Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Data roaming allows you to stay connected with your family and friends using mobile devices while in foreign countries. You can update them on where you are and your well-being. However, uncontrolled use of data roaming can lead to exorbitant bills and make your travels costly.
To avoid costly data charges when travelling, you can get local prepaid cards with data quota or an international data package with limits on both data quota and/or maximum payout. But, hitting the limits when you are not near the end of a trip is not what you will want either. In most cases, you can just top-up the cards but controlling data usage is still the way to go.
Below are 15 ways that can help you to manage data usage and cut data roaming charges. We will also tell you something that other websites don't.
Update: We added 1 new check on 28 April 2017. See 1A.
Before we start, understand why data roaming charges are expensive.
To use local networks when travelling, you will need to have some "relationships" with the local carriers, via prepaid SIM cards from them or international data plans with your telco, before you can enjoy "better" rates. But "better" does not mean cheap, the rates are just lower than using networks from carriers that you have no relationship with (the most expensive and often lead to exorbitant bills).
In any case, your relationship with a local carrier is only as long as your travel period in that country (may be just a few days), they have no incentives to make data rates very cheap for short-stayers, unlike for their long-term subscribers.
Note also that all calls and data usage may be charged by both the local carriers AND your own telco (check your data plan).
# DEVICE SETTINGS
(To enable/disable any functions in Settings, please refer to respective operating guides for your mobile device model and operating system version.)
1. Turn Off Data Roaming
First thing to do when travelling is to turn off data roaming on your mobile device, especially when you do not have a data plan with a local carrier. This essentially cuts off all data communications but you can still make calls when needed (take note of call charges). The only time you can get online is when WiFi is available.
If you have a data plan, you can switch on data roaming only when need to. Keep it turned off at other times to avoid unnecessary incoming data that eats up your data quota. This is also good to prevent apps from auto-downloading contents when launched unintentionally.
One drawback though, when you turn on data roaming, all pending notifications, messages, updates, mails, etc, will flood your device all at once. You will still lose data. Read on for more settings to further prevent this from happening.
1A. Turn Off Data Roaming in Telco App
If you install your telco's app, do scan through the app's settings to turn off any data roaming switches if you are not using its data plan when travelling. Most telcos want you to use their services even when overseas, so they usually enable data roaming by default.
Put all data roaming settings to OFF at all times. When you are overseas AND using your telco's international data plan, then enables it.
2. Stop Automatic Search for Carriers
If you have a prepaid card or international data plan, you can only use the networks from designated carriers. Other carriers will ignore your data plan and charge you their highest rates. Normally, a prepaid SIM card will lock onto its carrier's network to prevent you from using other networks (but do check to make sure). For international travel data plan (which your telco can work with multiple local carriers), you will need to make sure you use the networks of designated carriers only.
Set your device's "automatic search" for network carriers to off / manual and configure it to lock onto a designated carrier's network.
3. Disable Auto-Updates & Auto-Sync
Apps usually perform auto-updating in the background so you don't have to check for updates all the time. Some apps are several hundreds of megabytes, if not gigabytes, in size (especially gaming apps) and just few updates of such sizes can wipe out your data in minutes. These updates will take place so long as the apps are on your device, even if you are not using them when travelling.
Configure your device to perform app updates only when connected to WiFi.
If you use iCloud or other similar auto-syncing services to backup documents and photos, disable them or put them on WiFi too. Taking a photo does not use data but when it gets synced to cloud services, it can use up as much as 4-6 megabytes per photo. Imagine taking 50 photos in a day with your device on data roaming - that's more than 200 MB!
Putting auto-updates & auto-sync on WiFi-only should be the default settings at all times, not only when travelling.
4. Disable Push Notifications
You can't stop app companies from sending you promotions via push notifications or your uninformed friends from sending you messages when you are overseas. And also those social media apps from informing you when someone liked your posts. These are non-essential things to be notified when you are overseas and you can't stop them from sending.
Older websites will state that push notification size is "negligible". That was in the past where messages are less than 500 bytes. Today (Apr 2017), one push notification can be 4-6 KB, not including communication overheads. If you are someone who gets blasted by hundreds of notifications everyday (especially chat messages), it would be better to turn them off and enjoy your holidays.
Disable push notifications for apps in Settings or in the apps (if applicable), one by one, or selectively disable those with high frequency of receiving notifications, especially social media apps, chat-messaging apps and those apps that keep sending useless notifications.
5. Disable Background Mode for Unneeded Apps
On iOS device, these are called "Background App Refresh". On Android, "background data". Some apps actually perform tasks like downloading updates, retrieving updated contents, tracking locations, etc, in the background (i.e. when you are not using the apps). These background tasks use data too.
Similarly, turn off background modes for those apps that you will not be using when travelling. Or restrict the apps to WiFi only.
We did not mention 3G vs 4G settings. Why?
The main difference between them is the speed. 4G is faster than 3G. Using either one will not results in data saving. If you want to send a 5 megabytes photo, 5 megabytes of data will be used regardless of whether it is sent in 5 seconds or 50 seconds. Higher speed leads many people to stay online longer, stream online movies or do more things, thus resulting in more data usage.
6. Use Public WiFi
Use free WiFi at hotels, cafes or public places whenever possible. If you can rule out the need to use the Internet when out of reach of any WiFi spots, or if you are travelling in a city where WiFi hotspots are readily available anywhere, do away with costly data plans.
What others don't tell you?
While using WiFi to surf net, check on its connection status occasionally. WiFi can get disconnected sometimes, due to timeout or low signal strengths, and switch to mobile network automatically. You may be surfing on mobile data (or cellular data) without realising it. It could be worse if you have no data plan at all. Always keep your heavy-content apps on WiFi-only (see 10), so the apps will stop using data the moment WiFi is lost.
7. Download Apps before Travel
You should download apps that you think you will need before the trip — generally, travel apps, offline travel guides, flight and accommodation booking apps, e-books for reading, etc. In most cases, you should be able to download apps when on the trip using WiFi but do note that retail providers (shops, hotels, restaurants, etc) can configure their WiFi to limit download sizes. This is a cost management measure to prevent guests from downloading large-size contents like movies, apps, etc, in their premises.
Also, App Store and Play Store has a size limit of 100 megabytes (MB) when downloading apps on mobile data. This measure is good when travelling, but 100 MB is still a data killer.
Apart from downloading large-size contents, documents such as flight itineraries, accommodation confirmation slips, travel information obtained from websites, etc, should also be downloaded and saved on the phone, so you don't have to go online to get them when needed. Pre-download movies and musics too if you need entertainment on the road.
8. Use Offline Apps
Apps that work without using any data are preferred when travelling as they do not incur data charges. However, apps with ads are not really offline (see 9). Some apps are also designed with web technologies, called web apps. Unlike native apps that have most of its functions in the app, web apps are mostly empty shells that download web pages, images, and media files from servers every time you use it — same as browsing web pages on a web browser. To know if any of your apps are web apps, put your phone to Airplane mode and launch them, web apps will start screaming "no network connections" and show empty contents.
iPackTravel is a travel app that keeps your itinerary and packing list in the app, not on any servers. Except for external resources that are provided by online service providers, all travel tools are either offline or designed to keep data usage to bare minimum. iPackTravel can know whether you are on a trip (from your trip details, not by tracking your location) and highlight to you which functions will use data. Well, it's designed by travellers.
9. Use Apps with No Ads
Most people download and use free apps, even though they are padded with commercial ads. "There is no such thing as a free lunch", developers of such apps actually earn from the ads per-clicks, so they do not charge download fees. Well, you would not mind since advertisers are paying for you to use the apps free — or so you thought!
To display ads, the apps need to go online and get them, not once but several times during a session. All these ads eat away your data every time you use the apps without realising it.
What others don't tell you?
The size of each ads banner can goes from several kilobytes to some hundreds of kilobytes (with images and animations). If you don't click on those ads, the developers don't earn anything, so they programmatically "click" for you sometimes to download the full ads (larger sizes and usually contain media files). So, by trying to save US$1.00 off an ads-free app, you are losing more money through data charges every time you use them, both at home and overseas. You pay more ultimately.
Use apps that are ads-free when travelling or don't launch these apps without WiFi — if you can remember they have ads. iPackTravel and its family of apps are all ads-free.
10. Disable Mobile Data for Heavy Content Apps
Social media apps are photos and videos intensive. The most undesirable feature of these apps, when travelling, is the displaying of the feeds page whenever you launch it. Before you can do anything, photos and streaming videos (if auto-play is enabled) are already being downloaded automatically. Even if you close the app immediately upon realising this, it can still continue to download in the background for another few seconds. You can use up tremendous amount of data just by browsing feeds.
Apart from social media apps, other apps like shopping apps, mail apps, chat-messaging apps and gaming apps (especially if game data are saved online) also behave the same way. They are all designed to start downloading data and media contents without you asking.
Similarly, set these apps to work on WiFi only. If you want to share photos or videos, do it when connected to a WiFi. A raw photo can easily be 4-6 megabytes and videos can goes up to hundreds of megabytes, depending on the recording lengths. If you just want to share a photo without expending more data than needed, try iEmo (see 11).
11. Use iEmo (iOS only)
iEmo is a lightweight app that allows photos to be added with quotes and shared to social media sites. This is handy if you just want to share a photo when on the move without having to download other feeds. iEmo is free, ads-free and works completely offline until you submit the photo. Only one photo can be shared each time.
Adding quote to a photo taken on a trip (left). Photo shared on social media (right).
Your photo will be reduced to the size of the phone's screen dimensions before sending out in JPEG compression format, hence greatly reducing the data size. A JPEG photo sent via an iPhone 6 is roughly around 150 kilobytes (750 x 1334 pixels), although it depends largely on the colour information of the photo.
12. Cache Maps Offline
Map apps require data to download maps from map servers. After downloading, the maps will be cached as temporary files. This method allows the apps to reuse the same maps without downloading them again so long as they are still on the device. Google Maps app goes a step further to allow maps to be saved offline (up to 70 MB) for up to 30 days.
On iOS devices, you can have both Apple Maps and Google Maps to store more maps.
Before you go to any places where you may need a map to find your way, use these apps to browse the destination using WiFi, zooming in and out as well, and allow the maps to be cached. You can also do routing from point to point and take screenshots of the maps with routes — routing functions require data too, so you probably will not want to do that when on the move.
When on the ground, you will be able to use the map apps to navigate around without turning on data roaming. And do enable location services on your mobile device to know your location.
Clarification on Location Services
Finding your location via GPS (global positioning system) DOES NOT requires data. It needs a direct line-of-sight between your mobile device and the GPS satellites in the sky to give you your location. So, stay in open areas to get accurate readings.
What happens if you forget to cache the maps before setting off and do not want to use mobile data (or if you don't have any data plan)?
If you have iPackTravel installed, you can use the Location Finder function to find your way to locations that are recorded in your travel itinerary. Compass mode uses iPhone's directional headings, and computed straight-line distance, to get you to your destination without using any data. Compass & Map mode will show an additional map (do pre-cache to save maps offline), allows routing and show directions (do not invoke routing and directions function if you don't wish to use data).
iPackTravel's Location Finder has two modes. One mode doesn't use data (right). The other uses a map but you are informed.
# MAKING CALLS
13. Make Calls using Skype or Google Hangout
When you are travelling, you will not be making a lot of calls, unless for urgent matters. The usual calls will probably be those to love ones to let them know you are well — a simple message via a messaging app would suffice most of the time though.
If you really want to make calls, use Skype or Google Hangout apps. Using mobile data (or Voice over IP, VoIP, specifically) to make calls may be cheaper than calling directly in some countries. If the receiving end is a phone number, you will need to buy call credits before you can make the first call. However, you can always arrange with your love ones to use Skype or Google Hangout too. Call them through the apps with no call charges. And no data charges too when used with WiFi.
What others don't tell you?
In terms of saving data roaming charges when travelling, DO NOT talk using mobile data even when using Skype or Google Hangout, your data quota will drop drastically within few minutes. In VoIP, your voice will be converted to data bytes and sent to the receiver, including all background noises that are picked up too. All responses, and noises, will also be sent to you through data. Try talking in a noisy environment and you will run out of data before you know it!
# PERSONAL WIFI
14. Use Portable WiFi Router Appropriately
Portable WiFi Router is a palm-size broadband device that allows several end users to share a data SIM card. It uses the SIM card to connect to the carrier's network using data but acts as a WIFI hotspot to other devices that connect to it.
As mentioned above, we set mobile devices and apps to use WiFi to save on data roaming charges. But WiFi router actually lets mobile devices and apps to connect to it as "WiFi", meaning all network usage, push notifications, updates, mails, messages, etc, for connected devices will be channelled through the network using your own data.
The good thing about WiFi Router is that it allows you and your friends to share one data plan — provided all of you are low-data-usage users. This is the only time it can help to save costs. If you are using it alone or with friends who use a lot of data, this will not help at all. Do use it appropriately.
15. Personal Hotspot
Same as WiFi Router except you are using your own mobile device as a WiFi hotspot, via a function called "Personal Hotspot" for your friends to connect to the Internet through your own data plan. It helps them to save data charges, but increases the cost for yourself — unless you are connecting to your friend's device.
Again, use it only for sharing among low-data-usage friends.
Staying connected when travelling doesn't have to be expensive. Adhering to all the advises above, you can safely get the lowest data plan available (100-250 MB) when travelling. Use data only when needed.
If you are prudent, you may not be just reducing data roaming charges, you save on mobile data charges when at home too.
The 15 ways mentioned above are "hard factors" involving mainly device settings, networks and the apps use. There are also "soft factors" — all about YOU — that can further save data charges. We will cover them in another post: