When I traveled internationally for the first time after buying my iPhone, I was concerned about the potential for racking up huge phone bills. I’d heard horror stories about people who used their ATT iPhone for international travel, only to discover they had mounted up thousands of dollars in cell phone charges upon returning home. As an underpaid writer, I needed to make very sure this didn’t happen to me.

iPhone 3GS

I started by calling AT&T and was told that I needed to add an International Calling Plan for $24.99 per month. Initially that seemed like a reasonable solution, until I read the small print. The plan provides 20MB of usage within 65 countries, and the list of countries did not include my destination. Additionally, usage over 20MB would have been charged at $.005 per KB. If that all sounds like a lot of gibberish, let me put it in perspective: opening an email with a five megapixel picture in it or downloading a three-minute video on YouTube each require about 2MB of data, so it wouldn’t take long to eat up 20MB of data. Additionally, there are 1,000 KB in each MB, so if I was over my limit, opening a 2MB email would cost me $10! Obviously, this plan was not acceptable.

Since I intended to access my email and the Internet solely through the hotel’s WiFi network, I asked AT&T for instructions to block the cellular network completely. Although it was a struggle to get the rep to agree to send me the appropriate information, she finally offered to send an email with instructions. The instructions were somewhat incomplete, but with research I was able to fill in the missing details and the steps I took successfully shut off the 3G network (I have since traveled internationally for months without incurring any roaming charges). The following are the specific instructions for using ATT iPhone for international travel without incurring high international roaming charges (3Gs, 4 and 4s):

Settings for iPhone 3GS:

  1. Make sure that standard International Roaming and International Long Distance feature, if it is included in your cellular plan, is removed (call AT&T and make sure the rep adds a note to your account confirming that you requested this)
  2. If you are going to forward your number, do so before you change any other settings (Settings->Phone->Call Forwarding->Turn ON->Enter number to which you want calls forwarded)
  3. Disable 3G (Settings->General->Network-Enable 3G->OFF)
  4. Turn off data roaming (Settings->General-Network->Data Roaming->OFF)
  5. Make sure WiFi is enabled (Settings->WiFi->WiFi->ON)
  6. Turn of automatic pushing of email (Settings->Mail, Contacts, Calendars->Fetch New Data-Push->OFF and set Fetch to Manually)
  7. Put the phone in airplane mode (Settings->Airplane Mode->ON)
  8. Although not absolutely necessary, I wanted to be very sure I was not mounting up the MB’s, so I reset the usage counter to zero in order to monitor it throughout the trip, ensuring my usage remained at zero. To do so, go to Settings->General->Usage->Reset Statistics (scroll to the very bottom).

Settings for iPhone 4 and 4s:

  1. If you are going to forward your number, do so before you change any other settings (Settings->Phone->Call Forwarding->Turn ON->Enter number to which you want calls forwarded)
  2. Disable 3G (Settings->General->Network->Cellular Data->OFF). Also check your Data Roaming; it should be off by default, but for some reason if it is on, turn it off here as well
  3. Make sure WiFi is enabled (Settings->WiFi->WiFi->ON)
  4. Turn of automatic pushing of email (Settings->Mail, Contacts, Calendars->Fetch New Data-Push->OFF and set Fetch to Manually)
  5. Put the phone in airplane mode (Settings->Airplane Mode->ON)
  6. If you wish to reset the usage counter to zero in order to monitor it throughout the trip and ensure usage remains at zero, go to Settings->General->Usage->Cellular Usage->Reset Statistics
  7. NOTE: In my 4s I do not turn off Location Services and Notifications, as they both work over wifi as well as a cellular network. Disabling 3G and putting the phone in Airplane Mode ensures that they will use only the wifi network and not rack up expensive roaming charges.

When I arrive in an international destination, I simply log into an available WiFi network and Voila! I have access to the Internet, email, Twitter, and can even make international phone calls with the iPhone Skype app without incurring cellular charges. When you return to the U.S., simply reverse the process, although you may choose not to reinstate the International Roaming and International Long Distance feature.

Planning international travel in the near future? Check out prices for your preferred destination at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or HotelsCombined.com. Read what travelers have to say about properties in your destination at TripAdvisor.com.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links to hotel booking sites. If you click on any of the links and make a booking, I may earn a small commission, which keeps this blog free to read.