What Does “Data Roaming” Mean?


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Most of us who use our smartphones when we travel come across a practice by phone service carriers called, “data roaming”. But I’ve learned that few can actually describe what it is, how it works, and what the implications of using it are.

If you enabled it, you probably saw an ominous pop-up message saying that turning this option on may incur significant network charges. As far as explaining what data roaming is, however, phones typically don’t tell you what it’s used for. So, what is data roaming, and why would you enable it if it could incur these charges?

What Is “Roaming”?

First, what does it mean when your phone is “roaming?” Roaming is when your phone leaves the range of your network and loses its signal. This can happen if you travel into a service area outside of your standard phone service carrier. It can also happen if you pass through a rural area, or into a highly congested area like a major metropolitan city with tall buildings that can block the signal.

But it also means leaving the country altogether! When you’re in a country that’s out of range of your network provider’s territory, your phone is now roaming. “Data roaming”, therefore, is the act of getting data while outside of your network’s range.

But if you’re outside of your network, how can you get data in the first place?

How Data Roaming Works

Let’s say you’re a US citizen and a happy customer of an American cellular service provider who equips you with a phone signal and 4G data. Let’s call this imaginary company, America Telecoms. You feel like taking a holiday, so you decide hop in your auto or take a plane to ski in Colorado, or hit the beach in Miami.

But for the fun of discussion, let’s say you choose to jet off to the sunny beaches of Spain for a bit. While you’re there, you’d still like to catch up on your YouTube videos while you’re on the beach, so you take your phone with you.

There’s a problem, however — America Telecoms doesn’t have a presence in Spain. They’re only concerned with providing a stellar service in America right now. Therefore, if you left for Spain, you’d be stuck without a phone signal. If you had an unlocked phone, you could exchange the SIM card with a Spanish provider to get data there. But what if your phone was locked to America Telecoms and you can’t change the SIM?

In order to tackle this problem and help their customers get a signal no matter where they are, America Telecoms struck a deal with the Spanish network España Móvil. America Telecoms says that if any of their customers goes to Spain and wants to use 4G or make a call or text, España Móvil will pick up the slack and give them a network signal, despite the fact that the customer is an America Telecoms user. In return, America Telecoms will support any España Móvil customer coming from Spain.

The Result

Now when you take that flight to Spain, you can use España Móvil’s signal to get 4G; however, there’s a good chance that additional charges for using a foreign network will come into play. To prevent itself from accidentally racking up a huge phone bill, your phone won’t automatically connect to España Móvil’s network when you arrive. You have to manually tell your phone to connect by enabling data roaming. Once done, you can now enjoy 4G abroad without changing SIM cards.

When you arrive at Spain with roaming enabled, you’ll see that your network provider’s name will change to something like “España Móvil (America Telecoms)”. This just means you’re currently using España Móvil’s network as an America Telecoms customer. If you travelled with a friend and they used a different network, they may see a different Spanish name pop-up corresponding to the network their provider struck a deal with.

Since were having fun talking about our vacation in Spain, please note that the same process occurs if you move between service carriers inside the USA. By enabling data roaming you’ll be able to conveniently access the new service provider, by agreement, between carriers. Then you’ll automatically be switched back to your regular carrier when you get back within range.

What Are The Roaming Charges?

While roaming is very useful, it can come at a hefty additional cost to your base data and call rates. This is what the pop-up is warning you about when you enable data roaming. Different network providers will have different charges depending on which country you visit, so be sure to do your research on the roaming charges before travelling.

In order to find these charges, you don’t have to find out what network you’ll be switching to when you arrive at your destination. Simply search for the one you use at home and look up their roaming charges, and it will apply when you go abroad, even after the network changes. Just be sure you select the correct country, as charges can differ depending on where you go.

If you’re lucky, you may find there are no roaming charges at all! For example, if you’re in Europe, you’ll be pleased to know that the EU scrapped roaming charges for travelling within its boundaries, so you can go from France to Italy without worrying about roaming costs at all.

Does This Affect WiFi?

No! Roaming charges won’t affect any Wi-Fi connections you access during your stay. If your hotel has WiFi, or you find a café with a hotspot, you can use that at its advertised cost (if any) without paying anything extra. Roaming only comes into play when you’re using a cellular service network (like 4G) abroad.

While it’s not obvious at first sight what “roaming” is, the concept is very simple! It’s just a way for you to get data and a network signal when abroad, or on the other side of the country.

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