Avoiding big international roaming bills with iPhone

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Readers have written in about today’s post on international roaming rates to share suggestions about how to avoid ‘bill shock.’ Also, AT&T has been sending reminders to iPhone users about what to do when traveling internationally.

Here are the main things to remember for the iPhone:

-- Turn the ‘Data Roaming’ slide switch to ‘off.’ This switch is located under Settings-->General-->Network. That will prevent the phone from making any data transactions while abroad.

-- Use Wi-Fi whenever possible. By connecting at wireless (Wi-Fi) hot spots, like coffee shops, hotels, and airports, you are bypassing international cellular networks and associated mega-charges. You still have to be cautious when going the Wi-Fi route, however, especially in public spaces.

-- Manual data downloading. If you prefer not to turn off data altogether, you can at least prevent the iPhone from automatically checking e-mails by first switching off the ‘Push’ setting. This is under Settings-->Fetch New Data. Then change the Fetch setting below to ‘Manually’ so the phone only checks when you ask it to.

BUT BEWARE: What AT&T fails to note is that you will still be charged for any data you download manually, so there may be no real cost savings to this method.

-- Buy an international roaming plan.

You can pay AT&T to purchase a package that gives you a limited amount of data access while you travel. These plans are not cheap, however, and if you burn through your allocated data (the cheapest plan only gives you 20Mb, which is very little), you have to start paying the exorbitant base rates again.

Editorial note: As helpful as AT&T may seem for offering these tips, what they amount to are workarounds for the underlying problem of very high, consumer-unfriendly roaming fees.

Notice the three kinds of solutions AT&T gives you: 1) Deactivate or selectively disable your phone’s functionality. 2) Only use your phone in certain situations. 3) Pay money to the phone company so that you don’t have to pay more money to the phone company.

There is no option that permits consumers to fully use their phones without incurring huge bills. And that’s because that option would require the U.S. telecom industry to work with international providers to lower roaming rates for consumers -- a move that would force the U.S. telcos to lower the high rates they charge foreign travelers. Because they probably won’t do that, the FCC should intervene on behalf of consumers, as the European Union did for its citizens.

— David Sarno

Image is a composite of an Associated Press image of the iPhone and a photo by the AP’s Pawan Sharma.