Using ATT iPhone for International Travel Without Breaking the Bank (3Gs, 4 and 4s)

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,, or Read what travelers have to say about properties in your destination at

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.

514 thoughts on “Using ATT iPhone for International Travel Without Breaking the Bank (3Gs, 4 and 4s)”

  1. Dear Barbara, I have an iphone 4 which doesn’t support a sim card and an ipad. If I understand correctly, During my 5 week stay in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia I should turn off all the roaming, airplane mode and what else?? I should go thru Skype in free Wi Fi locations and I’ll be able to text and speak on the phone or ipad to others with Skype accounts. I see there are 2 Skype Aps, Skype WiFi and Skype. Which should I use to communicate with my office while I’m gone. Verizon tells me I have to rent their global phone to be able to get service in those countries. Thank you! John

    • Hi John: I’m afraid I am a little confused. First, I’ve never heard of an iPhone in ANY version that does not have a SIM card. They have different SIZE SIM cards (nano-SIM or micro-SIM), but they all have SIMs. My other concern is that my article is written for people who have iPhones that were manufactured for AT&T. Cell phones in the U.S. are specifically manufactured for each carrier, because each one uses a different technology. AT&T uses GSM cellular service, which is the standard in most other places in the world. Verizon uses CDMA, although the new iPhone 5 manufactured for Verizon is a dual technology phone, and the GSM function on it is unlocked, so it can be used with SIM cards in foreign countries. However, the iPhone 4 did not have this capability. Though I do not know if the settings in my article would be exactly the same on a phone manufactured for Verizon, I suspect they are either the same or very similar. I suggest you follow the instructions in my article step-by-step to make sure you are not hit with unexpected charges upon return to the U.S., instead relying on your wifi connection.

      As for Skype, what you need is the regular Skype app. This will allow you (with an active wifi connection) to make calls to any other Skype user, no matter where they are in the world, for free. If you load Skype with credit, you can then also call someone who does not have a Skype account, and I have found that their rates are very economical for most destinations around the world. The Skype WiFi is a special app that makes it possible for you to use your Skype Credit (if you have any) to pay for WiFi access in hotels/airports etc, where the WiFi is not free. You can then use the Skype WiFi App to pay for this access instead of a credit card or similar. By doing all this, you can avoid renting Verizon’s global phone.

  2. I will be driving all around New Zealand’s South Island in February and would like to only use my AT&T iPhone to make a call in an emergency.
    Do I need to activate/pay for any International plan? I believe it is $30 a month at present. If I don’t get a plan will the phone simply roam to a local cellular network and then I would have to pay the $2.50/minute, or whatever it is, charges?

    • Hi Michael: If the only thing you need is to have use of your cell phone in an emergency, the International calling package offered by AT&T may be an option, however be aware that there are data download limits on that plan that are easily exceeded. When that happens, they begin billing you at exorbitant overage rates. Data can add up quickly, just from downloading one photo in an email, so you must make very sure all your connections are turned off (such as email pushing, location services and notifications, as noted in my article). If you put the phone in Airplane mode and leave it there, no data will transfer, and then you could just disable Airport mode when you needed to call and connect via roaming through the local network. However, if the other services are not turned off at that point, you will likely be incurring data charges in the background. Follow the steps in my article to turn them off before putting the phone in Airplane mode and that should ensure that no data is being accessed, even if you take the phone out of Airplane mode.

      • Thanks Barbara, I think perhaps a better option is to buy a Telestial’s Pack Lite Travel Cell Phone. They have them on sale for $19 on their website. It comes with a SIM card with $5 pre-loaded and much lower per minute rates than AT&T’s.

  3. Thanks for giving Useful information.I felt this type problem when i went a trip to German .That was the first time i visit German for 1 month.Thanks your blog is awesome 🙂

  4. Leaving for Zambia in a few hours for a medical mission. Viber is a great FREE app for free international texting and email via wifi. Lets hope it works! Thank you for the information about turning off the data and 3g portions of my iphone. Valuable information!

  5. Excellent issues altogether, you just won a new reader. What could you suggest in regards to your put up that you made a few days in the past? Any positive?

  6. No reason to pay for roaming. I got my iPhone officially unlocked and used a local SIM in Germany. It’s a LOT cheaper that way. For example these guys can unlock your iPhone for like $15.

  7. Going to Laos and Thailand, Does the IPhone 5 have the same settings? I just want to use Wi-Fi to check e-mail. Thanks for the great info.

    • Hi Terry: I don’t have an iPhone 5 yet but I suspect the instructions will be the same. Just follow the steps in my post and if you find he menus are the same, you should be all set. And if so, I’d appreciate it if you’d post back and let us all know. Thanks.

  8. barbara I have a feeling you’re going to save my butt. thanks for posting this I just found out I have no cell svc overseas through verizon but will be in peru in 2 days…thanks for the details this is awesome.

  9. It sounds like an ipod touch would have done all you wanted without having to go through all the trouble and expense of an iphone and managing the cell aspect of it.

    • Hi Lara: You are absolutely correct, however I want the phone so I can pop in a sim card for any country that I visit for more than a couple of weeks.

  10. My son will be going to school in England. He has a GO phone with a UK phone number for friends at school, etc. I would like to get him an IPHONE to use to talk in the US. What do you suggest? Is he better off getting an IPHONE in England?

    • Hmmm, Janet. Tough call. If you get an iPhone in the UK it will be unlocked, as all iPhones sold outside the US are unlocked. That means he will be able to pop in a local sim card if he wants, but sounds like you have that covered with the GO phone. If he’s only going to call internationally using Skype with a wifi connection, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the phone is unlocked. However if you buy it here you will either have to pay full price and get it at the Apple Store, or get it through a carrier for a discounted price, but the latter option will require a two year contract for service. The other thing to consider it the warranty.If he buys it in the UK, once he leaves there, it will not be covered by warranty in the US.

  11. Add a whole new level of convenience to your iPhone while traveling with an App called Pushonecode. No more guessing “How do I call?”…or “Where am I?”

    Pushonecode uses GPS to know where you are and all of the local area codes you need are just one push away. It has every country in the world, all the exit codes and entry codes to call between them. The codes appear on your dial pad (like magic!) with a few pushes and then just add the last digits and you are making your call!

    You can save new numbers to your Contact List and save Favorite calling code sequences for later use. Next update will add all emergency contact numbers for countries that have them…if there are no emerg numbers for a country, it might be one to avoid…

    Happy travels and happy calling!

  12. Bless you for this article Barbara,

    In the time it took to read this I went from “how can I stay in touch” to ” it won’t cost me a cent” to spend 25 days in Canada with my Japanese iPhone. You’re awesome!! And since I already have a Skype North America subscription any calls I make will cost me NOTHING!!!

    Thanks for making my day, and my connectedness in Canada cost and worry free:-)


    P.S. Reading your intro felt like my bio, travel, photography, and recognizing that financial success without meaning is failure. Like you, I’m following my bliss, and choosing meaning over money. “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Confucius

  13. Hi Barbara: I am not tech savvy at all!! Will this method work on ipads also? I’d like to take my ipad 2 with me. Thanks, Linda

  14. Hi Barbara – thanks for the great info. I’m having trouble getting on a network here in Barcelona, and wondered if you might be able to punch holes in my method or find an error. My IPhone 4S is in Airplane mode, with Cellular Data set to “off” and Data Roaming “off”. However despite this, if I pull the phone out of Airplane mode it automatically jumps on a local phone network. Is this business as usual?

    So then I’m trying to get on a WiFi network with all of the above settings intact, and over and over again I can’t get two separate IPhone 4S phones on the network. We’re traveling with a laptop and an IPad which are on the network just fine, but we really need to get the phones on the network as well for texting, etc.

    Any ideas…? thanks so much…


    • Hi Pete: Yes, it’s normal. You have to think of the network separate from the data side of things. The settings you’ve turned off both refer to data, not to the cellular network. If you take it out of Airplane Mode your phone will automatically search for a local cellular network. You should leave the phone in Airplane Mode at all times or you risk mounting up big bills, as there are location services, push services (like email), etc.that will operate in the background, using the local network, if you have not properly turned them all off. You can connect to a wifi network anywhere in the world while the phone is in Airplane Mode – no need to turn it off. When you first activate Airplane Mode, the wifi is turned off automatically; you just need to go back into settings and turn it back on. I have had situations where my laptop would connect to a wifi just fine, but the iPhone would not see it, and/or vice versa. That always has to do with the way the wifi network was set up, not with the iPhone, however if it is happening for all wifi networks, I suspect you just need to turn the wifi back on. As for text messages, unless you’re using an app like Google Voice or Text Free, you will not be able to text using wifi, and if you turn on the cellular network to do so you will also incur big charges, because it uses the international network to send and receive text messages.

  15. Hi Barbara!  Thanks for the instructions and insights.  Is step 1 for the iPhone 3Gs absolutely necessary or is it just precautionary.

    • Hi TLee: It’s precautionary, but I think it’s important, because from what I understand (and AT&T is not always terribly forthcoming with information, as you probably know) if you have this feature, you are giving the carrier permission to use the International network to connect calls.

      • Thanks for that info Barbara!  I’ll be walking some by myself in some of the more remote areas of Ireland on an upcoming trip.  Wi-Fi wouldn’t be available in that situation.  I think I’m going to take the iPhone (while utilizing the instructions above) to use where wi-fi is available but also rent an international phone to have in case of emergencies.  I’m researching those phones and plans now.   

        • Hi TLee: Thanks so much. If you have the time, let us know in a comment here what your research turns up. This is a subject about which I know very little.

  16. Barbara,
    Stupid me… I downloaded the Skype App and it is working somehow, sometimes it still goes to voicemail directly. I thought the Skype wifi app was all that was needed. Regarding turning off cellular data. Do we need to turn it off?
    Thank you.

  17. Barbara,
    We do get an e-mail from Skype through the iPhone that shows the number who called us and a note saying that to listen to the voicemail, we need to sign in to Skype. Originally, I installed Skype wifi on the iPhone, do I also need to install the full Skype application?
    This is so complex 🙂 and the phone does not ring… it goes straight to voicemail when it is available and wifi is available and connected.
    I am lost! Help!!!

  18. Barbara,
    Encore moi! It’s me again!
    I went through the process to set up the iphone. You do not mention turning off cellular data in your instructions. Do we need to turn it off?Also after following all the instructions and being at home with wifi, when I call the iPhone, I immediately get a message that the person is not available. It does not even ring.I have a Skype subscription with credits, an online number, I forwarded the iphone number to the skype number and disabled 3G and other settings and it does not work.What am I doing wrong? or do I have to wait some time before using the skype number?Thanks again for all the help. I am glad to have found you.Thanks.Norbert

    • Hi Norbert: Don’t despair. The fact that you received a notification in Skype that you have a voice mail means that your Skype account is active, your Skype online phone number is working, and that you have correctly forwarded your mobile number to your Skype number. It is not absolutely necessary to download Skype on your laptop, but it is a good idea to do so. Keeping the Skype app on your iPhone signed in all the time will lower your battery time, so when you are working on your laptop you can sign in on it instead of on the iPhone. Remember that once you sign in on your laptop, you will automatically be signed out on your iPhone (you can’t be logged in from two separate devices at the same time), so you will have to log back in again on the iPhone app the next time you are in a wifi zone and want to receive calls.

      Now, having said all that, I am guessing that your problem is that you are not SIGNED IN to Skype on your iPhone. Unless you are signed in, calls will automatically go to voice mail. To do so, click on the Skype app icon, enter your username and password and voila! it will connect. One you are connected, the phone will ring as usual, as long as you have an active wifi connection. Skype will not work with a cellular connection. As for turning off data, I don’t know what version of the iPhone you have, so can’t give you specifics, but please refer back to my original post. For the 3Gs this issue is addressed in point number four; for the iPhone 4, it is addressed in item number two. Please note that data roaming is turned off by default on the iPhone 4, but it is wise to check. If you have an iPhone 5 I can’t
      really help, as I don’t own one, however I assume that data is turned off
      by default on that version as well. Just try the instructions for the
      iPhone4 and it will probably take you to the data roaming settings.

  19. Well organized list of instructions! Thanks!
    World Traveler FYI: A great way to send and receive free text messages while abroad is via Google Voice. This set up is working great for us as we are touring Central America! You must have access to a wifi signal in order to utilize Google Voice. Make sure to have Google assign a new phone number to your device so that you don’t accidently migrate your actual number from your carrier (ATT/Verizon/Sprint/etc.), which would incur charges and a nightmarish “how do I get back to my carrier?!>?!” scenario….

    • Wish I could help Doro, but it’s the one thorn in my side I can’t seem to remove. I’ve tried the TextFree app but it doesn’t work well. Currently I’m using Google Vice and converting text messages to email, but that requires an active wifi connection.I haven’t come across anything that allows text messages to be sent to international cellular networks.

  20. Hello,
    Thanks so much for this information. Very handy for someone who hasn’t travelled overseas and is not keen on the idea of thousand dollars worth of welcome home bills!
    My question is not so much about calling as I’m having my number diverted to an international pre-paid mobile (when I travel to America from Australia in a couple of days) but more messaging. I’m going to follow your instructions to have all roaming and data turned off and only using wifi, I don’t have a Skype account nor does anyone I wish to keep in contact with so will I still be able to use iMessage on my iPhone 4/ iPad? Since I believe it goes through the wifi connection?
    Thanks for your help. Lanna

    • Hi Lana: I’m not familiar with iMessage, but your iPhone will continue to function with any app that works via wifi in Australia. If the little “radio wave” icon shows up in the upper left-hand corner, that means the phone is using the wifi connection rather than the cellular network. If iMessage woks when this icon shows up, you’re good to go.


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