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

by Mike Holman

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.


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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