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 Portfolio.com 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
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 Portfolio.com homepage, at that rate, still
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
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
Boing has the tale of the man who roamed in England and Ireland for two
weeks, and ran up a $3,000 bill.