Unwanted cellphone surprises: American travelers abroad getting hit with mystery data charges

Travelers have been reporting that their cellphone carriers have hit them with multiple, mysterious, $10-a-day international data charges even after they turned off their cellular data and used only Wi-Fi for calls and texts.

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Americans are returning to travel abroad in large numbers — and finding themselves facing mysterious cellphone data charges when they travel. There are steps you can take to protect yourself from these mystery data charges.

Americans are returning to travel abroad in large numbers — and finding themselves facing mysterious cellphone data charges when they travel. There are steps you can take to protect yourself from these mystery data charges.

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If you’re among the millions of Americans planning to travel abroad this summer after two years in which the COVID-19 pandemic slowed travel, this won’t be good news.

Travelers have been reporting that their cellphone carriers have hit them with multiple, mysterious, $10-a-day international data charges. And that’s happened even after they turned off their cellular data and used only Wi-Fi for calls and texts.

“I received/placed no calls or texts, and I had ‘Mobile Data’ off the entire time,” reads a typical complaint on a Verizon message board. “My phone somehow used 65Mb of data” — resulting in nine $10 fees.

Another cellphone user says he “turned cellular data completely off on both our iPhones … However, even on days that we didn’t make or receive phone calls or send any SMS texts, one or both of our phones were hit” with daily charges.

Others have described getting billed for similar mystery charges even when they didn’t travel abroad. People traveling near the U.S.-Canada border have reported that their phones somehow pinged antennas in Canada, triggering unexpected international charges.

Travelers “should be worried about it because it does not work in our favor unless you’re on top of it,” says Jackie Nourse, a trip organizer and founder of The Budget-Minded Traveler blog, who says avoiding high cellphone bills is a top concern for many travelers.

To avoid these charges, first make sure you understand what your phone company offers. Verizon has a daily TravelPass that extends your normal plan for a 24-hour period for $5 in Mexico and Canada or $10 in most other countries. AT&T offers a similar International Day Pass, which costs $10 for 24 hours. Some AT&T plans have free service in Mexico and Canada, though at slower data speeds.

Once you add these to your phone plans, daily charges automatically kick in whenever you use international calling, texting or data.

But keep in mind that 24-hour sessions can be triggered in unexpected ways, even by an app refreshing itself or a software update or email synching.

Some people have reported their daily passes were triggered even when their phone’s cellular data was turned off and they’d set their device on Wi-Fi.

To avoid surprise charges completely, set your phone to airplane mode.

Depending on your phone, switching to airplane mode might shut off your Wi-Fi connection. If this happens, you’ll need to reconnect to Wi-Fi once you’re sure airplane mode is on and cellular data is off.

“Just shut it all off,” says Nourse, who recommends using airplane mode and Wi-Fi, which is available in many places overseas.

She says she uses WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family and downloads maps on Maps.me if she’s planning a day trip where there might not be great Wi-Fi.

The third major U.S. carrier, T-Mobile, has a different setup than Verizon and AT&T. Though it depends on which of its plans people have, most of its customers get free international roaming and unlimited texting and data, though it could be at slower speeds. Calls abroad are billed at a rate of 25 cents a minute.

T-Mobile users can add unlimited calling plus high-speed data to certain phone plans for $5 a day, $35 for 10 days or $50 for 30 days.

There’s another way to save on cellphones abroad: Get a new number. If you’ll be overseas for longer than a month, consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. If you have an unlocked cellphone, getting a local SIM card will cost about $20 for a month’s worth of cellular data.

The downside is that you’ll get a new phone number, which could pose a problem if people need to reach you or you need your old number for two-factor authentications.

Kristin Boeke-Greven, a Chicago speechwriter, was wary of high cellphone charges after her parents racked up hundreds of dollars in data charges when they thought they were on Wi-Fi while on a cruise. So she was especially careful when she traveled to Costa Rica in November with her architect husband for a three-week working vacation.

She says the $10-a-day pass offered by her carrier was helpful when the spotty Wi-Fi at their rental place failed. She used her phone to create a personal hot spot and held meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams without a hitch.

“It saved the day from a work perspective when the Internet wasn’t working,” she says of the day pass.

Boeke-Greven says people need to find ways to avoid unnecessary phone charges given how travelers depend on their cellphones for getting around, staying in touch with family and work, checking in for flights, booking hotels and navigating.

“We just rely on it for everything,” she says, “the same way we use it here at home.”

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