How to Avoid Massive Cell Phone Charges When You Travel Abroad

Using a cell phone when traveling internationally
••• Keep Your Cell Phone Bill Low on International Trips. Ascent/PKS Media Inc./Getty Images

Afraid to let your family members use their cell phones overseas? Anytime you leave the country on a family vacation or a cruise, your next cell phone bill has the potential to go kaboom. But an international trip doesn't have to break your budget. ​

Before You Go, Talk to Your Provider

First things first. Depending on where you're traveling, your wireless provider may offer an international plan that is affordable to your destination.

If you're only spending a few days in Canada or Mexico, for example, it may only cost you a handful of dollars to switch to a different plan temporarily. On the other hand, if you do nothing and simply cross the border, you could end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars.

For example, Verizon's TravelPass and AT&T's Passport plans both let you use your phone as you would at home for a very reasonable surcharge when traveling to Canada, Mexico, and other regions.

If your cell phone company doesn't provide an international plan, consider upgrading temporarily to a plan that gives you more data. You can verify coverage in your destination country and estimate how much data you’ll need by using tools such as Verizon's International Trip Planner or AT&T's Travel Guide.

Aside from choosing an alternative plan, here are steps you can take to stop or cut back on how much cellular data you use when you are out of the country.

Avoiding massive data overages is the key to keeping costs under control.

How to Stop Cellular Data Usage

Turn off roaming.
How: In Settings, go to Cellular, then Cellular Roaming Options, and set to "Roaming Off." What it does: This is essentially the nuclear option, and shuts off your cellular data entirely when you're out of the country.

If you choose this option, you’ll still be able to get phone calls and texts whenever you're logged into a Wi-Fi network or hotspot. But your phone will not send or receive data on networks such as 3G, 4G, or LTE.

If you have kids who are old enough for a phone but young enough that you can't trust them to stay off YouTube and Instagram while you're away, this may be the best bet.

How to Cut Way Back on Cellular Data Usage

Set your email to fetch.
How: In Settings, go to Mail, Contacts, Calendars and switch your settings from "Push" to "Fetch New Data." What it does: This turns off automatic downloads of new emails and lets you manually download your email when connected to a Wi-Fi network or hotspot, which is much cheaper. Even better: If you can live without email altogether, then turn off both "Push" and "Fetch."

Shut down non-vital apps.
How: In Settings, go to Cellular, then scroll down to Use Cellular Data For and shut down any individual apps you will not need on your trip. What it does: This lets your phone download data only for the apps you want to use without having all your other apps also using up data. The fewer apps you leave turned on, the less risk of racking up hundreds of dollars in roaming charges.

Deactivate texting.
How: In Settings, go to Messages and deactivate your messaging app (such as iMessage), along with MMS Messaging and Group Messaging. What it does: It stops texts from being billed as data when you're away. When you’re outside the country, iMessage and other calling and messaging apps are treated as pricey data rather than as text messages. Even better: Before your trip, ask anyone with whom you need to stay connected to download an app such as FireChat, which allows for live communication within a group even without an Internet connection or cellular network. When you get back home, simply reactivate your texting settings.

Keep an eye on your usage. 
How: In Settings, go to Cellular, then look at Cellular Data Usage. ​What it does: You can track your usage within the current billing period.

 As you leave the country, scroll to the bottom and click "Reset Statistics" to reset the tracker so you can see your usage for that specific trip. As your usage approaches your max for the month, consider turning off roaming.

Don't stream.
How: Let family members know that streaming video and movies are banned on your trip. Instead, have everyone download content before leaving the U.S. What it does: This allows you to avoid streaming content, which is extremely data intensive and will make your bill blow up.