International Roaming and the Foreign Service: Or How I Learned to Not Be Stupid and Pay in Advance

In my last post, I cursorily addressed a big issue for those of us who travel overseas to new posts: what happens when you have no way of communicating except for your US-based cell phone and you have an emergency back home?

We were faced with just this dilemma upon arriving in Indonesia: at 1:00 a.m. our time, we had a major pet-shipping logistics breakdown at IAD, and needed to solve it instantly.  We had no internet at our house, no nearby open WiFi networks, and a useless home phone (they had changed the international dialing codes recently, and didn’t tell anyone the new ones).  I was forced to use my US-based smartphone with AT&T to use the internet and make calls from Indonesia to the U.S.  All-in-all, I used about 65 MB of data (2-minute Skype call, email, and some Facebook messaging), and received one 1-minute international roaming call.  At pay-per-use (PPU) figures of $0.0195 per kilobyte, I used 66,308 KB (64.75 MB), adding up to $1,293.00 in accrued international data charges.  “Holy crap!” is right, though the words that came out of my mouth when I saw this were a little more NC-17–oriented.

Looking at that same page on the AT&T site, you’ll see that they have several options for overseas usage.  The have international options for voice, SMS, and data.  $30 gets you 15 minutes of roaming in Indonesia (compared to $2.50/min. PPU) or 120 MB of data.  Even the highest tier of $120 for 100 minutes or 800 MB is still less than 10 percent of what I paid at PPU rates.

This being said, I think next time we PCS overseas, I’ll take advantage of the international roaming plans for any contingencies that arise (and arise they do, believe me).  I’ll happily pay $30, $60, or even $120 on top of my bill as insurance that I’ll never have to see a wireless bill that has four figures instead of three.  We couldn’t suspend our accounts until we reached post (luckily I wasn’t that forward-thinking, and didn’t fax our orders until we arrived at post), so I at least had access to SOME form of communication.  However, after the data usage ate through $1,300, AT&T helpfully suspended my account to “avoid significant overages” and I was left with a brick in my hands instead of a smartphone.  I wonder what their threshold for “significant overages” is?  $1,000, $5,000, even $10,000?  With my phone now “bricked,” I had to call the duty officer here at post to go use her internet connection at 1:30 a.m. to complete the Skype call I was cut off from and get our dogs on the plane.

This isn’t a unique situation to just AT&T.  A quick glance at Sprint ($0.019 per KB), T-Mobile ($10 or $15 per MB), and Verizon ($0.02 per KB) all show similarly ridiculous PPU rates.  Only AT&T, Sprint and Verizon offer international roaming packages… so sorry, T-Mobile users, you’re up a creek without a paddle (but good news! you’ll only pay about 75% of what AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon charge for PPU).

So, are you PCS’ing soon?  Do you have a tight, logistics-heavy schedule for departure?  Are you shipping pets or anything that could be delayed or made impossible by the slightest hiccup?  Are you worried about dealing with contingencies in the U.S. from abroad if when they happen?  Think carefully about it, and then just get an international voice and data roaming plan for a month.  The $60, $120, or even $240 you spend on this “insurance” will only be a very small fraction of the actual cost if you need to use PPU while overseas.