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Usage-Based Fees

When mobile phone bills hit the five-digit mark and make the news, overage charges and/or data roaming are often to blame. Although such fines can be as small as a nickel per text message over the plan limit, they add up quickly.

T-Mobile plans include unlimited talk, text, and data, but the other major carriers assess overage charges (see chart). Fees for downloading ringtones or apps apply across the board. Also note that calls to the 411 directory service come with a fee of up to $1.99, but that can be avoided by calling the ad-supported 1-800-free411. It's safe to say that, without an unlimited plan, the only way to get out from under excess usage fees is to talk, text, and use data less.

Overage Charges.

More and more wireless plans include unlimited talk and text, leaving data overage charges as the most costly to consumers. Exceeding a plan's data limit often results in a penalty; $15 at Verizon Wireless beyond 500MB (megabytes) or 1GB (gigabyte) of data, depending on the plan, and at least $10 for each extra gigabyte at AT&T, for example. Sprint charges 1.5 cents for each additional megabyte on plans with monthly limits of 1GB, which means minimal overages cost much less with Sprint but going over by a full gigabyte (i.e., 1,024 megabytes) would cost just over $15. A new unlimited plan unveiled by Sprint in July 2013, however, gives smartphone users the option of paying $30 for unlimited data compared with $20 for 1 GB. All T-Mobile plans feature unlimited data, although transmission speeds are throttled when usage exceeds certain limits.

Roaming Charges.

The issue of roaming fees for wireless calls originating within the U.S. is no longer as pressing as it was 10 years ago. While users do roam when calls are placed from outside a provider's coverage area and must connect to a third party's signal, fees for doing so largely have disappeared. But deep in the service contract fine print are limitations on how much roaming is allowed. Generally speaking the majority of mobile phone activity must occur within the provider's coverage area, otherwise the carrier reserves the right to discontinue service, although the punishment is more likely to be an end to roaming service than a fee or outright banishment. For example, T-Mobile turns off data while roaming when users reach their plan's limit. Sprint's unlimited plans only pertain to usage over Sprint's network; excessive use of voice or data while roaming (defined as more than 50 percent of usage) prompts outreach from a company representative to encourage a change in habits or to announce free roaming is being terminated or suspended.

International Charges.

Fees increase dramatically when sending a message or calling someone overseas, and even more so when traveling abroad. The four major carriers offer international upgrades to service plans to help mitigate such costs. For example, Verizon Wireless charges $3.99 a month for access to reduced rates when calling abroad, Sprint charges $4 for the privilege and also offers a $15 monthly package for discounted rates and unlimited texts when reaching out beyond U.S. borders.

AT&T offers data bundles starting at $30 for 120MB for international travelers, which is hardly cheap but sure beats a $1,800 or $2,400 international data roaming charge for the same amount of data without the bundle (at 1.5 cents per kilobyte in Canada and 1.95 cents elsewhere). Money-saving packages are also available for calls home. The calling plan at AT&T starts at $30 a month for 30 minutes for calls made from the "Europe region" compared with $1.50 for calls made without the international upgrade.

T-Mobile stands alone in including unlimited texting and data in more than 100 countries along with its Simple Choice and New Classic plans, making it a potentially great option for travelers. The service isn't intended for heavy data users, though, as speeds are capped at 128 kbps (about 2G). Packages with faster data connections are available at a cost of $15 for 100MB in one day, $25 for 200MB over 7 days, and $50 for a two-week pass with 500MB of data.

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With the other carriers, international travelers are advised to upgrade before setting off to avoid a bankruptcy-inducing bill, but do take note of plan details. Relying on Wi-Fi connections while abroad is often the best way to hold the line on international roaming. Skype offers a monthly plan for $2.99 that allows unlimited calls from anywhere in the world to mobile numbers and landlines in the U.S. and Canada -- but you need a smartphone to access the Skype app and Wi-Fi to place the call. Indeed, travelers with smartphones who can tap into a free Internet connection have several options for connecting with home at no cost. Viber and WhatsApp are two popular messaging services that let members send free text messages to and from anywhere in the world. Viber also lets users place calls for free. Unlike the Skype plan, Viber and WhatsApp require the recipient to also have the program installed.

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