How Not To Get Hit With a $5000 Bill Overseas

by brian on September 3, 2009

I got forwarded this article by loyal reader Karen…

Don’t dare take your iPhone abroad before reading this

Now this does not apply just to iPhones, but since so many people surf the web, checking email and Twitter and Facebook from it, it is a great example.

People forget or don’t realize that when you take your phone overseas, expensive ROAMING charges get applied because you are outside your home region.

So while you may have an unlimited text plan or data plan AT HOME, that plan is not valid in a foreign country. You’re busy Tweeting and sending pictures from your trip and phone companies are happily adding up fees, which can be double and triple what you are used to.

From the article:

By then, I had been in Europe for a month and realized that my next AT&T bill would be astronomical. I had been taking and sending photos, reading and writing e-mails, surfing the Internet, downloading digital newspapers and watching mindless YouTube footage with abandon. What I didn’t know was that under the little apple on the iPhone case, a megabyte meter was whirring like a windmill in a hurricane.

The bottom line: about $5,000…

So what can you do?

Leave your phone at home
Who says you have to be connected all the time?

Get a cheap phone
I got a 25 pound phone in London and bought a local SIM card for 10 pounds with 100 minutes and 100 text messages from T-Mobile. It lasted 6 weeks while I traveled all around Europe. Much cheaper than if I used my own phone.

Use Skype
If you can get to an Internet cafe or use a laptop/netbook, Skype is the cheap alternative to using a cell phone. Use the Internet to make calls for mere change.

Use MagicJack
Look up MagicJack on the Internet. Loyal reader Mark used this the last time he was Europe. Similar to Skype, you can plug a USB stick in any computer and make calls from it. When you get home this can also double as your permanent home number. So you can take this number anywhere in the world with you.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

rhonalala September 3, 2009 at 6:18 PM

Yep, when I was in Europe, I just bought a cheap phone from a vendor in Cologne's main station. It was only EURO 14 and I just bought cards from T-Mobile as I went. I think I only bought 2 cards as I was able to make calls home from work and at my hotel room.


Tony September 4, 2009 at 12:33 AM

Sprint offers unlimited international data for $80/month. Not cheap, but feels really secure having as an internet backup (even if it is only dial up speeds).

Worked great for me every time I tried it in the last year — in London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Shanghai, and Beijing.

There was some setup issues initially my first international stop, but a skype call to tech support had it fixed in a couple hours. One other time I forgot to turn "roaming" on with my phone but I can't blame them for that :P


brian September 4, 2009 at 12:00 PM

The US cell phone vendors are very much about protecting themselves, which is why our phones are not unlocked and able to be used on any network.

Thanks for your comments. The Sprint offer is decent but not the greatest in terms of price. But for international roaming data, that could be considered a bargain!


Nomadic Matt September 4, 2009 at 3:55 PM

1 week into my trip, my bill was 500 dollars. I was able to retroactivaly change my plan and cut it in 1/2 but now the phone is off for the rest of this billing cycle!


brian September 4, 2009 at 7:26 PM

@Nomaadic Matt
Sometimes you're lucky and the company will retroactively refund the money, especially if it's your first time. But you don't want to be the exception…


Anonymous September 8, 2009 at 5:11 PM

Welcome to the life outside US.
I living near to three European borders and roaming is 50€ cent per minute.
Leaving your mobile on internet mode while crossing the borders reaching the 5000$ is only a question of time.

Excellent blog – spot on – Robert


brian September 8, 2009 at 10:25 PM

Thanks! I don't even have Internet access turned on my phone here in the States. I would love to use it. Overseas a SIM card with a pre-set limit will help you prevent unintentional charges. Hey I still see phone calling cards in many places!


Dylan September 10, 2009 at 1:27 AM

Everyone should pay attention to that article. I also wanted to add that if you're reading this and looking for ways to save on your cell bill, I might be able to give you some advice. I'm not trying to blatantly plug, but I think this is relevant here: I work in the consumer advocacy division of the company Validas, where we electronically audit and reduce the average cell bill by 22 percent through our website, Put simply, Validas guards against the frivolous and unnecessary charges that over-inflate an estimated 80 percent of cell bills. You can find out for free if can further modify your plan to better suit your individual needs by going to the website.

For more info, check out Validas in the media, most recently on Fox News at

Good luck to everyone on further reducing wireless expenses in this tough economy.

Consumer Advocacy,


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