Fun with T-Mobile and Roaming

My T-Mobile cell phone bill came today. The Bahamas trip cost $144 in roaming fees. The interesting thing about this is that the phone was turned off for nearly the entire time that it was in the Bahamas and I didn’t make or receive a single call. When I settled in at the first hotel, I noticed that no service was available. To save the battery, I turned off the phone. Once or twice at other islands, I turned the phone on to see if service was available, and once or twice it was, but I turned the phone off afterwards. So the T-Mobile system knew that I was in the Bahamas, but the phone never rang and no calls were ever connected. Nonetheless, they billed $3 for every incoming call that anyone attempted to make during that time and then another $3 as a “voicemail fee” for the person talking to their voicemail system. If the person leaving the message was longer-winded, and spoke for two minutes, the total charge for the call would be $12.00 total.

One interesting note is that when I checked my voicemail, there were only 5 messages, yet T-Mobile charged for 21 inbound interactions with their voicemail system (at either $3 or $6 per interaction).

I called T-Mobile customer service and asked that they remove these charges. They refused.

[One positive note: The T-Mobile SMS system seems to bill a little more accurately. The system did not charge me for any SMS messages during the time that the phone was powered off.]

26 thoughts on “Fun with T-Mobile and Roaming

  1. Yup. I had T-mobile wayyyy back when they were called VoiceStream.
    They were equally bad.
    Many bogus charges and calls to customer service were either routed to manager who were outright rude, OR the customer service rep would simply hang up on me.
    (and I wasn’t rude to them…just pointing out the facts of the agreement we both signed)

    I won’t go back to VoiceStream/T-mobile/whatever their next name is…

  2. That is very, very wrong and T-Mobile is not following its own billing practices in charging you that.

    When I traveled to the Philippines for a month or so last year (2007) I did pay $2.99 but only for calls coming from the USA or made to the USA-based voicemail system. Plus, I could retrieve voicemail for free or cheap by calling the voicemail line directly. I was not charged $2.99 for voicemails left nor charged for attempted incoming calls.

    A letter sent to T-Mobile and copied to the FCC department that handles such issues with cell carriers should clear this up.

  3. Thanks, Patrick, for the suggestion. I went to the FCC Web site, clicked on “for consumers”, and filed complaint #08-C00007463.

  4. Wow. And T-Mobile tends to be one of the best of the US major operators for service. (Sprint and AT&T are probably the worst, and VZW #2)

    I will take a gander as to why they refused to refund you. I suspect after you registered in the Bahamas, from then on every call to you had to be routed to the Bahamian telco, just so it could report back “No, his phone is not turned on.” I bet the Bahamian telco then billed T-mobile an obscene fee for that. Island telcos are notorious for this.

    However, this does not explain the voicemail fee, which should not have involved the Bahamian telco in any way.

    Usually when I am going to a country for any length of time, I pick up a local SIM card for my unlocked phones. Usually there are shops everywhere selling those cards, often quite cheap. Once you do that you can forward a U.S. line (ideally a landline or VOIP line) to that phone if you want to get forwarded calls, or just record a voice mail saying, “Here is my number in country X, call if it’s important”

    Most people won’t call if you do that, unless it’s important, which may be what you want. Or may not be. They will respect the timezone at least.

    Plus you can forward the number to your VOIP software in your laptop when you have your laptop on and the calls are free.

    I have a special section on my blog for people to post the rates of various companies for SIM cards, but don’t have any Bahamian entries.

    You may want to leave T-mobile for this, but where will you go? Is AT&T going to be any better? You don’t want CDMA so you are SOL. If you want CDMA, Verizon is expensive with better service. Sprint has bad service, but their $30/month for everything SERO deal is the best cellular deal in the world as far as I have seen.

  5. Thanks, Brad. I am certainly ready to dump T-Mobile (roaming in Africa was painfully expensive, but I least I think that I paid only for calls that I actually made (or at least I remember making some calls!)). How does the Sprint SERO thing work? I visited their site and (1) they demand the email address of a referring Sprint employee (all of my friends work at Google), and (2) they say that “unlimited text messaging expires 5/31/2008” (i.e., it is just a couple of months of free text and they don’t say what they are going to charge when they start charging).

  6. Phil, Sprint SERO is a good deal and is discussed to death on several online forums (search on FatWallet, for example). Basically, they are pretty lax with the email validation and you can check the latest working strategies at the aforementioned forums. Let’s just say you don’t need to prove your relationship to the referring person and Sprint is a publicly traded company.

  7. First of all what’s happening is because of the conditional forwarding (which is default and depending on your plan and provider it might not even be fully configurable). The safe but annoying way to go is to disable forwarding altogether when you turn on the phone and forward all to voicemail when you turn off the phone. Yes, this is totally different from having “Divert when unreacheable” activated – with “divert all” all calls will go straight to voicemail without extra charges.
    Actually when I had my first cellphone I had to disable the voice mail straight away because it was anyway billed as redirection and I wouldn’t get any notification about messages (it was before SMS was mainstream). So I was billed at least twice for each voice mail and once each time I checked for new messages.
    I ended up (and use the same schema today) giving out one mobile number and one fixed/voicemail/fax number. And of course today the voicemail sends me notifications via email and there are quite a few free online services available for this. I haven’t been paying attention but some friends of mine were very excited about one particular company that would give you a “personal” number and forward your calls for free to any US regular number OR give them a personalized message based on their caller ID (yes, you can have a different message for each of your friends) and on the availability of your mobile phone.

  8. I just discovered today that T-mobile was billing me for account I have closed six month ago. My bill payment service was paying bills for 6 months until I finally noticed. Spent 30 minutes on the phone with them and finally convinced that to refund all the charges.

    They are OK operator but their billing certainly sucks.

  9. Val: I checked the very fine print on the T-Mobile Web site. In their frequently asked questions about International roaming, they have buried a tidbit in the very last section. It says “Unless you switch your device off or activate Unconditional Call Forwarding on your device, you will be billed for calls delivered to your voice mail box while you are roaming internationally.”

    In my case, I had the device switched off. I was billed for about 20 calls even though only 4 or 5 actual voice mail messages were received. I am sure that your explanation makes sense, but I don’t think it would be obvious to someone reading this fine print.

  10. If you switch off while you are out of coverage the system is not aware of it. While out of coverage it takes 2-3h before the network implicitelly sets ‘detached’ state.

  11. “Unless you switch your device off or activate Unconditional Call Forwarding on your device, you will be billed”: now THAT is ambiguous. Let’s analyze from a logical standpoint the statement. Let’s pretend we know what “switch the device off” means (although it could mean at least three things: “switch the device off while in reach of home network”, “turn the device off before you register with a foreign network”, “the device was turned off at the moment (or some time before) the call”).

    Now the big question is what goes together: should we read it as:

    choice 1: “(unless you switch your device off) or (unless you activate Unconditional Call Forwarding) you will be billed
    choice 2: unless (you switch your device off or activate Unconditional Call Forwarding) you will be billed

    If it’s not obvious the difference is that for “choice 1” you’ll need to do BOTH (switch of AND activate Unconditional Call Forwarding) to avoid being billed as for “choice 2” it’s enough to meet one of the conditions (have the phone off for example).

    And the last logical nugget here is that this small print only gives you enough conditions when you WILL be billed. They don’t say “you will be billed for this and that and nothing else” instead they say “unless you do that you will be billed” but this also allows for (possibly many) other untold possibilities to get billed.

  12. Phil,

    I had similar issues with T-Mobile when I spent most of last year travelling in Europe for business. I would not take most of the calls I don’t recognize while in Europe, so they would go on voicemail. I realized later that I was charged for these voicemails left as well as for listening to them, so a 2 minute voicemail ends up costing 4 minutes of roaming if you choose to listen. When I called T-Mobile to question these, I was told that if I turn off the phone I would not be charged for the voicemails left, but if I leave it on, then the call is first diverted to the foreign country’s network before it can go back to T-Mobile voicemail system, thus the roaming charge. So I don’t see why they would charge you if your phone was turned off.
    Other than this issue I was very happy with T-Mobile and customer service for 6 years actually.

  13. When you turn your mobile station off, it sends signal to the network before it really goes off. However, if you are out of reach of GSM network (no radio contact) and you switch off the phone, it won’t be able to report the event (the same would happen even with good radio coverage if you just pull out the battery). Consequently, any incoming call will be first routed to the network were your phone made the last contact and will initiate a broadcast. When no reply is received, the call is redirected back to VMS (case of ‘late call forwarding’), hence the double roaming charge.
    I think your operator is not to blame. Simply this is how GSM works.


  14. Petar: What you’re saying makes sense, but I just got off the phone with a T-Mobile supervisor (identifying himself only as “Adam, ID# 7139103”). He says that T-Mobile records are sufficiently detailed that he is 100% sure that the phone was turned on. He is 100% sure that I was physically on my phone making outgoing calls. He said that he was 100% sure that I was making calls to check my voicemail. He said that I had called other numbers besides voicemail (none show up on my bill). I asked him to cite one. He said that he couldn’t, for privacy reasons. I asked him to give me a date or time of an outgoing call that was not to voicemail. He could not. I asked him if he thought it was odd that every call to voicemail was logged in the same minute as an incoming call. He did not find that odd and continued to assert that I simply happened to call and check my voicemail every time there was an incoming call.

  15. Called another T-Mobile agent and got some more information. Suppose you go to Africa with your phone and do some charity work in a tiny village for three months and 1000 inbound calls are made. Every caller gets to the voicemail system and hangs up, deciding not to leave a message. When you get to Jo’burg to catch your plane home, you turn your phone on to see if service is available. Even if you don’t make any calls, T-Mobile claims that somewhere in their contract, they now have the right to charge you for all 1000 of those calls, plus another 1000 “deliveries to voicemail”, all at whatever roaming rates apply in the country where you happened to turn your phone on. This might cost, say, $7000. What service have they provided to you?

    “We deliver the voicemail to your phone.”

    I asked if they actually sent data to the phone or if it all stays on their server in California.

    “It stays on the server in California, but we send a signal to light up the ‘message available’ light on your phone. Of course, the light may not actually be lit up; it depends on the capability of the carrier.”

    So they can charge $7000 to light up the message waiting light on your phone, even if the light never actually appears?


    What if none of the callers ever left a message and there was no voicemail?

    “We can still charge the $7000.”

  16. I don’t know about the rest of your readers, but I’d be happy to send you five bucks to partially defray the cost of acquiring this valuable information. 🙂

    What I’m learning here is that I must never, ever do business with T-Mobile. Also, I must never, ever turn my phone on in a foreign country unless I’ve taken out my SIM card. (Although I just switched to AT&T, and I suppose there’s some faint hope that AT&T is more reasonable about these policies. But I wouldn’t bet on it.)

  17. Out of curiosity, because the stories kept changing, I called 611 again yesterday and asked a new agent what I was being charged for. He decided that I shouldn’t be charged twice for each call and removed about half of the charges.

    I was out walking the dog today and called 611 again. The woman who answered the phone said that all of the charges were legitimate, but she didn’t have a coherent theory for why. She transferred me to her supervisor. I asked him to explain the charges and what service I’d received from T-Mobile in exchange for the money. He tried hard to come up with some theories, but eventually couldn’t find one and refunded all of the roaming charges.

    He offered unsolicited the opinion that “everyone thinks we make a huge amount of money on extra charges and so forth, but it turns out that we spend so many customer service hours explaining the charges that they are not as profitable as one might expect.”

  18. The Clark Howard radio show has had some callers/listeners that were taken advantage of using cellphones abroad, typically by taking incoming calls, not realizing that their cellphone company will rip them off.

    Howard recommends RangeRoamer, which has a SIM card that can be used in most countries, and through multiple contracts with foreign cellphone companies, can offer a rate superior to international roaming through national carriers:

    For someone traveling outside major cities, renting a satellite phone might be the best value, as coverage will be virtually guaranteed.

    The worst ripoff is cruise ships, that include base stations for US based cellphones, but charge $5/min, also while in port, where the US providers have towers.

  19. Thanks, Jan. That is interesting stuff. Actually the Iridium satphones, I think, are actually cheaper than a lot of the standard T-Mobile roaming rates. I don’t think that they ever charge more than $3/minute, which is the roaming rate for most of the Caribbean, for example.

  20. If we had a reasonable legal system, this would be straightforward to contest. [sigh] I have had similar issues with just about every big company I have dealt with (BofA, ATTWS, Verizon; Comcast is the lone holdout, and that is because my cable is simple, and hasn’t changed since I hooked it up.)

  21. First of all on the T-Mobile information. They are behaving much better in that regard in Europe (at least Germany) though they state that if your phone is switched on and people are redirected to your voicemail, you incurr the charge for recieving the call and then the charge for the redirect to the voicemail as this is what technically happens (or let’s say, what they pretend what happens technically under the roaming agreements).

    Now for some general advise on how to avoid roaming. Get a prepaid card whenever you land, ask the cab driver to take you to some place and get you a prepaid card. Depending on the country you are in you have really strange conditions (e.g. Spain: “Prepaid Card only with phone”, so you get the prepaid card, plus the phone plus 10EUR credit for 25EUR, Vietnam, pay 2$ for the card, get 6$ credit (and it lasts a very long time).

    But noone knows your number… So set yourself up with a VoIP phone number in the states, let your cellphone redirect to the VoIP and change the redirection of the VoIP number depending on what number your prepaid card has at that time. Usually the place you buy the card from is more than willing to immediately let you switch your VoIP rerouting. This will cost you local fee (to connect to the VoIP number, though you might have it in a friends list which has unlimited airtime) and the VoIP rate to call the Bahamas, but that is considerably cheaper than the $3 you are charged for roaming and risk free.

    Sadly SMS forwarding does not work so occasionally you should turn on your US SIM card and check the SMS, but incoming SMS are still free of charge. Or ask your provider if they can send the SMS onwards as E-Mails.

    To make things interesting though, for calls from the Bahamas to the US you might actually be better off to use the Roaming card, as Roaming charges might be cheaper than what the local phone company charges on international calls. But hey, we got Skype….

  22. Cingular (now AT&T) does not charge you for missed calls overseas. As long as you don’t pick up the phone, it doesn’t matter how many people call you or leave voicemails. It’s free until you answer the call. T-Mobile sucks in this regard if they’re still charging $3 / minute for missed calls and unreceived voicemails.

  23. Hi Phillip,

    Did you ever get this taken care of? My law firm has had several complains about this practice and we are investigating. I am interested in your experience. Thanks, Seth

  24. Seth: I did finally get the charges reversed, through the magic of randomness and confusion. I called T-Mobile about 8 times. Each time I asked the question “Why are these charges on my bill?” Every person had a different answer, but one guy couldn’t figure out why I had to pay twice for each call, so he credited back half of the charges. Another agent, several calls later, couldn’t figure out why I had to pay at all, so he credited the remainder. The key to winning in this random walk is that the agents don’t have the authority to add charges to one’s bill; they can only subtract charges. If one of your clients were to call T-Mobile customer service 1000 times, each time presenting the same question, it is a virtual certainty that at least one of those calls would result in the charge being credited.

  25. I am so upset with T-Mobile I will now leave them after staying with them for 6 years. I would like to share this experience so other people learn.
    When you travel with your phone, as soon as you roam on a foreign network T-Mobile knows that you are roaming. From then, anytime somebody leave you a voicemail, they will register it as a roaming call to 805-637-7249 and will charge you at $.99 per minute.
    It gets even worse as a ripoff, when you check your voicemail, they will also charge you for $.99 per minute.
    I did check my voicemail from abroad, not using my T-Mobile phone. I’ve used a friend’s phone and call my number, and then punched my code to consult my messages. But since I was accessing my voicemail, they did charge me also $.99 per minute.
    I also knew before that everytime your phone rings and you are abroad you will be charged one minute, even if you don’t pickup.
    Then don’t start me on the data roaming charges. Just to get my emails on my BlackBerry, and I just received them. I didn’t send many emails I was not working. They did charge me an average of $10 per day.
    Basically I’ve just asked them to remove the so-called “WORLD CLASS INT’L RATE”. I’ve asked also the name and employee number of the person who did that for me. I’ve did see before that I’ve asked to remove an option from my plan and they didn’t remove it.
    Well, I will suggest that you stay away from T-Mobile. This is too much of a rip-off. I hope that they get legislated heavily, the cellular phone market is way more competitive in other parts of the world.

  26. Thanks for the info. I came across this blog after I have experienced a similar issue with T-Mobile: charged huge roaming fees for voice mails I never checked only because someone was trying to reach me when I was oversees and my phone was on and off a few times. I called T-Mobile customer services four times (!) and finally was able to reverse the charges.

    I was also charged even a larger roaming fee for the data use on my smartphone. The problem is that I never used it – again, just turned the phone on an off a few times just to make sure I had signal. I was not able to reverse this. The argument they make is that I should have known to turn off my data synchronization feature when overseas…

    Overall, I think these are extremely consumer-unfriendly practices and at the minimum T-Mobile should do a better job informing customers upfront about high charges if the phone is just turned on without being actually used.

    I’ve filed a complain with FCC as a follow up. I hope they can get enough such complaints pressure T-Mobile and other providers to change their policies on the voice and data roaming. I will definitely consider switching from T-Mobile when my contact is up even though I’ve been with them for about five years.

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