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How to Avoid a Massive Phone Bill While You’re Traveling Abroad

Feb. 24, 2016

These seven strategies can help you save big

There’s no faster way to lose your post-vacation glow than to get a shudder-inducing phone bill. The problem is that figuring out how to post Instagram photos without paying for Data Roaming can be really complicated. It requires research and occasionally talking to your phone company on the phone (the horror!). So we spoke with Helena Stone, editor in chief at ChipChick.com, to get her best tips on how to use your phone internationally without going into debt.

1. Adjust your phone’s settings
You may already know to turn off Data Roaming while you travel, but it’s still worth mentioning because it’s the single most important thing you can do to save yourself from big international data bills. Simply go to Settings, tap Cellular and slide Data Roaming off.

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For an extra layer of protection, turn off all Cellular Data, too. That means that your phone will only connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi. Once again, head to Settings, tap Cellular and this time slide Cellular Data off.

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2. Get an international data package
This is a great option if you need to check your email or want to Instagram to your heart’s content without worrying about finding an open Wi-Fi network.

Contact your cell phone company before leaving for your trip to discuss your options for international data plans and to find out how much it will cost you to answer the phone if your mom calls while you’re in the Louvre. Some cell companies offer very competitive packages, says Stone. Only thing: There may be a couple of catches, so be sure to read the fine print before you go.

3. Control Cellular Data for each app
Even if you’ve shelled out for a data package, you may want to block some apps from updating while you’re traveling. If your phone uses iOS 7 or a more recent operating system, you can let some apps use cellular data but not others. Head to Settings, tap Cellular and then scroll to the Use Cellular Data For section. Here, you’ll be able to turn off any of the apps you don’t want eating up your data while you’re traveling.

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4. Monitor your Data Roaming use
If you buy a data package, you’ll want to keep track of how much data you’ve used while roaming. To do that, go to Settings, tap Cellular, and look at the section marked Cellular Data Usage, Current Period Roaming. Just be sure to tap Reset Statistics (it’s all the way at the bottom of the screen) before your trip so the tracking starts at zero.

5. Download maps before you go
If you rely on your phone mainly for directions, there’s no need to shell out for a data plan. “You can always download your maps via Wi-Fi before you head out so that they aren’t using cellular data,” says Stone. Find out how to use Google Maps offline.

6. Use a messaging app
Apps like WhatsApp and Viber make it so that you won’t have to pay for texts to your friends and family who are using the same app. Similarly, iMessage is free, as are Google Voice and Skype when you use them over a Wi-Fi network.

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7. Buy a local SIM card
“If someone has an unlocked phone, they can pretty easily purchase a local prepaid SIM card while they are abroad,” says Stone. “This provides them with a temporary local phone plan. Local prepaid plans are generally much, much cheaper than using your carrier’s roaming plans.” Remember that if you do use a foreign SIM card, you won’t receive calls or texts coming into your regular number—but you can set up forwarding if necessary.

Stone notes that if you don’t have an unlocked phone, buying a SIM card may not be worth the hassle—and she suggests researching businesses like GlobalGig and KnowRoaming, which can send you a “sticker” to be applied to your existing SIM card. “I highly recommend it for travelers visiting multiple countries,” she says.