International Roaming and the Foreign Service

(Or, How I Learned to Not Be Stupid and Pay in Advance)

In July of this year, I got a notice for my final bill from AT&T after suspending our account with them. I expected it to be in line with my normal monthly charges, plus a few days’ worth of pro-rated usage. Imagine my horror when I saw an amount due of $1,475!! “Are you REDACTED kidding me?!?!” is right.

This all devolved from a logistics snafu in shipping our pets from Washington, DC to Surabaya, Indonesia (I have a whole blog post dedicated to that which you can read here, but I will summarize for brevity’s sake).

At 1:00 a.m. Indonesian time the morning after our arrival at post (2:00 p.m. EST), I woke up in a jet-lagged stupor with an awful feeling of dread. Still bleary-eyed, I quickly checked emails, Skype, and Facebook, looking for a clue to what was making me uneasy. After reading some emails, I found it: we had a major pet-shipping logistics breakdown at Dulles Airport.

Basically, the KLM counter agent at Dulles decided that the crates we were using to ship our two dogs were too small and was refusing to accept them for transit. I had received several frantic messages from our pet shipper to this effect, saying that I needed to get in contact with them immediately. We had to give permission for the purchase of a larger crate and grant authorization for the excess volume and cost for the shipment of our dogs via cargo. And so began the saga which led to this ludicrous bill from AT&T.

We had no Internet at our house, no nearby open WiFi networks, and a phone we couldn’t use because the local international dialing codes had changed recently, and we didn’t know the new ones. So, I was forced to use my US-based smartphone for Internet access and phone calls from Indonesia to the US. This is potential issue for all of us who travel overseas to new posts: what happens when you have no way of communicating except for your US-based cell phone and you have an emergency back home?

We had been able to suspend our AT&T accounts until after we reached post, so I at least had access to SOME form of communication. However, after the data usage ate through $1,300, AT&T helpfully suspended my account to “avoid significant overages” and my smartphone became a “brick.” I had to call the duty officer here at post (degree of difficulty: my wife’s new boss) to go use her internet connection at 1:30 a.m. to complete the Skype call that had been cut off and get our dogs on the plane.

All-in-all, I used about 65 MB of data (2-minute Skype call, email, and some Facebook messaging), and received one 1-minute international roaming call. At pay-per-use (PPU) figures of $0.0195 per kilobyte, I used 66,308 KB (64.75 MB) adding up to

$1,293.00 in accrued international data charges.

Looking at the AT&T site, you’ll see they have several options for overseas usage. They have international options for voice, SMS, and data. Even the highest tier of $120 for 100 minutes or 800 MB is still less than 10 percent of what I paid at PPU rates. This isn’t a unique situation to AT&T. A quick glance at Sprint ($0.019 per KB), T-Mobile ($10 or $15 per MB), and Verizon ($0.02 per KB) all show similarly ridiculous PPU rates. Only AT&T, Sprint and Verizon offer international roaming packages (sorry, T-Mobile users, you’re up a creek without a paddle, but the good news is that you’ll only pay about 75% of what AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon charge for PPU).

So, are you transferring to post soon? Do you have a tight, logistics-heavy schedule for departure? Are you shipping pets or anything that could be delayed or made impossible by the slightest hiccup? Are you worried about dealing with contingencies in the U.S. from abroad if when they happen? Think about it for a moment, and then just get an international voice and data roaming plan for a month. The extra money you spend on this “insurance” will only be a very small fraction of the actual cost if you need to use your US phone while overseas.

Dave Pernal is an accompanying spouse in the Foreign Service. He follows his wife around the globe along with his son and two dogs. Dave is also an aspiring chef and entrepreneur. You can follow his antics at davepernal.com and theexpatchef.wordpress.com.

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