Your money-saving guide to global roaming

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Your money-saving guide to global roaming

We compare the costs of global roaming services, explain the other options, and provide some money-saving travel tips.

We’ve all heard stories about people using their mobile phones overseas and coming home to a massive bill, but it doesn't have to be that way. Using your phone overseas needn’t cost a fortune, even if it isn’t exactly cheap.

Here we look at some of the options for getting mobile network access when overseas, starting with global roaming services of Australian providers.

What the home telcos charge

  • Vodafone’s global roaming applies a $5 per day surcharge then treats your usage as if you were still in Australia. If you don't use the phone on a particular day, you don't pay the surcharge. Whether that's good value depends on several factors. If you're only in the other country for a few days – visiting suppliers, perhaps – then it's probably cheaper and a lot more convenient than buying a local SIM when you arrive.
  • Optus’ roaming charges $1.50 a minute for most voice calls made or received when you're overseas, plus 50c for each SMS sent and a whopping $1 per megabyte (that is, ten times the domestic price) for data. Or you can pre-purchase an Optus Travel Pack for $10 per day to get unlimited talk and SMS plus 100MB of data in most of Asia, Europe, Canada and the US.
  • Telstra's rates while overseas range from $1.50 a minute for voice (incoming or outgoing) in New Zealand to $5 in Russia. SMSes generally cost 75c to send. Savings can be made by buying a Telstra Travel Pass. In New Zealand, prices start at $15 for three days, including unlimited calls and SMS, plus 225MB of data. Seven, 14 and 30 day versions are available. If you're going further afield, passes with similar inclusions but covering many popular destinations including China, India, Italy, UK and US start at $30.

Using a local provider

Buying a local SIM at your destination can be relatively attractive as long as you don't need to be reachable on your normal number.

To give just two examples:

  • In the US, T-Mobile charges $US30 ($40) for a Tourist SIM with unlimited data (the first 2GB at 4G speeds), 1000 minutes of in-country calls, and unlimited texting within the US or to more than 140 countries. But the service only lasts for 21 days and can't be renewed.
  • In Singapore, Singtel (Optus’ parent company) offers a $SG30 ($29) Hi!tourist SIM that lasts for 10 days and includes 14GB of data, unlimited local calls and SMS, and 90 minutes of international calls. The service can be extended for $SG3 a day. A particular advantage is that SIMs are available from several locations within Changi Airport, among other places.

Using an international SIM

If you're travelling to more than one country (either in a single trip or because you go overseas fairly regularly), a mobile service designed for international travellers can be useful if your normal carrier's overseas rates don't suit.

Again, here are just two examples:

  • TravelSIM charges $25 for a starter kit including $5 credit. Rates start at 25c per minute to make or receive voice calls, 25c to send a text, and 25c per megabyte of data. Previously, any unused credit lasted indefinitely as long as you used the service at least once every six months, but that has now changed and it expires after six months. The only concession is that – as with Australian prepaid services – any balance is extended if you recharge before it expires.
  • Woolworths’ Global Roaming SIM costs $29 including $10 credit. Rates vary widely – for example, China costs 14c per minute incoming , 34c per minute outgoing, 20c to send an SMS, 30c per MB; USA 55c per minute incoming or outgoing, 19c to send an SMS, 45c per MB; UK 0c incoming, 18c per minute outgoing, 14c to send an SMS, and 25c per MB.

We've seen some complaints from users of this type of product that SMS delivery is sometimes delayed, and we have experienced that ourselves. So it might be worth warning people who are likely to text you about that, and also that you won't be engaging in lengthy back-and-forth SMS conversations, because you're paying by the message.

Note also that some travel insurance companies offer policyholders free international SIMs with rates similar to those charged by other providers.

Money-saving travelling tips

Most bill shock moments are due to data use, so we advise disabling mobile data before you leave, unless you’re going with your home provider’s global roaming service and you’re well aware of the fees.

Whichever solution you use, check the settings to see which apps use mobile data, taking extra care with data-heavy apps such as maps – or even turning off mobile access for all but the most essential apps. Similarly, check that app updates and automatic backups of photos and videos are set to Wi-Fi only, and don’t accept OS updates until you’re on Wi-Fi.

Other tricks include letting calls go through to voicemail unless you recognise the caller as someone you need to talk to, and recording a message explaining that you are overseas and asking callers to text you if the matter is urgent – but consider any added risk of burglary from telling callers you're away.

If you're concerned about the security implications of relying mostly on Wi-Fi in hotels and other locations, a reputable VPN service should allay your fears.

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