International Data Roaming Charges — Legal Theft

33 Comments

Many of us depend on mobile broadband to provide a connection to the world to get things done. While the monthly cost of 3G data plans in the U.S. will often result in lively discussion, those data plans are downright cheap when you look at international data roaming charges. We hear far too often of travelers who travel abroad, only to get hit with ridiculous charges from their U.S. carrier for firing up the laptop to get online. I think it’s time to stop these charges which amount to nothing more than legal theft.

Take the case of Nilofer Merchant, who recently traveled to Canada on business. She fired up her laptop using the AT&T (s t) DataConnect modem and was online for a few hours.  You can guess what happened when her AT&T bill arrived after this one online session. She was stunned to find she’d transferred 707 MB of data for the bargain price of $10,609.

Every time we hear of these cases we often react with no sympathy for the unwary traveler. We all know data roaming charges are expensive so those getting hit with huge charges like Nilofer are getting what they deserve. That’s a callous reaction to a situation that should never be allowed to happen anyway.

Let’s take a look at how much U.S. carriers charge for international data roaming. It’s an eye opening process, I assure you. AT&T charges $.0195/KB, except in Canada where customers get a bargain rate of $.015/KB. Yes, those rates are in KB. Translating that to a cost per MB, a more reasonable unit of data measurement, we see the problem immediately. The Canadian rate works out to a staggering $15.36 per MB! The AT&T roaming charge anywhere else is a whopping $19.97 per MB.

We can’t just pick on AT&T about these exorbitant rates, here are the current international data roaming charges for the four biggest U.S. carriers:

  • AT&T: $0.0195/ KB; $0.015/ KB in Canada
  • Verizon: $0.002/ KB Canada; $0.005/ KB Mexico; $0.02/ KB everywhere else
  • T-Mobile: $10/ MB Canada; $15/ MB everywhere else
  • Sprint: $0.016/ KB everywhere

T-Mobile is the only carrier that specifies its rates in MB, so let’s convert all of them to MB:

  • AT&T: $19.97/ MB; $15.36/ MB in Canada
  • Verizon: $2.05/ MB Canada; $5.12/ MB Mexico; $20.48/ MB everywhere else
  • T-Mobile: $10/ MB Canada; $15/ MB everywhere else
  • Sprint: $16.38/ MB everywhere

Verizon gives special pricing in Canada and Mexico, but overall the four carriers have similar roaming rates. Keeping in mind that some carriers have a 5 GB monthly data cap when used at home, multiply any of the MB rates above by 1,024 (or 1,000 depending on how the carrier does it) to get the price per GB. Now you begin to see how these stories about travelers getting hit by staggering roaming charges keep happening. It’s not that hard to move lots of data in a simple online web session.

The front page of the New York Times web site today is 117kb, according to this page size tool. That would cost you $1.87 to access the site on the Sprint network. When you find an article you like and click on it, then the meter goes ka-ching again, as it continues to do every time you click on something. Think about your typical online session and it’s easy to see how quickly you could rack up thousands in charges at these exorbitant rates.

You incur these charges to access your Gmail online, check your Facebook updates and anything else you might do. Don’t even think about watching any online video while roaming; you’ll need to sell your children to afford that and most countries frown upon the practice. The bottom line is when you travel outside the U.S. leave the 3G at home. You can’t afford to use it, even for short sessions.

I am not usually in favor of regulating any industry, but I wonder if this might be an exception. I can’t fathom any set of circumstances that would justify a carrier charging these types of rates for mobile connectivity. What could possibly justify the charging of thousands of dollars for an hour of normal connectivity?

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33 Comments

Allan Ong

Interesting that I had come to US from NZ and just downloaded soem ggole maps on my iphone jsut to get around. I was charged USD250 for what I imagined to be just and estimated 4-5Mb of data download and uplad. When I received my bill, it turned out that I had incurred 40Mb of data. Upon investigating I was loaded with some 35-36mB of data upload on top of my actual usage of 4-5Mb.

So when roaming, it is not only the high rate charged, but watch out for the “extra” data volume which is loaded on the user. What justification is there for this additional data volume loading???!!!

susan shaw

Article on International Data roaming fees. How does one fight Verizon on the outrageous charges.
I had got a text 1-13-11 that my Verizon bill Is $6,790.29 I was
shocked. We just got back from a vacation in Cancun, Mexico.
Before our trip my husband went to the local Verizon store on 12-17-2010, to let
them know we would be in Mexico and what he needed to do. He was told
that calls and text messages would be about $1 per minute, they told to limit his calls
and text messages. He was not told about roaming data charges.
When in Mexico we could only use internet application in a WI-FI area,
which we had to purchase time from the hotel. My husband checked emails
at this time. We left the phone in the room, we did not carry it with us, during
our excursions.
During the trip his phone was shut down completely, by Verizon, they had sent
text messages warning us, the first warning December 20, at 11:47 am to the last
warning on December 21 at 10:37 am. Within this time they charged us over $6500.00
in data roaming fees. How can Verizon charge $6500 for data roaming fees in less than a 24hour period???
We have traveled to Mexico before, and have never come back to an
outrageous bill.
I spent a lot of time on the phone, and we spent a lot of time at the
local store and have gotten nowhere.
I will be determined to get my story out there.
Please send this email on to as many people as you can.
Please feel free to contact us at:
563-580-9065 or 563-580-9066
563-557-6266 weekdays

Sincerely
Ronald & Susan Shaw

susan shaw

I had got a text 1-13-11 that my Verizon bill Is $6,790.29 I was
shocked. We just got back from a vacation in Cancun, Mexico.
Before our trip my husband went to the local Verizon store on 12-17-2010, to let
them know we would be in Mexico and what he needed to do. He was told
that calls and text messages would be about $1 per minute, they told to limit his calls
and text messages. He was not told about roaming data charges.
When in Mexico we could only use internet application in a WI-FI area,
which we had to purchase time from the hotel. My husband checked emails
at this time. We left the phone in the room, we did not carry it with us, during
our excursions.
During the trip his phone was shut down completely, by Verizon, they had sent
text messages warning us, the first warning December 20, at 11:47 am to the last
warning on December 21 at 10:37 am. Within this time they charged us over $6500.00
in data roaming fees. How can Verizon charge $6500 for data roaming fees in less than a 24hour period???
We have traveled to Mexico before, and have never come back to an
outrageous bill.
I spent a lot of time on the phone, and we spent a lot of time at the
local store and have gotten nowhere.
I will be determined to get my story out there.
Please send this email on to as many people as you can.
Please feel free to contact us at:
563-580-9065 or 563-580-9066
563-557-6266 weekdays
Ronald & Susan Shaw

Rob

Hi,
I’m not sure if anyone is still following this topic but it is a hot one for me as my iphone worked as usual while I was visiting the USA from Australia.

I feel ‘legalized theft’ is exactly what it is. Seems to me the charges were created for pre 1999.

Does anyone know if phone companies actually charge each other, if anything? (I assume it is a lot less than the $20 per Mb).

Shaun

I can’t tell you for certain, but I can estimate it.

Method #1: Per-purchased data plan.
Look at the minimum cost per KB/MB rate of the largest pre-paid roaming block you can buy from your carrier.
I’d estimate this is, oh, 100x cost (or more) on average.

Well $230 gets you 200MB of international data or $0.869/MB. You may pre-purchase this block but AT&T can’t predict where you will use that bandwidth or with what carrier so … $.0869/MB is the highest possible wholesale cost of roaming data in the highest cost location where a roaming agreement is in place.

Method #2: Blackberry method.
Consider that BB international data is $65 USD (domestic is $30) So an unlimited international data block is $35. I get 1000 emails/day (yes, really). At 10K per + attachments I’d say 20MB/day or 600MB/month. Or $0.06 per MB. If there was even the remotest chance that AT&T lost $ I’m sure they would cancel my account or charge me more.
NOTE: I am roaming for months at a time (4 and counting this trip).

So we know the wholesale data rate is < $0.06 MB.

Method #3: Retail cost in local market.
Assuming a 5GB cap [there isn’t a cap AFAIK] HK has pre-paid SIM with data for $20/month which works out to $0.004/MB. That retail cost is typical for dense urban areas in Asia, the Indonesia local BB plan is $15/month unlimited.
I would (safely) estimate a wholesale agreement is at least a 50% discount or around $0.002/MB.

Summary:
The wholesale cost of data is between $0.002/MB and $0.869/MB. Personally I think AT&T pays less per MB than I could buy that same MB at retail. At worst I don’t believe they pay more.
So how much does your domestic carrier gouge?

Somewhere between 20 times cost (estimated minimum profit), 340 times cost (my actually BB usage) and 10000 times cost (estimated max profit).
My personal gut would put the data charges between 1000 to 15000 times cost, pretty wild, huh?

vivah

International travelling from India too is very costly.

Vodafone charges 100 times more per mb on Indian surfing rates. All operators are milking global roamers, govt should draw some guideline and curb this very high tariff.

Ondrej

The roaming charges are plainly and indisputably a theft. Even if you hit a few hundred dollars charge, you could take a flight back from Europe, save the files on your USB stick and fly to Europe again. And before any slick telco executive starts babbling about costs, think about the costs an airline incurs flying one passenger across the Atlantic.

Anyway, the solution is simple. Whenever I arrive in a new country, my first steps after clearing the immigration go to the airport mobile phone shop. There I buy a local pre-paid SIM card, to enjoy local rates. I can’t recall where, but somewhere I bought nice plastic SIM card holders the size of a credit card, each holds 10 SIM cards and they fit may valet.

I carry another phone, in which I have my normal SIM card. In case anybody calls me, they can reach me on my normal number. I hang up on them and send them a SMS from the other phone, saying “Hey, I’m abroad, please call me at this number”.

Been doing this for more than 10 years.

Brad

I could agree with a legal requirement that phones ship with roaming data disabled (either via provisioning or on the phone) until the user makes an explicit decision to change that, assuming that setting isn’t the default now.

oliver

JK, are you a closet socialist? ;) There is no god-given or constitutional right to cheap international data roaming. And while I realize this is a gadget web site, there are a lot more pressing issues that need attention. And I am saying that as someone who travels internationally at least five or six times a year. Guess what – AT&T and Tmobile data roaming rates are one reason why I don’t bother with a 3G modem domestically.

cr0ft

Considering this is a mobile tech site, the fact that roaming fees are criminal is a great thing to bring up in my opinion… after all, you just admitted that the crazy fee levels have caused you to not get a 3G modem, even though that would presumably make your gadget life easier.

Tax Man

Joe is right. At least on iPhone you can re-enable wifi and bluetooth after selecting airplane mode and it will leave phone radio off. See the linked Apple support document: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1355

Thanks, Joe. This will come in handy on upcoming trip.

Stuart

It is not just the carriers charging ridiculous prices, it is the data agreements where some countries charge a very high price to go through there network. Same with voice calling, there are termination fees.

I am just used to always using a local sim when I am out of the country. I never roam on voice or data. It just makes sense to protect yourself because the carriers are there to make money.

Sean Brady

I don’t travel very often, but this has always been a concern to me when I do. One of the main drivers behind my decision to leave Verizon and move to T-Mobile with my Nexus One was the ability to get a local sim for those times when I am travelling.

cr0ft

There is no good reason for this. Shifting data is cheaper than ever before; the reason is purely mercenary and is in place to squeeze as much money as possible out of people. A minor hike of a percentage point or two would be equitable to compensate the local phone provider, but this level of gouging is unconscionable.

It brings to mind texts as well; text messages have come down to merely ridiculously high levels now, but they used to be absolutely criminally priced – especially considering there is practically zero cost for the provider to transfer them, especially if we’re talking about classic GSM based SMS. The data transfers on the signaling paths used to control the telephony itself. Not sure if SMS pricing is the biggest scam in history, but it’s right up there with the current American health care approach…

Levi

The problem is even greater. I was shopping around for a low cost solution I could use in several European countries. All Hungarian providers told me that I have zero good options. I am told that different providers bill data differently. Some bill by the kb but some bill by the 10 or even 100kb. So basically any usage they round up. So you check your email, 100kb billed. Not sure if this is true but I would not put it past them. Especially since the EU started regulating data roaming and they cannot charge anything but a fixed low rate in EU countries.

Finding good pre-paid data solutions are not easy. Especially when you don’t speak the language. But it is the best option by far.

Finally I would like to ask Joe what phone he has that it allows wifi in airplane mode. I’d like to report it to the FCC and FAA and TSA and my favorite flight blogs :)

Stuart

Have you never used go-go inflight? They have data plans available for smartphones using wifi when the GSM radio is turned off. Blackberry, iPhone and others can do that easily.

Peggy Graybill

I am also able to use my nokia phones with wifi in offline mode.

ossi

In Finland with my carrier: 3,95to 12,95e/MB. Not cheap here either.

Joe

This is why when I’m out of the country, I turn on airplane mode and then just surf via Wifi. I realize that there are some people who can’t get away with this because of work or another reason, but still.

Peter Cranstone

One more reason that content that gets delivered to mobile needs to be compressed. There’s a free utility out there for web admins that will do it – mod_gzip.

Stok Guru

I stay in India and recently i was in HongKong for few days and u wudn’t believe the difference in charges. We don’t have 3G yet but on 2G that we have i pay 10-11$ for unlimited data monthly. While in HongKong i had to pay 12-15$ per MB + VAT. So this kind of ripoff is not limited to US carriers i think this is the case around the world. Best part was i found it very difficult to buy a local SIM with data in HongKong. One can get a simple SIM at every corner but finding it with data was just impossible and so i was forced to use my roaming data plan for push mails.

SAM

I thought Hong Kong had lots of free WiFi access.
The McDonalds there even had it, at least a few years ago.
Maybe things have changed.

Stok Guru

There r lots of free Wifi HotSpots in HK but the problem is u shud be around them and u can’t wait for business push mail to be pushed till u r around a free wifi. Usually when i travel i buy a local Prepaid SIM with data and it works fine, but once in a while u come across a city where prepaid SIM with data is difficult. In India its much better, most of the Prepaid SIMs has data capabilities in built. U just send a SMS and the service gets active, and u r charged by the day, not by the data used.

Shaun

Hong Kong pre-paid SIM with 30 days unlimited data is HK$168/$20 USD last I was in HK. From 3 and Vodafone IIRC. So it really yanks my chain when I’m roaming on Vodafone for a MB and get charged for a whole months data (at retail, when AT&T paid wholesale (pennies) for it).

Leo

this roaming charges is also happening in Europe… in my case with Movistar (spanish company)…although not that expensive…
Internet: 11,6 €/10MB for the whole world
Wap: 4,64 €/día for Eastern Europe 46,4 €/MB for the rest of the world.
Special plan for 50€ a month and a cap of 50MB.. anything outside this 50MB will be charged between 5/10€/MB.

Way to expensive…
Cheers

Michael

I once ran up a pretty steep, but not horrendous (in the hundreds, not thousands) data roaming bill while stranded in Toronto last year. T-Mobile actually contacted me to make me aware of the charge, with the suggestion to get a prepaid SIM while traveling and use that in my phone.

Not only good advice,, but supportive customer service. Of course you need a GSM phone to do this.

Alan

sprint has a worldwide data plan option that is prorated at $40 a month for unlimited data.

I turn this on all the time when I travel to canada with my palm pre.

Allan Jones

I’m familiar with the huge prices for roaming data. But here’s something that surprised me when I found out about it quite recently.

Suppose you go abroad and roam onto a network there, and open a data connection. You then go onto the internet. The data connection goes all the way back to your home country, and the connection to the internet is made there, in your home country. It is not made in the country you have roamed to.

No doubt there’s a good reason for this, but it seems extraordinary to me.

Allan Jones

Your data is still carried over the network you have roamed to. It goes through a ‘tunnel’ (virtual, of course) that stretches back to your home network.

Stok Guru

I doubt that data is tunneled to the origin country. B/c if that was the case one wud have to install some VPN software at the client end (on a smartphone which i have never done). And as far as i can tell when i check gmail or any other site the ip that they record is not my home country ip its mostly the IP of the country that i am roaming in to.

PJE

I was considering using my Droid in Canada until I saw the rates… Why can’t a reciprocal agreement be made for each county? The only reason is $$$.

I’m more tied to my phone for data now than voice. With VOIP and similar technologies I can see my phone becoming pure data.

This price gouging has to stop.

Comments are closed.