Avoid Hefty Cellular Fees on Travel Abroad

Tips from Duke’s Office of Information Technology for cutting bills

Using a mobile device during international travel can lead to expensive but avoidable fees for roaming or other data usage.
Using a mobile device during international travel can lead to expensive but avoidable fees for roaming or other data usage.

The IT team at Duke Corporate Education receives and reviews about 30 cell phone bills per month, many for staff who travel abroad on business.

Sometimes, Kevin Maughan runs across a bill in the thousands of dollars, largely due to an employee forgetting to turn off data roaming or traveling without a global plan.

“In one instance, two of our employees traveled to our office in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a short term assignment. We hadn’t planned well enough and their existing plans did not offer high enough data plans,” said Maughan, director of IT at Duke Corporate Education. “So in the first month, we ended up with $3,000 in data plan charges for each of them.”

Using a mobile device during international travel can lead to expensive but avoidable fees for roaming or other data usage. Several years ago, the telecom research company CCMI found that of 200 companies surveyed, one third spent $1,000 to $3,500 per month per employee on international roaming charges. In some extreme instances, individual monthly bills were $10,000 to $200,000.

Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) has resources to help Duke community members avoid hefty roaming charges while traveling abroad.

Turn off data roaming

One of the biggest ways to rack up bills is to let your mobile device roam for a different network signal in a foreign country. To avoid having your network provider bill for this, turn off cellular data, or set your phone to airplane mode. Remember: applications use data in the background, so disabling apps, push notifications, and sync features will cut data use.

Buy an international package before travel

Contact your wireless provider and inquire about rates and options for activating a global phone plan and check coverage maps. Duke employees using Duke-owned phones should check with the department’s business manager to activate an international plan. “If you don’t, you could be in for a big surprise when you get home,” said Kevin Davis, global services program director for OIT.

Buy a phone at your destination

If you will be working, visiting or studying abroad long-term, you might consider buying a short-term, prepaid cell service at your destination. On arrival, you can often buy an inexpensive local phone or activate service on your existing phone. Still, you need to take action before you leave the U.S. “Most American providers restrict your cell phone to work in their network, and you have to visit their store in person before leaving to get your phone unlocked for an international carrier,” Davis said.

Use Wi-Fi and free calling apps

Instead of cellular data, look for access to free Wi-Fi whenever and wherever possible. If you've set your phone to airplane mode, you can just turn Wi-Fi on. Consider using apps like Skype for low-cost calling back to the U.S. Duke's encrypted, secure VPN (virtual private network) service works on most cell phones and is recommended when using public Wi-Fi networks.

“The thing we are always coaching our staff about is the ever increasing presence of free Wi-Fi services,” said Maughan, the director of IT at Duke Corporate Education. “The single most expensive event is still the international voice call while traveling. These roaming costs per minute are pretty significant, so joining a two-hour conference call can result in really surprising costs.”