Using the iPhone Abroad

I’ve been doing a bit of homework, and I think I now know most of what there

is to know about using the iPhone abroad. In a word: Beware.

If you’re not careful, you could end up running up a truly enormous bill. Here

are all the details.

The first thing to know is that the iPhone doesn’t work abroad at all unless

and until you phone up AT&T and ask them to allow international roaming.

Before they allow it, they’ll check your credit. It’s very easy to run up a

four-digit phone bill without realizing it, so they want to make sure you’ll

be good for it.

Once international roaming is activated, you have two choices for your phone

calls. The first choice is that you pay AT&T $5.99 per month for something

they call World Traveler, which means that all calls you make abroad are very

expensive. They start at 99 cents per minute, in most of western Europe, and

cost $1.99 a minute in Argentina and $2.29 a minute in Egypt. The second choice

is that you don’t pay the $5.99 a month, in which case calls 30 cents

per minute more in those countries. If you go somewhere not covered by the World

Traveler plan, like Iceland or Lithuania, there’s no discount: you’ll pay the

same rate ($1.29 a minute or $3.49 a minute, respectively) whether you’ve got

the plan or not. The full list of rates is here.

As well as the World Traveler plan, there are also special dedicated plans

for Canada and Mexico. AT&T Mexico costs $4.99 a month and lets you roam

for 59 cents a minute – as opposed to 99 cents a minute normally. AT&T

Canada costs $3.99 a month and also lets you roam for 59 cents a minute, as

opposed to 79 cents a minute normally. What’s more, if you travel to Toronto

or anywhere in something known as the "Golden Horseshoe" at the west

end of Lake Ontario, you can roam on the Rogers network for free.

Can you sign up for World Traveler before you leave and then cancel it when

you return? Sorta. There’s no annual contract, or anything locking you in. But

international calls can take a long time to show up on your bill, and you only

get billed at the lower rate if you have World Traveler when they show up. The

date that you made the call is irrelevant. So expect to be signed up for the

plan for two or possibly even three billing cycles, if you want to be sure of

catching all the calls you made.

All calls made while roaming are billed at the same flat rate, whether they’re

incoming or outgoing, and no matter where they’re made to. If you’re roaming

in Iceland, for instance, you can call the Maldives for $1.29 a minute, but

if you’re in the Maldives, it costs $4.99 a minute to call Iceland – just

as it costs $4.99 a minute to receive a phone call, no matter where

in the world the caller is calling from.

For that reason, a service like JaJah doesn’t

help when you’re travelling internationally, even if you have wifi access. JaJah

is based on the idea that received calls cost less than outgoing calls, but

that’s not the case with international roaming. If you’re calling the US, that

costs the same as someone in the US calling you.

What about voicemail? The iPhone’s visual voicemail system is a godsend for

international travellers, since it vastly reduces the number of minutes used

checking your voicemail. Those minutes are, of course, billed at the international

roaming rate. And if you have your phone on when someone calls, and the call

goes through to voicemail, then that call gets billed at the international roaming

rate as well.

Then there’s text messaging. With text messaging, or SMS, it makes a difference

whether you’re sending or receiving. Receiving a text message while abroad is

not a problem: it comes out of your monthly allowance. Sending a text message

while abroad, however, costs 50 cents per messsage. Which is a real bargain

compared to the cost of a phone call or – as we will see – the cost

of sending an email if you’re not in a wifi zone.

By now, of course, most international travelers are well aware of the cost

of phone calls. But the iPhone adds a whole new layer of costs on top, because

it’s designed to be used in conjunction with an unlimited data plan. The problem

is that data is only unlimited within the USA. When you’re abroad, it’s very,

very expensive. To be precise, it’s $0.0195 per kilobyte, or $19.97 per megabyte.

To view the home page, at that rate, costs $18.49.

Alternatively, of course, it costs nothing – if you’re using the iPhone’s

wifi functionality. If you join a wifi network, all your data usage is free

(at most, it costs whatever the price is to join that network). Surf the web

to your heart’s content, check your emails, use Google Maps, view YouTube videos

– none of it costs a penny. But remember to navigate back to the home

screen of the iPhone when you’re done. When you next turn the phone on, if you’re

not in a wifi zone, you really don’t want your phone to start automatically

downloading your 50 most recent emails, or giving you driving instructions from

Paris to Dakar. That’s fun if you have wifi, but it’s very, very expensive if

you don’t. (Also worth knowing: once the iPhone starts downloading your most

recent emails, that operation cannot be cancelled.)

The really sad news here is with respect to Google Maps. The Google Maps functionality

on the iPhone is absolutely gorgeous, and extremely useful when you’re travelling

in a strange place. But the problem is that it’s constantly drawing and redrawing

those maps and satellite images, downloading data all the while. If you find

yourself lost in some strange village and need directions to your hotel, Google

Maps will do that for you, no problem. But unless that strange village happens

to have a wifi network you can hop on to, they will almost certainly be the

most expensive directions you ever get.

There is an international data plan you can sign up for, but it’s not particularly

attractive. It gives you 20MB of data per month for a monthly fee of $24.99.

If you go over that rate, depending on what country you’re in, you pay $0.005

per kb.

There are two reasons why this isn’t very attractive. For one thing, 20MB of

data isn’t very much, especially if you’re using Google Maps or spending any

time browsing the web – the kinds of activities where you could easily

get through your montly quota in one day. (And don’t even think about

watching videos on YouTube.) And when you go over the 20MB limit, $0.005/kb

isn’t very cheap: downloading the homepage, at that rate, still

costs $4.74.

The other big problem with the $24.99/month plan is that it’s an annual contract.

You can’t sign up for it before you go travelling and then cancel it upon your

return: if you try, you’ll be whacked with a $175 early cancellation fee.

So what’s the best way of taking an iPhone abroad? If you’re really scared

about running up data bills – and you should be – then one way of

ensuring that can’t happen is to phone up AT&T just before you leave, on

800-335-4685, and ask them to disable your data plan. Then phone them again

on your return, and get them to turn it back on. You can still use the phone

to surf the web and check your emails when you’re in a wifi zone, but you won’t

get a massive bill for doing the same thing over the cellular network.

The other thing you can do is switch your phone to airplane mode most of the

time. That turns off everything: both voice and wifi. When you’re in a wifi

zone, or when you want to make a phone call, come out of airplane mode and do

whatever you need to do, then turn airplane mode back on again.

This solution has the advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you look

at it, of barring incoming phone calls. You might miss something important,

but you won’t be woken up in the middle of the night by a telemarketer and have

to pay over a buck a minute for the privilege. And every time you turn your

phone on, to make a call or to surf on a wifi network, the iPhone will check

to see if you have any voicemails from people who’ve tried to reach you. You

can then check the voicemails you want to check, miss the voicemails you want

to miss, and only pay for airtime once. If you keep your phone on at all times,

in contrast, then you need to pay twice for every voicemail you listen to: once

when it’s left, and once when it’s retrieved.

Your best friend, then, when you’re travelling, is the Settings page. At the

top of the page are the two most important settings: Airplane mode, which we’ve

already covered, and Wi-Fi. If you want to use Wi-Fi, it’s a good idea to select

and join a network first, before you start checking email or web pages. That

way there’s no gap during which AT&T can start charging you their exorbitant

data rates.

Remember that the iPhone is a version 1.0 device. It has a lot of glitches,

and international roaming is a big one. Everything simple and effortless about

the iPhone – the seamless switching between wifi and cellular data –

becomes a massive and potentially extremely expensive problem when the phone

leaves US shores. Once the iPhone becomes available in the rest of the world,

I have some faith that international data rates might come down a bit, or that,

alternatively, it will be possible to buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card to

use in foreign countries when you’re travelling. For the time being, however,

I’d highly recommend not using your iPhone abroad like you use it domestically

– not unless money is no object. If anybody wants to calculate the cost

of watching Dick in a Box

while roaming internationally at $0.0195 per kilobyte, I’d be fascinated to

find out.

Update: Boing

Boing has the tale of the man who roamed in England and Ireland for two

weeks, and ran up a $3,000 bill.

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