What Is Data Roaming?

Aspen Henriksen
Internet Provider Comparisons

What happens when you need data services, but you’re currently out of your mobile service provider’s network? Your phone switches to roaming, which allows you to continue to use your mobile device to access the internet, make calls, send texts, and respond to emails. It also allows you to keep your phone number without having to set up a new service. So, it’s important to understand what is data roaming, especially when traveling, to better manage your data usage and avoid unexpected charges. 

How Does Data Roaming Work?

Your mobile device typically uses your service provider’s network, which covers a specific geographical area. But, if you travel outside of the area, your service provider will no longer provide coverage, and your phone will disconnect from your carrier’s network. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose coverage. Rather, to stay connected, your phone will typically “roam” to connect with another cellular network that’s close by. Your service provider may have agreements with other network operators, so you can still connect and enjoy internet access, calls, and texts.  

Using these other networks, though, may incur additional charges. These charges are often higher than those you pay when you are within your given network as your provider has to pay the outside network for the usage. In many cases, the costs are naturally passed along to the user. And those costs can be quite high.

How to Avoid Unexpected Roaming Charges

There are a few ways to avoid unexpected charges. The first is to turn off data roaming. This is a simple solution, but it also means you won’t have access for your smartphone until you return to your network area.

The second option is to plan in advance when you’ll be traveling and pay a higher fee for international roaming plans or packages, which helps you avoid unexpected charges.

You may also be able to switch to local Wi-Fi whenever possible to minimize how much data you use. Wi-Fi lets you text, call, download files, and stream video without using data.

In addition, you’ll want to turn off any automatic updates and syncs when you are out of your network, as they typically consume a lot of data in the background.

How Much Does Data Roaming Cost? 

The costs for data roaming differ depending on your mobile service provider, where you are roaming (i.e., the country you’ve traveled to), and the agreements your provider has with other networks.

For instance, domestic roaming (within your own country) usually adds no or minimal extra charges. Most established networks expand their coverage by partnering with other carriers to ensure you have data, even when you’re outside your network. That may not be the case, however, when you leave the country. 

Before you travel, especially to another country, review your provider plan and policy. With a premium plan, you may already be paying for roaming, so you can avoid extra charges in other countries. Or, you may be able to upgrade your plan easily. Some policies provide competitive packages. Others simply charge higher rates for greater access. And, some offer daily, weekly, or monthly plans, which can decrease the cost of data when you’re away from home.

You may also find your plan provides cheaper roaming for neighboring countries (e.g., Canada and Mexico) but not for countries that lie further south or across the ocean unless you upgrade to a different plan.  

For example, AT&T offers an International Day Pass for $10 per day, which provides unlimited texts and calls in over 210 countries. 

Verizon has a Travel Pass that’s $5 a day for visits to Mexico or Canada. But if your travels take you further, you can pay $10 a day for service in 210 countries. Verizon also offers unlimited plans that include roaming in Mexico and Canada. 

T-Mobile also includes international roaming with several unlimited phone plans as well as day passes at various rates, depending on where you’re going and how long you plan to stay abroad. 

U.S. Cellular offers plans that include data for Mexico or Canada and a daily travel pass for $15 or a monthly travel pass for $100. 

Other service providers don’t provide specific packages for roaming, and you may be charged simply based on usage, with costs that can add up quickly. Some providers do, however, offer billing caps or alerts to let you know when you are incurring excess charges. 

Check with your service provider, such as Google Fi, Mint Mobile, Boost, TracFone Wireless, and others, as their rates and plans may differ.

Taking time to review your policy and compare costs can help save you a lot of money on roaming charges. You may also choose to take out your usual SIM card and replace it with a local or International SIM card for more affordable rates as you travel. 

When Should You Use Data Roaming? 

While data roaming can increase costs, there are times when it may be necessary. Again, when traveling aboard, you likely want to stay connected. So, planning in advance to minimize data roaming charges is important. 

In the case of an emergency, though, paying a few extra dollars can allow you to access help, make urgent phone calls, or navigate through unfamiliar territory. 

Especially if you’re just taking a short trip and you know you’ll usually have access to Wi-Fi, changing your plan or SIM card may not be worth the hassle. This is especially true if your carrier offers more reasonable roaming plans. Or, you may find yourself in an area where it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to change your SIM card due to regulations, availability, or language barriers. 

What Is Data Roaming Takeaway

Data roaming can offer convenience and connection in an emergency. But it’s best to plan in advance to avoid surprises. You can save hassle and excess costs by checking for roaming packages before you travel. And if you forget, you can monitor your data usage as you travel and use Wi-Fi as much as possible to avoid being shocked by your bill when you return home.

Written by:
Aspen Henriksen
Digital Storyteller

Aspen is a Digital Copywriter and Storyteller. When our pun-loving polyglot isn’t writing articles, she spends her time getting to know a brand's DNA or writing scroll-stopping copy that is research and insight-driven and resonates with people.

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