iPhone in Europe: How to set up your phone to avoid a billing “surprise”

Posted in: Practical Info


Know how to set up your iPhone before you go online abroad. Photo: Ikhlasul Amal
Know how to set up your iPhone before you go online abroad. Photo: Ikhlasul Amal

Note: This article is part of a series on Using an American iPhone in Europe… without Going Broke.

So, say you go with the $30 data package. What exactly does that mean? How many emails can you send and receive with 1200 MB of “data transfer”? How many web pages can you browse? Which applications can you use? That, of course, depends on your habits!

Turn off data roaming.

Hence, my headache. I had read horror stories of travelers buying a data package only to find that they surpassed it early in their trip by opening some “heavy” email messages or browsing image-rich websites.

In AT&T’s customer service center, the carrier offers tips for avoiding these sorts of surprises. The tips, which are quite helpful, include:

1) Turn off data roaming.

You’ll find this under Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming. (To make it easy, the iPhone even says “Turn data roaming off when abroad to avoid substantial roaming charges when using email, web browsing, and other data services.”) If you’re using your iPhone to simply make and receive phone calls, make sure you do this.

Fetch new data? No thank you!

2) Turn fetch data “Off.”

This prevents your iPhone from automatically checking for emails. To access this, go to Setting > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Fetch New Data. Switch “Push” to “Off” and click “Manually”. Once switched, you’ll have to manually tell your phone to send and receive emails.

3) Consider purchasing an international data package.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this guide, both carriers offer international data packages, ranging from $25 to $120. If you are planning, at any point during your trip, to use a data network to access the web or use emails, you are strongly advised to get some sort of plan. Otherwise, it will cost you (AT&T, for example, charges a hefty $0.0195 per KB. That’s going to get ugly.)

(Read more about AT&T’s international data plans and Verizon’s international data plans. Also see our chart comparing the two carriers’ rates.)

4) Reset the usage tracker to zero.

This is interesting. Under Settings > General > Usage, you can see how many MB of data you’ve sent and received since you last reset the statistics. Theoretically, then, you could reset your statistics and then track your subsequent bandwidth—perfect for those who have purchased an international bandwidth plan, right?

The only hiccup with this, unfortunately, is that the stats aren’t always up-to-date. It turns out that AT&T can have substantial delays in reporting international data usage (as international carriers are actually providing you with the network and then, later, reporting it back to AT&T). This means, well, that you certainly can’t rely on this metric for tracking your use in real-time.

We love you, Airplane Mode.

5) Switch to Wi-Fi instead of data networks.


Airplane is my answer

Having discussed the options to the point of delirium, I basically threw in the towel and chose the most extreme option. I had this sneaking suspicion that even with an international roaming package in place, I’d carelessly open an email with a dozen photos of my cats and wind up with a $4,000 phone bill.

Thus, frustrated and paranoid, I opted for “Airplane Mode.”

Airplane Mode blocks phone and data networks from going into and out of your iPhone. Wi-Fi networks, however, are accessible. It basically turns your iPhone into an iPod Touch. Airplane Mode is accessible under Settings > Airplane Mode.

Call home for pennies (or free) with the Skype iPhone app.

Flying solo

The decision to use my iPhone for two weeks in Airplane Mode meant, of course, that to send and receive emails I needed to access a free Wi-Fi network. It also meant that I wouldn’t be able to send and receive text messages or make normal phone calls.

(In a separate post, we explain how to find free Wi-Fi networks in Paris. Hint: McDonald’s. Also, once connected to a Wi-Fi network, I regularly made phone calls on my iPhone using the Skype app. Those calls were free when calling another Skype user or billed at 1 penny per minute when placing a call to a US phone number.)

Of course, my simple “Airplane Mode” solution won’t work for everyone. Some travelers will obviously need to use their phones to send and receive normal calls. And most annoyingly, you won’t be able to send or receive text messages.

Others will need predictable email and web service. For these users, I’d suggest calling AT&T or Verizon, adding some international services, turning off “fetch” and still using “airplane mode” whenever possible.

However, for Cheapos like me who simply need an occasional connection, consider flying on “airplane mode” during your trip. You’ll relax about charges and still have basic services.

Also in our Guide to using an American iPhone in Europe

Using an American iPhone in Europe… without Going Broke

Tips for AT&T Customers

Tips for Windows, Android and Blackberry Customers

Tips for Verizon Customers

AT&T vs Verizon: A comparison of international plans

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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42 thoughts on “iPhone in Europe: How to set up your phone to avoid a billing “surprise””

  1. 1) Buy a 1 month package in Europe for European phone use. 9 Euro can get you unlimited internet.
    2) 2) For calls to the US use Vonage mobile. It is free from Wi-Fi and if you have the internet package.
    3) I go to Europe two to three times a year. I generally spend less than $30.00 on phone and internet services
    Also, if you have Wi-Fi phone service at home, (Vonage for example), just take the device with you. I use a small phone (land line) and just plug it in. Voila!

  2. Look into renting a Tep mobile Pocket MIFI.
    I have down this twice on trips to Paris and Germany. Yes, set up that Skype account and App on your phone and call the usa for pennies per minute. Definitely shut off your Data. Set up your e mail service app on your phone and check and send e mails this way. You only need a WiFi connection.

    1. Also, if you get a European Sym card ( I use T-Mobil). incoming calls are free. If you have a Wi-Fi land line at home, have it forwarded to your mobile phone in Europe, and return calls with Vonage mobile.
      Sometimes, I just buy a discount data plan in Europe, plug in my device and all calls are free from my regular phone.

  3. Try g3wireless. G3 is based in Toronto and offers competitive rates to over 70 countries at the moment. Just make sure you have an unlocked 3G phone. The SIM card costs $30 and includes $10 of free airtime credit. Plus you can choose between a US or Canadian phone number. https://www.g3wireless.com

  4. Thanks for the great tips. I have one question, my iPhone 5 has the option to turn off the cellular data. The description for this says “Turn off cellular data to restrict all data to Wi-Fi, including email, web browsing, and push notifications”. Has anyone tried this, it sounds like it would do the same thing as putting the phone in airplane mode and turning on the Wi-Fi. If you have tried it, is my assumption correct and does it work like the other method suggested?


    1. Hi Tealen,

      The advantage of switching off your cellular data is that you can keep your phone active. Remember, if you switch it into airplane mode, the phone won’t work.

      With your cellular data turned off, people can still call you and you can make calls out. Your email won’t be able to be downloaded and you won’t be able to use the internet, however, without connecting to a Wi-Fi network.

      I hope that helps!

  5. I hade it done this way:

    1) buy a cheap andeoid cellphone (i use samsung galaxy y for about 95eur)

    2) buy a local prepaid sim card, put it in android cell phone and fill it with noney and let them in the shop activate the data plan

    3) activate on the android call phone the provate hotspot/wifi

    4) connect your iphone with this hotspot

    Now you have data on the street without to search always a free wifi spot

    Give your friends at home this local number and they can call you cheaper on this number then your original number (whith roaming bills for you)

  6. Pingback: An Unexpected Journey | Behind the Curtain

  7. What kind of charger/converter do I need for Spain and is there a danger of ruining the iPhone or iPod? I have the plugs that convert but am not sure if I can just plug it in ?

  8. Instead of using airplane mode can you use the do not disturb feature with the same results? I know you can create groups to allow calls from.

  9. Pingback: American Smartphones in Europe: Windows, Android and Blackberry customers | Brendan Linard

  10. Thank you so much for the detailed information needed to use my smartphone overseas without incurring debt! Exactly the information and step-by-step procedure I was looking to find.

  11. what kind of converter do I need to recharge my iPhone? Traveling in France and Germany.
    thanks for the tips!!!

  12. I use textplus. It sends a text to someone like a regular text. Just remember on your first text to tell them who it is cause they will have no idea. With wattsapp you both have to have it.

  13. so if i am to understand this craziness… if i put my iphone in Airplane Mode- and get the whatsapp….. i can text and not get any charges? i am with verizon…..and then if i am in a free wi-fi area- still stay in airplane mode and use skype? has anyone used google voice? a girl at verizon says she uses it to talk to her family overseas… is she in airplane mode when she is using it? love any and all input- headed to germany for 2 years!

  14. For all you wireless users as recommended by Tom- great article thanks- best texting app is whatsapp and it’s definitely in use in western Europe as I communicate with my family there using it all the time…

  15. HI
    I am traveling to Rome Sunday and on a cruise for a week and will have the data plan for my I4S and I know the cost for texting and using the phone but am curious to know if I receive emails do if I don’t open them am I charge for them? Also, if I don’t have my phone in airplane mode if I don’t answer the calls am I charge for them?

  16. Traveling to Spain and on a Sprint plan. Will put phone on airplane mode and WiFi but does anyone know about an International data plan? thanks :-)

  17. I am headed for Spain with my family and we have 5 iphones between us. We don’t need to receive calls from the US and can get email in a wifi zone. What we need is to be able to keep track of and call each other while in Spain. What is the cheapest way to accomplish this? Thanks for your help.

  18. Laura from NJ

    Tom – thank you for a set of well documented, useful, and humorous articles, and thanks too to fellow readers for insightful questions and comments. I had not understood purpose of Airplane mode before. I plan to purchase a limited data plan with AT&T and will let you know if the data usage is prorated, and will check out EuroCheapo for my next trip abroad.

  19. Can I just forward my phone so that all incoming calls go to my home phone? Wouldn’t that take care of the “surprises”, along with the proper email and roaming settings?

  20. Okay, so I understand the whole Wifi data connection – use airplane mode. I don’t want to use my 3G to make telephone calls. I can get my emails when in wifi. What about texting? If I want to text, can I?

  21. I just tested some of these statements with a family member who will be travelling and one other pointer is: if a message ever pops up saying that a function is only available if you “Disable Airplane Mode,” do NOT press “Disable!” Press “Cancel.” You must stay in Airplane mode.

  22. My experience with traveling in Europe with the 3GS was that if I kept the phone in Airplane mode from the time I got into the plane stateside to the time I landed back in the States, I was not charged for any “surprises.” Furthermore, though the WIFI mode gets turned off when you turn Airplane mode “on,” whenever you are in a free WiFi area, you can go to settings and turn WiFi “on” and use SKYPE or Viber to make or receive phone calls. You can also check email, FACEBOOK, etc. for free, as long as you are in a free WiFi zone. What I am not entirely clear on is whether you need to turn WiFi back off again when you leave that zone. I always tried to remember to turn it off but sometimes forgot and was not charged anything when I got home so I THINK you do not have to turn it off again when you leave the free WiFi zone.

    Now I have an iPhone 4Gs (or 4S or whatever it is called) and I am not sure whether iMessaging and FaceTime are free whenever you are signed into a free WiFi. If someone could answer this and the question of whether you need to turn WiFi “off” when leaving a free Wifi zone.

    The main thing for international travelers to know is that if you keep Airplane mode “on” from the time you take off stateside to the time you land back in the states, you should be in good shape. If your battery dies or you turn your phone off while it is in airplane mode, it will restart in Airplane mode (no worries unless they have changed something). I should point out that I use AT&T.

    1. Both iMessage and Facetime are free whenever you are signed into wifi. Thanks so much for the tips in regards to airplane mode, they are most appreciated!

    1. Hi Laura,

      You won’t need to turn off the roaming, because once you put it on airplane mode, the phone won’t be able to send or receive data through any phone or data network. It will only be able to connect to Wi-Fi networks.

  23. Hi all,

    Do you think the iMessage feature work on a wireless connection? I had planned to keep my phone in Airplane Mode, and hoped to be able to communicate with family members through iMessage, and have them not count as text messages.

    I have the iPhone 4gs (AT&T) with the latest iOS.

    Your thoughts are appreciated!

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      That’s a good question. I just tried to send a message using iMessage with my phone on airplane and it didn’t work. Every time I tried to send something, my phone told me to “turn off airplane mode to send a message.”

      But I’m not convinced — does anyone else have any advice?

      1. Hi all —

        YES you CAN you iMessage in Airplane mode with Wi-Fi turned on. Just make SURE you turn off the “send as an SMS feature when iMessage is not available.” I tried airplane mode and texting through my house Wi-Fi and it worked. It DID tell me to disable airplane mode, but click CANCEL! You can text through airplane mode, wi-fi on to another iMessage user. Just make sure you stay in AP mode!

  24. Hi Tom, in France there is a new service which should be available shortly. You can book a portable wifi modem that connects to 3G for calling and navigating with your own mobile device anywhere in France. That would be a great thing even for those who got a European plan like me (roaming costs are devastating!)

    1. Hi Michele,

      I had heard about this and was wondering whether the wi-fi cards are available. I have a friend who travels quite a bit and has one. We started to talk about it last night, but were diverted.

      Can they be mobile wi-fi cards be purchased in Paris? If so, where and for how much? I have an apartment there, so have wi-fi available a lot of the time. I also have a cheap cell phone that I bought there, but I would much prefer to use my iPhone.

      Thanks a lot!

  25. I’m not sure which iphone model you are referring to but my 4S (carrier: AT&T) disconnects from both wifi and network coverage whenever I turn on airplane mode. Will using all of the steps except for this one protect me from absurd overage charges when I go overseas? I plan on buying the lowest priced international data plan in case of emergency (I have also heard of AT&T fabricating charges in this area, so I am being extra cautious.) However, I am still curious as to how you were able to use airplane mode and still connect to WiFi and which iphone model you were using.

    1. Hi Andrea,

      I’m using the iPhone 3GS. And yes, when I turn on airplane mode, initially the Wi-Fi goes off. However, then I click into “settings,” then “Wi-Fi” and turn it back on.
      This should work for you, too.


      1. Thank you so much for the tip, I will definitely be setting my iphone to airplane mode when I travel to Europe this summer! Ingenious, I say!

  26. What about Sprint users? When I called Sprint they told me to buy a throw-away phone in France. Not very helpful.


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