How to Manage Your iPhone Cellular & Wi-Fi Usage While Traveling Abroad

Turning on Airplane Mode will generate a recognizable symbol in the Status BarTurning on Airplane Mode will generate a recognizable symbol in the Status Bar

Our readers are a smart lot, and I suspect that most who delight in using their iPhones understand the difference between Cellular and Wi-Fi communications.

Let's face it, though, there are still many who don't fully grasp the often-vague distinctions between the two.

When traveling abroad, a clear understanding goes a long way towards avoiding sticker shock when returning home to a waiting bill from the cellular provider. In this article, I will show you what steps you can take – before and during your journey abroad – to make sure that when you return home, you can use your time to cherish your travel memories instead of gnashing your teeth and rending your clothes over huge cellular bills.

Let's look at some essential background information.

There are two types of networks that your iPhone – or any smartphone – can utilize for communications: Cellular and Wi-Fi.

Illustration depicting a cell tower and a WiFi signal on an iPhone.

iPhone handles both Cellular and Wi-Fi communications

The Cellular Network

Broadly speaking, your iPhone can communicate two ways via the cellular network:

  • Telephony – This includes your cellular telephone calls and your text messages (text-only messaging is called SMS, for Short Message Service, whereas photo and video messaging is called MMS, for Multimedia Messaging Service). Note, though, that cellular messaging is not the same as Apple's iMessage service, which is a data – not telephony – service, but can use the cellular network nonetheless. 
  • Data – Think of this as computer data transmitted via the Internet and facilitated through your cellular service provider. This does not include standard telephony and SMS/MMS messaging services. It refers to everything else – all other data – received and transmitted by your device: email, Apple iMessages, FaceTime, VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) such as Skype, web content, weather reports, push notifications, app and music downloads, iCloud backups, and much more. In a related matter, it is important to note that many apps allow you to disable their reliance on the cellular network to transfer data, all in an effort to reduce usage charges.

Both cellular telephony and cellular data services are propagated to and from your iPhone via the provider's cellular network, named after the cell antenna towers which dot the countryside and the cells or geographical area covered by a particular tower. Data – the bits and bytes – that are moved via the cellular network is called cellular data.

Cellular data usage is measured, and subsequently invoiced for, in units of data size or quantity, i.e.; megabytes and gigabytes of data per month. This measurement is often loosely referred to as bandwidth. Cellular telephony is metered in minutes of telephone time, whereas messages are quantified by the number of messages sent.

Example of a WiFi Zone sign found in Italy.

One of several types of Free Wi-Fi Zone signs found throughout Italy

The Wi-Fi Network

Wi-Fi handles data only; no cellular telephony.

Once you have acquired a solid Wi-Fi connection, you are no longer beholden to your provider for cellular data communications of any kind – but you still are being billed for cellular telephone calls and messaging. You can use Wi-Fi free-and-clear anywhere in the world to access Internet-based data, though you may find some Wi-Fi services that will impose connection charges and/or time limits. Of course, the amount of data you can consume is dependent on the quality of the connection and the amount of traffic it can handle at any given moment.

As an aside, Apple's Messages app will work with both the cellular data and Wi-Fi networks, switching between the two networks as needed based on network availability and signal strength.

Just a couple of other things to grasp about all this: Wi-Fi is not cellular service. Cellular and Wi-Fi are two independent services. If you need or want to turn off the cellular service on your device, you can still communicate via Wi-Fi.

Did you know that you can also place your iPhone in Airport Mode, which turns off all radio transmissions, but manually enable just Wi-Fi? Shortly, I will show you how all this is done.

International Travel – Avoiding Sticker Shock

Before embarking on travel abroad, be sure to check with your service provider for any available international roaming rates and data plans while traveling with your iPhone.

This point is critical: you also need to determine if your device is compatible the cellular telephony and cellular data networks in the countries you will be visiting. This is because there are different iPhone models that can work in some countries and not in others because of differences in radio frequencies and network protocols that they support.

On my recent trip to Italy, I did have an older carrier-unlocked AT&T iPhone 4 outfitted with a pre-paid SIM for telephony and data purchased from a local, in-country provider. As a result, I didn't need to be concerned about receiving huge bills back home.

You can find more details about carrier-unlocking issues and options in my recent article here on TMO: How to Manage Your Photos When Traveling with an iPhone & iPad.

My AT&T iPhone 5 also accompanied me. It was primarily used for photography, but also to access lots of other data kept locally on the device. However, every once in a while, I did need to access the cellular data network for Internet access on the 5. This was for the few times I didn't find myself near a Wi-Fi signal, where I could enjoy unfettered access to the 'net.

Some research is necessary before setting foot on that plane or ship. A couple of weeks prior to my departure for Europe, I logged into my AT&T account, studied my options, and signed up for AT&T's International Roaming, Europe Travel Minutes, and Global Messaging covering the duration of my stay abroad. These can be set up on a per-month basis. Your own carrier will have similar plans, so be sure to check. Oh, and don't forget to cancel these when you return!

During a trip abroad, there are additional measures you can, and should, take to reduce the chances of amassing excessive communications charges by your service provider. You need to adjust some of your iPhone's cellular settings, restrict usage to Wi-Fi only, where practical, and monitor your cellular data usage. Here are the specifics:

Avoid downloading or streaming multimedia content: music, video, photos and other graphics.  Don't be tempted to download apps. These types of data take up a lot of bandwidth. High consumption will cause you to quickly approach the limits of your data plan.

The Cellular settings panel and the Cellular Data

The Cellular Data "Master Switch"

Your iPhone has a Cellular Data "Master Switch." You can get to it via Settings > General > Cellular. Keep this set to the OFF position until needed. This switch governs cellular data, not cellular telephony and SMS/MMS messaging. This means: no email, no web pages, no push notifications, no software updates, etc.

By the way, even when you are not specifically downloading files or transferring data on your iPhone, there can still be numerous small processes running in the background which access the cellular network. Over time, this all adds up, so keeping the cellular data in the OFF position as much as possible will prevent this.

Do keep your Wi-Fi "Master Switch" in the ON position. This is located in Settings > Wi-Fi. You can rest assured that when you enter that cafe with the Free Wi-Fi Zone sign emblazoned on the entrance door, you can geek-out on the Internet to your heart's content. But please, be sure to order a Caffè Macchiato or a cannolo. It's the only decent thing to do. Besides, it's a great excuse for trying the local delicacies.

The Wi-Fi settings panel and the Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi "Master Switch"

Additionally, I suggest that while traveling, you leave Ask to Join Networks in the ON position. This will help you discover Wi-Fi networks in unfamiliar territory.

The Airplane Mode switch in the main Settings Panel.

Turning on Airplane Mode will generate a recognizable symbol in the Status Bar

Switching Airplane Mode to the ON position disables all the inbound/outbound communications. This is done via Settings > Airplane Mode. All cellular phone, messaging and data, all Wi-Fi data, as well as Bluetooth. But as I have already mentioned, you can then turn Wi-Fi back on, independent of Airplane Mode.

An enlarged view of the iPhone's Status Bar.

When not in Airplane Mode, the Status Bar depicts icons for cellular signal strength, cellular provider name, and Wi-Fi signal strength (if enabled)

Keep an eye on your iPhone's status bar at the very top of the screen. Look for the tell-tale icons that indicate the status of your communications settings. You will see indicators representing Airplane Mode ON, cellular carrier name and signal strength (combined for cellular telephony and cellular data), as well as symbols representing Wi-Fi connectivity and signal strength.

The Fetch New Data settings panel.

Fetch any new data manually to better manage your data usage

Consider disabling Push and Automatic Data Fetching via Settings > Mail,Contacts,Calendars > Fetch New Data. Set this to Manually fetch data. This way, your iPhone will only get email and other data for you when you ask it to, rather than it automatically retrieving the data every so often which, of course, takes up more bandwidth and depletes the battery faster.

Finally, when considering a data plan for international travel, you may be wondering which tier to order. To help you make an informed decision, you need to examine your own past usage patterns. You can do this either via your provider or directly on your iPhone. This will give you a useful point of reference. Go to Settings > General > Usage > Cellular Usage.

Thus, while traveling, you can periodically monitor and keep track of your cellular data usage. You will know when you are getting dangerously close to your limits. By now it should be clear that your Wi-Fi data usage has no bearing on this – it's the cellular data you need to be concerned about.

The Cellular Usage settings panel.

You can monitor your cellular data usage sent and received, and reset the values to zero just prior to your trip

See that Reset Statistics button at the bottom? This sets the usage gauges to zero. You should do a reset just as you are embarking on your trip. Not only will it be easier for you to monitor your usage during your time away, it will also be of assistance, should you need to dispute any data usage charges.

I don't need to tell you that travel can be stressful enough nowadays. An understanding of, and adequate preparation for, your cellular and data usage while traveling abroad will eliminate one source of stress. Welcome to world travel without that nagging feeling that your iPhone usage was going through the roof!