Family Racks up $13K in Roaming Charges While Using iOS’ Airplane Mode

Vivian Chung Roaming Charges Credit: ABC 7
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A Bay Area family racked up a massive cellular bill when traveling overseas — even though they were using iOS’ Airplane Mode.

The Chung family of San Jose recently went on a family reunion trip to Vietnam. They returned in good spirits until they saw a $13,470 bill from T-Mobile for internet roaming charges on their son’s iPhone, ABC 7 reported.

“We know we cannot use the phone and it’s always on airplane mode,” Vivian Chung told ABC 7. “How could this happen?”

Reportedly, the massive bill was incurred during a relatively short amount of time — about 30 minutes, Chung estimates — when the family was flying over Vietnam on a commercial flight.

But Nicholas, Chung’s son, said that his device had been on Airplane Mode during the entirety of the flight. He was playing an offline chess game which didn’t require a data connection to be played.

“I was confused and scared,” Nicholas said. “Because $13,000 is a lot of money. I was like what? I didn’t do anything.”

Vivian called T-Mobile almost immediately after receiving the bill. The carrier insisted that Nicholas had downloaded large media files during the flight — but he didn’t. T-Mobile later agreed to reduce the bill to around $3,800.

But the Chung family still thought that was unfair. “We didn’t want to pay for something we didn’t use,” Vivian said.

She then contacted ABC 7 On Your Side about the story. The news team contacted T-Mobile inquiring about how the massive data charge was possible when a device was on Airplane Mode.

T-Mobile didn’t have any answers and only told the media outlet that Vietnam was not included in its free roaming plan.

When the On Your Side team looked into the matter, they discovered that many apps that ostensibly don’t require an internet connection still use data for location services, updates, and advertising. Nicholas’ chess game was one such application.

Of course, there are still some holes in this theory.

For one, when Airplane Mode is switched on, it fully disables all of an iPhone’s radio capabilities. That includes cellular data and Bluetooth.

In other words, connecting to the internet should not be possible at all when Airplane Mode is on — even for apps that use data in the background.

There are some isolated reports of iPhone users seeing data usage when Airplane Mode is on, but there isn’t really a consensus as to why. A few of those users said that the problem may be tied to Wi-Fi Assist, which uses cellular data when a Wi-Fi signal is weak to keep pages and apps loading properly. But that would mean that Wi-Fi Assist supersedes Airplane Mode, which shouldn’t be possible.

Really, the only explanation for the massive data charge is a bug in iOS or in T-Mobile’s carrier systems, possibly one that prevented Airplane Mode from turning on. There really isn’t another possibility that makes sense.

Still, things ended up working out for the Chung family. After ABC 7 contacted T-Mobile, the carrier agreed to nix the entirety of the data charge while the family was overseas.

“We were just like yes! Wow, 7 on Your Side!” Vivian said. “I was so glad you are here to help all of us, a lot of people like me. And really, really thank you so much.”

Be sure to read over these iPhone travel tips and check with your carrier before traveling internationally.

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