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What is data roaming?

By Mint Fox

Originally published February 1, 2023


Last Updated January 26, 2024

What is data roaming? With a cellphone tower.

Maybe you’re traveling internationally out of your phone network and then your dog sitter calls to say your corgi ran off to join a roving gang of strays. Because of this call, your phone is now roaming (and so is your dog). You’ve probably heard the term “data roaming” before, but maybe you’re not clear on what it refers to. Read on to learn more.

In this article

What does data roaming mean?

Whenever your phone disconnects from your wireless network and joins another network, it’s doing something called data roaming. This means your phone is using this new wireless network to allow you to send messages and make calls, even if you’re out of the usual areas of coverage for your phone carrier. Usually, this means your wireless carrier has an agreement with another carrier to cover you if you go out of their network boundaries, like if you’re traveling out of the country. 

While data roaming is great since you’ll never be without service, it can also lead to unexpected charges when you’re traveling internationally. Whenever you use your phone out of the country to make calls, send messages or like funny memes, you’re probably triggering some sort of fee. No matter what carrier you have, international roaming is something all wireless customers have to deal with when traveling. However, there are still ways you can be more in control of your phone when it’s data roaming, including features like Wi-Fi calling and even swapping SIM cards when you leave the country. More on those later.

Why is my phone roaming?

As we mentioned earlier, your phone starts roaming whenever you’re out of your network’s typical areas of coverage. This can happen both internationally and domestically. There are also certain actions that trigger data roaming on your phone such as:

  • Calling someone or receiving calls
  • Sending or receiving texts or other message
  • Receiving visual voicemails
  • Sending, reading or receiving emails
  • Looking things up on map apps
  • Searching the web or visiting web pages
  • Streaming
  • Opening an app that connects to the internet 

You can usually tell when your phone is roaming, because instead of your usual network listed at the top of your phone, another network partnered with your carrier will be listed in its place.

International roaming vs domestic roaming

We’ve told you what data roaming is, but did you know there’s both international roaming and domestic roaming? So…what’s the difference? It’s simply when your phone disconnects from your current carrier and attaches to a new network. International roaming happens when your phone disconnects from your current carrier while you’re out of the country. Domestic roaming happens when it disconnects while in the U.S. (or U.S. territories). Domestic roaming usually doesn’t lead to extra charges, while international roaming typically does.

You might be wondering about the cost of international roaming, since we’ve mentioned fees a few times. Every carrier charges differently for international roaming. If you’re a Mint Mobile user (hey there), you can purchase our Minternational Pass, available in 1-day, 3-day and 7-day increments. This is a great way to help avoid accidentally racking up charges by streaming British baking shows in your hotel room or by looking up pictures of Ryan Reynolds.

Is data roaming on or off?

Is data roaming on or off?

Now that we’ve answered “what does data roaming do” and “what is roaming on a phone,” you might want to know how to turn off data roaming or turn it on. Here’s how to do so for both Android and iPhone devices:

How to turn data roaming on and off for Android

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap Connections.
  3. Choose Mobile Networks.
  4. Turn off data roaming by swiping the button to the left or turn it on by swiping to the right. 

How to turn data roaming on and off for iPhone

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap Cellular.
  3. Choose Cellular Data options.
  4. Tap the slider so it turns white to turn it off, tap it so it turns green to turn it on. 

Do I want data roaming on or off?

Still not sure whether you should have data roaming turned on or off? If you’re afraid of unexpected data roaming charges, then it’s probably best to turn data roaming off. Another thing to consider is that data roaming can drain your battery because your phone is looking for new networks, which might not be so great when you’re trying to navigate a foreign country. You can always turn it back on later, if you end up somewhere out of your network’s coverage and need service. However, if you prefer the convenience of data roaming, you can leave it on. Just be aware you may get a few unexpected charges.
But whether you leave it on all the time or turn it off and on, you should definitely keep track of your data usage when you’re roaming. Some carriers, like us, make it easy to track. All you have to do if you’re a Mint user is text GOROAM to 6700

Wi-Fi calling, international and domestic

Wi-Fi calling, international and domestic

If you’re prepping for a trip, you may have seen guides suggest using Wi-Fi calling when you’re abroad (as well as using free Wi-Fi whenever you can find it). Whether you’re roaming internationally or domestically, using free Wi-Fi is always the best way to save money, as is using Wi-Fi calling. Just like using Wi-Fi and making Wi-Fi calls doesn’t count toward your phone’s data allotment, you won’t have to use roaming data when you’re connected to Wi-Fi, even if you’re out of your network’s boundaries. Which means you don’t have to pay for as much data, which means you’re saving money. That’s the kind of equation we love.

Wi-Fi calling and texting also allows you to still make and receive calls, even when your signal is weak, while eliminating any international roaming fees. Plus, Wi-Fi calling is likely already installed on your phone, so it’s hassle-free. By the way, Wi-Fi calls to the U.S. are free, so you don’t have to worry when your family back home constantly bugs you for updates on your international adventures. 

Confused about Wi-Fi and how it differs from using mobile data? Be confused no longer. We did a whole blog about it, so read on to find out the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular data

International roaming versus international SIM cards

As we said a couple paragraphs up, you’ve probably heard the term international roaming mentioned when you’re planning a trip, but you may also have heard guides say to get an international SIM card if you’re traveling, especially for longer trips. 

What’s the difference? International roaming means your carrier has a partnership with an international carrier to cover your service when you’re abroad, while getting an international SIM card involves buying a totally separate SIM card for an international carrier that may not have a partnership with your network. If you have an unlocked phone (which you need to have when you’re on Mint), this can also be a good option when you’re traveling, especially if your phone has a eSIM card and you’re able to have both the physical international SIM card and your usual SIM card work together as a dual SIM.

Confused what SIM cards are? And what eSIMs are? Check out those blogs for more info.

Ready for some (responsible) data roaming?

Now that you know what data roaming is, and how to turn it on or off, you’re ready for some responsible roaming. Avoid random charges by using Mint Mobile’s Minternational Pass, which provides subscribers with high-speed data, calls and texts in over 180 countries worldwide. It makes traveling easier than ever. (But we can’t help you with that whole driving on the opposite side of the road thing. Sorry.) See if your next destination is eligible via the nifty button below and enjoy the benefits of leaving big wireless behind…wherever you may roam.

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