When traveling internationally, there are two major issues to plan for regarding smartphone usage: cybersecurity best practices and management of usage costs. In a prior article, I discussed the cybersecurity concerns involved in smartphone usage during international travel. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the latter, the subject of international roaming costs, and I’ll share my experiences from recent international travel.

Mobile carriers have widely varying costs for using smartphones when traveling. The first key issue to ensure you can use your smartphone when traveling is to confirm that the countries you’re traveling to have compatible mobile networks. Many smartphones are configured with multiple network compatibility, that is, they can work both in the USA as well as traveling internationally. These are often referred to as having “world phone” functionality, which means they have multiple radio systems built in to allow them to work on different mobile networks. If your smartphone cannot work with GSM networks, it is unlikely to work internationally.

Another feature which may or may not be available from your carrier is “calling over WiFi”, which allows you to make/receive calls to your mobile phone number using whatever WiFi network you happen to be connected to. This can sometimes create delays between the speaker and listener on phone calls, depending on the quality of the WiFi network you are using. I enabled this feature before I left the USA and then disabled it when I returned. To make sure my phone used calling over WiFi and did not incur international roaming costs for data services, I put my phone in airplane mode, then turned WiFi and Bluetooth back on.

How carriers charge you for using international networks also varies widely depending on carrier and which countries you visit. My carrier allowed free texting (only text, no photos/videos) for free, but charged twenty cents per minute of phone calling (regular phone calls, not WiFi calls). Generally, the most expensive charges for international smartphone use are for using international roaming data services. I disabled this feature on my phone before I left the USA to ensure that this function did not incur charges on my account.

My international travel included family members, which means I had to manage costs for multiple phones. I decided to try using a mobile WiFi hotspot, in order to try to have all the family phones share one data plan and cost. I selected the provide Cello Mobile for this service and my costs ended up to be about $15 per day for 1 GB per day of data usage. This was far less costly than enabling international data roaming for multiple phones in our family. The mobile hot spot was very small (smaller than a smart phone) and was chargeable via my Anker portable USB charger. The mobile WiFi hotspot allowed calling over WiFi as well as all the typical messaging, email, and app usage.

While traveling, we were careful to leave all phones in airplane mode with only WiFi and Bluetooth enabled, in order to ensure no international data costs were incurred. Note that this may cause problems for texting to/from Android or traditional SMS messaging systems. We happened to be using all Apple iPhones, so all iPhone users were still reachable for text messages, since they use data service for the Messages app. If you use a third party messaging app like Whats App, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat, these services all use data services and work over WiFi.

Make sure to plan ahead and confirm your carrier’s international fees for texting, calling, and data usage before you travel.

Michael Senkbeil is a partner at Chortek LLP and specializes in IT management consulting and cybersecurity. Feel free to contact him at msenkbeil@chortek.com or 262-522-8248.

See also “Business Travel Mileage Rates Lowered – 2017”  and  “Smartphone Cybersecurity For International Travel