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Most of us are glued to our smart phones, and while we love leaving that “out of office” message after takeoff, once on foreign soil, we still want access to the Web, apps, call features, and even emails. If you do things right, you can use your phone abroad and avoid exorbitant overcharges.

A lot of international roaming charges—or lack thereof—will depend on your wireless carrier. And others will depend on you. In this post, we focus on the latter.

Below are some tips to help you understand, demystify, and avoid international roaming charges.

Understand that different functions are charged separately

Just as they are domestically, international roaming charges are billed separately as data, text messaging, and phone calls. Data usage is charged by MB used, text messages by the number of texts sent and/or received, and phone calls by the minute. With some international plans, data use is pulled from your monthly domestic allotment (e.g., 4 GB/month) as are text messages; other times, a specific amount is designated for roaming.

Pick up the phone

When your phone is roaming and you have it on, you will get charged for phone calls you don’t answer. Phone charges abroad are based on a signal transmission. So when your phone rings—and you simply let it ring—your carrier will still charge you for the single minute of ringing. Sometimes it’s easier to pick up and say, “Hey, I’m out of the country, will call you next week” than to have a family member keep trying to ring you five or six times.

Don’t assume that roaming rates are equal across all countries—even within the same carrier

Many carriers have attractive international roaming plans and packages these days, but the packages are applicable only in countries on a specified list. Each carrier has a different list, so best to look it up prior to travel. For example, T-Mobile—which has the most generous international plan out there —includes free data and text and $0.20/minute phone calls in 140 countries through its standard ONE and Simple Choice Plans. Yet in countries like Tanzania, Fiji, and Tahiti, which are not part of the coveted 140, that call rate goes as high as $5.99/minute and the data rate up to $15/MB.

Turn off cellular data for specific applications

Even when we don’t realize it, our phone apps are using data, refreshing, and searching for software updates. Before travel, go into your smart phone Settings and click on Cellular. Scroll down and you will see all of your apps and the option to disable the use of cellular data updates with a simple touch of a button. Be sure to also do this for standard apps, too, such as iTunes, which often pulls your playlist music content from the Web. Also, make sure your Location Services are turned off.

Reset data

To keep track of how much data you are using while roaming and how many minutes you have used on the phone, reset your data statistics before travel. Go into your smart phone Settings and click on Cellular. Scroll down to the very bottom and click Reset Statistics. Scroll back up and you will then see that the count has restarted under Cellular Data/Usage.

When in doubt, go into airplane mode and use WhatsApp

Even if you choose an international plan, it’s normal to get anxiety about the prospect of “doing something wrong” and getting a crazy roaming bill. While this shouldn’t happen, if you want the 100% guarantee, just go into airplane mode, pick up a Wi-Fi signal, and use your phone for Web browsing, apps (we love WhatsApp for both travel and domestic usage), and Web-based text services (like iPhone to iPhone). For phone calls, keep in touch through voice or video calls on WhatsApp through your phone; on your laptop, Skype or Gmail’s phone are easiest. WhatsApp calls are always free, and if you established either your Skype or Gmail account in the United States, then even while abroad, calls will register as US domestic, costing you nothing.

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Award-winning travel writer and economist Paul Rubio is a credit card enthusiast, whose sophisticated use of points and rewards has helped him travel to 132 countries for free. Paul is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University with a double major in economics and environmental policy and a minor in conservation biology. He attended both undergraduate and graduate schools on full scholarships. Paul worked in the field of wildlife conservation before embracing his writing talents full-time in 2008. Since then, he has won more than two dozen national awards for his exemplary work in travel journalism. The prolific writer contributes to a number of top-tier international, national, and regional publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Florida Design,, Palm Beach Illustrated, and Robb Report.