Friday, March 04, 2011

How To Roam Cheaply With Your Smartphone

Verizon charges $25 per megabyte for overseas data roaming.  On an average day, my smartphone consumes about 50 megabytes of data when I am here in the US.  That makes going overseas and using your phone a financially ruinous proposition.  Even more scary than using a hotel mini-bar.  Even with a big data package, you can drop your roaming costs to $1/megabyte, which makes roaming a bargain at $30-50/day.

What To Do Before You Take Off.  (Picture by Skinny Lawyer)

There is way to get going for much much less money.  But it requires preparation and planning.  After many years of global travel, here's my recipe for how to survive your trip overseas without coming home with a huge roaming bill.

Step 1: Buy A Package

  • Every carrier offers roaming packages for international travel.  They are all incredibly expensive and offer very poor value for money, except when compared to traveling without a package.
  • With the most aggressive management of your e-mail and apps, you could get your roaming usage down to 1 MB/day, but don't count on it.  

Step 2: Delete Your Apps

  • Modern smartphones make it a breeze (mostly) to re-install apps you've purchased, so back up your data and delete as many apps as you can.  Decide what you absolutely must have and delete everything else.
  • For me, the essentials are e-mail, address book, maps, and calendar. 
  • The reason to delete everything is that many apps can consume huge amounts of data without your knowledge.  Apps can even update themselves, resulting in megabytes of downloads for apps that don't generally use any data at all.  Better safe than sorry.

Step 3: Change Your Mail & Messaging Settings

  • Mail is a good example: just checking for it uses data.  Instead of having "push" email or regular checks, have mail update only manually
  • If you can switch off HTML mail or stop the automatic loading of pictures in mail, even better.  An e-mail that's text only can use just 1-3 kilobytes ($0.01 in roaming fees) or it can use 3-5 megabytes if it has pictures in it ($75 to $125 in roaming fees).  
  • On the Blackberry you can go entirely to text e-mail and on the iPhone and others you can just avoid downloading pictures through the mail settings.

Step 4: Change All Your Other Settings

  • Once you've pared down your apps to the minimum, go through the settings on all your remaining apps.  You've got two objectives: limit when they download data and how much they download.
  • Most apps have blocks that let you limit them from downloading except over WiFi or other settings that can help you cut your data consumption or prevent downloads when you're not checking.

Step 5: Test It Out

  • Switch off your WiFi and get most of your data over the cellular network for a few days before you travel overseas.  (Why switch off your WiFi?  If you are using WiFi at home and the office and getting most of your data that way, you may not get a realistic test of how much data you use when away from home)
  • Test out your roaming strategy before you go for a few days.  Your carrier has data (usually on an 18-24 hour lag) on how much data you use.  Log in to their account management web site and see.  If your data consumption is still in 10-20mb/day range, you probably missed some apps and settings to limit your data consumption.

And then hit the road.  Do these tips work? Let me know.

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