How to Minimize Your Phone’s International Data Consumption and Cost

Our phones are invaluable travel companions.  But they can be costly if we're not careful.
Our phones are invaluable travel companions. But they can be costly if we’re not careful.

If you’re traveling out of the country, your smartphone can be both an invaluable aid and also a dangerously expensive luxury, potentially running up many thousands of dollars in unexpected data usage charges.

You need to do two things so as to avoid the risk of coming home to find a phone bill greater than the cost of your travels (which, alas, sometimes does happen).

Reducing the Cost of Your Data

The first thing is to reduce the cost of the data you will use.  If you just use regular ‘standard’ rates, you can find yourself paying $10,000 or more per GB of data consumed (for example, Verizon’s standard international rate is $20,000/GB), but with only a quick phone call to your wireless provider, you can probably buy a prepaid block of data at much lower cost (for example, Verizon will sell you prepaid blocks of data at ‘only’ $250/GB, and AT&T will do so at rates as low as $150/GB).

Of course, the best thing you can do is sign up for T-mobile’s free international data service.  $0/GB sure beats even $150/GB.

There are three potential tricks/traps lurking in the fine print of signing up for an international data package.  Make sure you understand all three issues.

Firstly, does the data package cover the countries you are visiting?  The chances are good that it will, but don’t assume and always check in advance.

Secondly, how long before the data package expires?  Some are only good for a week or two weeks, most are only good for a month.  What happens after the data package expires, if you are still traveling?

The third point is to understand what happens if you use up your data package and need more?  Are you automatically billed for another data package the same size (which might be too large if you only need one more day and 50 MB of connectivity but find yourself being filled for a month and 500 MB).  Or do you then fall back to the default, $20,000 per gigabyte, data rate?

We discuss more aspects of how to minimize the cost of your international data in this article.

Optimizing and Minimizing Your Wireless Data Usage

Now let’s focus on the other side of this coin.  Optimizing and minimizing the amount of data your phone actually uses.  To start with, do you even know how much data your phone uses each month (and, by weak implication, how much data you might need when traveling)?

Even if you think you know, you’re most likely wrong and seriously under-estimating your phone’s likely international data consumption.

That is because, when you’re at home, your phone is probably often connected to a Wi-Fi network.  You probably have one at home, another at work, and two or three more that you’ve programmed into your phone as well – at the local mall, your friends’ homes, and so on.  So, while living in your local area, much/most of the time your phone is getting its data through Wi-Fi rather than through the wireless company’s cellular data service.

There’s one more modifier to consider.  When you’re at home, you’re less likely to be needing to use your phone’s data service and internet connection to find out things, but when you’re traveling, you’ll probably need to be researching more things more often, using a map program, and so on.  If you are only using your phone as your main internet device, then you’ll be putting all your email, web-browsing, Facebook updating, and everything else through your phone rather than your regular computers at home and work, too.  Your usage will increase when ‘on the road’.

In assessing how you use your data, you need to understand that sometimes the largest data uses are probably ‘behind the scenes’.  For example, checking my iPhone showed that ‘System Services’ have used 253MB of wireless data since whenever I last reset the counter,  including 76.7 MB by the App Store (for app updates), 45.9 MB of data for (system) software updates, 35.8 MB for time and location services, 28.6 MB for documents and sync, 26.4 MB for iTunes and 12.6 MB for Siri.  That is all data consumption that I never realized was happening, and which gave me no apparent value in return.

In particular, the 76.7 MB of automatic updates for apps on my phone seems particularly wasteful.  None of the updates created any noticeable difference to anything I normally do on the phone.  While I’m always keen to have the latest versions of apps, if I was paying $1-$20/MB, I’d surely not want to spend $75 – $1500+ on unnecessary updating.

Some of the apps have also used extraordinary amounts of data, while giving close to nothing in value in return.  One that really sticks out is an app called ‘Cool Facts’ – a trivial timewasting thing to play with when filling in some spare time, that lists surprising but true facts.  I don’t even remember using it recently, but it is reporting 43.4 MB of use.  Would I pay $100 – $1000 to use this while traveling?  Absolutely not!

My contacts list has used 10.8MB of data – who even knew that the contact list uses data!  Well, if you think about it, you’ll realize that synchronizing contacts across your phone and other devices obviously consumes data, but 10.8 MB is quite a lot in return for the very few changes to my list that sometimes happen (especially when one notes that ‘documents and sync’ has consumed an additional 28.6 MB of data).

So how to manage and control your phone’s appetite for ‘secret’ data as well as for obvious data?

There are several strategies you can adopt.

Switch Your Data On and Off

If you have occasional access to free Wi-Fi as well as the cellular wireless data network, maybe you should turn your wireless data completely off most of the time, and use your free Wi-Fi for most of the ‘heavy lifting’.  Only turn it on when you need data service, rather than leaving it on all the time and being used by non-essential tasks.

In iOS go to Settings – Cellular and switch on or off the ‘Data Roaming’ option.  In Android, go to Settings – More – Cellular Networks (or Settings – Data Usage – Cellular) and turn on or off Data Roaming.

Even if you leave your cellular data on all the time, try and shift some data uses into the times when you have Wi-Fi connectivity.  For example, before leaving a Wi-Fi zone, do a quick refresh/check of your email to get that up to date, and also check/update all apps that need updating.

Selectively Manage Which Apps Can Use Wireless Data

When you’re at home, there’s probably no reason not to allow all your apps to access wireless data whenever they want to, no matter if it is of any apparent use or value to you or not.  But when you’re traveling, it makes sense to ‘drill down’ and work through your apps, one by one, deciding which ones can use wireless data and which ones can’t.

Do this before you reset your wireless data counters, because it is interesting to know which apps are most data-hungry.

With an iPhone, go to Settings – Cellular then scroll down to the list of apps that are allowed to use cellular data, and selectively turn off the ones you wish to restrict.  They can still use Wi-Fi, and you can turn them on again at any time.

With an Android phone, go to Settings – Data Usage – Cellular then select each app and scroll down to where you can set on the ‘Restrict app background data’ option.

Monitor Your Data Usage

Forewarned is forearmed.  We suggest that at the start of your international travels, you should reset your wireless data counters so you can keep track of the data you are using.

This can help you understand if you need to ease back on your data consumption, or if you can relax and treat yourself to a bit more data.  It also shows you if any of your apps suddenly start to become very data-hungry.

Using Hotel and other Wi-Fi Services

If you’re staying in a hotel, and if you’ve signed up to pay for their Wi-Fi or wired internet access, then whenever you’re in your room or anywhere in the hotel where you can use their internet connection, do all the connecting and downloading you need with your phone.

If the hotel restricts your use to only one device, connect your laptop as the one allowed device, and use the Connectify program to then share the one device among all your other Wi-Fi capable devices.

We’d particularly suggest you don’t allow your photos to auto-sync as and when you take them.  Wait until you’re in your hotel room and connected through Wi-Fi before allowing these potentially data-hungry things to occur.

Make a point of doing an email check before leaving the room.

Beware of Unknown Free Wi-Fi Services

Some people assert that they can conveniently travel the world and get by only by accessing free Wi-Fi services.

To be blunt, we don’t believe them, or alternatively, their definition of ‘get by’ doesn’t come within a country mile of our requirements.

More to the point, before you too succumb to the temptation of connecting to a hotspot that your phone reports as being nearby, with the name ‘Free_WiFi_Here’ or something else equally inviting, you should know that some of these sites are deliberately created by identity thieves, hoping to have naieve people use their service.  The hotspot owner will be able to collect your account details and passwords from the traffic you send through their hotspot.

Here’s an official notice on the danger of such services, and if you want to know more, simply search Google for  ‘The danger of free Wi-Fi’ or a similar search phrase.

Be Careful of ‘Free’ Services that Aren’t Free

A reader proudly told me that they would avoid paying money to send text messages or to make phone calls when traveling because they would use WhatsApp (or any of the other similar text-type communication services) and Skype (or other similar voice calling services).

It is true that such apps seem to be free to us at home, and certainly if you’re as unfortunate as to have a wireless service provider that still charges for text messages, there’s an obvious difference between seeing 10c – 20c or so for every text message you send and receive appearing on each month’s bill, and seeing nothing when using WhatsApp.

But how do you think these ‘free’ services connect to their systems and servers and send/receive messages or voice calls?  They do so through the phone’s data connection.  If you have a monthly data allowance and are not getting near using it all, then you could indeed claim the services to be free, but if you’re paying for every MB (and even every kB) of data, then they are not free.

GPS Issues

One of the most marvelous uses of our phones, particularly when traveling, is to use their GPS mapping feature.

The good news is that the incoming GPS signal is always free to everyone.  But using your phone’s GPS service might be very costly in terms of the regular wireless data the service also consumes.  All that moving map data, and being continually refreshed, all takes up a lot of data.

Now for the important consideration.  Some map apps rely on downloading their map data ‘on the fly’ from the internet.  Others have you downloading a complete map for the region they cover ‘up front’ when you install the app (or, if not when you install it, the first time you start it), and then the app never needs to use any of your data allowance while in use (except for any optional extras like real-time traffic reporting).

Using a map/GPS app with local (on the phone) data is always a better approach, not only because it uses less data, but also for two other important reasons.  The data on your phone can be accessed at lightning-fast speed, whereas the wireless data can sometimes be slow.  Worse than that – and here’s the second reason – you may sometimes be entirely out of data service coverage and so your map will stop working.  Such places are invariably the places you most need your GPS for guidance!

We use the CoPilot GPS app on both our iOS and Android phones.  It is moderately priced, has good map data (and yes, it does download the maps to the phone), and covers most countries in the world.  We’ve sometimes found its interface a bit infuriating, and no doubt there are other and possibly better GPS apps out there too, but this one has worked well for us everywhere we’ve traveled.

One important thing with CoPilot is to be sure you have current up-to-date maps loaded before you first start using it in-country.  If you don’t do this, the first thing the program will attempt to do is download the map, or updates to the map, before letting you use the app.  That could see you consume up to a GB of data, and could take a very long time to complete.  So, if possible, run the app before leaving home, and/or run it, in-country, somewhere with a Wi-Fi connection first.


If you aren’t careful, your data usage might be much greater than you expected, and your data costs might soar up to four or five or six figure sums.

With some forward planning and careful use, you can enjoy convenient and close to full use of your phone while traveling internationally, and on an affordable basis.  The suggestions in this article enable you to optimize your data use, and at least cost.

3 thoughts on “How to Minimize Your Phone’s International Data Consumption and Cost”

  1. I picked up a manufactured unlocked phone from . It’s Dual SIM and it has tethering & wi-fi built in. I’m really excited to have it because, I am going to be traveling and I can take it with me and use it oversea’s. All I have to do is pick up a sim card in the country I am visiting at the airport or at a store. This way I can make local calls and call home cheaper with the plans they offer.

  2. We have used T-Mobile’s “free” intl. roaming (unlimited texts, data, 20¢/min. calling) in 9 countries since it went into effect. China, HK, Costa Rica, Suisse, Austria,Hungary, Romania, Germany, and about 30 minutes on the Ukraine system when driving near the border w. Romania..
    Spent 8 days in a rented car using Google Maps (free) with the free roaming data. Didn’t miss a beat. Also used Google Maps in other countries when walking.
    In China, using T-Mobile’s free data allows you to avoid the great Chinese firewall that in country wifi and local SIM cards use to block access to Facebook, CNN, NYTimes and other popular sites.

  3. Forgot to mention that TMobile has free voice calling back to U.S. numbers when you are on wifi. This feature is available on BlackBerry and most Androids. Just recently, those stuck w. Apple phones just got that feature added by the latest OS update – model 5 and 6 phones.

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