Ever gotten a cell phone bill that blew your mind? Chances are you probably have, given how popular smartphones and tablets are these days. Everyone knows that monthly service can be pretty steep, but tack on overage charges for calls, texts and data, and the total expense could bring some wireless customers to their knees.

Well, no more, says the Federal Communications Commission. It announced today that the U.S. carriers have agreed to give consumers advanced warning when they approach their plan limits. Although this could undercut cellular billings, the providers do have an incentive for voluntarily compliance: It would bypass the need for an actual federal regulation to be imposed.

Not that there aren’t ways for an individual user to check up on his or her usage — whether via phone, online, text message or dedicated apps — but this approach puts the onus on the carriers to make their billing and overage fees more transparent. Under the agreement, the providers will have 12 to 18 months to institute an alert system to inform customers when they near and then exceed their caps on voice, data and texts. In addition, users would also be notified if their devices join another country’s foreign cellular network.

Two of those alerts must be in place within the year, and all must be addressed by 18 months’ time. The carriers may notify subscribers via free texts or calls, and customers will have the ability to opt-out.

While this doesn’t come in time to spare a Dover, MA, retiree from his $18,000 bill (racked up because he wasn’t aware his promotional unlimited data plan had ended), but at least it can help prevent other nasty surprises for other customers.

Have you ever gotten a rude awakening in your cell phone bill? If not, how do you manage your usage? Monitor everything like a hawk, or do you just use Wi-Fi/VoIP most of the time, so you don’t have to worry about it?

[via New York Times]