This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2015-07-31 at 3:08 p.m.
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How to Avoid Data Overage Charges When Traveling to Canada

by Adam C. Engst

It’s embarrassing — we live in Ithaca, New York, where a popular bumper sticker reads, “Centrally Isolated,” and yet, before last year, we’d never driven to Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal, even though Ottawa and Toronto are no farther than New York City, and Montreal is an hour closer than Boston. But after Çingleton in Montreal last October (you can watch the video of our presentation, “Through the Lens of a Boutique Publisher [1]” on Vimeo!) and participating in the Winterlude Skate-Ski-Run Triathlon [2] in Ottawa in January (at -14°F, as you can see in the video [3]!), we’ve decided to explore these great Canadian cities more. So, for our wedding anniversary this June, we returned to Ottawa to check out the city’s bike pathways in vastly warmer temperatures. And that, to shift from the Travel section back to the Tech pages, is where I hit some cellular data-related problems.

Like on our other recent Canadian trips, we were going for only a few days, so I opted not to venture into the murky waters of prepaid SIM cards, especially since my online research showed that the various options could be hard to get in the United States, weren’t that cheap, had confusing top-up options that sometimes required Canadian credit cards, and so on. So, for each of our iPhones, I turned on AT&T’s Passport [4] package, which includes a paltry 120 MB of data for $30 (it has unlimited texting as well, which is irrelevant to us, and usuriously expensive phone calls at $1 per minute; we didn’t plan to make any calls). Data over 120 MB is charged at $0.25 per megabyte.

I had last reset my iPhone’s cellular data statistics earlier in the month, since I was tracking iCloud Photo Library’s data-sucking behavior (see “More Problems with iCloud Photo Library Uploads [5],” 19 June 2015), and in retrospect, I should have reset the statistics again as soon as we crossed into Canada, since I couldn’t track just the Canadian usage effectively. I had disabled every individual app that I was worried about in Settings > Cellular and I wasn’t using data excessively in the apps I left on, such as Google Maps, Messages, Dark Sky, Yelp, and the general Google app. And yet, on our fourth day there, AT&T sent me a text message warning me that I had hit 80 percent of my 120 MB plan. I then shut off cellular data entirely, figuring I’d hold the last 20 percent in reserve for an emergency. Although I don’t remember exactly what I did in terms of checking the stats, I was pretty sure I was within my limits. The only other text message I got from AT&T came several days after we returned from Canada, telling me that I had used my 120 MB data allowance. Whatever, I was back home by then.

[image link] [6]

I didn’t think too much of this until I got the monthly bill, which included a surprising $32.50 charge for a whopping 130 MB of data over the 120 MB limit. That was distressing, since I thought I’d managed usage effectively, so I called AT&T. The rep explained that it can take 3–5 days for AT&T to receive the information from roaming partners, which accounted for the delayed message. When I asked if the 80 percent message had also been based on delayed information, she wouldn’t acknowledge that directly, but said that she understood how it could be confusing from the customer perspective. I’ll say! There’s no point to a warning message if you’ve already exceeded the cap. Nevertheless, she very nicely credited me the overage fees, so it was worth the call. The moral of the story is that it’s always worth calling and being pleasant to the rep if you feel AT&T’s system has done wrong by you.

Best Practices for Occasional Short Canadian Trips -- So what would be the best way to track and limit data usage in a situation like this, where you’ve purchased an international data roaming plan with a small data cap? Because of the delayed reporting, I have no idea what app or background process chewed all the extra data — the AT&T rep told me that the bulk of the usage was on the day I got the 80 percent warning, but my usage patterns hadn’t changed that day. Something — perhaps even iCloud Photo Library — must have gotten hungry. So here’s what I’d do, and if you have other recommendations, let me know in the comments:

Finally, although this is slightly unrelated, those $1/minute phone calls will add up even faster than data usage, so try to keep most of your communication to text messaging if possible. When that’s not possible, try to use Skype or Google Hangouts while connected to a Wi-Fi network. I’d avoid FaceTime because it can switch to cellular data silently — Apple says [14]:

When your device is connected to Wi-Fi, any FaceTime Video or Audio calls you make will use the Wi-Fi network. If your router loses its Internet connection, or if the Wi-Fi connection degrades, you’ll stay connected to the Wi-Fi network, but your device will route the data over cellular data.

For a completely different approach, you could also unlock your iPhone, buy a Canadian SIM card, and get a local plan. That would be a particularly good idea if you were also planning travel to other countries; Khoi Vinh just wrote about how great it was to buy a SIM card in Paris [15] and get 2 GB of data, a local phone number, and unlimited text and talk for only €50. Unlocking an iPhone is more involved, though, and is a topic for another day.