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How to avoid big international iPhone data charges

Jason Snell | Oct. 29, 2013
The key to avoiding international roaming charges? Control your use of apps or buy a prepaid SIM card.


Taking an iPhone on an international trip can be a harrowing experience. Every time you post a status update to Twitter or check your email, you imagine your wireless carrier charging you a fortune in international data roaming fees.

But there are ways to stay connected while you're traveling without freaking out about the cost. Taking advantage of some new features in iOS 7 and following a few savvy data-roaming strategies can ensure that at least that aspect of your trip is worry-free.

Close the data spigot

The most important iPhone setting when you travel internationally is found in the Settings app, in the Cellular section: Data Roaming. Turn this switch off, and when you leave the country, your iPhone will just stop using data entirely, even when it's on the local phone network.

But that's a real all-or-nothing proposition. You'll still be able to get phone calls and texts, and you'll get data whenever you're on a Wi-Fi network. But your iPhone will never transmit or receive data on the local cellular network. You'll be free from data charges, but you'll also be free from data.

Fortunately, in iOS 7 there's a way to control the data spigot app by app. Scroll down through the Cellular section of Settings and you'll find the Use Cellular Data For section. From here, you can turn off Internet access to individual apps. If you're traveling internationally and just want to, say, load Google Maps data without every other app on your phone generating hundreds of dollars worth of roaming charges, you can say so on this screen: Just turn off the switch for every single app except the one(s) you want to use.

Even better, in this same section, underneath each app, you'll see the amount of data it uses when you're on a cellular connection. If you want to carefully monitor your usage while you're out of the country, scroll down to the bottom of the Cellular section and tap Reset Statistics. Now you'll be able to see exactly how much data you're using while you're gone.

Talk to your carrier
Before you leave the country, talk to your wireless carrier (or visit its website) to see what international plans it offers. It may be cheapest and easiest to buy a very small amount of (expensive) international data rather than paying roaming fees, especially if you're going to severely limit your data usage or if you're only going to be out of the country for a few days.

If you're an AT&T customer, you may also want to ask about unlocking your phone. If your phone is more than two years old (or if you have an older iPhone laying around), you can ask AT&T to unlock its SIM-card slot. If you do so, you can then pop out your iPhone's identity card when traveling overseas and replace it with one from the country you're traveling to—and save a bundle on data in the process. (More on this in a little bit.)


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