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What Is Cellular Roaming and How To Avoid When Traveling

a person holding a cell phone

These days, it is important to be able to stay connected via our phones no matter where we go. On a national level, this is becoming easier and easier with cellular data options, but what do we do when we need to travel beyond the bounds of our existing network?

Most modern smartphones, like iPhones and Android phones, will not simply shut off if you travel to another country. Instead, you may find yourself paying mobile data roaming rates to connect with the networks in your area, which has its own set of problems associated with it.

What Is Cellular Roaming?

A high-speed cellular network may feel like magic, but it is confined within the very physical bounds of its existing cell towers. Every carrier will have a network of cell towers that it uses to operate, which is why the big carriers all have different coverage across the country.

Some smaller carriers will hitch onto the bigger carriers by paying to utilize their towers to build their network.

Many of these carriers are national companies, meaning they have built towers in their region of the world and do not have the right to do so elsewhere — building cell towers is costly and intrusive on the environment.

This is why cellular roaming, aka data roaming, exists.

Roaming is when you leave the coverage area designated by your carrier’s network, such as leaving your home country. At this point, your phone will search for other networks that it can connect with outside of your network coverage area.

The problem is that cellular data roaming comes with additional charges. You can continue calling, sending text messages, and using data on your cell phone, but the cost is greatly increased from what you pay within your network. Getting caught utilizing a lot of roaming data can lead to very big telephone bills at the end of the month.

This works because service providers have cellular roaming contracts with other networks to make up for dead zones in their networks. There are different types of roaming contracts, and not all of them result in increased fees for the user.

Domestic Roaming

Domestic roaming is what you get when you are still in your own region, but you are in a mobile network dead zone for your existing provider. At this point, your phone will switch to a partner network covering that part of the region.

When you turn roaming on for your smartphone, this process will happen automatically. This is safe to do in most cases because, in general, plans will not require you to pay for roaming domestically.

However, you will need to check on this with your provider. Some plans have a limit for roaming data, while others don’t have free roaming at all, so make sure you know what your home network plan provides before turning on roaming.

Most carriers have coverage maps that you can view virtually, so you should also check in with those to determine what the network dead zones are and where roaming is possible.

International Roaming

On the other hand, you have international roaming, which is what you get when you travel to another country that your existing plan does not cover. When you find yourself in this position, you will likely have to pay significant fees to keep your call, text, and data active in these countries.

It is important to note that not all carriers will be able to work off roaming data in all countries. Check before you travel to see if there are roaming agreements in the country you are going to so you know what to expect.

When you travel, some carriers and phones will be entirely incompatible with local networks. Others will not have talk, text, and data all at once, only granting access to some combination of them.

Check-in on roaming rates before you go anywhere. Roaming rates vary widely from country to country, but more often than not, they are much more expensive than using your phone domestically.

Your carrier can help you understand what to expect depending on your travel plans and also give you methods of tracking your roaming data usage.

How To Avoid Roaming Costs

If we are worried about domestic roaming, the best thing to do is contact our carrier and make sure our data roaming charges are paid for in our region.

However, if we are traveling internationally, then the process is more complicated. There are a variety of ways to get around having to pay roaming rates when we travel. A lot of plans exist out there that allow us to get the quality of service we get at home when we are abroad for a fair price.

All major U.S. cell carriers have plans in place with perks that make it easier to travel without worrying about roaming rates. Here are some of the options that you have:

Verizon Roaming Costs

You will be subject to the company's pay-as-you-go rates if you do not set up an international plan with Verizon. These amount to $0.99 to $2.99, depending on the country, for talk, $0.50 to send a text and $0.05 to receive, and $2.05 per megabyte of data used.

If you let it pile up, this is an absolutely huge cost, so you may want to look into one of Verizon’s other options.

This primarily comes in the form of the Verizon TravelPass. TravelPass is an optional feature available for purchase at an extra $10 per month on both Unlimited Welcome and Unlimited Plus. Under this plan, you pay $10 per line daily for every day you use your phone abroad. If you do not connect to an international network at all while having the plan active, it simply will not charge you.

TravelPass services over 185 countries and even allows roaming in multiple countries per day. Each day is billed within a 24-hour period, so you have 24 hours from the moment you first activate your phone on an international network before you have to pay again.

Finally, you can also opt for one of the two Verizon travel plans. The $70 plan offers 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 0.5GB of data per month. The more expensive option is the $130 plan with 250 minutes, 1000 sent messages, and 2GB of data.

The cost of exceeding the allotment is $0.35 per minute of talk, $0.05 per text sent, and $25 per 0.5GB of data used.

T-Mobile Roaming Costs

T-Mobile provides its customers with multiple ways to gain access to international data for a lower price than roaming rates.

Two of its unlimited plans, the Go5G and Go5G Plus plans, offer unlimited international data and text. The Go5G plan gives you 2G speeds at 128 kbps, while the Go5G Plus plan gets you 256 kbps.

While these speeds are not particularly impressive, the data is unlimited, and if you are connected to one of these plans, you are automatically able to use data and send messages abroad.

It is important to note that in Canada and Mexico, different rules apply. Both plans give you 5GB of 4G LTE data in the two countries.

In both of these plans, calling is still not covered.

T-Mobile also offers a data pass if you need better speeds than what these plans can offer. The company has a variety of data pass options that give you 4G LTE speeds no matter what country you are in for an extra price.

There is a 512 MB pass for $5 per day, a 5GB pass for $35 per day, and a 15GB pass for $50 per day.

AT&T Roaming Costs

Many of AT&T’s international systems are actually similar to Verizon’s. For most countries, the automatic pay-per-use fee will have you spending $2.05 per megabyte of data used in most countries. This is one of the most expensive options out there and not an advisable way to go.

Instead, you can look into AT&T’s international day passes. At a rate of $10 per line in addition to your existing plan, you can continue to utilize the perks of your unlimited data plan in over 200 other countries.

Live Verizon, this plan is billed over 24-hour periods.

AT&T also has passport plans that include unlimited text, 2GB of data, and international calling for $0.35 per minute. For a 6GB plan, you can pay $140 per month.

The Bottom Line

International roaming data has a history of being costly and difficult to work around, but these days there are a variety of ways to avoid those fees. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T all have different options for people who want to travel without having to pay exorbitant international roaming fees.

Not to worry—Navi's free, unbiased Plan Finder below can help you compare phone plans to find the one that makes the most sense for your travel needs. Also be sure to check out our best phone plan for international travel article.

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