How to avoid $22,000 Data Roaming charges when visiting Mexico

I ran across this interesting story yesterday, about a boy who racked up $22,000 in data roaming charges while his family was on vacation in Mexico.  The story has a happy interlude – Rogers has (so far) reduced the bill to $500.  But despite the reduced bill, the high price of roaming is a fact of life (though typically not as high as it is with Rogers), and something we must be conscious of – not just as families going on vacation to Mexico, but as businesses who pay the mobile bills of employees making business trips.

If you read the article linked above, you’ll see that Rogers recommends subscribing to their data roaming “service” – which grants a cheaper rate for data roaming.  That’s fine if you manage to include data roaming considerations in with your travel plans, but my bet is data roaming is going to be farthest from your (or your travelling employee’s) mind.

When I worked with the universities overseas, this was a real problem, and we dealt with it through the carrier.  We simply blocked data roaming on all accounts by default.  If the employee needed data roaming for some reason, they could get their manager’s approval and we would simply call the carrier and enable data roaming.

Not elegant, but it worked.  I was curious whether this would even be an option here in Canada, so I called my carrier, Ma Bell.

I spoke with two agents – one for personal accounts and another for business accounts.  I didn’t get quite the same story from each of them though.  They both agreed that they can block data roaming on request, for free, for as long as you want.  However, from there, the stories were slightly different…

The agent for personal accounts said that they can either block USA roaming, or International roaming.  I didn’t press why there was a distinction – the fact that it was possible on personal accounts was good enough for me.

Then I spoke with the agent for business accounts.  She didn’t mention the USA/International distinction, but agreed it was possible.  However, she emphasized one important detail that the personal agent left out: If your account is still on a contract, then you will be hit with a cancellation fee when you block data roaming, because effectively they are removing data from your account entirely.

I’m not sure who to believe, but clearly a cancellation fee ($200 last time I asked Bell) is not an option.  So for now, at least until I get some more detailed and authentic information, I’m considering this option off the table.

There’s another option though.  Another setting on the mobile device other than the brute-force “Airplane Mode” mentioned in the above-linked article.

Every iOS and Android device allows you specifically disable Data Roaming.  I have one of each in front of me right now (I do not have any manner of Blackberry or Windows Phone, but if you can’t find this setting on your device – email me and I will do some research and find it for you), and the setting is called “Data Roaming”.  On iOS, it can be found under Settings > General > Mobile Data.  On Android 2.2 (I’m sorry, I don’t have a newer version – again, email me if you can’t find it, and I will research it up), it can be found under Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile Networks.

DISABLE DATA ROAMING on your phone.  Do it now!  Ask your employees to do it now as well.  Do it on your family’s devices as soon as you get home too!  You simply don’t need to run the risk of incurring data roaming charges you aren’t expecting when travelling.

When I am travelling, I sometimes enable data roaming for brief periods, for exactly one application: MAPS.  When you’re lost or looking for your destination, Google/Apple maps will need to download the map information for your current location.  You probably won’t have wifi while wandering about, so you’ll need to enable that data roaming while you get your bearings.  But then turn it back off again!  You can wait to upload your photos to Facebook once you connect to wifi at the hotel or resort.

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