Tip o' the Week: International+Voicemail = $$$

Ahhh, yes. Visual Voicemail -- that feature alone was enough to sell me on the iPhone. Voicemail is downloaded directly to your iPhone where you can visually (and with a swipe of your finger) scroll through your messages with leisure. Without your callers knowing, YOU decide which calls are important and need listening to RIGHT NOW. Eh, the others can wait. Now, with great power comes great responsibility, Spidey. If you travel abroad, this wonderful feature can turn on it's master and vacuum the money right out of your wallet! How? Read on for this week's Tip!

To your right, you'll recognize a familiar sight - Visual Voicemail. You will notice that I took the liberty to remove (rather sloppily, I might add) sensitive information to protect the names of the innocent (and even not-so-innocent). This is your best friend when you can't answer a call, but when traveling abroad can be a pain in the hind end (more specifically your wallet or purse).

With thanks and due credit to Iljitsch van Beijnum's article at arstechnicha.com (which I recommend you reading), the method of voicemail retrieval is explained. The way voicemail is handled results in excessive international charges.

Essentially, the visual voicemail that ends up on your iPhone makes a criss-cross journey that would make UPS envious. This is how it works:

  1. A call placed to you first travels via your country of origin - no matter where a person is in the world when they call you, the call will FIRST go through your home network.
  2. The call is then forwarded to the roaming network you are connected to, seeking you out. You now incur international charges ($).
  3. If the call is not answered or if you are not available on the network, it will be routed to your voicemail. This is where it gets fun. The call will now RETURN to your home network, incurring more international charges ($$$). Get the idea?
Yes, it is possible that the minions of AT&T (the Mouth of Sauron himself?) held council with the great Steve Jobs to craft this diabolical scheme of duplicate charges, but even so, it does not change the fact that you may require sedation when you open your AT&T bill after your trip to Kerblekistan. What can be done to mitigate this unholy practice of international charges each time your county treasurer is calling with a recorded message asking for your vote in November? Fortunately there is relief -- a simple, obvious remedy, but if you are traveling abroad, you will do well to remember this before you go.


Although Iljitsch van Beijnum's article at arstechnicha.com suggests various codes that can be entered to disable Visual Voicemail (which, apparently, is ineffective for AT&T phones), there is another way. Clear your schedule, take a deep breath, and call AT&T Customer Service and request that they disable your voicemail before you leave. Yes, you will not have the benefit of voicemail. Yes, you will also save your hard-earned moolah by avoiding excessive international charges from missed calls that end up in voicemail. Just tell your family and friends to EMAIL you. It's free and it will follow you anywhere you can get WiFi or Edge/3G.

That's it for this week's Tip.  Thanks again to Iljitsch van Beijnum of arstechnicha.com for his article. Check it out! If you have a tip of your own that you would like to share with the rest of us, please leave a Comment or you can email me at: brian.hart@tipb.com.

Disclaimer:  Tip o' the Week makes no guarantee, express or implied, that any tip found herein will be new or particularly useful to the reader (and don't forget to clear your schedule, take a deep breath, and call AT&T Customer Service AGAIN to reactivate your voicemail when you get back). 

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Reader comments

Tip o' the Week: International+Voicemail = $$$


Wow, another great scam! I'd been wondering if I would ever be able to afford simply checking email or accessing the internet, or currency-exchange applications, etc. while travelling internationally without incurring horrible charges. Now there's another hidden cost to look forward to. Anyone know anything about how to affordably get internet access while out of the country?

as a rogers customer, i was in the states and while roaming on the at&t network, I received a "visual voicemail is unavailable" prompt or something similar to that effect over top of my voicemail screen when I clicked on my voice mail button
It did mention something about it being disabled because I wasn't on the rogers network
... But I've yet to see my bill

How was that trip to Kerblekistan? =) Nice tip, and the break out of how the voice mail costs work out is very handy too. Just a quick tidbit, you could get yourself and those most likely to call you all the time you're abroad (you know who they are, I'm sure) into an international calling service. Jaxtr is one such, but there are others that can help take care of international calling charges.

Isn't this simply how ALL voicemail works and has nothing to do with either the iPhone or visual voicemail?

Returned from a trip to the Bahamas two weeks ago and did exactly as advertised in this article. For a fact this is regardless of type of phone you have, and probably is not even carrier dependent (probably all GSM carriers do this).
Mind you though that 3G/Edge usage can be very expensive and unless you really need to be connected abroad, keep the option for data roaming turned off. If you know you need to make use of 3G/Edge abroad, you can either purchase a $24 package (for 20 MByte) or $50+ (for 50 MByte). Without the data roaming package costs are around $5 per MByte (expensive). I had the 20 MByte data package, but it was a waste of money as my hotel had WiFi (so really think about this - you always can use the data network in emergencies for the increased fee).

thanks for the tips. if you get the international data roaming package (or anything that att calls a "package add on") you only pay for it when it's turned on. so you can turn it on the day before your trip, and turn it off the day you get back, and you are only charged the prorated amount, no matter if you used all the data allowed or not, as they can't dictate when in the month you use it, ie it can be all in one day. hope that's clear. i confirmed it with a phone call to att customer service.

thank you SO MUCH for posting this. i'm about to leave the country for up to a year and had no idea that i would be charged roaming rates for my voicemail. at&t managed to give me all the other info i needed about traveling with my iphone internationally except for that detail, conveniently. thanks at&t...not

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