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How to Avoid Data Overage Charges When Traveling to Canada

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” on Vimeo!) and participating in the Winterlude Skate-Ski-Run Triathlon in Ottawa in January (at -14°F, as you can see in the video!), 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 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,” 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.

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:

  • Use Settings > Cellular > Reset Statistics to get a clean slate on the cellular data used as you cross the border. There are other tools (see next tip), but I think iOS’s own data is the most trustworthy. Plus, it breaks out System Services usage better than anything else can.

  • Get DataMan Next ($1.99), DataMan Pro ($5.99), or DataMan Enterprise ($9.99). With the first two, you could tweak your data plan settings, setting the plan type to monthly, the start date to the day you leave, and the data cap to 120 MB, which would give you the full benefit of DataMan’s forecasting and alerts. But if you don’t want to lose your normal tracking for that month, just install the DataMan Stopwatch
    widget in Notification Center, and turn it on as soon as you hit the border. You’ll need to check it manually, but that’s only a swipe to reveal Notification Center. If you use DataMan Pro, you can identify the specific culprit apps behind any excessive data usage. Better yet, use DataMan Enterprise, which lets you set up and switch between multiple data plan profiles, so you can track your international usage separately and receive alerts appropriately. Both DataMan Pro and DataMan Enterprise also come with an Apple Watch app.

  • Disable any apps that you don’t plan to use in Settings > Cellular. It’s tempting to disable only those that have used data in the past statistics period, but it can be hard to predict when an app will decide to retrieve a large amount of data. Be especially cautious about apps like Music, Photos, Podcasts, Dropbox, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Spotify that might want to stream media, sync data, or provide real-time high-bandwidth communication.

  • To prevent email and calendar data from outside arriving on your iPhone unbidden, go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Fetch New Data, turn off Push, and select Manually in the Fetch section. The data will update when you launch the associated app.

  • Also, in Settings > iTunes & App Store, turn off Use Cellular Data. To be safe, I’d also recommend disabling automatic downloads. That way your iPhone won’t automatically get downloads for purchases made by someone else in your Family Sharing circle, or those made on a device you left at home while you’re travelling.

  • If one of your main uses for cellular data is Maps or Google Maps, consider using a GPS navigation app that stores its maps on the iPhone rather than downloading them. I’ve not used it yet (since I have a copy of the $59.99 Navigon North America), but the free Nokia HERE reportedly offers offline navigation.

  • If you have any reason to believe that an otherwise acceptable app might be transferring data in the background, double-press the Home button and swipe up on the app to force quit it. That’s generally not necessary, but some apps (like Skype, at least in the past) consume non-trivial amounts of data even when you’re not using them.

  • Should you start to approach your data cap, you can disable cellular data entirely, by turning off the master switch in Settings > Cellular.

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:

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 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.

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