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]

Leave a comment

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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)

  5. Pingback: An Unexpected Journey | Behind the Curtain

  6. 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 ?

  7. 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.

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

Follow Us