Why Americans aren't themselves when travel abroad comes calling

Technically Incorrect: A survey suggests that American cell phone users headed to foreign lands don't know enough about costs and data usage. Which means unsettling changes in behavior.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Americans already have to be careful when communicating abroad. Pimsleur Approach/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Abroad can be a troubling place for some Americans.

It's oddly international. They have strange teeth there. Some of the men wear skirts. Traveling there can be a deeply discombobulating experience.

It seems, though, that another data point of discombobulation is, well, data. When it comes to our phones, the mere concept makes our earlobes twitch. We sweat and we kvetch because we don't know what our kindly cell phone service providers will charge us for the data we use while outside the country.

I have become even more deeply aware of this because of a survey that has prostrated itself before me. It suggests that Americans are so confused about international data plans -- and even what constitutes data and what doesn't -- that they completely change their behavior.

This is the equivalent of Americans ceasing to ask where the nearest McDonald's is when they're visiting the Pyramids.

The survey was performed by Serious Insights, which talked to 237 people aged between 18 and 75, evenly spread across the sexes, in February and March of this year. Behind the research was a company called Telestial, which happens to sell, gosh, global SIM cards (and allegedly well-priced ones too), the sort of thing travelers to foreign lands are known to pack along with their passports. But surely some of this information has a ringtone of truth.

It seems over half of respondents -- 58 percent -- declared that they changed their cell phone behavior when abroad, fearful of what their phone use might cost them. How fearful? Well, 81 percent sniffed that they're concerned they'll be stiffed with a bill bigger than that of a platypus.

But we are Americans. We exist to make other countries just like ours. Being forced to behave differently stifles our naturally gregarious and self-centered nature. When it comes to communication, we already have to be careful about the hand gestures we use (as this video shows.)

Must we also curtail our ability to watch YouTube videos featuring a monkey, a cat, a clown and a jar of peanut butter?

Serious Insights kindly granted me access to the raw data, which has its disturbing aspects. One respondent offered: "My very first international trip cost me $7,500 in data. I had no idea I needed to change my patterns."

Another offered: "I didn't pay attention to texting rates for international service. My phone bill increased over $1,000." Gee, that's a lot of texting.

Things have changed over time. Of those who traveled abroad in a decade ago, nearly one-quarter said that although they took their phones with them, they left the gadgets switched off. Now that switcher-offer figure is just a hair under 4 percent. Moreover, 43 percent said that they have bought an international SIM card at least once on a trip (I wonder if they truly know what an international SIM card is), while 5 percent said they have bought a separate device just for an international trip.

But even if people feel they're equipped (and I suspect the majority aren't), what do they actually do?

Some proceed cautiously -- 37 percent said they used their phones only where free public Wi-Fi was available. Which may not be too much use anyway, as 78 percent said that they need their phones to get directions. What if there's no public Wi-Fi where you are? Do you just keep on getting lost?

Some people are even confused whether texts are charged as data. One or two even wondered whether Skype was charged at the same rate as an ordinary call because it's, well, a call.

International phone plans seem to be deliberately constructed so that human beings have no idea what's going on until they get home. Call it nickel-and-timing. If you care to arm yourself with knowledge, please consider the advice proffered by CNET's Maggie Reardon on managing wireless costs while traveling overseas with your phone.

There are likely some (many) people who still don't know how to switch the SIM cards in their phones, so they leave themselves at the mercy of whatever charming carrier happens to be theirs. My own current carrier, AT&T, offers me chunks of international data at $30, $60 or $120. This is a service that I suspect costs the company a few groats and a sandwich voucher. And how often do I remember to switch the international data charge off when I get back?

T-Mobile, on the other hand, desperate to be the beacon of sanity as its CEO curses his way from stage to stage, is now offering allegedly unlimited international data in over 120 countries at no additional charge. This sounds strangely human, if just slightly unbelievable.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the fact that we are Americans and we should insist on behaving just as we do at home (where, incidentally, the survey suggests we are quite good at controlling our costs).

We surely cannot continue to behave in a pinched manner, desperate to communicate, but pursing our digital lips for fear that we will spend too much.

The world expects a lot more of us. And we should have the skills, the tools and the wits to satisfy that expectation.