You Travel Abroad? Leave your Smartphone at Home

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BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – Here is your weekend comic relief.  (At my expense!)

You are visiting a foreign country.  You sit at the restaurant, peruse the menu and order. They also offer house wine, but there is no price for it on the menu.


After enjoying the meal you ask for the bill.  “Right away, sir” says the waiter, but “sir, I need to know the city of your residence so I can print the bill.”

“A city far away from here” you reply, “but why do you ask?”

“You see sir, if you are from here, a glass of wine is five coronas, but if you are not, then it is 1100 coronas.”

“1100 coronas? You must be joking! Is that for a barrel or a glass?”

“A glass, sir.”

“I did have a glass of house wine. You mean I have to pay 1100 coronas?”

“Yes sir, plus 12 coronas for your meal.”

Crazy story? Totally crazy and totally true. It just happened to me.  With one change. Change “house wine” to “cellphone charges.”  Indeed I was charged $1,100 for three weeks in Europe. That’s with minimal phone usage.

Your local and regional cellphone use is free or costs $15 – $50 per month depending on your subscription package.  But venture out of the region and the roaming rates are explosive.

The European Union has tried to get a handle on it with regulation because hoping from country to country in Europe is common. Here is a quote from a UK article:

“UK operators’ standard rates for data-roaming vary between £1 and £3.07 per megabyte for data roaming within Europe, and between £3 and £10 per megabyte for the rest of the world. If you use 500 MB on a two-week trip — this can easily be achieved when factoring in email, Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, a few photo uploads and some light browsing — then, in the worst case, it would cost you £5,000. The best case would still be £500.” [1]

I did write to T-Mobile to argue for a break.  I thought I had a case, as follows.

In January this year, I was in Greece as member of a team evaluating Greek Universities. Two weeks of data roaming cost me $165. Expensive, yes. Outrageous, no. I paid the bill, no questions asked. Then in May I changed my BlackBerry smartphone to a Google smartphone. And for three weeks of data roaming in Greece this July I got a bill for $1,100.

T-Mobile refused any adjustment, so I’m half a mortgage payment short this month.

The lessons here are:

(1) Congress needs to push for a national and worldwide agreement for reasonable mobile phone roaming rates, about 1/10 of what they are now, and,

(2) Until then, leave the smartphone phone when traveling abroad, or switch its data option off. This means that your $400 smartphone becomes a $40 cellphone.

All major banks in Hawaii have opened a “Panos roaming charge chip-in fund.”







  1. I agree that the charges the cell phone companies impose when you travel outside the USA should be regulated — at a minimum, to warn you about how much you’re getting scalped. But I thought you were a “free market guy” who believes in the right of businesses to screw the public out of as much as they can?

    • I much prefer that market forces set rates but there are cases that market parameters are unreasonable. For example, the exorbitant roaming rates are meant for milking business executives and others with fat expense accounts. A lot of people who one may call “important professionals” are punished by this. On the other hand I do not care much about the pricing for those who wish to broadcast their lunch plate. There can be a pricing scheme that can accommodate multiple markets but telecoms do not even try.

      • You and I agree. Sometimes the free market doesn’t work and it’s beneficial for government to step in.

  2. After two months of owning your phone with T-Mobile you can call and request your phone to be unlocked for free. This will enable you to go anywhere in the world and purchase a local network sim card with however many minutes you might need and replace the sim card in your phone. You will then be making local calls at the local rate and with most European carriers incoming calls are free. I get to use my personal phone which im very familiar with and my bill for cellphone usage when traveling abroad for 3 weeks is $60 with minutes to spare. Hire a Geek or borrow someones Teenager for an hour they should hook you up or rather disconnect you from connect fees.

    • Dave, that’s correct but I never found it necessary. I am not talking about phone calls. I am talking about data. One can take with him or her a basic cellphone and go to, say, a Vodaphone kiosk in the EU, get a 20 euro SIM and they are good to go for local and regional phone calls for weeks. It only takes a bit of research to find out which phone is compatible with what provider. In my case, my relatives have a “box full” of old cellphones ready for use for simple calls.

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