Travelers Beware: Smartphones Rack Up Huge Charges Overseas

Using your beautiful smartphone overseas can incur significant, hefty charges.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For years, I thought it was very cool to own and use a world phone.

I traveled to Europe fairly often and I figured it was a big plus to be able to have my U.S. cell phone work overseas. Friends and business associates could call me on my regular cell phone number and it would ring halfway around the world.

It was expensive, though. A buck a minute or more whether I was calling out or receiving calls.

But that was then. Welcome to the modern-day world of feature phones and smartphones. These days, voice calls are not most folks' primary concern. Now it's text messages, e-mails,

Twitter

,

Facebook

and surfing the Web.

I'm here to tell you that a buck a minute was a huge bargain compared to what you'll be paying if you take your world phone overseas.

Except for the odd

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

or

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

world phone (the ones that are CDMA/EVDO phones here, GSM overseas), most world phones come from

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

and

T-Mobile

.

When you pay your world phone's usual monthly usage fees -- the ones you agreed to when you purchased the handset -- you are paying for minutes and services used in the U.S. and in some territories. That means that when you use your phone anywhere else, including Canada, you incur a whole different set of rules and tariffs.

You might figure: "OK, I get it. So it costs a bit more to use your world phone elsewhere in the world." Just wait until you hear how much more.

We'll start with T-Mobile. On my most recent trip to Europe, I took my

Samsung

Vibrant (part of the Galaxy S Android series). As soon as I left the airport, my phone was flashing a full-screen warning, telling me that the phone had detected that I was in an "international data roaming" area and that using that service wouldn't be cheap.

The message also said that the fee for international data runs one-and-a-half cents per KB or $15 per MB (sent or received). That data includes accessing Web pages, applications, syncing data for e-mail, contacts, calendars, etc.; mobile back-up and opening email to read it.

But it was the next part of the warning that set me straight. To understand the full impact of what they were trying to tell me, they gave me a simple example: "Opening one e-mail message with an attachment will transmit approximately 1MB of data, resulting in a $15 charge."

Wait a minute -- $15 for each e-mail? It's unbelievably easy to spend $200-$300 per day just checking your e-mail when traveling overseas.

Luckily, it costs only $10 per MB when roaming in Canada.

There is a silver lining: T-Mobile's international data roaming is almost bargain-priced when compared to AT&T's.

AT&T charges more than $19 per MB when roaming. But to give credit where it's due, AT&T does offer cost-saving packages for international data. For example, it costs $25 for 20 MB, $60 for 50 MB, $120 for 100 MB and $200 for 200 MB. And for a very small monthly add-on fee, your international voice calls (from there to here) are discounted from $1.29 to $0.99 per minute.

Here is my suggestion: Don't do it. Take that same world phone with you, but when you get to your destination, buy yourself a local SIM card and use that to make calls. If someone back home needs to talk with you that badly, instruct them to call your overseas phone number. Keep your U.S. SIM in a safe place so you can re-install it upon your return back home.

Also, wherever possible, use your phone's Wi-Fi circuitry to handle all your data needs. Many hotels now offer Wi-Fi.

Skype

works overseas too. So does MagicJack, which if you use it, means you'll have a U.S. phone number.

If you need your U.S. cell phone number to ring overseas -- be careful. Turn off all data connections when they are not needed or you will be greeted with the largest bill you've ever seen when you get home.

Consider yourself warned.

--Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

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Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.