Roaming refers to using a mobile phone outside the range of its native telecoms network. It usually occurs when you travel abroad with your smartphone and need to connect to a cellular network to surf the internet and send and receive calls or SMS messages.
Technically, roaming refers to your ability to continue making and receiving voice and video calls and accessing online services when you travel outside your home network's geographical coverage.
Cellular network providers allow customers to continue accessing mobile services when they travel abroad. This access is facilitated by another network in the country you’re visiting. Cellular providers charge significant fees for roaming, and you expectedly want to avoid that.
This article will explain tips for avoiding or reducing roaming charges. You may be unable to avoid roaming charges entirely, but you can reduce them significantly.
Why do roaming charges exist?
They exist because when you connect to a foreign network, your home network must compensate that foreign network for using its infrastructure. Your home network passes the cost to you through a roaming charge.
Roaming charges are usually higher than domestic network charges because of currency conversions, foreign tariffs, infrastructural differences, and other additional costs associated with using a foreign network.
Types of roaming charges
Voice call charges
You get this charge whenever you make or receive a voice call while abroad. It usually includes a base connection fee plus per-minute rates. For example, you can be charged $2 as a connection fee and $0.50 per minute. In this example, a 15-minute call would cost $9.50.
This charge applies when you send or receive text messages through a foreign network. Network providers usually charge for each message, and the price varies depending on the country and network operator. For example, a US resident can incur a $0.50 charge to send a message through a European network and $0.25 to receive a message.
You incur This charge for accessing online services, such as music streaming, social media, gaming, email, etc. Customers are usually billed for each megabyte (MB) or gigabyte (GB) of data they use. For instance, you may pay $5 per GB, which makes surfing the web costly.
Tips to cut down roaming charges
1. Check roaming rates
Before you activate a roaming service, always confirm the rates you expect to pay from your network provider. Also, confirm the coverage because your network provider won’t support roaming in every country.
You can visit your network provider’s website to confirm their roaming charges. If you don’t find the information, call the customer service line and ask about the roaming charges. A customer service representative should be able to explain all you need to know about roaming.
Checking the rates beforehand is the first step to reducing your roaming charges. After all, you’ll only figure out how to reduce the bill if you get a good hint beforehand. Heading to another country without checking ahead means getting a steep, surprise bill.
2. Use Wi-Fi whenever you can
A simple way to avoid roaming charges is by connecting to a Wi-Fi network wherever you can. Many hotels offer Wi-Fi service to guests, so you can take advantage of it to cut down your roaming bill. You can surf the internet at lower costs and send messages, make voice and video calls, stream audio and video, play online games, etc.
If you’re connecting to Wi-Fi in a public space, using a virtual private network (VPN) service is paramount to protect your identity and browsing information. Public Wi-Fi networks are usually insecure, which makes them prime targets for hackers aiming to steal sensitive information.
3. Disable data roaming
You can disable data roaming on your mobile phone entirely. This setting prevents your smartphone from browsing the internet on a foreign network. It ensures you only surf the web on Wi-Fi and avoid steep data roaming charges.
Head to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Data Roaming and disable it.
Go to Settings > Network & Internet > Mobile Network > Data Roaming and disable it.
4. Restrict your internet time
You can monitor and cut down the time you spend on the internet while abroad. Only surf the web for essential things and avoid endless scrolling and leisure. This is a simple way to avoid roaming charges that will dent your budget.
You can use a data monitoring app to restrict your online activity. These apps can monitor your online activities and alert you when you reach a specific data usage limit. They ensure you don't exceed your preferred limits and avoid substantial data roaming charges. Examples of trusted data monitoring apps for iOS and Android include Data Usage and My Data Manager.
5. Communicate Primarily Via SMS
You can rely more on SMS messages to communicate with your friends, family, and colleagues while abroad. It may seem tedious, but SMS texts are cheaper than calling for many minutes and hours. You’ll be surprised how much you can communicate via text.
6. Buy a temporary SIM card
You can avoid roaming charges entirely by buying a temporary SIM card when you visit another country. Mobile networks usually offer special SIM cards for tourists and short-term visitors because they represent a lucrative market. You can buy a temporary card from a local network abroad, use it for calls, SMS, and browsing, and dispose of it when you leave the country.
7. Get a virtual phone number
A virtual phone number is a phone number that isn't linked to a physical location. It is linked to an online account instead of a specific location and is usually programmed to forward incoming calls to another number.
You can buy a virtual phone number for the country you’re visiting and link it to your existing phone number. When someone calls your usual phone number, the call will be forwarded to the virtual number while abroad. This way, you avoid call roaming charges on your primary phone number.
8. Get an eSIM
eSIM stands for embedded SIM. It is a SIM card embedded into a smartphone that can not be swapped like a physical SIM card. Instead, it uses software that can be reprogrammed whenever you want to change your SIM or network provider.
eSIMs are technologically different from physical SIM cards but work the same way. You can use it to make and receive calls, send SMS messages, and surf the internet.
An eSIM lets you subscribe to multiple networks, and you don’t have to physically swap SIM cards whenever you to change your network. Hence, you can easily switch to a local network when you get to another country and back to your former network when you leave.
Many network providers specialize in offering eSIMs that customers can use globally. You can use a single eSIM in many countries and send text messages, make calls, and surf the internet at the same cost, regardless of location. This is a simple way to avoid steep roaming charges when you travel.
9. Data roaming spend caps
Mobile networks allow customers to limit their data roaming spending while in a foreign country. For example, a United States resident visiting the United Kingdom (UK) can set a monthly spending cap of £45. This cap ensures that you never surpass that amount in bills. Your network will alert you if you are near the limit, and your services will be halted if you hit it to prevent excess spending.
10. Use instant messaging apps
You can stick to instant messaging apps for texting and calling while abroad. WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger are the most popular options. They let you send messages and call your contacts through the Internet. This method saves the money you would have otherwise spent on calls and SMS messages via your mobile carrier.
11. Rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot
You can rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot loaded with data when you visit another country. This hotspot is fondly called a Mi-Fi device. It provides a reliable Wi-Fi connection for your smartphones and laptops, and you can browse without paying expensive roaming charges.
Network carriers usually have airport sales centers to offer Mi-Fi devices to new arrivals. Expect to pay a daily fee for renting, and it’s usually affordable.
12. Stop background apps
Some mobile applications use cellular data in the background while closed. For example, your email app can be running frequent checks for new emails so that it will alert you. Your social media platform could be running in the background to detect new notifications.
Background activity is important but consumes significant data. You can turn it off while abroad to cut down roaming charges.
Go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data. You’ll see the list of all your apps and can toggle the button on and off. Any app you switch off can’t access cellular data until you purposely switch it back on.
Go to Settings > Data Usage > App Data Usage. You'll see your application list and can toggle background data off or on for each one.
13. Switch off automatic downloads
You can switch off any automatic download settings to ensure your apps don't sneakily download data in the background. You can also switch off automatic updates for the duration of your trip. It may seem trivial, but the data your smartphone uses for automatic updates can be steep while roaming. Turning off automatic downloads cuts down your bill.
Is roaming safe?
Yes, network roaming is a safe thing to do. Your home network has a formal agreement with the foreign carrier, which includes data privacy obligations. However, always verify the privacy laws of the country you're visiting. Some countries have weaker privacy laws that permit government bodies to collect and store your mobile usage information.
If you’re concerned about online privacy, you should download a virtual private network (VPN) service to mask your identity. A VPN creates an encrypted connection for your browsing data and lets you use an IP address of a remote server in another country. This way, third parties can’t trace your browsing activity back to you.
How to switch off data roaming
The best bet to avoid data roaming charges is to switch it entirely off from your phone. If you switch it off, your phone won’t be able to roam, and you’ll get no charges. However, you’ll have to find other alternatives to communicate with your peers and social circles while based abroad.
- Go to Settings.
- Go to Cellular.
- Head to Cellular Data Options; you’ll find a button to toggle data roaming on or off.
- Go to Settings.
- Head to Connections.
- Head to Mobile Networks, and you’ll see a button to toggle data roaming on or off. Use this button to disable data roaming for the time being.
Free roaming agreements
Many countries have entered free roaming agreements for their residents. These agreements are usually drawn under economic partnerships to reduce trade friction between the relevant countries. The free roaming for European Union residents is the most popular one, but there are several others across the globe.
These agreements allow many people to travel and roam without facing extra charges. They include:
Free roaming for EU/EEA residents
The European Union passed the Roaming Regulation in 2022, a ruling that banned roaming charges within the European Economic Area. If you travel from one EEA country to another, you can continue using cellular services at the same rates. For example, if you live in Austria and pay 0.10 euros a minute for calls and 0.05 euros per text message, you’ll pay the same rates when you go to Italy despite using a roaming agreement.
The countries covered by this agreement include
- Republic of Cyprus
- Czech Republic
Under this agreement, mobile network operators may apply a "fair use policy" to ensure all roaming customers benefit evenly. This means that that network operators may apply fair and reasonable control mechanisms to prevent abuse of roaming agreements.
Sometimes, you’ll pay a data roaming surcharge that the European Union regulates. The maximum surcharge is 2 euros per GB of data and will decrease over time. By 2027, the maximum will be 1 euro per GB plus value-added tax (VAT).
Free roaming for Western Balkans residents
People residing within the Western Balkans enjoy free roaming because of an agreement between the relevant countries. These include:
- Bosnia & Herzegovina
- North Macedonia
In July 2021, these countries abolished roaming fees under the Mini Schengen Zone agreement. SIM holders in any affected country can travel to another and continue using cellular services without extra fees.
Andean community free roaming
The Andean Community is a free trade agreement comprising Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. These countries voted to eliminate roaming fees between carriers in 2020, and the change took effect in 2022. Anyone in one of these countries can travel to another and roam without extra charges.
Reduced roaming agreements
Many other countries have formal agreements to reduce roaming charges between themselves. These agreements don’t eliminate roaming fees entirely like the aforementioned ones, but they reduce it significantly. They include:
In November 2021, some Central African countries signed bilateral agreements to cut roaming charges. These countries include Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.
Residents in these aforementioned countries can travel to another and roam with little fees.
Singapore and Malaysia
In April 2011, Singapore and Malaysia, two Southeast Asian countries, signed an agreement to slash roaming prices between mobile carriers. This agreement allowed both governments to regulate roaming fees. The fees were reduced by up to 30% for voice calls and 50% for SMS.
Barriers to network roaming
Roaming has several technical and structural barriers hindering its widespread adoption. These barriers include
Network coverage is inconsistent in some countries. Cities usually have good network infrastructure enabling fast connection for residents, while rural areas usually have less coverage due to weaker infrastructure.
It makes sense for mobile carriers to concentrate their infrastructure in dense cities with a large number of customers than sparsely populated rural areas. You may encounter slower internet speeds if you visit a rural area in another country.
The good news is that many mobile carriers are increasingly investing in infrastructure in rural areas. These investments are bolstered by government subsidies and tax incentives designed to increase network connectivity in rural areas. Broadband access has become necessary in the modern world, and governments are working with carriers to ensure people aren’t left behind.
It's not enough to have a good network infrastructure. Mobile carriers must ensure their networking equipment shares the same standards so customers can continue accessing cellular services when they travel.
You may experience roaming issues in another country because the local networking infrastructure does not use the same spectrum. For example, 5G is becoming increasingly popular in developed countries, while many developing and underdeveloped countries don’t have access to 5G technology. If you travel to such countries, you won’t be able to access 5G connectivity, meaning you must downgrade to 4G or 3G.
Taxation on telecom services represents a significant revenue stream for governments. When you go to another country, you’ll likely pay value-added tax (VAT) on telecom purchases.
Sometimes, your country of origin will demand VAT payments, and the country you’re visiting will also demand VAT payments, presenting a double taxation situation. Take, for example, the South Korean carrier SK Telecom. Some SK Telecom customers used roaming services while visiting Austria. They were charged a 10% South Korean VAT, and Austria also demanded a 20% VAT on their purchases.
The SK Telecom case went to court, and Austria successfully argued that it could charge VAT for domestic telecom purchases on South Korean customers. That meant SK Telecom roamers had to pay taxes in both countries, making their service more expensive.
To tackle this problem, many countries have double taxation treaties preventing residents from being taxed twice. The VAT in the country you’re visiting would cancel that of your country of origin, and you’ll avoid double taxation.
What Is data roaming?
It refers to when your phone disconnects from your native carrier's network and switches to another network. Roaming allows you to continue accessing cellular services outside your native network's boundaries.
Mobile carriers charge customers extra roaming fees. This occurs because they must compensate the other network you’re roaming with for using their infrastructure. However, there are many ways to reduce or eliminate roaming fees.
How do I tell if my device is roaming?
Most smartphones display an R symbol above the mobile data icon while roaming is on. This R is a visual identification that the owner is now roaming. Yours may be a different symbol, so consult the manual to see the exact one.
Can you turn off roaming on your smartphone?
You can disable roaming entirely on your mobile phone to avoid extra charges. You can do this from the settings menu of your iPhone or Android smartphone.
Are there service restrictions when roaming?
Your mobile carrier can limit the amount of data, number of messages, and minutes of calls available to you while roaming. You can consult your mobile carrier to note such restrictions and request a waiver (for extra fees) if you’re uncomfortable with them.
Is there domestic roaming?
Roaming is not always when you travel to another country and continue accessing cellular services. You can also roam if you travel to a faraway region within your home country. For example, a Verizon customer in California may need roaming when they travel to the state of West Virginia.
The good news is that many carriers don’t charge extra fees for domestic roaming, unlike international roaming.
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Stefan has always been a lover of tech. He graduated with an MSc in geological engineering but soon discovered he had a knack for writing instead. So he decided to combine his newfound and life-long passions to become a technology writer. As a freelance content writer, Stefan can break down complex technological topics, making them easily digestible for the lay audience.