using foreign mobile networks switzerland guide
Telecom

Roaming Charges Without Leaving Switzerland: How to Avoid Them

August 21, 2023 - Ralf Beyeler

Are you getting mobile roaming charges on your phone bill even though you have not been out of the country? In this guide, moneyland.ch explains why you may be charged mobile roaming fees in areas near the border, and how to avoid this pitfall.

Numerous Swiss consumers have experienced this problem: You are charged mobile roaming fees by your Swiss telecom provider although you never left Switzerland during a given period. Ralf Beyeler, telecom expert at moneyland.ch, answers the most important questions about cross-border roaming charges in this guide.

Why is my mobile service provider billing me for mobile roaming when I have not been outside of Switzerland?

The mobile signal which enables you to call and get online is comprised of radio waves. Radio waves do not stop at the border, so the signal from a mobile beacon can penetrate neighboring countries. Border regions like Basel and Geneva are in the direct vicinity of German and French mobile beacons. Radio signals may also travel far into areas that are relatively flat, such as those surrounding large rivers. But your phone may also connect to a foreign mobile beacon in elevated areas such as hills and mountains as well.

Many mobile phones are designed to connect to a mobile network with a strong signal if your network’s signal is weak. In this case, the phone will normally connect to available foreign mobile networks because access to other Swiss networks is blocked. Often, your phone may be connected to a foreign network for some time before it reconnects with your Swiss network.

In all of these cases, your phone’s signal is diverted through a neighboring country. When your phone is connected to a foreign beacon, any calls, SMS messages, or mobile data you use is billed at mobile roaming rates. Telecom companies cannot do anything to prevent cross-border radio signals.

How can I tell when my phone is connected to a foreign network?

This is how you can recognize that your phone has paired with a foreign mobile network:

  • The name of a foreign mobile service provider appears on your phone’s screen. On some mobile phones, the letter R (for roaming) appears alongside the signal bars that show how strong your mobile connection is.
  • In many cases, when your phone connects to a foreign network, you receive an SMS from your mobile service provider that outlines prices for roaming in the foreign country.

What can I do if I notice that my phone has connected to a foreign network?

If you do not want to use the foreign network, the easiest step to take is to simply turn on your phone’s flight mode. Just note that you will not be reachable and will be unable to make calls or use the Internet until you turn off flight mode again. By taking the steps outlined below, you can permanently prevent your phone from accidentally connecting to a foreign mobile network.

Of course, there are situations in which you may choose to use a foreign network while still in Switzerland. In areas near the border, foreign networks may be the only networks available at times, with no signal from your Swiss network (Salt, Sunrise, Swisscom) available. This happens particularly often in mountainous border regions. In that case, getting a mobile roaming bundle can make sense. Many Swiss mobile service providers offer online portals with which you can buy bundles in just a few minutes. These tips explain how to keep the costs under control.

What is the biggest mistake I can make?

You will only ever receive an SMS outlining mobile roaming prices when your phone connects to a foreign mobile network. Never ignore this SMS. If your phone has paired with a foreign beacon, then your connection will run over a foreign mobile network, even if you are still on Swiss soil. Depending on your mobile plan, you may then be charged high mobile roaming rates.

How much could this pitfall potentially cost me?

Because today’s phones transfer large amounts of data, accidental roaming can easily generate high costs. Even just a few minutes of streaming video through your phone’s data connection can cost you as much as 500 francs at standard roaming rates. If your mobile plan does not allow mobile roaming at standard rates, then you are better protected against accidental roaming. But there is still a risk of exhausting your included roaming allowances or any data roaming bundles you may have, in which case you may have to buy additional data roaming bundles.

Which permanent measures can I take to avoid being charged for roaming without leaving the country?

If you choose not to use foreign networks at all, including in areas near the border, you should understand that you may not get any mobile reception in some locations (the emergency services number, 112, will always work as long as at least one Swiss mobile network is available). You can take the following steps to ensure that your phone does not connect to a foreign network unless you want it to.

  • Have your Swiss mobile service provider deactivate roaming for your mobile plan. Most service providers let you do this online. You may have to deactivate call roaming and data roaming separately.
  • Deactivate roaming in your phone’s settings. If you have an iPhone, you can deactivate data roaming by opening the Settings app and tapping on Cellular (this may be called Mobile data or Cellular data) and then on Cellular data options, where you can deactivate roaming using the option to Turn off data roaming. If your phone uses the Android system (Android 13), open the Settings app and select the Mobile network menu, then tap on the appropriate SIM card, and deactivate the switch next to the Data roaming option. On some Android-powered phones, the exact names of the menus and tabs may differ slightly from those shown above.
  • Manually select your Swiss mobile service provider’s carrier network using your phone’s network selection option. If you have an iPhone, open the Settings app and select the Cellular menu, then tap on Network selection and deactivate the Automatic switch. If your phone uses Android (Android 13), turn on manual network selection by opening the Settings app and tapping on the Mobile network menu, selecting the SIM card, tapping on Operator, and toggling the switch to deactivate Auto-select. The exact terms used can vary between Android-powered phones.

Normally, taking just one of these steps is sufficient. But if you prefer to err on the safe side, you should implement all three of these measures.

A disadvantage of using the measures above is that you have to change the settings again every time you want to use mobile roaming (for holidays or other trips outside of Switzerland, for example).

What should I consider if I want to use foreign networks in areas near the border?

Because there are locations in Switzerland where only foreign mobile networks are available, there are situations in which you may deliberately choose to use available foreign networks.

There are several solutions that can make sense, depending on the situation:

  • For data roaming, always use a data roaming bundle. Never go online at standard roaming rates. Some Swiss mobile service providers no longer use standard roaming rates for data at all.
  • If you live near the border, work near the border, or for any other reason frequently find yourself in border regions, getting a mobile plan that includes sufficient data roaming allowances can be beneficial. If you are willing to forego streaming and other data-intensive activities, then 1 gigabyte of roaming data per month should be enough. Mobile plans that include 1 gigabyte of roaming data are available for less than 20 francs per month.
  • If you want to use more data-heavy services, then it makes sense to get a mobile plan with a bigger data roaming allowance. But these plans are generally much more expensive, so keeping an eye out for special promotional offers is a good idea.
  • Be aware that even accepting incoming calls while roaming generates roaming charges for you. If you receive calls while in border regions, you should consider using a mobile plan with included roaming allowances.

The same advice that applies to using mobile roaming while traveling abroad also applies to using foreign networks in Switzerland. Take a look at these tips for getting online while roaming and tips for making calls while roaming.

The Swiss mobile plan comparison from moneyland.ch helps you find the most suitable solution. Just select the required roaming services to find the cheapest plan that meets your roaming needs.

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Expert Ralf Beyeler
Ralf Beyeler is the telecom expert at moneyland.ch and also covers other areas of personal finance.
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