Travel Tips
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What is Data Roaming? A Guide for International Travel

June 1, 2023

What is Data Roaming?

While the interconnectivity of cell phones and data networks can seem like magic, not all cellular networks are available everywhere. As a result, if your phone is in a dead zone or outside of your network, it will roam to find coverage elsewhere. Roaming allows you to text, call, or use data as you usually would, but it comes at a price.

So, what is data roaming?

When your smartphone or mobile device leaves the carrier's coverage area and is no longer connected to your home network service, it looks for a different network to use in the interim.

All the major cell phone carriers have cellular roaming agreements with other networks to ensure that their subscribers are covered in areas where primary coverage is unavailable. This convenience encourages their customers to chat, text, and consume data in new ways.

What is Domestic/Regional Data Roaming?

Domestic or regional data roaming refers to using your phone outside of your provider’s home network. In locations near your home where your carrier doesn’t  have coverage, they’ll often partner with other networks to ensure you have access to data across the country or region. Most carriers don't charge additional fees for roaming in your region (North America, Europe, etc), meaning if your phone goes off-network while you're in the region, you can still access the internet as usual. Domestic/Regional Roaming outside of your operator's specific geographical regions allows consumers to use their cell phones or other mobile devices outside their  network operator's usual geographical coverage area.

What is International Data Roaming?

International roaming occurs when consumers fly overseas and use their phones or computers on a foreign ("visited") network. SMS roaming is the practice of sending and receiving text messages while traveling abroad. When you're overseas, and your carrier doesn't have coverage to call, email, or use mobile data, you'll need to roam between various mobile networks. Carriers frequently have international data roaming arrangements that permit you to use your device outside of your home country or region to access the internet.

The disadvantage is that international roaming data typically entails additional charges to your account that can quickly add up. Roaming on cell phones is simple to switch on and off, and it's always a good idea to double-check roaming costs at your destination before traveling to avoid an unexpected charge. "Roam like home" plans can reduce costs but still introduce significant daily charges.

Should Roaming Be On or Off?

To roam or not to roam? There are lots of different situations where you’ll need to adjust your data roaming. Perhaps your phone's battery is depleting because it's constantly looking for new networks, or you're traveling abroad without a set itinerary and don't want to pay high foreign roaming rates. No matter what situation you find yourself in, it can be hard to know when to roam.

Should Data Roaming Be On?

You've most likely heard horror stories of exorbitant mobile data roaming rates, where inexperienced users have racked up thousands of dollars on their phone bills simply by surfing the internet or uploading a few files or email attachments. In that case, you may be hesitant to use your smartphone abroad. While switching off your roaming entirely can save you from this financial nightmare, you may find yourself in circumstances that require you to connect to a foreign network.

One instance where you may want to switch on roaming is to check your email. Generally, it's fine to check your email because your phone won't download attachments unless you choose to do so. However, since the text in the email is downloaded, long lists of messages can end up costing more than you anticipate.

You may also want to consider briefly switching your roaming on to access your preferred ride-sharing app. While this can cause a hit to your phone bill, it can be worth it to get to your destination quickly and safely.

In general, consider data roaming on a case-by-case basis and keep it turned off until you absolutely need to use it.

Note that some operators now automatically apply a daily roaming rate if you use even the smallest amount of data in a given day or make a phone call. Watch your SMS messages from your carrier when you arrive and ensure that you opt out of their roaming packages if you don't want to incur this daily rate.

How Much Does Roaming Cost?

The cost of domestic roaming has been nullified for the most part as many carriers have established coverage areas in many large regions worldwide. However, international data roaming is another thing entirely.

Unless your home network is based in the EU and you're traveling within Europe (where they've established their "roam like at home" policy, effectively making it similar to being with a US carrier and traveling within the country), you're going to have to pay for roaming costs or a daily roaming package.

While each carrier will offer different international roaming rates, you can almost always expect to pay  more for consuming data outside the country. These additional fees means that you need to be conscious of how your are being billed while overseas.

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Data Roaming FAQs:

What is Data Roaming as a Service?

Roaming is a service provided by carriers to enable you to access data networks when you are temporarily out of range of your home network. Keep in mind that most carriers don't assume roaming to be your primary source of coverage.

How Do I Know if My Device is Roaming?

Most devices have a visual indication to let you know that you're roaming. However, each device will have its own specifications, so it's best to refer to the user guide for more details.

Are there Any Data Restrictions?

Depending on your plan allowance, the amount of data you can use while roaming can be restricted. The MB size of the data sent or received is used to measure data consumption.

How do I Turn Off Data Roaming on My iPhone?

Apple switches off mobile roaming by default to ensure that iPhone users do not incur unintended data charges. This convenient feature means that none of the iPhone apps that use data (maps, email, web browser, etc.) can use a data link when traveling abroad. The user must actively turn this on, and the user is warned that they can incur costs at that time. However, it's worth double-checking that this has occurred. Make sure the “Data Roaming” button is turned off. You can do this by going to: Settings > Mobile Data > Data Roaming.

How Do I Turn Off Data Roaming on My Android?

Android users can go to Settings > Mobile Networks and switch off data roaming.

Android users should go to Settings > Data consumption, then pick "Restrict Background Data" from the three dots on the top-right of the screen. Apps that you aren't using right now won't be able to access your files.

How To Turn Off Auto-updates on My Android?

You also don't want your applications to update themselves using mobile data when you're abroad. They can only update when you're linked to a Wi-Fi network, but check the Auto-update apps setting in the Play Store app to make sure it's set to Wi-Fi only.

Avoid Data Roaming Charges with GigSky

Unexpected roaming charges can be a nightmare, but understanding cellular roaming and how it works can help you minimize any outrageous fees. Oftentimes we do need to connect overseas for a variety of reasons – staying in touch with family, friends and the office, or out of general necessity to get around, use maps, and translate languages. The great thing is there are options available to use your smartphone while traveling, all without having to break the bank.

The fastest and most convenient way to ensure peace of mind while traveling is to use an international connectivity app like GigSky. These apps are designed specifically for those who travel, and allow you to download a secondary, on-demand service to your phone in just a few clicks.

With data plans ranging from 7-days, 15-days, or 30-days and longer, that are regional, or global, you're in control of your data consumption and won't be hit with "bill shock" when you get home.

Are you planning on traveling soon and want to stay connected while you’re abroad? Get an internationally connectivity app like GigSky and keep it simple! Check if your device is compatible here.