Many people have the opportunity, either for work or pleasure, to travel throughout the world on a regular basis.  For these people, keeping in touch with their families back in the States is an issue that requires planning.  All major cell phone carriers offer international service.  By partnering with the service providers in other countries, they allow customers to use their cell phones while abroad.  However, this does not come without cost.  If not careful, the charges to a customer’s bill can easily rise to the thousands.  As a customer service rep for a major carrier, I want to use this post to give you some tips to prevent you from seeing a huge bill after that week long vacation in France.

1.  Cruise Ships:  It is easy to pull out your cell phone while on a cruise liner and call home to check on the kids while you’re on your second honeymoon, but what some people do not realize is that this costs them $5.99 per minute or more!  As I understand it, the reason is simple.  Cruise lines have a provider’s tower (usually AT&T) on top of the ship.  They pay this company for its use, but also tack on extra in order to receive profit themselves.  Make sure you call your service provider BEFORE boarding the ship.  They can pull up the ship you will be traveling on and tell you the exact pricing.  I always recommend that if possible, leave the cell phone at home.  You’re on vacation after all and if you need to contact family there are other options on board.  If you must bring your cell phone, remove the battery before boarding and put it in the bottom of your suitcase.  When you reach your destination you can then take it out and use it.  Most cruise lines turn off the tower when they reach port so you will pull signal from a local tower.  While it can still be expensive, it will usually not be close to $5.99 per minute.  Ask the cruise line for specifics on when or if they turn off their towers when in port.

2.  International Permissions:  Before traveling to another country it is imperative that you call your service provider before you leave to ensure your account has international roaming permissions activated.  If you have never asked about this, it is likely that you do not have it.  If you do not request the feature to be activated your phone will not work when you get off the plane.  While you are speaking with them, get a quote for how much per minute any calls will cost.  Usually they range anywhere from $0.49 in Canada to $5.00 in Russia.  Each country is different.

3.  Beware of Data Charges!  If you have a data phone such as a Blackberry or iPhone, make sure to turn off the data roaming.  If you leave this on the phone will roam on the international tower, even when you are not using it, transferring data continuously.  This will cost, on average, $10 per megabyte transferred!  Call your provider and ask if they have an international data feature that will allow you to send and receive email at a set price.  Keep in mind this does not include browsing.

4.  Voicemail:  What most people do not realize is when you are roaming internationally and you get a voicemail, you will be charged.  For example, if I call my friend who is vacationing in France, he doesn’t answer and I leave a 3 minute voicemail, he gets billed for those 3 minutes.  Prevent this by either never turning your phone on while in another country or calling your provider before you leave and having the voicemail disabled.

5.  If you must communicate while overseas using your cell phone, consider doing so through text messaging.  Generally any incoming text messages you receive will come out of your text message package and any that you send will cost around $0.35.  This is a much cheaper option.

Cell phone usage overseas can get very expensive, so if you don’t have an absolute need for it, leave it at home.  This is hard for most people because our cell phones have become a necessity in our minds.  Realize that there will be ways of communicating in other ways.  Land line phones will be available in your hotel at a cheaper rate.

Finally, if you simply must use your cell phone, consider having it unlocked.  This will allow you to rent a local sim card from the country you are visiting, giving you a local number that you can use.  Simply tell your provider you are traveling overseas and need the subsidy unlock code.  Most companies will give this to you without question.  Telling them you are traveling abroad is key.  Companies will not simply give you the code if you are still under contract.  Overseas travel however, is an exception.  Keep in mind AT&T will not unlock the iPhone for any reason.

Summary:

If you do not absolutely need you cell phone, leave it at home

Insure you have the roaming feature enabled through your provider

Know the pricing for using your phone and be prepared to pay for it.

Data usage is charged at a premium and can be very expensive.

Use text messaging when possible.

Consider a subsidy unlock to use a local sim card.