iPhone Travel- Save on Calls, SMS and Data

Avoiding excessive charges is one key trick for International Travel with an iPhone. International travel can include a quick cruise to Mexico or the Caribbean, or a full-on international flight. Either way, some tips I’ve learned will save you money. I spent a week in Singapore and saved $60 over what the roaming rates would have totaled for data, SMS and calls.


  • Get the free AT&T myWireless Mobile app. It is an easier way to manage the service add-ons.
  • Get the free Skype app for iPhone. You can make cheap calls over WiFi, or even skip/miss a call to your iPhone number and then call right back using Skype.
  • Skim the AT&T iPhone Tips for International Data Roamers from their web site.
  • Be smart with call & SMS rates. 2-3 days before travel, activate the $5.99/month “AT&T World Traveler” for cheaper call & SMS rates.
  • Be smart about 3G data. 2-3 days before travel, activate a “Data Global Add-On” for International Data roaming (20/50/100 MB for $24.99/$59.99/$119.99/$199.99)
  • Turn off or dial-back SMS reminders from things like Twitter, etc. Do it a day or two early, there may be that one last service that sends a message and you can turn it off before you leave.
    Tip: I leave twitter Direct Messages on, so that colleagues traveling can reach me without using up their own SMS messages.
  • Scout for WiFi options before you leave. Try Hotspot Locations or Ji-Wire Global Wi-Fi Finder. Remember to ask locals and check for more once you arrive.
  • Delete or move what you can out of your IMAP email account Inbox. Having a smaller Inbox or putting messages in rarely used subfolders will reduce data updates.
  • On your iPhone, use Settings>General>Network>Data Roaming to turn OFF Data Roaming before you board (airplane or ship; you can get hit with roaming data charges just walking between connecting flights with your phone on, or when a cruise ship sails out-of-range). Turn it on when you really want to connect for data.
  • Turn off PUSH data services using Settings>Fetch New Data to select Push OFF. On the same screen, change Fetch to Manually (or if you really want updates, Hourly)
  • Updated: Turn off less critical Notifications— they use data too.This includes Growl/Prowl if you use it.
  • Reset the iPhone Usage Tracker to Zero using Settings>General>Usage>Reset. Check your data usage daily (consider an alarm or appointment for this).
    Tip: If you get close to the limit of your Data Plan, you can call well before you exceed it to upgrade to a plan with more capacity. (While traveling, call International Wireless Care at +1-916-843-4685).
  • Wait 7-10 days after returning to deactivate your “Data Global Add-On” and “AT&T World Traveler” services add-ons. Though they are pro-rated for portions of a month, international billing can take a week and you don’t want to be charged the higher rate.

More Details

Service Add-ons:
Use AT&T myWireless Mobile app to activate/deactivate additional services rather than calling AT&T. I recommend doing this at least 72 hours before you leave the USA.
Tip: When you activate the add-ons, immediately set an appointment or “To Do” to de-activate 10 days after you return. You’ll save a few dollars that month since it is pro-rated, and won’t accidentally carry-over the service into future months.

If you need to call or just prefer it, note that you’ll need to make 2 calls. First call the regular service number (611 on mobile or 800-331-0500 from another phone). Second, call International Wireless Care at 800-335-4685 or if already abroad, +1-916-843-4685 to add your “Data Global Add-On” for International Data. Do this AT LEAST 72 hours before you leave; it can take 24 hours or more to activate.
Tip: Add “AT&T International” as a Contact with the 916 number above. You can quickly call for support or to update service.

AT&T World Traveler” is just $5.99 a month and is pro-rated. It can save you $0.30 to $1.00 per minute on calls you receive (rates here). The cost of each SMS message can drop a similar amount. The gotcha is be sure to leave it active for ~10 days after your return. If there are delays in international billing you’ll get hit with the higher rate if you already de-activated this add-on.

Regarding the “International Roaming- Data”- Pick a plan that suits your needs. I watch my data budget tightly and did fine with 20MB ($24.99) for a 6 day trip. I turn off “Data roaming” often and use WiFi where I can. I was ready to call and upgrade if needed though.
Tip: Before you travel, reset the iPhone Usage and watch it for a 2 days to see what your data budget might need to be.

Buy in US dollars before you go (or stay in euros if your account is already in euros). Don’t switch currencies on your Skype account; you’ll get hit with a currency conversion charge. I started on Skype years ago when Euros were the only option. I’ll only switch to US Dollars when my account is at zero.

72 hours before leaving the USA, Scout for WiFi. Check with the hotel or conference venue to see if WiFi is available. That can greatly reduce 3G data needs. It will also help you decide how large of a data plan to buy.
Tip: Check if the hotel has a frequent guest plan, many hotels offer free or reduced WiFi for frequent guests. Sign-up before you leave the US.

Data Misers:
Set a recurring alarm for “data off” (bedtime) and one for “data on” (wake). Toggle the Data Roaming setting accordingly. You can still get calls or use alarms, but won’t be disturbed (or charged) for night-time email updates. Get them in a batch at a WiFi spot or when you turn on 3G data again.

Preload maps by searching for directions while at a WiFi spot. You can still get updates via 3G while out and about, but the larger map will already be downloaded.

48 hours before leaving the USA, turn off or dial-back on SMS updates. Why 2 days before leaving? So you can catch that one extra service you forgot. Likely sources of SMS reminders to turn off are: Google Calendar, Jott, Remember the Milk, TripIt Premium, twitter.
Tip: Once you’ve established your new locale, do more than set the iPhone time zone. Also set your twitter time zone preferences to reflect your “do not disturb” hours for the new time zone.

Don’t be surprised if you receive 1-2 SMS messages from AT&T as you travel. AT&T will alert you when you’re in a roaming zone and you are not charged for those messages.

5 thoughts on “iPhone Travel- Save on Calls, SMS and Data

  1. Thanks for this post, it was very helpful when I traveled to Europe last week. However I do have one (somewhat major) correction with regards to Int'l Data Roaming: You are correct in that you can sign up for multiple data roaming packages via AT&T, however you should sign up for the maximum plan you will use, not adjust it as-you-go.

    Should you upgrade your plan (say 50mb to 100mb, as I did) and you are mid-billing cycle, the first plan somehow no longer applies (this is AT&T's logic, not mine) and you are liable for those remaining charges. It's not as simple as going to the website and clicking the next highest up plan and somehow expecting to increase your maximum usage total. It essentially cancels the former plan out.

  2. Hi, just saw your post now… There is another way to travel abroad with iPhone as well – you can rent an international Sim card (with american number, they – http://www.iphonetrip.com – deliver it to you before the flight). It includes unlimited internet access, no need to switch data roaming off or to look for wi-fi spots.

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