Rivaled perhaps only by cable companies, U.S. wireless providers have earned a unique reputation with their millions of customers. Which is to say they are uniformly loathed. And among the chief complaints are the multiple hoops consumers are forced to jump through just to use their smartphone or tablet while traveling abroad: the byzantine plans, technical pitfalls and hair-raising prices boggle the mind. So for those who can't bear to disconnect while on vacation, we've compiled a step-by-step guide to help you cut through the confusion.
Before getting started you'll need to confirm whether your smartphone or tablet will even function in your destination country. Most premium smartphones (like an iPhone and many Android models) are so-called worldphones that can work most anywhere in the world. Note though that phones and branded tablets from Sprint and Verizon that have aCDMA antenna (which is supported in just 40 countries) may not function everywhere; click for a list of Sprint worldphones and here for a list of Verizon ones (under the Features filter select Global ready). Virtually all smartphones and tablets can use Wi-Fi.
For smartphones you'll also need to sign up for an international roaming agreement, which typically runs $5-$10 per month and will prevent you from racking up a sky-high phone bill when you return home-though calling from abroad can be $1 and up per minute. Note that while abroad, any call, whether you pick it up or not, is billed by the rounded minute. So if someone calls you and hangs up after just one ring, you'll be billed the same as if you made a call for a minute. (Amazing what they get away with, eh?) You can check international rates online for AT&T, or Sprint, or T-Mobile orVerizon.
The big gotcha moment for consumers usually comes when one uses data abroad without signing up for a plan and then comes home to find a bill for several hundred, if not thousand bucks. Even with a plan though, the issue is that our smartypants smartphones perform all kinds of data-munching operations (like checking e-mail or saving photos to the cloud) even when we aren't actively using them, and coupled with sky-high rates the tally mounts quickly. (Tablets can drain data too, but because they are pre-paid plans instead of subscription they simply run out of credit instead of racking up fees).
There are a few workarounds, but the standard choices are: Go into your smartphone's settings and turn off data altogether for the duration of your trip (click here for instructions for Apple and here for Android), or sign up for a data plan from your wireless provider. Expect to pay $30 and much higher for 120 megabytes of data, or even less-which is to say what you'd drain watching a half-hour TV show, or a couple hours of surfing the web, or uploading a few dozen large photos. Going over that allotment with a smartphone racks up charges of $10 per MB and higher, depending on the carrier-which again, is very easy to do very quickly. As such we'd highly recommend downloading and installing an app like DataMan for Apple devices which can be set to trigger a warning when you're nearing your data limit; Android devices come with built-in monitoring tools.