What is Cellular Roaming?
Roaming occurs when your cellular provider connects you to a mobile network run by a different company or provider. Roaming allows you to use your existing phone number and smartphone even where your current provider doesn't have service.
While roaming gives you the flexibility to connect and make phone calls, send text messages, and access the Internet, since the network you use when roaming isn't owned and operated by your cellular company, you will likely pay an additional charge when “roaming.”
Why does Roaming Exist?
Because different countries each have their regulations for corporations, cellular companies operate on a country -by-country basis. In the United States, the largest providers ate AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint (not necessarily in that order of size). These are all United States based operators that use cellular radio frequencies under a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But that's only for the United States.
Each country has its own licensing for cellular airwaves, so it's challenging for any one company to obtain operating licenses to run a network everywhere in the world. Unless the mobile company has a license to own and operate cell towers in a country, the only way they can allow their customers to connect to a cellular network is to pay a fee to a local in-country provider that allows their users to “roam” on the in-country network. So if you want to use your cellular phone in a country where your provider doesn't operate, you need to pay a roaming fee. While international roaming is the most common kind, domestic roaming can occur.
Not every cellular company has a cell tower installed in every possible location where it's users may be located. For example, you may be traveling to an area and not have service from your cellular provider. In this case, your cellular company may have a roaming arrangement with a partner. The partner allows you to connect to their network, but you may not have the same data allowance or speeds as when using your carrier. Roaming in your home country is very transparent and you unlikely to be charged any roaming fees in your country for cellular service. While phone (voice) usage fees are typically not affected by roaming, data usage can be limited.
Depending on your carrier, you may have a limit of how much data you can use while roaming. Using WiFi for access to the Internet whenever possible is always the best way to obtain the fastest connection and avoid any limits or overage charges for your cellular data plan. You probably have a provider that gives you the best coverage for wherever you live or work, so it's not very common to see domestic roaming occur, especially since most carriers have their towers installed to provide the widest possible coverage. International roaming is a different story, however.
If you've ever traveled from the United States to another country, expensive international roaming charges may have discouraged you from using your cellular or smartphone. Rates have been changing rapidly for international roaming, and some carriers have international plans that give you international service. International roaming rates can be affected by the home country of your cellular carrier. AT&T and Verizon are US companies, while T-Mobile and Sprint are the US-based operators of foreign-owned cellular companies. For all carriers, be sure to check to make sure your model of smartphone is capable of being used in the country where you're traveling.
For AT&T and Verizon, international roaming plans in the past were expensive. As a result, many people would either purchase a local pre-paid phone or a pre-paid SIM card which could be inserted in a smartphone to use a local in-country cellular provider. Both of these options meant that your US based phone number would not work when traveling abroad, but you could use your smartphone on WiFi networks for Internet connectivity.
The international roaming plans as of May 2017 for AT&T and Verizon have changed. Some plans now include talk, text, and data for Mexico and Canada without any additional fees. For other countries, you can obtain roaming usage in over 100 countries for $10 per day and use your smartphone just as though you were in the United States. This pricing doesn't cover all countries, so check with your cellular company to be sure you understand the rate options for wherever you travel.
For trips, a few weeks or shorter, the convenience of using your US based phone number and avoiding the need to change out a SIM card might be worth it. You just need to contact your carrier in advance of the trip.
Call Verizon or AT&T to add international roaming services to your plan and when in a different country, power down and power on your smartphone to connect to the local network. Unlike previous service options that required a flat fee, you only pay for each day you use the local country roaming service, and it's available anytime you travel outside of the US.
Verizon Roaming Plans: https://www.verizonwireless.com/solutions-and-services/international-travel/
AT&T Roaming Plans: https://www.att.com/offers/international-plans/day-pass.html
T-Mobile and Sprint offer international roaming options that may be even more attractive if you travel overseas frequently. Like AT&T and Verizon, you need to check to make sure your smartphone model is technically capable of international roaming in the countries you're traveling.
T-Mobile has plans that quality for roaming in over 140 countries. With certain monthly and pre-paid plans, there's no need to add a separate feature or service to your account when traveling outside of the US but data speeds are limited to 3G data rates, and an upgrade to faster speeds requires an add-on data pass from T-Mobile. As of May 2017, a one-day 500MB data pass is $5, and a 3GB 30-day pass is $30. 3G speeds are probably going to be good enough if you just need cellular coverage when using email or maps because you'll have faster free WiFi access in many locations when traveling.
T-Mobile Roaming Plans: https://www.t-mobile.com/optional-services/roaming.html
Sprint, like T-Mobile, doesn't require any separate features or options when using your smartphone and traveling outside the US and includes international roaming with several plans. Sprint's rates as of May 2017 for international roaming are 20 cents per minute for voice, free text, and free data up to 2G speeds. 2G is a slow data rate, and you'll probably want a high-speed service which currently costs $5 a day or $25 a week for most destinations (China is 2x the price of other destinations and only $2 a day or $10 a week for Mexico and Canada. You can learn more about Sprint at this link:
Sprint Roaming Plans: https://www.sprint.com/en/shop/services/global-roaming.html?ECID=vanity:globalroaming
Avoiding International Charges
If you want to avoid paying any international plan rates when traveling, turn off roaming in your device's cellular settings or use airplane mode and just run WiFi back on. I recommend you learn how to do this while in the US before traveling overseas since you can always visit your cellular carrier or call them for help and may not be able to do that when you're on your trip.
To my way of thinking
Roaming offers convenience but sometimes at a cost. With frequent changes in plan pricing and coverage areas for cellular services, it's always a good idea to check with your provider to see what their current rate plans can offer you when outside their coverage area.
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