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What Is Data Roaming?

close-up view of young woman checking roaming on her mobile phone. All screen graphics are made up.

What Is Data Roaming?

Key Points

  • Data roaming is when your cell phone relies on a network outside your coverage range, typically occurring when you travel outside your country or in rural areas.
  • The advantages of data roaming include staying connected while traveling and having access to important services like photo storage and social media.
  • Data roaming can be costly, potentially putting users over their data limit and resulting in unexpected charges.
  • To avoid data roaming charges, research your carrier’s international plans or turn off data-consuming features on your phone.

Data roaming is something many of us had to deal with constantly in the early days of mobile networks. While it’s not as much of a problem today, it’s a good idea to understand what data roaming is and how it can impact your cellular experience while traveling.  

Data Roaming Explained

When your cell phone needs to reach out and rely on a network outside your coverage range, that’s called data roaming. If you don’t travel often and live in a major city, it’s something you may never have to deal with. If you plan to head outside of the country, it’s a different story.

Data roaming typically comes into play when people travel. When you sign up for a cellular plan, you should have excellent coverage in your general area. Once you cross state lines, things can change significantly. It’s also not uncommon to see signals drop in rural areas, so it’s something that can affect anyone at any time.

What’s important to note is that there are different types of data roaming. If you’re using a major carrier in the United States, domestic roaming isn’t something you should have to worry about. There are exceptions, but the big three have excellent coverage across the U.S. If you plan to travel abroad, additional charges can add up quickly.

Data roaming concept.Young tourist hands holding mobile phone on blurred people walking as background
Data roaming typically comes into play when you travel.

Advantages of Data Roaming

Data roaming may sound like a nightmare if you’ve never used it. It can be, but the advantages of data roaming far outweigh the cons. The most important advantage of this feature is that it gives you the ability to stay connected while you travel away from home.

Whether you’re taking a family vacation or a business trip, there are usually bigger things to worry about than your smartphone’s data plan. Data roaming allows you to stay in the loop on either coast and everywhere in between. In most cases, there are no charges for domestic roaming within the continental United States with Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.

When you leave the States, you may have to pay for data unless you have an international plan. The peace of mind those plans provide is priceless, however, especially if there’s an issue at home or abroad. There are a number of things you won’t realize you miss until you can’t use mobile data. From photo storage and online shopping to social media, the list is endless.

Data roaming is a convenience, not a nuisance, as long as you know when to expect roaming to kick in. That’s one of the negatives of data roaming, along with the potential cost.  

Data Roaming Cons

If you don’t plan to travel out of the country, you may never need to use or worry about data roaming. For everyone else, you will want to take time to check on data roaming charges with your current carrier. There is no set rate, so you can end up with a nasty surprise during the next billing cycle if you are unprepared.

Without the right plan, data roaming can rack up hundreds of dollars in charges on a cell phone plan. It’s not something you can talk your way out of either, considering phones let you know when roaming is active. The cost of using data roaming is a con, and so are the potential security risks that come with it.

Are you on a limited data plan, or do you have unlimited data? Roaming can quickly put users over their allotted data limit, and it can happen in unexpected ways. Automatic updates, using maps, or watching a tutorial on how to cure poison ivy on a hike will eat into data. That could result in roaming charges depending on your plan.

If you picked your carrier because you like their security, you’ll want to remember when data roaming kicks in, you are relying on another carrier’s network. Domestically, it’s not a major concern, although it can be a problem internationally. It’s typically safer than connected to a Wi-Fi network while traveling abroad, but it is something to consider if you bank or shop from your mobile phone.

How to Avoid Data Roaming

Data roaming is definitely something to keep an eye on when traveling. You can help keep those charges down in a few ways, but it all starts with research. If you’re traveling, the best way to avoid data roaming altogether is to check on your carrier’s international plans. Major carriers have them, and they can also tell you how much you’ll pay for data in certain regions without a plan.

With AT&T, you could opt for their International Day Pass. For around $10 a day, you can talk, text, and watch videos in more than 200 locations from East Timor to Vatican City, which has 5G access. T-Mobile’s plans for travelers include a variety of options, including their popular Data Pass. Verizon’s offerings are just as robust through their Travel Passes.  

If altering your plan isn’t an option, there are still ways to keep roaming charges to a minimum. Our best advice is to turn off anything that draws data from your phone. If you’re not using GPS, turn it off, and the same goes for auto updates from Google Play and the App Store. Having Fortnite download a 1.3GB update while you’re on vacation using data would not be cheap.

Data-saving modes on phones are a great option and something you can find on most smartphones. Most phones also allow you to turn roaming off altogether. On the iPhone, you can head to Settings and go to the Cellular section. Tap on Cellular Data Options, and you’ll see the option to turn off Data roaming, as shown in the screenshot below.

what is data roaming
You can turn off data roaming through a smartphone’s settings menu

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With Android, the process is similar. Go to your Settings menu and choose Connections. From here, select Mobile Networks, and you should see an option to turn off Data roaming. The location may vary depending on the manufacturer, however. With Data Roaming set to off, you won’t be charged no matter where you roam. You just won’t have access beyond your coverage area until you switch it back on.

Use data saving modes? — and keep it in mind when getting on social media or watching videos while traveling — Wi-Fi networks can be spotty and switch to data.

The Wrap-Up

Data roaming is a necessary evil and not something most people have to worry about when traveling within their borders. Once you cross those boundaries, charges can be significant, so always check with your carrier if you’re concerned about roaming charges when traveling.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does T-Mobile charge for international calls through their international Go5G plans?

Phone calls are priced at $0.25 per minute through Go5G Next and Go5G Plus.

Does Verizon charge for roaming?

They do not charge for domestic roaming, but you will be charged for international roaming without the right plan.

Is it safe to turn off data roaming?

Yes, doing so will not harm your phone or alter your plan. You just won’t be able to use data if you leave your coverage zone.

Does Google Maps use a lot of data?

It can unless you already have maps loaded beforehand.

Is data roaming slower?

While that’s not always the case, you can experience a downgrade in speed when using a different network.

Do you get unlimited roaming with AT&T Unlimited Your Way?

Yes, and it includes unlimited minutes and texts, but only in the United States and Mexico.

Should I turn data roaming off when I travel?

It’s a good idea if you need to monitor your bill, but it’s unnecessary with an international plan.

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