How to Use Your Cell Phone Abroad (Without Breaking the Bank)

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I’m constantly hearing ‘horror stories’ from my friends about how they’ve taken their shiny new iPhone/Blackberry abroad, used it sparsely when they were away, then been hit with a huge bill upon their return – all because they forgot to (or didn’t realize they had to) turn some setting off on their phone.

Because of this, I decided to investigate the matter once and for all, so that I’d never suffer the same fate as many of my friends have.

You might think that taking out an international calling plan is the answer, as Barbara Weibel of

“I started by calling AT&T and was told that I needed to add an International Calling Plan for $24.99 per month. Initially that seemed like a reasonable solution, until I read the small print. The plan provides 20MB of usage within 65 countries, and the list of countries did not include my destination.”

“Additionally, usage over 20MB would have been charged at $.005 per KB. If that all sounds like a lot of gibberish, let me put it in perspective: opening an email with a five megapixel picture in it or downloading a three-minute video on YouTube each require about 2MB of data, so it wouldn’t take long to eat up 20MB of data. Additionally, there are 1,000 KB in each MB, so if I was over my limit, opening a 2MB email would cost me $10! Obviously, this plan was not acceptable.”

So how did Barbara solve the problem? She called up her network provider (AT&T) and hassled them until they sent her a list of instructions for what to do.

Note that while this method will prevent you from getting large phone bills while traveling internationally, if you wish to access your email (or go online) you’ll to do it another way (i.e. by using the free WiFi at a hotel).

nokia phoneThese are the steps that she took (with her iPhone 3GS):

  1. Make sure that standard International Roaming and International Long Distance feature, if it is included in your cellular plan, is removed (call AT&T and make sure the rep adds a note to your account confirming that you requested this)
  2. If you are going to forward your number, do so before you change any other settings (Settings-Phone-Call Forwarding-Turn ON-Enter number to which you want calls forwarded)
  3. Disable 3G (Settings-General-Network-Enable 3G-OFF)
  4. Turn off data roaming (Settings-General-Network-Data Roaming-OFF)
  5. Make sure WiFi is enabled (Settings-WiFi-WiFi-ON)
  6. Turn of automatic pushing of email (Settings-Mail, Contacts, Calendars-Fetch New Data-Push-OFF and set Fetch to Manually)
  7. Put the phone in airplane mode (Settings-Airplane Mode-ON)
  8. Although not absolutely necessary, I wanted to be very sure I was not mounting up the MB’s, so I reset the usage counter to zero in order to monitor it throughout the trip, ensuring my usage remained at zero. To do so, go to Settings-General-Usage-Reset Statistics (scroll to the very bottom).”

While these steps are tailor made for the iPhone, the principles (such as turning off international roaming) should apply to almost any phone (such as a Blackberry, HTC or Samsung).


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