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Topical issues on mobile data abroad. Common problems and survival tips for travelers in seek of a decent internet connection on the go.

Your Cell Phone Data Usage Guide for Travelling

Travel preparation with cell phone data usage guide and list of useful apps.

Are you a frequent traveller? If so, then it’s likely that your phone has become one of your most important travelling companions.

Whether you want to stay in touch with friends or keep up with work emails, most rely on our cell phones when we are away from home. However, this reliance can lead to unexpected and high roaming charges if you do not plan ahead and know how to avoid it.

To help you out, we have created an overview with tips & tricks for iPhone and Android phones which will guide you to manage your cell phone data usage while travelling. Also, we will provide you with a list of useful apps when travelling abroad that will keep you connected and support your journey while keeping data roaming to a minimum.

Manage Your Data Usage Abroad

To manage and track your data usage abroad, your device settings is a good place to start. However, Android and iOS devices provide different features, and different operating system versions can also have different functionalities. The listed suggestions are based on the latest operating system versions for both Android and iOS. It could be however, depending on your phone model, that your menus are structured slightly differently.

1. Switch Data Roaming Off

To start off with the most obvious tip to prevent any roaming charges; you can fully turn off your data roaming. In this case, no mobile data connection can be established and you are sure not to face any unexpected roaming costs. However, by doing so, you would only be able to connect to the internet while using a WiFi connection. Public WiFi is available almost anywhere nowadays and can be your go-to free data solution. If you feel that this is all the data you need to stay connected abroad, we advise you to educate yourself first on the possible dangers of public WiFi.

Both Android and iPhones provide you with the option to switch your data roaming fully off. Based on your device, you can follow the steps listed below:

  • For iPhone users: Settings -> Mobile/Cellular Data
  • For Android users: Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet -> Data usage

Instead of switching data roaming off entirely, you can also turn off data roaming per app on both Android and iPhones. When considering which apps to turn off, think about what you would need when you are abroad and look into the current consumption of your apps. In this case you can switch off the apps you feel you do not need or would possibly consume more data than you would be comfortable with. You can switch off data usage on iPhone and Android on app level via:

  • For iPhone users: Settings -> Mobile/Cellular Data
  • For Android users: ->Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet ->Data usage -> Mobile data & WiFi/ App data usage

Instead of switching your data roaming off, iOS and Android both offer tools to limit your data usage. However, it is only possible on Android devices to set a hard mobile data usage limit.

2. Set Data Usage Limit & Track Usage

Before going on your trip, we recommend to check with your mobile service provider for possible international roaming costs based on your travel location, decide how much you are willing to spend, and limit your mobile data usage accordingly. In that case you can make sure you will not spend more than you are comfortable with. To limit your mobile data usage on Android devices you can either set a warning when a certain data limit is reached or a hard data limit to make sure you do not roam more than you want to spend on data usage.

On iPhones, it is not possible to set a limit on your data usage or receive notifications for a certain amount of data used. However, to make sure you can track your usage, you can reset your data usage statistics before your trip to be able to see how much data you actually use during that period. In that case, you can manually switch off your data roaming once your personal data usage limit is reached. You can implement the warning or data limit for Android and reset your data statistics for iOS via:

  • For Android users: ->Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet -> Data usage -> Data warning & limit
  • For iPhone users: -> Settings -> Mobile/Cellular Data

3. Use Low Data Mode or Data Saver Mode

Both Android and iPhones provide tools to stay connected to the internet while minimizing your data usage. Android’s version is named Data saver mode while Apple refers to Low Data Mode. Android and iPhones use similar ways to limit data usage while making it still possible for you to use your apps. Key adjustments both operating systems make while using their data saving modes are:

  • Background refresh of apps will be switched off
  • Apps automatically updating in the background will be turned off
  • Reduce quality of streaming content
  • Prevent images from loading automatically or load with lower quality
  • Pausing automatic file uploads to the cloud

To enable these data saving features, you can follow the following steps:

  • For iPhone users: Settings -> Mobile/Cellular Data
  • For Android users: ->Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet ->Data usage -> Mobile data & WiFi/ Data saver

Besides using these data saving features that disable background refreshes or auto updates for all of your apps, it is also possible to disable this on app level. In the next section we will dive deeper into this.

4. Restrict Background Data and Automatic Updates

Apps that automatically refresh in the background consume data without you actively using your phone. Social media apps are known for consuming data automatically. They load texts and images in the background constantly so your feed can be presented directly upon opening to give you a smooth user experience. Disabling background data on specific apps can be the right strategy for you when travelling if you still wish to use these apps, consume less data and don’t mind giving in a bit on your user experience. You can restrict background data usage on iPhone and Android on app level via the following steps:

  • For iPhone users: Settings -> General->Background App Refresh
  • For Android users: ->Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet ->Data usage -> Mobile data & WiFi/ Data usage ->App data usage-> “click on app”-> Background data

Besides automatic app refreshes, apps can also automatically update. In most cases, app updates nowadays only occur when connected to a WiFi network. However, it is worth checking if you have not allowed your app store to auto update over mobile networks before your trip. App updates can be significant in size and can cause your data plan to run out fast or cause bill shock. To disable auto updates or only allow auto updates only when connected to WiFi, you can follow these steps:

  • For iPhone users: Settings -> App Store->Turn off App Updates
  • For Android users: -> Play Store ->Menu -> Settings ->Network preferences-> Auto-update apps

5. Automated WiFi Switching

Automatic switching between WiFi and your mobile data plan can be a great feature to never experience a poor internet connection. When you are connected to a slow WiFi connection, your phone can detect this and automatically switch to using your mobile data. However, thinking about international roaming charges, you might want to disable this feature. It could otherwise happen that you are lying at the pool of your hotel, the WiFi router is too far away for a stable connection and your phone is switching automatically to your mobile data plan while browsing your social media channels.

For iPhones, this automated WiFi switching is named WiFi Assist while Android phones mention it as Adaptive WiFi. You can switch of this feature for both operating systems via:

  • For iPhone users: -> Settings -> Mobile/Cellular Data
  • For Android users: ->Settings -> Connections/ Network & internet -> Wi-Fi -> Wi-Fi preferences/ More options -> Advanced -> Switch to mobile data automatically

6. Using Messaging Tools

Using (video) messaging tools such as Facetime, Google Meet, Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger are a great way to not face high bills for calling abroad. However, do keep in mind that using these services all consume mobile data. If you are planning to use any of these apps as your main source of communication, we suggest doing research upfront on how much data they consume and set a maximum time for your video calls. Track the actual consumption afterwards and make sure you don’t use more data then you are comfortable with.

To make sure you don’t spend more on your mobile data abroad than you wish, you can also consider purchasing a travel specific mobile data plan. In the next chapter we will provide you with tips on which apps to use for your next trip and how to set them up keeping your data roaming consumption in mind.

Prepare Your Favourite Apps for Travelling

Thinking ahead is always useful, especially when travelling. No matter where your next adventure takes place, you might want to prepare your favourite apps so they use as little data as possible. Also certain apps might become handy while travelling and downloading them in advance saves cell phone data later.

  1. Map apps. Having a map is essential if you are travelling to a new city or country. Google Maps is a go-to option for many of us and you can use it without Internet connection. Download the maps of your destination on your device before you take off and you can navigate in the new surroundings offline.

  2. Browser Lite mode. No matter how carefully you plan and search all information in advance, there might come a time when you need to quickly check something from the Internet. Google Chrome users can turn on a Lite mode, which uses less data and you can browse faster. If you prefer Opera, you might want to download Opera Mini beforehand. Unfortunately these are currently not available for iOS users, who can still slow down data usage with iOS 13’s Low Data Mode.

  3. Translator apps. While you might cope well with just English on your travels, it is convenient to have a translator app on your mobile phone, just in case. Google Translate has a handy photo feature to translate menus or signs. To use the app offline you need to download the needed language beforehand.

  4. Plane app. Make sure you download the relevant app for the company you're flying with, if they have one. For example American Airlines, Lufhansa, Emirates Airlines.

  5. Transportation apps. Many cities have apps for their local transportation, which is a convenient way to buy tickets and check the timetables. Uber is also handy, but it is good to remember that it does not operate worldwide, so you might want to also check if there is a taxi app that would work in your destination.

  6. Accommodation apps. If you haven’t booked your accommodation before you set off, we recommend you to download a suitable accommodation app on your device so you can easily find a place to stay. For example Booking.com, Hotels.com and Airbnb lists accommodation all over the world. These apps are not only handy in booking accommodation but also for communicating with the hotel or host.

  7. Currency apps. While you might enjoy calculating currency exchange rates yourself, you can do it simply with a currency app too, for example XE Currency Converter. Download the app beforehand and use it offline in your destination. Bear in mind that the actual exchange rates might not be up-to-date when using the app offline.

  8. Entertainment apps. Streaming videos and music takes up a huge amount of data, and fast. So if you are a heavy user of entertainment apps, you might want to download programmes, music and audiobooks on your device so you can enjoy them offline. For example you can download music and podcasts from Spotify or Apple Music, audiobooks from Audible, TV-shows and movies from Netflix.

  9. Low data apps. Many of our favourite apps have light versions that load faster and use less mobile data – therefore perfect for travellers! Here are a few most commonly used apps. If your favourite app is not listed here, you might want to check if they have a lite version available. Currently most of these are for Android users, but hopefully iOS users will get lite versions too!

Be Prepared For Your Trip

Thinking ahead can save lots of money and worry. Whether you are travelling for business or pleasure, cell phone data usage should not be something to worry about. While this guide might include information you already knew, we hope that you got some new tips on how to manage your data usage and have some peace of mind in using your mobile phone abroad. Save these tips for later use.

- Michael & Susanna @Goodspeed