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Taking your iPhone overseas

Later this week, I'm off for a trip to Japan. I never go anywhere without my iPhone anymore. Japan will be no exception. But I will be taking the phone with some trepidation. Knowing that international charges can be exorbitant, I've spent a good deal of

Ted Landau

October 2008

Later this week, I'm off for a trip to Japan. I never go anywhere without my iPhone anymore. Japan will be no exception. But I will be taking the phone with some trepidation. Knowing that international charges can be exorbitant, I've spent a good deal of time determining what, if anything, I could do to keep costs to a minimum. To save you from having to do the same legwork, here's what I learned:

Q. What's the executive summary?

A. The cheapest thing you can do, by far, is leave your phone at home. Or treat it as if it were an iPod touch, never connecting to any network except a Wi-Fi one (Wi-Fi usage remains free except for any local charge). Otherwise, using an iPhone in most foreign countries will likely cost you somewhere between a hefty sum and your entire life savings. With some planning and prudence, however, you can make sure your costs stay down near the hefty sum end.

Q. First off, can I even use my iPhone as a phone in other countries?

A. For simplicity, I will assume you are a U.S. resident on a trip overseas. Given that, the answer still depends on the country you are visiting. Japan, for example, only supports 3G networks. So forget using an original iPhone there; at least as a phone. No cellular networked features will be available. AT&T has a Web page that can help you determine the network requirements for your destination; you may also find this other AT&T page helpful.

Q. Assuming I can use the phone, how much does it cost to make or receive a phone call?

A. You'll be using the "roaming" rate. In most cases, the standard rate is $2.29 per minute (or $2.49 on a cruise ship). However, as an iPhone owner, AT&T gives you its discounted "World Traveler" rate of only $1.69 per minute.

Even with the discount, the dollars quickly add up. Get out your calculator. If you take a 10 day vacation, and use your phone only 5 minutes per day, it will set you back $84.50. Use it for an average of 15 minutes a day and you'll be paying $253.50. And that's on top of the normal monthly charges for the iPhone!

Don't even think about having a conversation via text messages: they cost 50 cents per message.

Given all this, I've decided that I will only be making or taking calls in an emergency. If I want to make a reservation for dinner, for example, I'll ask the hotel to do it for me.

Q. What about Internet data services? Is there an extra charge for that?

A. One guess.

You're already paying $30 or more a month for a data plan. But that's pocket change compared to what it will cost you to use Safari or Maps or send email while on an overseas trip. The standard rate is 2 cents per kilobyte. That may not sound like a lot. But get out your calculator again. Suppose you use just 5MB per day on your 10 day trip, or 50MB for your entire trip. That adds up to (you might want to sit down here) $1024. Your read correctly: more than 1000 greenbacks.

Thankfully, there is a cheaper alternative. Much cheaper. You can purchase (before you leave on your trip) one of AT&T's International Data Packages (see this AT&T iPhone page for full details). For example, keeping with our 50MB example, you can get a 50MB Data Global Add-On for just $59.99 per month. It doesn't matter that your trip is less than a month. There's no pro-rated discount. It's $59.99 or nothing. Not surprisingly, there's similarly no refund for unused MBs, if any, at the end of your trip. You also have to remember to call AT&T when you get back, and cancel the plan, or you will be automatically charged for additional months. One more thing: If, after you cancel, you are late-billed for data used during your trip, you'll be billed at the standard rate even though the discount plan was in effect at the time of the usage! I'm not kidding. That's what they told me.

In spite of all of that, the savings are enormous. $1024 vs. $59.99. That's a savings of $964 or 94%. The package rate works out to only 0.12 cents per KB. Even if you go beyond your allotted 50MB, the Data Package still offers a benefit. The overage rate is bumped up to only 0.5 cents per KB. That's 25% of the standard rate. This means that if you used 100MB during your trip, and you had the 50MB package, it would cost you $256 for the 50MB in overage. That's far from cheap, but much less than it would have cost you at the standard rate.

Of course, if you knew for sure that you would be using 100MB during your trip, you'd be better off get the 100MB package for $119.99. The problem is that deciding the best package in advance of your trip is a guessing game. Guess too low and you pay the overage rate for some of your data; guess too high and you waste money on MBs that you never used.

Regardless, if you plan on using data services during your trip, get one of the Data Packages. Getting no plan at all is simply stupid.

This leaves one last question here: If AT&T can charge as little as .12 cents per KB and still apparently make a profit, how can they possibly justify the outrageous standard fee of 2 cents per KB? How can charging over $1000 for transferring 50MB of data begin to make sense? Here's how: It's the same reason that phone companies can charge ridiculous amounts for sending text messages or downloading ringtones. Because they can. It's legal robbery -- taking advantage of those who are unaware of the lurking dangers. But that's another story.

Q. How can I tell how much data I am using?

A. To help you decide which Data Package to purchase, check on your iPhone's data usage while still at home. To do so, go to Setttings > General > Usage. At the bottom is the Cellular Network Data category, showing the amount of Sent and Received data (in MB) since the time of your last reset (as listed at the very bottom of the screen). To set everything back to zero, tap the Reset Statistics button. You can now track how much data per day you are using.

Bear in mind that you may be accessing Wi-Fi a greater percentage of the time at home than you will on your trip. If so, the estimate may not be as accurate as you would want. Remember, Wi-Fi usage does not affect the Cellular Data Network Data stats.

Tap Reset Statistics again when you arrive at your destination. You can now check the Usage stats to see if and when you start approaching the limits of your Data Package.

The iPhone's Usage screen.

Q. What else can I do to keep costs down while on my trip?

A. There are several things you can do:

For starters, as already implied, use Wi-Fi as often as possible, rather than the 3G network. That may not be an option if you need Internet access and no Wi-Fi connection can be found. But if it's possible to delay your task until you have Wi-Fi access, do so.

Go to Settings > General > Network. Make sure Data Roaming is OFF. This will prevent your iPhone from accessing any cellular network data services, even automatically when you might be unaware of it, if a roaming surcharge would be applied. From this same screen, you can additionally turn off "Enable 3G." In countries such as Japan, this effectively prevents you from making or receiving any phone calls.

At the most extreme, but simpler to do, you can enable the iPhone's Airplane Mode, essentially turning your iPhone into an iPod and game machine.

If you intend to leave all of the above options enabled, at least disable Push and set Fetch to Manually. Do this by going to Settings > Fetch New Data. Also turn off Location Services at Settings > General. These changes can reduce usage at least a bit. Remember, you are free to reverse any of these settings whenever you want the access back temporarily.

Q. What about charging my iPhone? Do I need to buy an adapter or something?

A. Possibly not. Here's one place where you could save a bit of money.

The iPhone's power adapter is designed for international use. It's 100-240v and 50-60 Hz. These ranges include almost every possible combination you might confront in different countries. So there should be no need for any sort of converter.

However, you may still need to buy an adapter (such as Apple's somewhat pricey World Travel Adapter Kit) to accommodate the varying plug designs in different countries. Japan is one exception. It uses the same type of 2-prong plug as here in the United States. So no adapter is needed. A minor financial victory for me, as I prepare for my trip. See you when I get back.

To get Ted's latest book, Take Control of Your iPhone, click the link. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. [Note the new email address. The old address, as listed in prior columns, is no longer active.]

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