(Updated exact costs)
Last week, while traveling internationally (French West Indies) I wrote a couple of posts and thought it would be good to document my all findings in one post.
The basic problem with roaming is how to minimize what I consider to be the outrageous costs and still stay connected. I have used pay as you go SIM cards in Europe but the last time there I found the cost to be quite high (the Dollar value did not help) but in most circumstances it is still cheaper than paying roaming rates. To use a foreign SIM card, you need an unlocked phone, so with a locked iPhone 3G, the first step is to attempt to get it unlocked.
I called AT&T before I left to see if I could get my IPhone unlocked (don't laugh, I thought I would give it a try).
AT&T customers in good standing who are traveling internationally can get their AT&T supplied phones SIM unlocked. At first I don't think the representative realized I had an iPhone. He took my IMIE and entered it into the system. It got rejected, at that point he asked if I owned an AT&T phone, I replied I owned an iPhone. He told me that they did not have the unlock codes for the iPhone and I would need to contact Apple. And of course Apple won't give you the unlock code since they say they have a contractual obligation to AT&T (no word on exactly what that is). I guess I have to wait until July 2010 to get it officially unlocked, but nobody is quite sure how Apple will handle it. So for now there seems to only be two options for the iPhone 3G, pay the exhorbitant cell roaming charges or buy a SIM card adapter which fakes the phone into thinking you are using an AT&T approved SIM card. There several web sites which sell these adapters for $30 - $50, but I have not tested them and obviously they are not approved by AT&T or Apple.
The only option left (other than buying a SIM card adapter) is to activate AT&T international roaming. You need to be a customer in good standing for 90 days. I just made it since I bought the iPhone in mid July. AT&T in comparison to T-Mobile does have international roaming plans to ease the costs, although their per minute rates are slightly cheaper.
For voice AT&T has Affordable World Packages which reduces the per minute rate. For the French West Indies the $5.99 per month World Traveler option would reduce the per minute rate from $2.49 to $2.29. This is about an 8% savings and not worth it since $2.29 is still pricey, so I am passing on this option.
On the data side, the international data packages offered for the iPhone are much more advantageous (you need to check that the country you are traveling to is part of this program). I signed up for the 20MB plan for $24.99 per month. The only two quirks you need to watch out for is that they pro rate the quantity of data and rate based on your billing date. The other is that you must keep the plan on your account until the data charges show up. This could take 1 or 2 billing cycles according to customer service. I am not sure how legal it is, although I was told this by 2 reps. My trip crosses two billing periods. I signed in the middle of my current billing period which ends today, giving me 10MB. Tomorrow a new period starts giving me a fresh 20MB. AT&T reps do a good job of reminding you to reset your data counter under general settings/usage and turn off push email. As of right now I have used 9.4MB so I am glad the new cycle starts tomorrow. I am also using the hotel's weak WiFi signal which works ok as long as I am outside on the porch. It does not take a lot of surfing or email to use many MBs of data.
Now my only issue is how to handle voice calls. Even if you reject an incoming call while roaming you get charged for the inbound call and the oubound connection back to the voicemail system. In the French West Indies @ $2.49 a minute, that gets expensive quickly. The solution is to use visual voicemail. You forward the phone to voicemail (AT&T uses different voicemail systems across the country. To find your voicemail number you should forward to dial *#62# send) and all calls are directed there automatically without using the roaming cellular system. The voicemail is then transfered via the cellular data network using your purchased international data package (not WiFi) to your phone. You can then listen to your voicemails, respond by email or use a land line and a calling card to return the call (I purchased a 10 Euro calling card which provided 500 minutes of talk time back to the US). I had forgotten to forward my phone before I left, but was pleasantly surprised that it worked when I arrived in the French West Indies, but to be sure you should remember to forward before you leave the US. I went to settings/phones/call forwarding flipped it to on and entered the number I retrieved from using *#62# send command.
The call forwarding screen, even when the function is off it remembers the last number you forwarded to.
Once you arrive at your destination, a great feature AT&T provides is a text message telling you that you are on a provider which supports your data plan.
The international data roaming welcome SMS.
As mentioned in the SMS, it is important to track your usage, so before you leave or right after you arrive. Make sure that you reset your usage statistics (settings/general/usage Reset Statistics at bottom of screen), and if you use push email, turn it off (general/Fetch New Data set Push to off and Fetch to Manual).
This is a screen shot of the usage screen before I returned. I was checking my stats regularly, but at the end of my billing cycle on November 4th I forgot to reset I knew I was in bounds of the 10 MB and from a total of 30MB (10 from previous cycle + 20 of current cycle) I figured I was ok.
When I got back I got a chance to check my previous cycles bill and the data charges had already shown up (no need to wait 1 to 2 billing cycles).
From the 10MB I was allocated in my last cycle, I exceeded by 193KB which cost me a $.45 additional to the prorated monthly charge of $12.50.
On my current usage, I noticed the acds.voicemail data types which refers to Visual Voicemail. I found that they range from 10KB to 200KB. I don't know how that relates to individual voicemails.
It looks like in the end I exceeded my 20MB by 2.99MB in my current cycle which at .005KB cost me an additional $15.34. So my total roaming phone costs will end up being:
- October partial international roaming plan (10MB) $12.50
- October overage (193KB) $ 0.45
- November international roaming plan (20MB) $24.95
- November overage (2.99MB) $15.34
- Calling card (500 min) $12.70 (10 euro @ $1.27)
The cost runs $9.42 per day which is not bad to stay relatively well connected internationally. So even though this is not an ideal situation from a voice stand point, it works. It is important to note that you must keep the data roaming package option on for a full cycle to receive the full 20MB credit. On the last day of my November cycle (ends in early December), I validated that the International data details posted on my account (via the web site) and I called 611 to have them turn off the International Data Roaming option (I could have used the web site to do this but I wanted to make sure that turning off the option on the last day of the cycle would still count as a full cycle). AT&T just posted my bill with the actual cost of my 2.99MB overage. I am very impressed on how well this worked and will use this method on future International trips. Even thought the phone is locked, it really did not hobble my using it for data and from my previous local month to month SIM card purchase in Europe, I would have to say that the costs are pretty much comparable. The only downside is that if you have some local friends, having a local phone number makes it easier to communicate. AT&T needs to come up with a reasonably priced International voice option and life would be close to perfect.