The holiday season is here and chances are you’ve got some family to visit away from home. If you’re planning a trip – particularly if you’re heading out of the country – receiving a not-so-festive large bill due to roaming charges from your carrier is probably not in your plans. This installment in our Learning iPhone series will help you set up your iPhone for traveling so that all your extra cash will go to filling stockings for the holidays and not to lining the pockets of your carrier’s executive staff.


What’s the plan, Stan?

First and foremost, know your iPhone’s voice and data plan terms and what constitutes roaming (going outside the boundaries of your carrier’s network and connecting to another carrier’s network, for which your carrier will bill you later). Most iPhone carriers allow you to travel throughout your entire home country without roaming since it’s likely their network covers most of it. Such is the case with AT&T in the US, O2 in the UK, and Orange in France, for example. So, if you’re traveling cross-country, you may not need to worry at all about roaming charges even if you’re going to be hundreds of miles from home.

Most carriers offer international travel plan add-ons to give you discounted rates while traveling away from their network. These plans can substantially reduce any charges you may incur for voice calls, text messages, and data use while you’re out of the country (though it’s still likely be far more expensive than you’d like). iPhone users in Europe may have an additional tier to the roaming plan add-ons with lower rates for roaming within the European Union compared to non-EU countries.

The bottom line here is to find out what constitutes roaming before you travel. If you plan to make use of your iPhone while you’re abroad, we strongly recommend that you consider signing up temporarily for a roaming plan before you leave to minimize the potential damage to your wallet. Note that you may need to stay on the roaming plan for a while after you return home as well – your carrier has no control over how long it takes for them to receive the tally of your usage from the carriers on which you roamed, and you could still be billed 2 to 3 months after you get back for your trip, or even later.

No plan for you!

If an international travel add-on is not something you want to bother with for your trip and you simply want to eliminate or minimize roaming charges through your own methods, we’ve got many tips for you. First, we’ll start with changes you can make to the iPhone’s settings that will help a great deal.

Data Roaming

Turning Data Roaming off will prompt your iPhone to avoid using the cellular data network when it’s connected to anything other than your home carrier’s network. In Settings, go to General/Network to access it.


Other automatic connections

While turning off Data Roaming should do the trick, going a little further to make sure your iPhone isn’t reaching out to the cellular data network on its own will probably give you a little more peace of mind. We’ve heard wild stories of $11,000 roaming bills, so making a few more Settings changes can be worth it to avoid a similarly nasty surprise.

If you have set your iPhone to use Push or automatically fetch email on a set schedule, your iPhone is frequently getting friendly with your current Wi-Fi or cellular data network to do so. Switching off Push and choosing to get your non-push email accounts manually will ensure your iPhone isn’t trying to sneak behind your back to get to the network.


Push Notifications for 3rd-party apps is another way your iPhone will connect to the network without any prompting from you. While you’ll miss push notifications about the pending end of that auction for those new headphones on eBay or scoring updates for your ESPN Fantasy Football league, the promise a phone bill completely free of roaming charges should make you feel better.


Extreme Measures

We have a couple more tips that are pretty much guaranteed to ensure that you don’t get hit with roaming charges for a single kilobyte of data or a voice call routed to voicemail. The first is making use of that Airplane Mode switch found on the first screen in Settings. Turning Airplane Mode on will turn off every single chip that transmits or receives data in your iPhone — the cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth radios as well as the GPS receiver. Your iPhone will be completely incapable of connecting to any network at all in this mode and all you need to do is switch it on as you get on the plane or in the car when you start your trip and switch it off once you return home.


The good thing about Airplane Mode is that you can still enable Wi-Fi separately if you come across a free Wi-Fi hotspot to use while you travel. All you need to do is go into the Wi-Fi pane (under the Airplane Mode switch) and switch it on there.


If think you might get tempted to turn off Airplane Mode while you’re abroad just to check your email or look up sports scores, you can avoid all temptation by using our last tip: remove your iPhone’s SIM card and leave it at home. The SIM (short for Subscriber Identity Module) card contains the necessary data and authentication information to allow the iPhone to connect to a cellular network, and the iPhone cannot do so without one. If you take the SIM card out, the iPhone will simply not have the means to connect to a local GSM network for calls or data.

Removing the SIM card is essentially like putting the iPhone in Airplane Mode, but it’s a little more foolproof, particularly if you leave it at home before you leave for your trip. If you think you might need your iPhone for emergency calls or emails, though, you may want to take it with you and keep it in your wallet just in case.

Go Local

This option is available only for those who have a factory unlocked iPhone (an iPhone sold in a permanently unlocked state out of the box), an iPhone unlocked by your carrier upon request (something that AT&T will not currently do in the US) or an iPhone unlocked using freely available software, like PwnageTool by the iPhone Dev Team. An unlocked iPhone can make use of a pre-paid SIM card that you can purchase locally while abroad. While this will give you a different phone number and possibly require you to change some settings to access any available cellular data network, you’ll get substantially better rates compared to roaming through your home carrier.


That’s all for this installment in our Learning iPhone series. We hope your holiday travel is safe, fun and completely devoid of unnecessary roaming charges! As always, we welcome your suggestions and questions in the comments section below.