iPad goes to Europe, Japan -- so do 3G roaming ripoffs

Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, a little planning lets you take your iPad with you without going broke

Today, the iPad frenzy begins in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and Japan, as the hit slate goes on sale there today. In July, it will become available in Mexico, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong. This means that you can take your iPad to any of these countries and connect.

For a price -- perhaps an enormous price.

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Carriers typically offer roaming for the iPad 3G, as they do for other mobile data devices. But they're exorbitant: AT&T, for example, charges $25 per month for a mere 20MB of data and $200 per month for 200MB for international roaming (even in Canada). And if you don't use that data allotment within 30 days, you lose the remaining data. By contrast, AT&T charges $15 for 250MB in the United States for a pay-as-you-go plan that expires at the end of the month you buy it.

Likewise, Orange U.K. charges £3 (about $4.50) per megabyte in the rest of Europe and £6.46 (about $9.50) per megabyte elsewhere in the world. Canadian iPad owners with service from Rogers pay C$6 per megabyte to roam in the United States (C$1 is US$0.95). Very quickly, you could spend hundreds of dollars when using the iPad overseas on 3G networks -- perhaps more than the cost of the iPad itself.

Not all carriers are so mercenary: O2 in Germany charges a more reasonable €0.72 ($0.90) per megabyte within Europe, up to a €15 ($19) maximum per day. And on July 1, new E.U. regulations cap mobile data roaming fees to €50 ($62.50) per month -- if you ask your carriers to enable this price cap. They of course can cap your usage along with the cost. And this regulation won't help iPad owners from outside the E.U. or Europeans traveling outside the E.U.

To prevent roaming ripoffs, the simplest step is to disable the 3G radio on your iPad when traveling abroad; in the Settings app, put it in airplane mode, then re-enable the Wi-Fi radio. You can get inexpensive hotspot access in several countries using a Boingo Wireless account for $10 per month.

But Wi-Fi is not ubiquitous, so 3G access is preferable. Watch out for one service that markets pan-Europe iPad 3G roaming: MaxRoam from Irish carrier Cubic Telecom. You pay €75 ($94) for a 3G micro-SIM that you put in your iPhone (leave your home country's micro-SIM at home). It comes with 50MB of data -- about four hours' worth of moderate Web surfing -- and you pay €25 ($31) for an additional 10MB or €75 for an additional 50MB. For a U.S. iPad 3G owner, that actually costs $177 more (nearly double) than a month's worth of AT&T's 200MB iPad roaming plan.

There's a better way, though it involves a little hassle. Most carriers offer prepaid 3G data plans, where you can sign up for a certain number of megabytes. (You usually can use the carrier's local Wi-Fi hotspots as well. And note that voice over IP and other streaming usage is typically prohibited on the 3G prepaid plans.) You have to get that carrier's specific micro-SIM for your iPad to access its 3G network; typically, you get the local micro-SIM at a cellular carrier store or, in some countries, at a tabac or newsstand. They usually cost nothing or less than $1. You then sign up for the desired prepaid plan -- though typically by calling the carrier's local customer support number, rather than directly from the iPad itself, as is the case for AT&T in the United States. That may require some language skills.

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