Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I heard a horror story the other day about someone who was traveling for an extended period on a ship. His phone was from Europe. In LA, he placed one called. For a month or so, people who called his phone got voicemail. Because he was last seen by the network as being in LA, all of his voicemail calls incurred roaming charges and he ended up with a $3000 voicemail bill. He argued, but they did not refund it.

I checked the T-Mobile web site and sure enough, after a bit of digging, I found this (link):

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.
The odd thing is, I'm quite sure he didn't have his phone on during the travel period. He said that they had told him that even without the phone on the call was still routed through LA. Does anyone else have any experience with this?


I had exactly the same experience with T-Mobile. I was in Brazil and had used my US phone to make one call. I did leave my phone on, but did not answer any of the incoming calls. When I received my bill the next month, I noticed that every incoming call that I did not answer had showed up on my bill twice.

I immediately called T-Mobile and they explained that I was being charged the normal $3 / min because the call was being routed from the US to Brazil, plus I was being charged another $3 / min because the voicemail had to be routed back the US from Brazil.

After going through several layers of management, and threatening to take my business elsewhere, T-Mobile removed all the charges in question, but warned me that if I left my phone on again in a foreign country I would be charged.

I've since changed my provider...

That's a well known problem here in europe. The best way to avoid this is to disable voicemail.

that is correctly so, common 'feature' of gsm, not t-mobile specific. as rito mentioned, you have to turn off voicemail to prevent this from happening.
I wonder if it's a bug/glitch in the protocols that gsm is built upon, or just laziness on the provider side, them hoping that nobody goes after such theft...

As rito said, we have the same problem here in Europe. AND, to add a little spice to the brew, we've also had incidents where some of our users have been hit with SMS spam and were charged roaming fees as well. This was especially bad in the U.K. and not something that you can turn off like voicemail. Fortunate for me, I happen to run the phone program for an organization with enough clout that I could suggest our provider eat the bill. They did.

I wonder what happens to the average private person.

I'm with rito - I've had my voicemail switched off for years now. I couldn't even begin to wonder how much £ that's saved me when traveling - although, I didn't know about the switch-on switch-off thing.

The networks' over-charging for roaming is so bad that it's come to the attention of the European Commission who have proposed new regulations to counter this. (Story on CNN)

Problem is, you just have to switch your phone on ONE TIME at your destination for the calls to be routed through the roaming partner every time someone makes a call to you. Doesn't matter if you turn the phone off again - the call is routed from your home network to the roaming network and back to the home network (voicemail) again. The roaming isn't "reset" until you connect to the network in your home country again. At least this is how it works with Danish telcos - I would imagine it's the same with others.

So - as many others above have stated, the only sure-fire way to avoid over-charging is turning off voicemail.

Fascinating. I imagine that by "disable voicemail" you mean one must call one's servicde provider and request they turn off the feature from your list of services?

I don't think they do this thing with the 'touch the network once and you'll get billed every time' here in Ireland. If you switch off the phone it goes to voicemail and there's no other charge.

Whichever networks are doing this have managed to design their roaming architecture in a very slovenly way.

The whole thing is pathetic, no doubt about it.

May the GSM gods toast me if I'm wrong, but I believe that there is no technical reason in the design of the GSM networks that results in this kind of charging nightmare.

My understanding from someone who is familiar with the standards is that these are business questions and not technical questions. When you are roaming, there is no such thing as a "call being routed through your home country" ... data is sent about the call for billing purposes, but the call is connected locally. The "roaming" nonsense is a conceit designed to tax "those who can afford to pay" ... ie international citizens, like Joi or you or me ...

Mobile phone companies charge each other horrendous interconnection fees for routing these calls, but that can be dealt with. Recently, some European authorities have become rather interested in this issue, and we're likely to see some changes in Europe on roaming fees soon. After all, GSM was designed as a Global System ... but it doesn't charge that way!

I had a simliar problem with a Cingular phone that would ring in Canada but the call wouldn't go through. They still tried to charge me anyway every time someone called (to the tune of several minutes required time).

Joi, would be great to hear how you manage your cellphones with all your globetrotting. It's hard to believe that the phone companies expect people to keep one phone and just roam with it at ridiculous rates.

As for me, I keep a Japanese cell, an ancient American phone on an even older calling plan back from the days when $0 monthly fee phones existed, and rely on VOIP over a PocketPC with WiFi for everywhere else when a rental isn't needed.

I have tried various configurations, but currently I have T-Mobile US, NTT Docomo (Japan) and Sonera (Finland) accounts . I typically use my US # outside of Japan and my Japanese # in Japan and sometimes use Sonera to do GPRS when I'm in Finland. I used to have a ton more... Vodaphone Spain, Vodaphone Japan, blah blah, but I couldn't keep track of them all so I stopped.

Just makes you sick how these phone companies operate. I was thinking about switching to t-mobile, but no longer.

I believe this is in GSM and is not carrier specific.

I believe GSM trombones calls first to the international roaming serving center where you were last seen and then back to your voicemail center when your phone is not found.

Ah this sounds familiar. I happen to know someone who is in a topmanagement position in a large European mobile telco. He told me they recently had a T-mobile US customer roaming on their network. This guy was generating calls to a number in the US every 5 minutes. This was probably because of some data service he had on his mobile. However, this number is unreachable from European networks, so it never got what it was asking for. It was however being charged by the European telco. So this senior-management guy called to his colleague at T-mobile US, to warn them of the situation and to ask them if they could disable it or at least warn the customer. The reply was that there was no reason to do so and the European mobileco shouldn't complain, they would get paid their part.

A little digging in the databases showed this guy I know that they were making over 10.000 euro a day Europe-wide on T-mobile customers with similar non-functioning services.

If you must bring your phone with you overseas, and have to make calls, then do this: buy a prepaid SIM card/chip to make calls. I've done this in Thailand, China, Hong Kong, etc. Of course, you will have a new phone number. But rates are very inexpensive. Just call/email/IM everyone of your new phone number. They can call you using a calling card, VOIP,, etc. etc. etc.

voicemail problem gone!

Of course, it isn't possible for most people to use a local SIM, as providers lock their phones so one can't use a prepaid. I hacked my smartphone successfully, but then one realizes you have to setup SMS gateways & WAP correctly to use these services. I decided I needed a quad band roaming phone - so as not to interfere with my main US phone and its settings.

As for voicemail settings, I think this is partly the design of GSM when roaming (the routing to last seen location of mobile). This could be better designed, if the phone hasn't been 'seen' i.e. been turned on for a period, then the call should just divert to voicemail locally (and not be forwarded). I learnt to just do an unconditionally voicemail forward when travelling overseas.

Reading other comments about turning off your voicemail to resolve the problem still doesn't work with T-mobile (USA). I had the same voicemail problems and I was told that I should deactivate my voicemail when going abroad. I recently returned from Europe and even though I had my voicemail off, they still charged me for it because they said it forwarded to the t-mobile "default" which doesn't allow anyone to leave a message, but it still counts. They would not remove my charges. Time to leave t-mobile since the only way to avoid it is to turn your phone off which defeats the purpose of having a phone abroad.

I just signed on to tmobile specifically for the international roaming feature. I'm leaving for a tour of Europe next week and I want to be able to use my # abroad.

I plan to set the phone to unconditional call forwarding to my home number, a VOIP # (sunrocket) that sends an SMS text to my cell phone notifying me that there is a voice message, along with the caller id number info and length of message.

I can leave my phone on, recieve the SMS texts for all the forwarded voice calls for free (i have the text pkg for $5/ mo, otherwise it's 10 cents each) and know who and when some one called. Then I can decide if it's worth it to retreive the message or call back at the intl rates.

I haven't actually done this yet but it should work.


With GSM you will still be billed for the call forwarding to your VOIP service depending on where you are at the moment of the incoming call.

E.g. if you switch your phone on in Italy, the forwarding will be billed:
USA->Italy->USA (voicemail)

It doesn't matter if you use the GSM Providers Voicemail as Voicemail is not the point in this discussion, it is the handling of the call forwarding which causes the additional cost.

To be precise, exchange "depending on where you are" with "depending on where you were last seen (booked in)" in the above comment.


But your point contradicts the points on all of the GSM provider's websites - i.e. if you turn on unconditional call forwarding and the number that is receiving the forwards is in a tarrif free zone, then thats it. (If I am in New York City, unconditionally forward my cellphone calls to a New York City number, and then take off to Armenia, since all of my calls never leave the New York City area, then I am not charged for roaming - and i never receive them.) that's how tmobile, and a bunch of foreign GSM websites read.

Add me to the list with a $950 dollar phone bill, and I'm not a retard. Just found out today and I am steaming. I constasntly work internationally. I tried to inform myself and looked up the cost of international roaming where I was traveling. But no where is this information about turning off your phone readily available or intuitive. I even called tmobile before my trip. My biggest lesson learned is do not have automatic bill paymen because they will not even consider any credits - only free minutes. What amused me more was when I thought this through and called them to cancel automatic payment and they told me that it will take up to two billing cycles to cancel. Is it only coincidental that some of those charges may take up to 2 months to be processed. I used to love t-mobile because of their international service. My only previous complaint was that they suddenly started charging me for international text messages after being with voicestream/tmobile since early 2000. They have no customer loyalty and are looking to make that quick buck off you. Hell, who wouldn't when you can get almost as much as a year in one month. And btw, I looked up the fares at cingular and roaming was 1.99 as compared to 2.99 in brazil and 1.29 as compared to 1.49 in brazil. Just those reate differences could have saved me almost $300. I am still with tmobile but am still battling through the contesting and arbitration bullshit. No where in the terms and conditions is this covered. Its been a long frustrating day, my apologies.

Sorry for a second posting. But, I think this information is purposely not shared with customer. Let me know in what is the minimum amount of steps you can actually use find this information on the website. I'm still trying to figure out how the link posted above was found. And for more fun, let me know how many steps it took you to find it even after knowing exactly what you were looking for.

Looks like the first posting was never sent, maybe because it was too long. Too make a long story short I woke up to a $950 charge from tmobile. My biggest lesson (I'm still battling) is to make sure you dont have automatic payment because you have no bargaining power- they already have your money. They just recieved more money in one month than they will make off you in nearly all year. I have been with tmobile (prior voicestream user) for ages and they have no customer loyalty in this situation - unless you want some crap free minutes. And cingular had cheaper rates - a whole dollar less for brazil and 20 cents cheaper for thailand. It would have saved me $300. Paying for calls I didnt accept? Absurd! I still remember the good old days when international SMS didn't cost anything with them. I hate you tmobile and our relationship will soon be over. I'll post a follow-up when I find out how the dispute and arbitration process works out.

What a story. Strange thing is that the Dutch site of T-Mobile explicitly states that subscribers aren't charged any costs for receiving voicemail abroad. Subscribers are only charged for listening to their voicemail for which the standard rates for calling abroad apply. I explicitly checked their policies on this subject recently before a trip abroad because I just joined T-Mobile. Please refer to (Dutch only). Maybe your friend can refer them to their Dutch policies ;-)

This T-mobile charging for these voicemails is ridiculous and a fraud. I think the only way to battle it is to join together and try and force them to remove this bogus set of bottom line profiteering.

I was with Cingular/ATT and they didn't charge me when traveling unless I answered the call. Thus it is possible to set the system up to not charge but T-mobile has chosen not to do the right thing but rather to try and exploit customers.

What is the groups opinion and putting together a list and then going to T-mobile with it. It will never be easy but it is just a burr in my saddle that is really upsetting me that they can get away with this.


I think a class action lawsuit is in order. Anyone have a top notch attorney? I just went to Canada where we never used the phone but were billed for all voicemails. The phone was turned on just to check the address book for a number to call, then I called from the hotel with a phone card on their land line.
To add insult to injury I called T-mobile & let them know where I was going and specfically asked as long as I "made no calls would I be charged any fees. Of couse not I was told, I repeated "anytning again, I was told no.
Then when I got the bill I noticed all the charges called & was told I would be charged even if the phone was not turned on. I told the rep that in the law of Physics that was impossible & asked to speak to a manager.
Long story short, the manager said I didn't deserve any credits because I had received many credits before. I told her the reason for the credits before was due to their many mistakes in setting up cell phone plans while traveling charging me hundreds due to their mistakes, then again while setting up the bill on a credit card.
She said they didn't make any mistakes. I pushed the issue to look back at the records/mistakes, she stated to say I had been given credits in the past by accident then said her notes were incomplete.
I continued while living in Dallas I could not use their phones in an apartment complex I was living & had called many times, 2 towers were down by the airport & they said they had no plans to fix them.
Anyone at the 400+ unit apartments who had T-moblile I talked to could not use their phones, again they made many mistakes.