What’s the Best Way to Keep Your iPhone Cellular Bill Low When Traveling Internationally?


Take it from someone who just received a $500 AT&T bill for an afternoon of sightseeing in Montreal. You need to know about one somewhat deceptively named  iPhone setting that could cost you a small fortune.

What’s WiFi Assist?

To understand exactly what WiFi Assist is I need to explain another somewhat similar iPhone setting that is easily confused with WiFi Assist. It’s called WiFi Calling. AT&T was the first cellular service to offer WiFi calling, only on iPhones initially, several years ago.

What’s WiFi Calling?

If you have poor cellular service in your home, oftentimes it’s due to things like construction features or geographic features like tall trees which make it difficult for cellular signals to travel well throughout your home. Our home happens to be fairly resistant to most cellular services…regardless of the provider. In the early days of iPhones AT&T provided us with a Microcell which essentially shifted our cellular calls over to our WiFi.

Read Apple’s Support Page About WiFi Calling

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As technology improved and WiFi’s obtained higher bandwidth, Microcells became obsolete and cell phones themselves performed this same feat with WiFi Calling. Now, in 2018, most cellular providers offer some form of Wi Fi calling and most Android phones have it available as well. How to Geek has written a great explanation of WiFi calling.

WiFi calling is great because it’s essentially free. The only minor annoyance with it is that the seamless handing over of your call from WiFi to cellular if you leave your domicile while on a call, isn’t really all that seamless. What’s even worse is if your iPhone has this enabled and you’re not on a call…but you make one within a few minutes of leaving your home, you might find yourself unable to make a call at all that’s of any decent call quality.

Many times if I call someone from my car right after leaving home, I’m unable to hear them and vice versa. This can happen repeatedly until I turn off WiFi calling. But you’d be hard pressed to find any documentation of this problem anywhere! Just take if from me…if you use WiFi calling and frequently encounter poor call quality shortly after leaving your home…it’s due to WiFi calling being enabled.

Read Apple’s Explanation of WiFi Assist

Most people think WiFi Assist is the opposite of what it really is

Back to a WiFi Assist

The reason I believe WiFi Assist is somewhat deceptive is because the name of it sounds so similar to WiFi calling. Many people, including myself, don’t really realize that these are actually 2 separate features which function very differently.

Think of WiFi Assist as being the exact opposite of WiFi calling. It’s intended for situations in which you have little to no WiFi connectivity available to you. So instead of using WiFi your phone switches over to using your cellular service for things like Safari or other apps which require Internet connectivity.

You’re probably beginning to see the big problem with WiFi Assist already. If it’s enabled when you’re traveling internationally, your phone could rack up huge ‘out of carrier’ charges if you’re doing things like using Maps in satellite view or engaging in other data intensive pursuits.

The Default Setting for iPhones is WiFi Assist is On

WiFi Assist Uses Cellular Network to Boost WiFi Connectivity

WiFi Calling Uses WiFi to Boost Cellular Network Commectivity

My $500 Bill for an Afternoon of Sight Seeing

Our $500 dollar bill actually resulted from 2 situations we were unaware of. The first was having WiFi Assist turned on and the second was that the offending device  was my iPad mini, which also has a SIM card in it.  We knew and had in fact confirmed it multiple times during our travels with AT&T that our cell service was unlimited. What we didn’t know was that tablets were excluded from our unlimited plan. It was this combination of factors which was responsible for our $500 bill.

Because we had maintained frequent dialogues with AT&T’s  International team…that is what saved us in the end. Ultimately we weren’t charged the $500.


Perhaps $500 doesn’t even sound. all that bad to you. It wasn’t really all that bad to us either when compared to another incident a few years back. That time was during a Mediterranean Cruise. My portion of our family plan bill was $13,000. That situation was more of a nightmare to straighten out…but we finally did manage to.

Once again. what saved us were my OCD tendencies to micro-manage our data use while vacationing (although you probably couldn’t tell it from our final result!) I’m telling you this story for one main reason. You will probably  be forgiven for a lot of charges if you act responsibly and check in with your cellular provider periodically as you travel.


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About vsajewel

Hi...I'm the author of 2 main blogs on WordPress...vsatips...where I write tech tips for mobile devices...primarily ios...2nd is vsatrends...where I write less about tech things and more about everything else. I also host a YouTube channel which I use to better illustrate some of the 'how to's' in my posts. I love everything about technology. Currently, my main interests/platforms are ios, Windows and Amazon Echo. Recently I decided we were spending way too much money with our local cable provider. So I decided to cut the cord. There is a definite learning curve, especially the antennae part, but we successfully did that and are now saving a boatload of money, so I write some about that. I also am extremely conscientious about security because of an event my family endured , so I write a lot about that too. Two sub-categories of security I tend to focus on are the password manager Dashlane and Hardware Firewalls. Last, I take a lot of notes and have been a beta tester for Evernote for many years. I love Evernote! In recent years Apple has beefed up Apple Notes a lot...so it’s become a fairly serious note contender...as long as its OK if you lose or mess up all your Apple note data. I write about those 2 note platforms primarily.
This entry was posted in Apple Devices, International cell phone costs, iPhone, iPhone Tips, Tech Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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