Many South Africans travelling overseas with a smartphone for the first time have made the shocking discovery that the data downloads they get free at home come at a massive cost beyond our borders.

Allan Bartram is the CEO of a Kempton Park-based business, and has travelled overseas annually without any resultant cellphone “bill shock” on his return.

But on his most recent 10-day overseas trip, he took his new iPad and iPhone with him, unaware, as he puts it, “of the data roaming dangers lurking within those devices”.

About 10 days after his return, his HR manager told him his cellphone bill – normally in the region of R1 200 a month, was R10 500.

“While overseas I had downloaded data I usually download at home – financial and forex info, weather and news – and I left the apps on.

“It’s not a problem at home, because the downloads are free, but overseas it’s a bill killer, as I’ve discovered on talking to friends and colleagues.”

Bartram is angry that his network, MTN, didn’t warn him to deactivate data roaming on his smartphone and tablet when travelling overseas, because of the massive costs involved.

“Surely they could send an inexpensive SMS to those people who have gone overseas with these smartphones and quickly start racking up an inconsistently high bill, in the way that we get a call from our banks when they pick up unusual spending behaviour on our accounts?”

Lina Sadler of Durban, who is also an MTN subscriber, had a similar experience, only she’s ended up with a bill of R34 000.

She also recently upgraded to an iPhone and has had international roaming activated on her account since her previous overseas trip three years ago.

She travelled to London at the end of March and a week into her stay she got an SMS from the network to say her phone had been blocked because her balance, at that time, had topped R32 000.

“I could still receive calls and SMSes, but all outgoing usage was blocked,” she said.

She later discovered the iTunes content her son had downloaded – thinking it was free on a relative’s WiFi – was being charged at international rates, and the bill kept mounting because of automatic updates.

Sadler is angry about the shock bill because she had always felt protected by the R5 000 bill limit she had in place on her MTN account. But her bill hit R32 000 before MTN notified her that her service had been blocked. When she queried this with the network, she was told that billing from overseas was delayed, so it would seem such bill limits are meaningless when it comes to international roaming.

Also, despite barring Sadler from making any further calls, she was still able to receive calls and SMSes while overseas, which are not free, so her bill continued to climb in this way until she returned home.

I sent MTN a detailed set of questions about both cases and asked what steps the network takes to warn its subscribers about the dangers of data roaming, in particular, when travelling overseas.

I also asked whether the network would consider waiving part of the bills in question.

Responding, customer services executive Eddie Moyce said the charges in both cases were “valid”.

“Mr Allan Bartram and Mrs Leonor Sadler are both MTN account holders who have had roaming activated for a number of years.

“Mr Bartram’s concern is that MTN had not notified him about the high roaming costs.

“MTN acknowledges that it may not have directly liaised with the customer before he left the country, as the company was not contacted by the customer prior to the business trip.

“But MTN has on numerous platforms and channels communicated informative tips to its customers – at least two press releases were issued during the latter period of 2011.

“Furthermore, MTN on its website,, has a dedicated web page that educates customers, as well as warns them on costs related to roaming.

“MTN views this matter as closed.”

Sadler’s MTN account remains barred for outgoing calls and messages, and the best deal the network has offered her is paying off that R34 000 over three months.

She has no choice but to take it.

Bartram is unimpressed, and remains adamant that MTN “should communicate these warnings directly to all its customers annually in the form of an e-mail or SMS”.

Interestingly, the Apple iPhone itself carries a warning about this issue. Under the data roaming setting are the words: “Turn off data roaming when travelling to avoid charges when web browsing and using e-mail, MMS and other data.”

And as a user goes to select data roaming on the Samsung Galaxy smartphones, the following warning pops up: “Attention! Allow data roaming? You may incur significant roaming charges!”

But of course, if the data roaming option has already been selected,, it may not occur to a new smartphone user to go to settings and make the necessary selections to turn it off.

How to avoid a bill shock:

l If you use a smartphone or a tablet, make sure that only essential data-related activities on your device are enabled to avoid using large volumes of data. Receiving e-mail, browsing the web, using instant messaging services and other applications should only be activated when necessary to avoid using large volumes of data and accumulating a high bill.

l Using a handset to check e-mail, browse the web and use instant messaging such as BBM or other applications may be free in SA, but it’s anything but free when roaming – you’ll be billed at world rates. The same goes for accessing services such as Vodafone live.

l Set up your e-mail client to download the header of new e-mails only. Once you’ve received the headers of new e-mails, you can then select which e-mails should be downloaded in full to prevent large downloads. Avoid downloading e-mails with large attachments – this is a bill killer.

l Streaming video, person-to-person file sharing or any other type of file download is data intensive and can result in extremely high bills.

l When using data roaming on a laptop abroad, remember to disable all automatic download activity which happens in the background, like operating system updates or software/app updates.

l Disable your smartphone or tablet from performing automatic app refreshes or automatic software updates to prevent large data downloads.

l If you don’t want to use data roaming at all – the safest choice – turn data roaming off on your device. - The Star