Android Travel Tutorial: Using Wi-Fi Only with 3G/4G Off

How to Avoid Roaming Charges by Turning Wi-Fi On with Calls Off in Android

Female rail traveller in the holiday season texting home.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Having a phone that works overseas is great and all. But it also can be a double-edged sword. With roaming charges costing an arm, a leg and perhaps your firstborn, you really don’t want to be using your domestic phone overseas that much for calls or data unless you’re the pharaoh of Egypt or have Warren Buffet’s pockets.

To avoid accidental roaming charges, some folks opt to just turn off their phone or disable all wireless features.

But what if you want to simply use your smartphone’s Wi-Fi feature to browse the Web, check e-mail or use maps overseas without the forehead-smacking cost of receiving unintended phone calls or data roaming charges? For Android users, the solution is simpler than you might think.

Here is a quick way to turn off your 3G or 4G connection while keeping Wi-Fi on, which I tested on a Samsung Galaxy phone with Android 6.0.1, also known as Marshmallow. No worries, for folks using an older Android phone. I also tested how to do the same thing on an Android 4.3 and 2.1.

Turning off a cellular 4G or 3G connection while turning on Wi-Fi can’t be any easier with new Android operating systems such as Marshmallow. All you need to do is open the Settings app by either going to your applications or swiping down from the top of the home screen. It’s represented by the image of a gear.

Under Wireless and networks, just tap on Airplane mode to deactivate all your connections.

Then tap on Wi-Fi and just turn it on. Voila, you’re good to go. What about older versions of the Android OS? Hey, we;ve got you covered, too.

For Android 4.3:

  • Launch the Settings app on your phone. It's the one that looks like a gear. Once it's launched, make sure you're either in the Network Connections or simply Connections section. It's the one where you can adjust the wireless settings for stuff like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
  • You should see an option for More Networks. Tap it like you mean it.
  • You will see an option for Airplane Mode. Make sure that's checked and it will turn off your 3G or 4G connection, depending on your carrier service. 
  • From here, you can do two things. One is to go back to the previous menu and toggle Wi-Fi to the on position. If you end up in the home screen for some reason before doing that, some Android phones also let you swipe down from the top to bring up a quick menu. From there, you should be able to turn Wi-Fi on as well.

For folks with an older Android smartphone running 2.1, here's what you do:

  • First, tap on your Settings app (or icon if you have a shortcut on one of your home screens). It’s the one that looks like a cog or gear. This will bring up the Settings menu.
  • On your Settings menu, tap on Wireless and network.
  • You should now see a list of wireless-related menus. Tap on the Flight mode — also generally known as Airplane mode — to disable all wireless connections. You’ll know it’s working because you get an airplane icon on your notifications bar.
  • Great, now you won’t be getting any incoming calls. But wait! Now your Wi-Fi connection isn’t working, either. Nice going, Jason, you regular Einstein. Hold on your horses, though, because we’re not done yet. On that same wireless submenu, tap on Wi-Fi settings.
  • Click the option to Turn on Wi-Fi.
  • Look at your notification bar on your home screen again. You’ll still have the airplane icon on, indicating that you won’t get any calls. But you will also start seeing a Wi-Fi signal icon. Voila! Now you can connect to a Wi-Fi enabled router or hot spot without worrying about getting roaming charges.

Obviously, there’s more than one way to activate Wi-Fi while disabling incoming calls. You may even find some apps that promise to do the same thing. But personally, this is about the easiest, no-nonsense way that I’ve found to do this. As always, feel free to send an e-mail if you have any questions, suggestions or comments.

Jason Hidalgo is About.com’s Portable Electronics expert. Yes, he is easily amused. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo and be amused, too. For more mobile articles, check out the Smartphone and Tablets hub.