Data roaming happens when your phone connects to the internet on any network other than your primary carrier. Your roaming charges can add up quickly if you’re not careful, mainly because you might be using your mobile data without realizing it.

Woman enabling roaming option on smartphone

Cell phone carriers such as T-mobile, AT&T, or Verizon typically have data roaming agreements with other networks. These agreements guarantee that you, as their subscriber, will be covered in areas your carrier’s coverage doesn’t reach. Your phone will no longer be connected to the home network service but to a different network instead. Of course, this also depends on your subscription plan.

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    What Is Data Roaming?

    Data roaming is managed through your carrier’s network. It is up to them to enable this service for you.

    If you find yourself outside your wireless provider’s coverage area, your phone will automatically search and connect to a different network. You don’t have to do anything. Which network your phone will choose depends on the area where you are.

    When a foreign network detects your connection, it recognizes your home country and home network carrier. If you travel abroad, your phone automatically switches to that country’s network. If there is a roaming agreement between your home and foreign network, you can make phone calls, send text messages, and use the internet. Most of the world’s major networks already have such agreements in place.

    diagram showing handoff between networks
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    That said, different network carriers use different technologies. Some use GSM, and others use CDMA. Typically 4G LTE and next-gen 5G networks use standard technologies, but it’s different for older 2G and 3G technologies. That means that not all networks can provide decent roaming coverage.

    Many areas of the U.S. and the world still operate on these older networks, and your device must also be compatible with these technologies. Luckily, most modern iPhones and Android devices support most network technologies, so you don’t need to worry unless you have a really old cell phone.

    What Is the Difference Between Domestic and International Data Roaming?

    Domestic data roaming refers to using your mobile phone in your country but outside your network carrier’s coverage. In that case, your phone will connect to a different domestic network. Some carrier networks partner up to ensure you have data access wherever you might travel in your country. Still, you might have to subscribe to one of the premium plans to take advantage of this system without being overcharged.

    International roaming is when your mobile phone connects to a non-domestic (foreign) network. This will happen when you travel abroad. Different carriers have international roaming agreements allowing you to continue using your device outside your home country.

    You should know that international data roaming will incur additional charges, which you can see on your next phone bill. These charges can quickly add up, and you can spend a lot of money without even realizing it. That’s why you can switch off roaming and stop the service or enable low data mode. Always double-check data roaming prices whenever you plan to travel. This way, you will avoid unexpected charges.

    How Much Does Data Roaming Cost?

    Most carriers in the U.S. do not charge for domestic data roaming, so if you’re traveling inside the U.S., you typically won’t incur additional charges. This is not a guarantee, though, and you should check on your carrier plan.

    International data roaming will cost you extra, though. The exact rates depend on your carrier, plan, and where you’re traveling. However, here are the typical ranges just to give you an idea of what to expect:

    • Phone: $0.18 to $0.30 per minute
    • Text: $0.08 to $0.15 per text
    • Data: $2.00 to $5.00 per megabyte

    Where you’re traveling also makes a difference. For example, some carriers do not charge extra roaming charges for Mexico and Canada, while some do. Some even offer set plans or different rates covering roaming in those countries.

    Should You Turn Data Roaming On or Off?

    Data roaming is easily adjustable. If you don’t want to pay high data roaming rates, you can opt-out and switch off your roaming. But you might find yourself in situations where you need your phone. Make sure to learn how to quickly access data roaming on your mobile phone and turn it on if needed.

    illustration of man on phone walking in front of wall map

    Switching off data roaming can save you from high phone bills. But you can also leave it on with a few precautions. Be smart about using your mobile data, and stop streaming and downloading. You should also set your smartphone never to download updates unless connected to a Wi-Fi network. That means your mobile phone will not use mobile data for system and app updates.

    Is Data Roaming Safe?

    Generally, data roaming is safe. But you will want to learn all the restrictions your home carrier might have to protect you from excessive data usage. Also, when traveling, you should always inform yourself of your destination country’s privacy laws. Some countries have stronger or weaker protection laws. This means some governments might collect and store your personal information. You should always be concerned about your digital privacy.

    Data Roaming Can Get Expensive

    Data roaming charges depend on your cellular network carrier and the data used. Contact your service provider and ask about the roaming fees.

    If you live in one of the European Union countries, you should know that traveling within the EU now falls under the “roam like at home” policy. This means there are no additional charges for making calls, sending SMS, or using mobile data in the EU.

    However, control mechanisms are set to prevent mobile carrier users from abusing the “roam like at home” system. Mobile network providers usually limit the mobile data you can spend abroad and will implement additional charges for all data use above this limit.

    How to Turn Off Data Roaming

    If you want to avoid paying for roaming, the best bet is to simply switch it off.

    How to Turn Off Data Roaming on iPhone

    Here is how to turn off data roaming on your iPhone:

    1. Go to the phone’s Settings.

    2. Tap Mobile Data.

    screenshot of mobile data setting

    3. Go to Mobile Data Options.

    screenshot of mobile data options setting

    4. Toggle the Data Roaming off.

    screenshot of data roaming toggle

    How to Turn Off Data Roaming on Android

    If you’re an Android user, follow these steps to turn off data roaming:

    1. Go to Settings.

    2. Tap on Connections.

    screenshot of connections setting on android

    3. Go to Mobile Networks.

    screenshot of mobile networks setting on android

    4. Toggle the Data Roaming off.

    screenshot of data roaming toggle on android

    You can also put your phone on Airplane mode. This will turn off all network connections, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, you can go to the Quick Settings menu and turn on Wi-Fi if needed.

    Different mobile carriers have set up travel passes or free international coverage with specific data plans. For example, if you are a Verizon or AT&T user, you can buy TravelPass for as low as $10 and get free coverage in 210 countries. T-mobile users with the Magenta Max data plan have unlimited data and texting in more than 210 countries but will pay additional fees for voice calls. These planned roaming services can be a life changer abroad.

    FAQs

    Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding data roaming. Travel freely, knowing what to expect when you need access to mobile data abroad.

    What Is Data Roaming?

    Data roaming is a service provided by your mobile network carrier. It allows you access to mobile data, phone calls, and SMS outside your carrier network.

    How to Tell If My Device Is Roaming

    Most iPhones and Android phones will have an R above your mobile data signal icon. This is a visual indication that your phone is now using data roaming.

    screenshot of mobile data signal icon

    But different smartphone models have different indicators. The best you can do is consult your phone’s manual.

    Are There Data Restrictions When Roaming?

    That depends on your cellular data options, but generally, the answer is yes. The amount of data you can use when roaming can be restricted by your provider based on your subscription plan.

    Do I Need to Turn Off Roaming on My iPhone or Android?

    Apple devices automatically switch off data roaming, so users are not charged extra for unwanted data. But that also means you cannot use any apps that use your phone’s data to work when traveling abroad. You will have to turn on data roaming manually.

    If you have an Android smartphone, however, you’ll have to check your manual. A Samsung that runs on Android may have different settings from other phones.

    Use Data Roaming Responsibly

    Before using your mobile data anywhere, check your data roaming settings on your phone. Some phones will activate it automatically when needed, and you might get a massive bill at the end of the month. So be mindful of how much mobile data you’re using – it can be expensive!