Overseas travellers can often find themselves stung badly by roaming fees - both voice and data. Nic Healey looks at some simple ways to avoid the worst.
For many, the smartphone is a virtual lifeline, never more than an arm’s length away and constantly checked. It may be about never being far from business emails or it might be a case of Facebook addiction, but the phone’s 4in screen is constantly to be peered at and puzzled over.
This habit can be extremely hard to break, but when one finds oneself overseas, it’s essential to be careful, as the charges can be astounding. In fact, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in May 2011 listed Australia’s global roaming rates as some of the most expensive in the world. In general, Australians using their phones overseas will find themselves hit for around $15/MB.
It’s important to note that roaming charges occur for both voice and data, although it’s data where most users will feel the hurt. In general, telcos have a great deal more transparency on their voice charges than data – Vodafone, for example, will text users on their arrival in a country to let them know what calls will cost per minute, but it doesn’t offer the same information for its data network. Prices also differ from country to country, somewhat confusingly. This is why it’s important to talk with your telco before shipping out.
“Before you go overseas, call your provider and ask what services they provide to help control costs while roaming,” says ACCAN’s Director of Policy and Campaigns, Elissa Freeman. “Check to see if notifications about costs are provided when you arrive in a new country, if your handset is unlocked to use a local SIM or if you can buy cheaper roaming services before you leave.”
As we were preparing this article, Australian TV presenter Maude Garret was being very vocal on Twitter, having found herself with a $2000 bill from Optus thanks to data roaming. While she was quick to acknowledge Optus’ fast response and help with the problem, she did have a few words to say about the “irony” of being on hold from LA to a call centre in Australia to complain about the size of her bill.
One of the big problems that can strike the unwary is background data. You may be very careful about not using your phone for browsing or emailing, but your handset might have other ideas, with apps constantly pinging servers for small bits of data that all add up (or, worse, actually updating themselves in the background). For this reason, traditional wisdom is to turn off data roaming options on phones and limit it to free (or cheaper at least) Wi-Fi services. That’s a great idea, but it does seem to negate the whole point of having a smartphone. So what are the other options?
SIMPLICITY IN ACTION
A popular option is to purchase a specialised SIM card for travellers or, similarly, a local SIM card from your country of choice. Services such as TravelSIM boast excellent call rates in most countries around the world. The TravelSIM site also lets you check what charges to expect from each country. However, while its data rates are better than roaming, they’re still not cheap and they do obviously vary from country to country. Speaking with TravelSIM’s General Manager Wade Heggie we were told that the company was looking at offering a SIM specifically for data, although that was a little down the road.
Buying a local SIM does allow you to take advantage of whatever the local data rates are, but it does require you to ensure that your phone is unlocked, which can be a problem for some carrier-specific phones.
The other disadvantage of these two options is the loss of your local phone number. Unless you have a dual SIM phone, the number you traditionally use will be out of commission during the period of your travel.
BUYING DATA BLOCKS
A third option is to buy “blocks” of roaming data from your telco or subscribe to a roaming contract if you’re a very regular traveller. For most, the former will be fine and the majority of telcos do offer this option. Telstra, for example offers International Roaming Browse Plus Packs which start at $29 for 10MB while Vodafone lets users sign up for Roaming Data Bundles. Vodafone’s bundles work on a per month basis, with users “opting in” for the months they will require data roaming services – these start at $20/month for 10MB.
As you can see, roaming remains one of the great dangers for cases of bill shock, but with a little pre-planning you can spare yourself from the worst.
How to turn off data roaming:
iPhone: Settings > General > Network > set Data Roaming switch to Off
Android: Settings > Wireless > Mobile network settings > uncheck data roaming
Blackberry: Options > Mobile Network > Data Services > select Off When Roaming