Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices] Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money? If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:
Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on “I want to…” to get this menu
Click on “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):
International Services
International Services
Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.

International Roaming – Voice

The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…

International Roaming – Messaging

This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.

International Roaming – Data

There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:
  • 800MB for $120 is $0.15/MB
  • 300MB for $60 is $0.20/MB
  • 120MB for $30 is $0.25/MB
There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data.  If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck. If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.

Confirming your changes

The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up. Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”. “Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day. One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.) When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.

On the ground in Europe

To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges. Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges. Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail. To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.

When you get back

Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left. Enjoy your trip!

9 thoughts on “Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money”

  1. I have to correct you about the text messaging. You get charged for incoming text messages exactly the same way you get charged when you are home. If you have unlimited texting at home, for example, you are not charged for text messages you receive while you are traveling internationally.

    However, it costs $.50 for each text message you send while traveling internationally. So the text messaging plan you mention above could still pay off if you send over 33 messages.

    What you don’t mention is that you are also charged for all incoming calls you receive, even if you don’t answer. Each time the phone rings internationally and then goes to your voicemail you will be charged.

    I’ve read that you may be able to transfer all incoming calls to avoid this, but would love to hear if anyone has been successful in doing so.

    1. Each time we travel abroad we turn off our voice mail with our cell provider. This way when someone calls our mobile phone, we can still see who is calling, but when we don’t answer, and when the call does not go to voicemail, there is no charge.
      When someone calls you and you are abroad and you have not turned off your voicemail you will be billed for 1 minute at the international rate when they leave a message.
      Once we return to the states we simply call our cell provider and ask them to turn our voicemail back on.

  2. This is a great web site. Unfortunately I’m a newbie with Droid phones, taking a great leap upward from our basic Tracfone to a T-Mobile Comet Droid phone which is scheduled to arive today so I’ve not had it in hand. My wife and I will be in Italy in September (Rome and Siena) and hope to use the phone occasionally where wi-fi is in place (may be only our hotels) just to connect to the web (e.g., for Google enquiries re historic places, etc, and to connect to our Google G-mail). Since we do not speak Italian, we have no expectation of using the “telephone” component of our cell. Have you any links to sites where we can access T-Mobile tips for reaching the web and keeping our cell turned off except when needed?

  3. I use GoogleVoice to “takeover” incoming calls when I’m out of country. Voicemails left there are transcribed and sent as texts or emails to my iPhone which I retrieve from free wifi spots wherever I may be. Never miss a beat.

  4. In July 2011, AT&T droped prices AND raised data quantities for international travel, so be sure to check the rates out. If you do the math rates change 2.5x-5x for the better (depending on the plan).

    $25 now gets you 50MB (instead of 20MB) and $100 now gets you 275MB ($119 used to get you 100 MB).

    I believe the overages are much better now too, although still pricey ($10/10 MB).

    Be sure to check the countries and the fine print!

  5. Hi. Any tip on how I should go about switching from a U.S. number to an Italian one on my iPhone 4S? I just moved to Florence, Italy two days ago for about 2-3 years due to a company relocation. Should I go all the way to the Apple store (25-40 mins outside of town) to accomplish this change or simply march into a certain provider store in the city and ask to begin on their network? If the latter, do you know which network is the best in Florence and/or Italy? And which ones work best with iPhones? Thanks! [email protected]

  6. That worked great for us last year, however they have now discontinued the World Traveller Plan and you have to choose your areas of voice roaming. To get the cheapest rates now for European travel it now costs a total of $70.00 per month. And if you cancel as soon as you get back and it hasn’t been a full month, your data and minutes will be prorated as well as the charges.
    Global Messaging (50 messages): $10.00, 120 MB international data: $30, International Voice roaming for Europe (30 minutes max): $30.

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