won’t pick up one in our condo development, there is always the local library, Macdonalds, etc. Anytime I’m out and about, there is somewhere that has a hot spot I can tap into, and not incur data charges.

2) Make VoIP phone calls only. This is also easy since I do it all the time in Vancouver anyway. Simply set up a Gmail account and use their Voice Chat. You can dial any number in Canada and the US for free anytime. Although the call goes over the internet from my iPhone, it rings on any friend’s land line or cell phone just like an ordinary local phone call would.

3) Negotiate a mobile plan with high data. Most of my friends are concerned about how much air time and free long distance time is in their contract. However, I believe high data time is far more important and will be the way of the future. Why? With high data time, I can bypass all the ridiculously high long distance charges that Telus and Rogers levy (see #2 above). The secret to getting high data time is to threaten your current mobility company (Telus in my case) with their main competitor (Rogers). Before my current contract expired, I called Rogers and wrote down their offer for the plan with the highest data. It was 6000 MB per month which was over 12 times more than my current plan with Telus. Then I called Telus and asked why I shouldn’t switch to Rogers and buy an iPhone 4 from them as soon as my contract expired. They immediately offered to let me out of my current contract for free (a saving of $200) if I would upgrade to an iPhone 4, and to put me on the Saskatchewan Student 50 plan which allows 5000 MB of data per month as well as the usual number of air time minutes and free long distance in Canada to 10 friends. With that huge amount of data, even when using their 3G network, I can answer all my email, research on as many websites as I like, make VoIP calls, and even watch YouTube videos, all without exceeding my 5000 MB per month. Best of all, the Saskatchewan Student 50 plan costs me $56 per month, including taxes, on a 3 year contract. When I signed up, I was able to dump my land line and internet stick, which had previously cost me $61 per month. This was possible because the iPhone 4 sets up a wireless network within my house, allowing both my iMac and my wife’s PC to connect to the internet. I’m loving it!

Hope this information helps someone else.

Cheers,
Ron

6 Angela May

Oh geez, data roaming is nightmare fuel. Rogers has much better roaming rates than Telus, but I stick with Telus because of the customer service you describe.

I travel to the US often for conferences. Being cut off from my phone is a MAJOR pain, and it sucks when I can’t use the smartphone to look up a map when I get lost. (“How expensive could it possibly be to look up one quick map?” Found out the hard way…) Unfortunately, turning your phone’s 3G off sometimes isn’t enough…

I have an older smartphone and if I’m not VERY careful, it manages to suck 3G EVEN WHEN I tell it not to. Once I was connected to a WiFi and using twitter. The WiFi dropped out for a minute, so my phone decided to turn its 3G on and use that instead……… without telling me. Another time, I got a text message so my touch screen turned on. Somehow while in my pocket, it managed to turn its 3G back on, navigate itself to Youtube and open a random clip. What!?!?

The moral of the story is this: YES don’t use your 3G but ALSO be very careful with using ANY internet functions of your phone. My solution lately is to bring an iPod touch and use that when I’m in a WiFi hotspot. That way it CAN’T connect to 3G.

As soon as I upgrade (next month, hopefully!) I’m definitely looking into swapping SIM cards like Alain suggests (I’ve been investigating it for awhile.)

7 Peter Scholtens

What’s especially fun is when you go near the border (White Rock) and get charged roaming fees. Happened to me with Rogers. I wonder if the same would happen here in Ontario.

8 Alainne

I was looking at getting an iPhone last year, but the data charges with my carrier were more than I wanted to pay. I’ve also heard stories about apps automatically getting updates over 3G and draining MBs when you least expect it (or can afford it!) My workplace happens to have free WiFi, so I ended up getting an iPod Touch and keeping my old phone. I can still Skype with the Touch, and never have to deal with providers, contracts or data charges.

9 david

3 days x 5Mb = 15Mb
15Mb x $30(cost per Mb) = $450
not $1350, but still excessive!

10 Mike Holman

Thanks David – I’ve corrected the article.

11 Obsessive Compulsive Daniela

Ugh, Rogers ALWAYS gives out wrong information. I had a Rogers rep change my plan to a corporate plan (without my permission) just because I asked if they could match corporate rates. I can get a great corporate deal through Bell because of my work, but I’d rather stay with Rogers, and I thought maybe they could come down a bit in their monthly rates. I got a bit of info, but made no changes.

Come my next bill, my cell phone and home phone were billed for three weeks instead of a full month. I had to call Rogers three times before I got someone on the other end that sounded like they knew what they were talking about and was able to fix the issue. And even he couldn’t say why this was done in the first place!

They are all scammers. And now I sound like my mom.

12 RossTaylorMoney

Hi Mike – good article on an important subject. Ellen Roseman at http://www.moneyville.ca has written lots on this subject too. I travel to the states several times a year, and Europe two or three times. My solution is as follows:

When in Europe, I take along an old cell phone, and buy a disposable SIM card at the airport or in the local town. I switch off my regular phone and leave a greeting advising my travel and the new number if they simply must reach me.

When I travel to the States I have a T mobile pay as you go phone which serves the same purpose. I top it up once per year. My experience is the offerings the Canadian cell phone providers have for travelling basically suck big time.

13 alain

As long you have an unlock phone!

14 The Wealthy Canadian

A friend of mine recently went to Europe for a trade show and found out, to his horror, that his roaming charges ended up costing over $1,000.

After calling Bell Aliant on his behalf, I found at that you can ‘negotiate down’ a little bit on the charges but in most cases they will hold you up to the bulk of the charges.

You’re absolutely right in that if you own any type of smart phone, it is imperative that you call out to inquire about the international roaming packages before traveling to another country. It can end up easily taking a bite out of your vacation budget.

Nice post Mike.
TWC

15 Jamie

On my last two motorcycle trips to the US I bought a burn phone. This year at Wally World it cost less than $15 and I received 140 minutes anywhere. The rest of the time I keep in touch via facebook on the laptop that I carry on the bike. I only use the phone for emergencies and the price is right.

16 Derrick

Another thing that you can do is get your phone unlocked ($15-$20 at most malls) and get a PayAsYouGo SIM card from an American carrier… That is usually a lot cheaper!

17 Mike

Note that for data roaming with Rogers in NY state, you are being charged over $6000.00 per GB

18 Melissa

Oh so true… just went threw 3 rogers reps to confirm that the plan I was looking to add on could be added for one month only, they all said yes but website said minimum 3 months…. In my third, and final, encounter I asked her to provide a ref # for the call (just in case)…. low and behold she changed her answer!!!! Unbelievable. Stunned into silence by my outrage, she promptly ended the chat before I could reply. Scammers he whole lot of them!

19 Tom

I have used the following options to avoid roaming charges while in the US

1. switch iphone data and voice off by entering airplane mode then manually turn wifi back on no charges of any kind in this mode and I had no problems getting a wifi connection in new york or chicago used skpe to check my voicmail from time to time and I dont need to be connected 24/7 hey its a vacation right?
2. Cant do the sim swap as my iphone is provider locked to telus.ca so bought a elcheapo US pay as you go phone if you go to the US regularly this is a good option for voice calls.

in answer to the question re roaming charges when near the border years ago I had bell mobility try to hit me for roaming in rochester new york while I was walking at the base of the scarborough bluffs (bluffs blocked my local tower but line of sight all the way across lake ontario to rochester.)

20 Jonathan

When I travel I bring a physical voip phone with my. If I won’t have access to a router, I bring a wireless skype telephone that I setup to use my voip line instead of skype. (Voip calls are half a penny per minute anywhere in Canada with no monthly fee’s) My netbook wirelessly connects to wifi, and then the USB cordless phone connects to my voip account. (In Canada, I buy from Canadianvoipsupplier.com)

21 Murray

I use the Canadian based company RoamMobility. You can get a SIM card for $20 to use in an unlocked phone with unlimited calling and texting for about $3 a day or less. They also have a dual SIM card phone that allows you to just carry one phone thatcanbe used for your US number and your Canadian number. I did have a phone from an American based supplier but had hassles with not having an American address when I tried to add additional minutes.

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