The price information that appears in this article was accurate at the time of writing and is subject to change.

Our mobile phones are our lifelines when traveling. They serve as our boarding passes, flight disruption managers, rebooking tools, personal tour guides, restaurant consultants, hotel keys, and so much more. Anyone who has had their device lost or stolen during a trip abroad knows how utterly dependent we have become on smartphones. But using them overseas can cost a small fortune if we’re not taking steps to avoid roaming fees.

As business travel picks up again, here are some tips on how to avoid high roaming charges when you’re traveling internationally.

What is roaming?

Data roaming occurs whenever your phone disconnects from your carrier’s network and connects to another network for coverage. So anytime you make a call, send a text, or check your email outside your network’s boundaries and sans Wi-Fi connection – whether domestically or internationally – you are roaming. Many telecommunications providers have partnerships with each other and do not charge extra for domestic roaming. Charges for international roaming, however, can add up quickly.

Roaming often happens without you realizing it. If you have the data roaming feature turned on, your phone will automatically connect to another wireless provider when you are outside your network’s coverage. So you may think nothing of it when you land in Madrid on an overnight flight and use Uber to hail a ride to the hotel because the service happens seamlessly, but that’s the result of roaming.

Even if your phone is tucked away in your bag, you may be using mobile data without knowing it. Many apps use background data for updates and notifications throughout the day, so these applications, even when not being actively used, could be eating up data.

So what options do you have when traveling abroad to avoid bill shock?

  1. Use Wi-Fi only.
  2. Pay as you go (PAYG) with limits.
  3. Sign up for a roaming plan.
  4. Use a temporary SIM card.

Let’s explore some tips and tricks for whichever route you take.

Wi-Fi only

Since using Wi-Fi doesn’t count toward your data allowance, some travelers without high data usage needs opt for this choice. This could be a great option when you’re on a beach vacation and want to sign off and forget about the rest of the world – not so much when you’re on a business trip and need to remain active on email and other work-related platforms.

When taking a Wi-Fi-only approach, turn off cellular data in your settings and have airplane mode on. (Many phones now allow you to connect to Wi-Fi in airplane mode.) Only use the internet and send email when you have Wi-Fi connectivity, like in the hotel or at the meeting location. For calls and texts, use Voice over Internet Protocol apps that rely on Wi-Fi, such as WhatsApp and Skype.

When connecting to a publicly shared Wi-Fi hotspot, be sure to employ a virtual private network, which creates an encrypted connection between your device and the internet to help protect your personal information.

Another point to remember: the public Wi-Fi service you’re connecting to may not be free, so check if there are any fees before you begin browsing the web or using your apps.

PAYG with limits

Without the right knowledge and discipline, a PAYG approach could land you in trouble. Many people have returned from trips to exorbitant bills because they were unaware of the hefty data fees they were triggering with their phone usage abroad. If you do venture forth with PAYG, do so with caution.

To minimize charges, follow the Wi-Fi steps above and only turn on roaming when necessary, such as when you need to call home or hail a ride to the hotel. Turn off background app refreshes and location sharing to prevent apps from secretly using roaming data. Also deactivate automatic email downloads and syncing to services like iCloud, Google, and Dropbox.

While roaming, avoid actions that will devour data, like streaming your favorite Netflix show. Instead, download the content ahead of your trip or when connected to Wi-Fi.

To stay within the parameters of your data plan, track your usage during your trip. With the My Data Manager app, you can monitor your usage in real time, see which of your interfaces is active (i.e., mobile, Wi-Fi, or roaming), and understand how much data you are using.

Roaming plan

A roaming plan is likely the path many business travelers will take. To remain productive on the go, they need the flexibility that roaming affords them.

Most carriers offer some form of roaming package so subscribers can avoid hefty pay-per-use fees. For instance, AT&T and Verizon have a $10 daily pass that allows you to use your phone like you do at home. T-Mobile’s Business Unlimited Ultimate plan offers high-speed data and texting in over 210 countries at no additional charge.

Mobile network virtual operators (MNVOs), which don’t have their own cellular towers and instead rely on other carriers’ networks for coverage, also can have attractive roaming deals. For instance, Google Fi’s Unlimited Plus monthly plan is $40 and offers free texts in 200 countries. Calls are either free or 20 cents per minute. With Mint Mobile, calls from many countries cost 25 cents per minute, 5 cents for texts, and 20 cents per megabyte of data.

To participate in these roaming plans, you’ll need to enroll before your trip. Since your phone may be incompatible with some international networks, ask your carrier whether your device will operate in the country you’re visiting, including if you’ll be able to make voice calls and send texts.

SIM card

A separate subscriber identity module (SIM) card usually provides lower rates than international roaming plans but using one requires some extra work. It’s not an ideal choice if you are country-jumping and each destination requires a separate SIM card, but if you have an extended assignment somewhere, the potential savings are worth the hassle of the additional setup.

To get started, you’ll need to unlock your phone. You can contact your carrier to help you with this task. In the US, wireless providers are required to offer this service.

If you have an older phone with a physical SIM card, you’ll need to purchase a local SIM card that works in the destination you’re visiting and install it on your device. You can either buy a preloaded SIM card in the United States (check Amazon) before heading off on your trip or get one from a local mobile provider upon your arrival. Many international airports have SIM cards available at a kiosk or vending machine.

Modern phones with an embedded SIM (an eSIM) make the process much easier. Generally, you can secure a new eSIM from a local carrier of the country you’re traveling to with a quick snap of a QR code available via an app, website, or mobile phone store. Once loaded, you can begin using your phone like a true local.

Before heading off on a business trip, be sure to check your company’s mobile device reimbursement policy so you can comply with its guidelines and best practices for mitigating data roaming charges.

Want more tips on how to prepare for your next business trip? Check out our Travel Ready site.