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Paradigm Shift With Wireless Roaming: Free vs. Fee

Do you get free roaming with your carrier? This guide details your situation

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When is wireless roaming free?
Image © Chad Baker, Getty Images
Updated March 10, 2009
Just like additional minutes beyond your plan’s allowance, wireless roaming used to be a costly land mine for consumers and a heavenly gold mine for the carriers.

In today’s cutthroat-competitive environment where you have more choices than ever before, though, your cell phone dollar is more valuable to the carriers than ever before, too.

That means they’ve made concessions they haven’t been willing to in the past in order to attract and keep your business.

The landscape for wireless roaming has changed dramatically over the years in what can be viewed as a paradigm shift.

Despite the major change, the consumer benefit hasn’t been well advertised by the carriers nor has it been well documented in the press.

What used to be a dangerously expensive alert on your cell phone in many cases has now become a free amenity. International roaming, though, still typically costs per minute and can be quite pricey.

So, how do you know if your carrier offers free roaming and if your plan has the feature? This article will guide you on the latest with wireless roaming (or off-network coverage) for your specific carrier.

What is Roaming?

Before we delve into the roaming policy at your carrier, let’s first be clear about exactly what wireless roaming is and what it means to you.

While the term “roaming” originates from GSM technology (which is used by T-Mobile and AT&T), so can it be applied to CDMA technology (which is used by Sprint, Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile). Said simply, roaming is when you’re using a cell phone tower that’s not owned by your cell phone service carrier.

You can think of roaming like this: Say your carrier is Sprint and you’re in an area with a weak signal. Say you switch to roaming (either automatically or manually) to improve your signal because Verizon Wireless, for example, has stronger coverage there.

When you’re roaming, you’re temporarily using a Verizon Wireless tower while your primary carrier still is Sprint. Sprint and Verizon Wireless handle the billing complexities for you.

Since no carrier has perfect coverage everywhere, carriers strike roaming agreements with others to help fill in their coverage gaps. Your cell phone will typically do an effective job of telling you when you’re roaming. Many cell phones even have “roaming guards”.

Such a guard prevents you from inadvertently switching to roaming if you didn’t want to incur such charges. Many phones allow you to use your carrier’s network only, roaming only or you can switch automatically between the two based on which has the strongest signal.

Is Your Roaming Free?

Roaming used to cost 30 to 40 cents per minute. Roaming includes making and receiving calls, text messaging and using data services while outside your carrier’s network.

Roaming fees can add up quickly. There’s perhaps no cell phone nightmare more ghoulish than expecting your monthly bill to be, for example, $50 but one rudely knocks you upside your head at $200. Perhaps you incurred costly fees for going over your plan allowance, extra text messages, roaming minutes or data charges.

When it comes to roaming, you can save yourself a potentially exploded artery by being empowered with your carrier’s current roaming policy. The list below outlines the roaming policies for the major cell phone service carriers.

More specifically, this guide covers the roaming policies for Sprint, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, prepaid wireless carrier Boost Mobile, unlimited wireless carrier Cricket Wireless, unlimited wireless carrier MetroPCS and pay-as-you-go wireless carrier Virgin Mobile.
  1. Sprint: Read the simplified Sprint roaming policy on About.com.
  2. Verizon Wireless: Read the simplified Verizon Wireless roaming policy on About.com.
  3. AT&T: Read the simplified AT&T roaming policy on About.com.
  4. T-Mobile: Read the simplified T-Mobile roaming policy on About.com.
  5. Boost Mobile: Read the simplified Boost Mobile roaming policy on About.com.
  6. Cricket Wireless: Read the simplified Cricket Wireless roaming policy on About.com.
  7. Virgin Mobile: Read the simplified Virgin Mobile roaming policy on About.com.
  8. MetroPCS: Read the simplified MetroPCS roaming policy on About.com.
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