What Is Data Roaming?


Easton Smith
Nov 27, 2023
bullet8 min read

Data roaming happens when you travel outside of your mobile device’s usual network. Unless you’re traveling internationally or near an international border, you probably don’t have to worry about data roaming.

However, for those who travel outside of the country (or spend a lot of time near international borders), roaming can lead to unexpected costs. We’ll go over everything you need to know about how data roaming works with different carriers, how you can avoid fines, and what plans are the best for international roaming.

We’ll dive a bit deeper into the meaning of data roaming in a moment. But first, here are a few of the best data plans for those who might be roaming internationally.

Roaming data defined

Data roaming refers to a mobile device’s ability to connect to and use the internet through a cellular network when it’s outside of its normal coverage area.

For instance, if you’re a Verizon customer, you’re usually connected to Verizon’s 4G, LTE, and 5G networks. However, if you go to a place where Verizon is not available, your phone will automatically connect to another network (maybe AT&T or T-Mobile’s). This is considered roaming. Your phone may have an “E” next to the signal icon or another way of letting you know that you’re not on your normal network.

While data roaming enables users to stay connected while traveling, it can lead to some issues. Mobile carriers typically don’t charge anything for domestic roaming, but they will usually charge higher rates for international roaming, especially when you use data.

You can have data roaming with cell phones, hotspot devices, and any other device that connects to a mobile network using a SIM card. But don’t worry, we’ll talk more about how to turn data roaming on and off below.

Costs of data free on roaming

Almost all U.S. cell phone carriers offer free data roaming as long as you are still in the states or U.S. territories like Puerto Rico. This includes the big three (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) as well as smaller mobile network operators (MVNOs), like Mint Mobile and Visible Wireless.

You’ll need to pay attention when your device switches to a network in another country. This usually happens when you’re traveling internationally, but my phone often switched to Mexican networks while I hiked near the Arizona border.

Unless you’re on a plan that includes data roaming in specific countries, you’ll likely be charged for any data that you use while connected to a foreign network. Many carriers allow for free international texting, but others might also charge extra for calls or texts placed while roaming internationally.

How much data do you really need?
bullet

Roaming data can be costly. But so can running out of your normal data allotment. Use our data guide to calculate how many gigabits are required to meet your Facetiming, TikToking, online gaming, and doom scrolling needs.

Data roaming can be a problem for everyday cell phone users and those using a mobile phone for their home internet service, so be sure to check your device if you’re traveling near a border to see if there is a notification that you are connected to a new network.

How international roaming works

International data roaming happens when your device connects to a carrier that’s not based in the United States. While these companies will have use agreements with your carrier, using data and other services on the network will cost you. It’s kind of like using your health insurance with an out-of-network doctor.

In some parts of the world, your carrier may not have any use agreements with local carriers. In that case, you may need to buy a local SIM card or phone to actually get service.

When to turn data roaming on or off

Most people will want their data roaming to be turned off when they are not traveling internationally. Keeping the data roaming option on your phone toggled into the off position won’t affect your coverage within the United States at all; totally free domestic roaming will still be allowed in most cases.

Keeping your data roaming turned off will stop your phone from switching to another network that will charge you additional fees. If you’re traveling intentionally and want to connect to another network, then you should turn data roaming on.

Turning your data roaming option on will allow your phone to connect, but you should check with your carrier to see what options there are for international day passes or monthly plans with international perks. (We’ll go over that more in a minute.)

How to turn data roaming on and off

Turning data roaming on and off is easy on most devices. It should be easy to find in the Settings section of your phone or hotspot. But we’ll go over how to change the settings on iPhones and Androids just in case.

How to turn data roam on and off with an iPhone

To change your data roaming settings on an iPhone follow these steps:

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Tap Cellular.
  3. Next to Cellular Data Options, choose Roaming Off.
  4. Switch the button for Data Roaming to on. (It will turn green.)
screenshot of iphone roaming on off switch

Image source: Screenshot from iPhone settings

How to turn data roam on and off with Android devices

To change your data roaming settings on an Android phone follow these steps:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Under Wireless & Networks select More.
  3. Choose Mobile Networks. (Note: On some Android devices, you might need to choose Battery & Data Manager > Data Delivery.)
  4. Select the check mark by Data Roaming. (On some Android phones, you might need to choose Global Data Roaming Access > Allow Data Roaming Access.)

Cellular roaming on T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s roaming policies are pretty decent. A friend of our website, who also travels a lot for work, told us that he has great U.S. coverage with T-Mobile and never gets charged for roaming when he’s roaming throughout the country.

In fact, T-Mobile has a policy not to charge at all for domestic roaming. The company’s policy states that it “does not charge an additional fee for this service, but because we do not own these networks, there are limitations to data.”

For those who are traveling internationally, there are plenty of perks that can make roaming data free or cheap. T-Mobile customers on the Go5G, MAX, and Plus plans will get 5GB of high-speed data in more than 215 countries automatically. Many other plans, like the Magenta plan below, will get you 5GB of high-speed data and free texting in 11 European countries, Mexico, and Canada.

You can also add unlimited calling and data to most T-Mobile plans for $5 a day or $50 a month.

Looking for better mobile internet?
bullet

If you’re using your cell phone as a hotspot for RV adventuring or other travel, you might want to consider other mobile internet options. You can often get faster speeds and better deals with satellite internet.

Cellular roaming on Verizon

So, how does Verizon compare to T-Mobile when it comes to roaming? In short, it’s not quite as good.

Our editor, Mikayla Rivera, says that she has been on Verizon for the last five years. She says that “it has a good signal for my area. But recently, I’ve started to travel a lot more for work, so I switched to the unlimited data plan hoping that would help me when my GPS gobbles up data. It did help, but I’ve found my service going out to SOS while traveling around Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona far more than I ever expected.”

That said, if you are on Verizon and still within the United States, you shouldn’t see any roaming charges. Verizon’s policy states that, with the exception of a few old plans, “there are no additional charges for roaming domestically.” But your data may be limited when on another network.

When it comes to international roaming, Verizon has a few perks. Roaming in Canada and Mexico is included with certain plans, like the Unlimited Plus, Unlimited Welcome, and other Unlimited plans. You can also add a travel pass for daily use or monthly international data and calling for $10 a day.

screenshot of travelpass verizon

Image source: screenshot taken from Verizon.com

Cellular roaming on AT&T

AT&T’s roaming policies are pretty good. The company states that customers “domestic data roaming monthly allowance is the lesser of 24MB or 20% of the KBs included in your data plan.” As someone who’s used AT&T for my entire adult life, I can say that I’ve never seen any charges for domestic roaming.

When it comes to international travel, many AT&T customers on unlimited plans will get free talk, text, data (within the limits of the plan’s allotment) when they are in Mexico, Canada, and Latin America.

You can also sign up for an international day pass that works in more than 210 countries for $10 a day.

screenshot of att abroad plan

Image source: Screenshot from AT&T.com

Data roaming on other carriers

There are plenty of other MVNO carriers, like Boost, Ultra, and Twigby, that have their own specific policies about international data use and roaming. Fortunately, almost none of these companies will charge extra for domestic roaming.

But we do want to highlight two companies that offer decent deals on international roaming: Mint Mobile and Visible Wireless. Both of these carriers offer decent international calling and texting perks for all unlimited customers, as well as international data add-ons that you can use when traveling. 

Best international cell phone plans

Finding a cell phone or hotspot plan that fits your particular travel needs is not always easy, but we have a few recommendations.

Google Fi’s data plans work in a bunch of different countries automatically, while Mint Mobile offers a super cheap unlimited monthly plan that can come with international add-ons. For those who can spend a little more, T-Mobile and AT&T’s roaming policies are great, as are their international data add-ons.

Methodology

For this article about data roaming we did a serious investigation into the norms and regulations around data roaming in the United States. We looked at all of the policies from the major cellular carriers, talked to users from different carriers, and looked at the fine print of international data plans.

Our goal was to pass all of that information on to you in a concise, accurate, and helpful way. We hope that we’ve helped you better understand data roaming and find a plan that works perfectly for your nomadic lifestyle.

Data roaming FAQ

What does data roaming do?

Data roaming allows you to continue using your cell phone or other device even when you’ve traveled outside of your normal network area. Your device will connect with other networks that your carrier has made agreements with to keep providing you with service for calls, texts, and data.

Should data roaming be on or off?

If you’re not planning to travel outside of the borders of your country, you should keep roaming data off so that you don’t accidentally connect to foreign networks and incur unexpected costs.

If you’re traveling and you want to make sure you stay connected abroad, then you should probably turn data roaming on.

Will I be charged for roaming if I use Wi-Fi?

No. If you have Wi-Fi calling enabled on your phone, you should be able to call using an internet connection. Just make sure you’ve turned off roaming so that your phone doesn’t try to make the call through the mobile network. You can always use your phone for regular internet activities through a Wi-Fi network without being charged. (Again, just make sure you’re not using mobile data by turning off roaming and/or turning off your network connection.)

How much do you get charged for data roaming?

It really depends on your phone service provider and your plan, but the fees range from a few cents per minute for calls and texts to over two dollars per minute. When it comes to data use, roaming charges can really skyrocket. Many carriers charge more than a dollar for a single megabyte of roaming data.

Do you get charged roaming for incoming calls?

Yes. If you’re connected to another network in another country, anything you do on your phone can incur charges (depending on your plan). If you pick up the phone you may be charged for the minutes you spend talking. Same goes for data and texting.

Does airplane mode stop roaming charges?

Yes. If your phone is on airplane mode, it will not connect to any mobile networks, which means you can’t be roaming. You can still use many features on your phone via Wi-Fi when in airplane mode (but you may not be able to receive calls or texts).

Easton Smith
Written by
Easton Smith