Anyone who has travelled abroad and used their home data network knows exactly how expensive that mistake is. Data roaming charges can quickly amount to thousands of dollars! These days, there are apps such as WhatsApp that allow people to make phone calls and video calls internationally. But beyond that, what are you to do? Well, it turns out that there are a couple of ways you can save money on roaming charges, and that’s what we’ll be looking at in this article.
What Does Roaming Mean?
When you’re at home or otherwise in an area that has network coverage by your cell phone provider, you are considered to be “in-network,” Which means that you are covered by your present cell phone plan and will not incur any additional fees for using your phone when placing phone calls or using data to access the internet.
Most domestic service providers have reciprocity agreements with other network providers abroad, which ensures that your voice and data service will still continue to function even when you are not in range of your local network. Roaming, then, is when you are using one of those reciprocal networks instead of your home network for voice calling or otherwise accessing the internet via another service provider’s network coverage.
Many of the big cell phone providers in Canada, including Rogers, Bell and Telus, have partnerships with American network providers that allow Canadian consumers to purchase unlimited North American plans. These plans will allow you to use your cell phone like normal when you are in the United States and sometimes even Mexico. To be clear, these plans are very expensive, often costing $100 or $200 per month. Although that’s far from cheap, it’s only a small fraction of what you’ll pay if you are roaming without one of these plans.
That said, when you are roaming internationally outside of North America, that’s when things can get really sticky. Using your cell phone in Europe, for example, can easily end up costing you several thousand dollars for only one month. So, it’s very important that you understand when you’re roaming, whether or not your service provider has a reciprocal agreement with the network you’re accessing while you’re roaming, and how to save money on roaming charges when you are abroad.
Know When You’re Roaming
But how can you tell if you’re roaming or if your cellular service provider has a reciprocal agreement with the network provider at your destination? Well, there are a few ways to go about this. The first and easiest way is to contact your service provider and ask them directly whether or not you’ll be roaming at your destination, if they have an agreement with any of the network providers at that destination, and if there is a plan that will cover you while you’re away.
Most modern smartphones will notify you when you leave your home network, and many will even ask you for permission to access roaming and provide you with a warning that this could be expensive. You should take that warning seriously. On Android devices, you will even need to go into your settings to turn on international roaming; this is so that you don’t accidentally turn on your data for a few minutes and incur a $500 bill.
Generally speaking, you should assume that you’re roaming if you leave your country, but you don’t always need to go abroad to incur roaming charges. Many of the smaller no-name service providers in Canada have very limited network coverage, so even if you leave your city for an afternoon, you could technically be roaming. Even a day away from home could cost you big time.
How to Reduce Data Roaming Charges
So then, we come to the topic at hand: how can you save money on roaming charges? As mentioned, there are a few ways to go about doing this. The first is to enroll in an international roaming plan, which, although not cheap, will be much cheaper than roaming without such a plan. The second way is to stick to wi-fi and ensure that you have data roaming switched off. Another way is to purchase a local sim card at your destination and use that network while you’re travelling. You can also keep your phone in airplane mode while you’re abroad and purchase a local pay-as-you-go phone at your destination. Let’s briefly go over each one of these options in more detail.
Enroll in an International Roaming Plan with your Canadian Cell Phone Provider
Many of the big Canadian cellular service providers offer international roaming plans. Some of them even have agreements with carriers in Europe. By enrolling in one of these plans, you can save yourself hundreds or thousands of dollars throughout your travels. That said, these plans will cost you several hundred dollars a month, but this is a fraction of what you’ll pay if you aren’t enrolled in one. So, before you head to the airport, make sure you call your service provider to inquire as to whether or not they offer an international roaming plan and if they do, adjust your plan accordingly for the time that you’ll be away from home.
Use Wi-Fi and Keep Data Roaming Switched Off
The second and best option is to simply use wi-fi while away and keep your data roaming switched off entirely. By using WhatsApp, you can make unlimited free phone calls anywhere in the world as well as free video calls; you can even text, send photos and videos, and do video group calls completely for free. So, If you can stick to using WhatsApp and wi-fi, then you can eliminate the possibility of roaming charges 100%. That said, you might not always have access to wi-fi, so although this is a fantastic option it won’t be a viable solution all the time.
Switch to a Local SIM with Unlimited Data
Another excellent option is to purchase a local SIM card at your destination that has an unlimited data plan. Oftentimes you can get a SIM card with an unlimited data plan at international destinations for less than 50 Canadian dollars per month. Once you put that SIM card in your phone, then the strategy is the same, you stick to making phone calls and video calls with WhatsApp using data. With this method, you will have unlimited data wherever you happen to be in that country, and you won’t need to worry about it.
Use Your Phone in Airplane / Flight Mode
If you are unable to obtain a SIM card locally at your destination and don’t want to use wi-fi in tandem with WhatsApp to place video calls, then, unfortunately, your only solution will be to keep your phone in airplane mode. Otherwise, you run the risk of incurring significant data roaming charges while you are abroad. As mentioned, You can always buy a local pay-as-you-go phone at your destination. Oftentimes a pay-as-you-go phone can be purchased for less than $100, which is but a small fraction of what you would pay for data roaming over the course of your trip.
Turn On Roaming as Needed
In the worst-case scenario, you can always selectively turn on roaming only when you absolutely need it. If you need to make a quick five-minute phone call, then you can turn on your roaming, make the phone call, and turn it back off again. To be clear, that five-minute phone call could cost you $20 or more, but if you absolutely need to get in contact with somebody and none of the other methods above are an option for you, then you do have the option of turning your roaming on and off as needed.
Monitor Your Usage
If you decide to use roaming, whether you have an international roaming plan or not, it’s absolutely imperative that you monitor your usage. Even a few extra minutes of roaming can add up to a significant bill, and if you fail to keep track of your usage, you could end up with a very bad surprise when you return home from your trip. Of course, If you stick to wi-fi or have a local SIM with unlimited data and use the WhatsApp method, none of this is an issue, otherwise, take care not to exceed your budget and always be aware of how much your data roaming fees will cost.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Data roaming fees can be absurdly expensive, especially if your cellular provider does not have a reciprocal agreement with the network provider at your destination. That said, there are a few ways for you to save money on roaming charges while abroad. By using wi-fi in tandem with WhatsApp, you can make free calls as well as free video calls, and you can also send free text messages.
If you purchase a local SIM card at your destination, then this strategy works even better as you won’t be hindered by wi-fi. Alternatively, you can purchase a pay-as-you-go phone at your destination. Beyond that, our best advice is to keep your phone in airplane mode and only turn on your data roaming service when you absolutely need to.