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Data usage on your phone is sometimes obscured and hard to appreciate.

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International Data Service on Your Cell Phone part 1

How to avoid tens of thousands of dollars in data charges but still get data service when traveling internationally

Danger!  That movie you could watch for free on your iPhone at home might cost you thousands of dollars in data charges to watch when traveling internationally!

This is the first part of a two part article about data services on your cell phone.  Part two will be released next week.

Part 10 of an multipart series on traveling with a cell phone - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten



With dismaying regularity, stories are published of hapless international travelers who return home to find a cell phone bill totalling tens of thousands of dollars waiting for them.

These charges relate to their data usage while out of the country.  Data costs, while negligible at home, can skyrocket out of control when traveling internationally.

The only thing worse might be discovering that your phone can't work on any international data service at all, and being stuck with no way to access vital internet services such as email.

 Please read on for a better understanding of these issues.


Introduction - Other Considerations when Traveling Internationally with Your Phone

Domestic roaming has become so easy that it can be a surprise and even shock when we discover that international roaming with our phone is not as seamless as it is domestically.

Worse still, it is not only complex, but it can also be very costly.

In terms of complexities, it may be that your phone is not compatible with other types of cell phone service in other countries.  And in terms of costs, your US wireless service provider probably charges you a huge amount for placing and receiving calls internationally, while restricting or preventing you from using cheaper services available in the countries that you visit.

The earlier parts of this series talk about these issues as they relate to regular voice calling, and how you can best optimize your strategies to get the best (and best value) set of solutions for using your phone, internationally, to make and receive phone calls.

But since the earlier articles were written, there has been a tremendous evolution in cell phones and what they are used for.  Many of us now use our phones as much for data type services as we do for voice type services.

Whether it be for sending and receiving emails, updating our Facebook status, twittering, or even other things such as checking in for flights, getting quotes for the stock market and currency exchange rates, seeing what the weather will be tomorrow, sending pictures to friends, and getting maps and driving directions, our phones are increasingly using the internet to provide us with all sorts of things completely different than simply making and receiving phone calls.

The downside of this new technology is that, like many other new technologies, pricing starts off sky high before (hopefully) subsequently dropping.  Happily, domestic data charges are now reasonable and affordable, but when you travel internationally, you can find yourself paying as much as one thousand times more for data than the rates paid by the local people.

One thousand times more!  For the exact same identical service.  That is outrageous in the extreme, and such extraordinarily inflated costs make it clear how, if you're not careful, you can return home to a cell phone bill in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

For example, here's a March 2011 blog entry from a person who calculated that a change to his Verizon data plan would cost him $28,000 a month.  Here's an earlier story of a teenager who ran up a $22,000 bill in a single month.  And, best (or should that be 'worst?) of all, here's a story about a C$85,000 bill.  Lots more examples are out there.

Fortunately, you do have choices and alternate strategies to help minimize these costs.  Please read on through this two part article to understand how best to enjoy reasonably priced international data service.

Do You Actually Need Phone Based Data/Internet Access?

Before you go much further, you need to decide if using data services from your phone is essential or not, particularly because it could be costly.  Maybe your best solution is to simply leave your phone behind, or at the very least, to disable its data services for the duration of your travels.

Can you get free Wi-fi access?

Some people claim they travel their way around the world and get all the data access they need simply by connecting to free Wi-fi hotspots.

That might have been true once upon a time, when many Wi-fi routers were sold with an open password-free default setting, but these days, almost every Wi-fi router now ships with a default closed, password-required network setting.

While there are very many more Wi-fi networks about these days, it seems that fewer of them are open.  In our own experience, we seldom find free Wi-fi access any more.

Furthermore, we're no longer very comfortable accepting free Wi-fi access.  An un-protected free Wi-fi service allows anyone with very simple and inexpensive software on a laptop to monitor your Wi-fi connection, and to pull out all your passwords and log-in details.  You've probably learned to be protective of your credit cards when traveling overseas - you need to be similarly protective of the data on your phone or computer and not broadcast that in an un-password protected unencrypted form.

Accessing the internet through a Wi-fi hotspot also implies that you are staying in one location for the duration of your internet access.  That is commonly the case if you are in a hotel room for the night, but during the day while traveling around, you may not wish to spend valuable time parked at a coffee shop or somewhere with free Wi-fi.  The 'time cost' of doing so might outweigh the saving in data fees.

Furthermore, Wi-fi access is only helpful to you if your cell phone is also Wi-fi compatible.

Can you get internet access on other devices?

Maybe you are also traveling with a laptop, and can access the internet from your laptop.  Do you also need internet access on your phone too?

Alternatively, maybe you can set up a mini Wi-fi hotspot from your laptop, for example, using the excellent Connectify software.

Do you need realtime instant on-demand internet access?

Maybe your phone will be your only means of accessing the internet.  But do you really need to be able to get your emails within seconds of them being sent, even when you're traveling out of the country (and perhaps on vacation)?  Do you need to check your share prices a dozen times every day?  Can you wait until you get back to the hotel and get a weather forecast on the television in your room?

Sometimes the answer to these types of questions might be 'yes' (for example - 'Do you need to be able to access online maps of the cities and towns you are visiting and get directions to where you wish to go?').  But if you force yourself to realistically consider the cost implications of these services, most of which are conveniences rather than necessities, you might be surprised how much you can manage without. 

Can Your Phone Use International Data Services?

Okay, so you've decided that, on some basis or another, you do want at least some potential ability to use your phone to access the internet.

Now for the next step.  Just because your phone works in the US does not mean it will work elsewhere in the world, either with voice or data service.

Earlier parts of this series consider the issues associated with if your phone will work with voice services in other countries.  Let's now look at the challenges surrounding using your phone's data services - these being similar to, but not exactly the same, as the challenges involved in determining if your phone will support regular voice calling.

The three issues revolve around what 'generation' of data services your phone supports (and which generations are available where you travel), what type of data service the phone uses (compared to those offered in your destinations) and which frequencies the phone supports for data (again, interfaced with the frequencies offered in the countries you visit).

Let's look at these three issues individually.

Different Generations of Phone Data Service

Let's face it - there's not really been very much new in terms of voice calling for many years.  A phone call is pretty much a phone call, isn't it.  You dial a number, press send, wait for the other person to answer, talk, then press End.  With almost no variation, you've been doing the exact same thing since cell phones first came out 25+ years ago, and almost the same thing on a regular wired phone too.

But the realm of accessing data services from a phone has been one of extraordinary evolution and rapid enhancement.  These days most data enabled phones can offer faster data connection speeds than we had available on our desktop hard-wired to the internet computers ten years ago.  This is truly extraordinary and massively enabling.

For convenience, the various quantum leaps forward in terms of wireless data capabilities have been referred to as 'generations' - first generation, second generation, and so on.  These are usually abbreviated as 1G, 2G, 3G, and - most recently - 4G.  There are also some inbetween products sometimes referred to as, eg, 2.9G or 3.5G - basically, the bigger the number, the faster the data connectivity.

Most new data-equipped phones these days have 3G data capabilities, and the roll out of 3G service areas is starting to become extensive enough as to make it realistic to expect to have access to 3G service in most major and moderately large population concentrations, in most first/second world countries.

New 4G service is just starting to appear, with very few areas where it is available, and very few phones supporting the 4G service either.  As of the time of writing (Sep 2011) you should base your expectations and plans around 3G data services rather than 4G.

As a general rule, phones that support 3G data will be backwards compatible with earlier and slower 2G services as well.

Incompatibility Problems Between Different Data Services

As we've written about in other parts of this series, there are two major types of voice calling service - what are referred to as GSM and CDMA.

Think of these a bit like FM and AM radios - if your radio is FM only, there's no way you'll be able to receive AM signals and vice versa.

The same is unfortunately true of data services as well.  There are two major families of 3G data services, and looking ahead to 4G, two major families of 4G type data services too.

The main families of 3G wireless data service revolve around two different sets of acronyms - CDMA/CDMA2000/EVDO for one family, and UMTS/HSUPA/HSDPA for the other family (plus a bunch of other similar acronyms such as HSPA and HSPA+ and so on).

The more generally used type of data service, on a global basis, is that based on the UMTS technology.  The CDMA type service is not as commonly found elsewhere in the world.

If you have a phone from Verizon or Sprint, it is more likely that it supports the CDMA family of 3G data services, and so may not work in other countries.  Of course, this is a bit of a moot point, because not only will you have problems using the data part of a Verizon or Sprint phone, you'll probably have similar problems using the voice part of the phone too.

On the other hand, if you have a phone from AT&T or T-Mobile, it is probably using the UMTS type of data service, and this is more likely to be present in countries you travel to.  AT&T and T-Mobile also use the nearly universally adopted GSM standard for voice calling.

But - wait.  There's a third problem to be considered, too.

Differing Frequencies for Data Service

Again referring back to earlier parts of the series, voice service on GSM type cell phones is now commonly found on one or two of four different frequency bands.  The US uses two frequency bands, most of the rest of the world use a different pair of frequency bands.  For your phone to be assured of working everywhere, it needs to have all four frequency bands installed.

Unfortunately, there is even worse frequency fragmentation when it comes to data services.  This is not due to any conspiracy on the part of cell phone companies to try and lock you in at all, rather it is simply due to different counties in the world not universally coordinating how they allocate their radio spectrum frequencies, and so new services such as high speed data are having to be 'squeezed' into any spare space that can be found.

In total, there is a daunting provision for 15 different frequency bands to be used by UMTS data services around the world.  Fortunately, the reality isn't quite that bad, but it is not good either.

The problem appears in the US itself, too.  The frequency band used by T-Mobile for its data service is different to that used by AT&T.  The data services are compatible, but the frequencies are not.  Think of this as having an FM radio that only has a limited number of preset station buttons.  The 'preset stations' for AT&T are different to those for T-mobile, and so if your 'FM radio' (ie cell phone) doesn't have all the 'buttons' for both the T-Mobile and AT&T 'stations, it won't work on both services.

In other words, if you buy an AT&T phone, you probably can't use it on T-Mobile's 3G data network, even though it probably can work perfectly well on T-Mobile's voice network (and 2G data network too which uses the same frequencies as the voice network), simply because it won't work on T-Mobile's different 3G data frequency band.  And the same if you buy a T-Mobile phone and try and use it on AT&T's 3G network.

How many 3G frequency bands are needed

Although there are indeed a total of 15 different frequency bands for UMTS data service, there are only a few essential bands to have, which would be, more or less in order of priority :

  • Band I, 2100 MHz, used by much of Europe, Asia, Africa, Israel, Oceania, and Brazil

  • Band II, 1900 MHz, used by AT&T in the US and Bell Mobility, Telcel, Telus and Rogers in Canada, and some South American carriers too

  • Band V, 850 MHz, used by the same US and Canadian carriers, plus by some carriers in Australia, NZ, some Central and South America, Hong Kong, Thailand, Brazil and the Philippines

  • Band VIII, 900 MHz, used in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Dominican Republic and Venezuela

  • Band IV, 1700 MHz, a bit of an orphan frequency used by T-Mobile in the US (and Cincinnati Bell Wireless), plus Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Videotron in Canada and in Chile

To give a feeling for what a good phone would offer in terms of multiple frequency bands, an iPhone 3GS gives service on three bands (850, 1900, 2100 MHz) and an iPhone 4 adds service on a fourth data band too (900 MHz).

Note that neither supports the 1700 MHz T-Mobile USA frequency band.

How to Minimize Your Data Usage and Associated Costs When Traveling

Next week we offer a dozen different ways you can reduce the amount of wireless data your phone consumes, thereby reducing your costs.

We also talk about different ways to get lower priced internet data when roaming.  With a one thousandfold difference in cost between high priced and low priced data charges, this is essential information for all world travelers.

Please be sure to come back for part two, next week.

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Originally published 16 Sep 2011, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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