How To Be Home When You Roam

I was just reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about a globe-trotting businessman who came back to the U.S. to find a $10,000 phone bill waiting for him. Seems the poor guy used his smartphone overseas, gobbling up data, and he even – gulp – made some phone calls.

The story is one I’ve read and heard many times over, in various places. But it’s also one that bears repeating, since it seems that there are still lots of people who haven’t gotten the message about the pitfalls of using your U.S. cell phone (especially a smartphone) overseas, where a simple little voice call can cost $5 per minute, and data charges can build up silently if your phone decides to automatically update itself. Of course you can turn off the data update, and you don’t have to make those calls, but that’s not the point – the article was about people who didn’t take those precautions.

The author of the Journal piece did have a few suggestions for his readers – good ideas, indeed, such as getting your smart phone unlocked (if possible), and getting a local SIM card for whatever country you’re in. Indeed that’s exactly what I myself did recently, when I was overseas for six weeks.

What I got for my money was local calls at the same rate that locals pay, a long distance plan with calls back to the U.S. for barely more than a dime a minute, and 3G data at rates similar to what I pay for my data plan here in the states. That’s all well and good, but it was still missing one dimension. It didn’t provide for people calling my landline and cellphones back in the U.S. being able to reach me where I was.

That’s a point the Journal article didn’t even mention but, as those following my blog have read, I have a solution. And that’s where comes in.

I simply set the virtual PBX on my home office VoIP system to forward calls to me overseas. Yes, the forwarded calls cost a little bit, but that’s the point – all it cost me was the dime or so per minute for long distance calls to cell phones in the country where I was visiting. And to most folks it was the same as if they were simply calling me at home.

Ah, and I got even fancier. I set my U.S. cell phone number to forward to my home office number, and from thence to my cell phone overseas. If I had set my U.S. cellphone numbers to forward to me overseas, I would have paid as much as 50 times as much. And I got even fancier. I programmed the virtual PBX with an intercept, so callers had to push a “1” to reach my overseas cell phone, or they could choose “2” to reach my wife. Among other things, that effectively screened out any automated calls – especially the illegal ones offering to lower the interest rates on my credit cards. Oh, and fancier still – since I was nine time zones away from my home, callers were very likely to be trying to reach me at some unholy hour of the early morning where I was, so I set up an intercept for that too, telling folk when they could call me, and suggesting they leave a message.

So thanks to the Journal for yet another in the string of reports warning people about the hidden roaming costs of using their cell phones internationally, and I’m happy to add the missing finishing touches to the story.