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Beware of ‘bill shock’ when in roam with iPhone, smartphone

Dr. John Ellis Hyde Park got hit with $2366.74 bill after using his iPhone Asia. He later got bill reduced

Dr. John Ellis of Hyde Park got hit with a $2,366.74 bill after using his iPhone in Asia. He later got the bill reduced to about $500. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 28, 2011 5:02PM

When Dr. John Ellis traveled to Asia this spring, the Hyde Park physician took along his iPhone to make the occasional call, check e-mail, tap into the Internet for news or to get directions — the usual stuff.

As many international travelers will tell you, that “usual stuff” is priced at a premium when you do it abroad. So Ellis bought an international data package from AT&T before he left home. The plan entitled him to 200 megabytes of data for close to $200 a month.

About halfway through his 10-day trip, Ellis got a text message in China from AT&T. It said that on one particular day he’d exceeded the data plan’s limit. By a lot.

His mobile phone bill that month: $2,366.74.

“I anticipated spending a certain amount of money to stay in touch, but not $2,500,” said Ellis, who thinks his data-devouring problem stemmed from a photo he had trouble e-mailing to colleagues in the States.

It took several phone calls on Ellis’ part, but AT&T eventually agreed to reduce his bill to about $500.

“International calls are fairly straightforward; you know how much it is per minute,” Ellis said. “Data is more confusing.”

Data is being used more than ever by travelers toting increasingly popular smartphones — Androids, iPhones, BlackBerries and the like. A recent Pew survey found that 35 percent of American adults own a smartphone, which is basically a tiny computer. Use that tiny computer on a foreign network to check e-mail, stream music, watch movies or download a Google map, and you could get socked with some hefty data charges. How hefty? Opening an e-mail with a 5 megapixel picture in it or downloading a three-minute video on YouTube each can take about 2 megabytes of data, according to AT&T. With pay-per-use international data rates typically costing around $20 a megabyte, you’re looking at $40 a pop.

“If you’re an iPhone subscriber, those are the guys that can get bills in the thousands,” said Ken Grunski, CEO of the wireless communications company Telestial, whose products are geared towards travelers.

“You leave on your horoscope app or your stock quote app while you’re in Europe and you’re paying for that feed,” Grunski said. “You can be in for a rude awakening when you get home.”

The Federal Communications Commission says 30 million Americans — or one in six mobile users — have experienced “bill shock” from unexpectedly high charges on their monthly statements. A leading cause: unanticipated voice or data charges for “roaming” on a foreign mobile phone network.

The Better Business Bureau last year received more than 27,000 complaints against the cell phone industry, some of which were from customers who didn’t even realize that their data was still in use while they sipped margaritas in Mexico or toured the Tower of London. The FCC says one customer was charged more than $1,200 when his cell phone automatically received his e-mails daily during a week-long vacation in Jamaica.

With so many wireless phones, plans and providers available, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to avoid getting an unwanted souvenir in the form of a huge phone bill. But here are a few tips that could help keep your mobile phone charges under control when you’re out of the country:

Check with your carrier about signing up for international roaming plans that will reduce the rate you pay for both voice and data services overseas. AT&T, for example, sells four discount international data packages starting at $24.99 a month for 20 megabytes. Still not cheap, but it’s better than the $20 or so price you’ll pay per megabyte without an international plan.

Use free Wi-Fi hotspots instead of a foreign mobile network whenever possible. On the Wi-Fi network, you can use Skype or a similar Internet phone service to make calls and use the wireless network to search the Web and check e-mail.

iPhone users can turn off the “Fetch” option in their e-mail settings to prevent e-mails from downloading automatically. (Then wait until you can tap into a Wi-Fi network to check e-mail.) If you want to make calls but steer clear of data, make sure “data roaming” is switched off on your iPhone’s settings.

Avoid roaming charges altogether by swapping your phone’s SIM card with a local SIM card from the country you’re traveling in. (A SIM is a tiny, easily removable electronic card that contains a subscriber’s data and the phone’s number.) Your phone will need to be “unlocked,” so talk to your carrier about this before you travel. And keep in mind that you’ll have a different phone number with the local SIM card, so let your contacts know or set your phone to forward calls to the new number.

Replace your phone’s SIM card with a global SIM card, like a $29 “Passport” card from Telestial that works in 180 countries.

“It’s great for multi-country, short duration trips, like Americans going to Europe for two weeks and seeing three countries,” Grunski said. “Instead of paying $1.25 a minute for incoming and outgoing calls you pay 49 cents a minute to make a call and get free incoming calls.”

You’ll also be assigned a global phone number and a U.S. number, so folks calling you from the States won’t be charged for making an international call (like they would if you have a local SIM card). Data costs $1 a megabyte in most destinations and receiving text messages is free (

Visit the FCC’s website,, for other useful tips on staying in touch while overseas.

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