Australian Guide to Global Roaming and Wi-Fi Usage


How to Avoid “Bill Shock” When You’re Overseas

Australian Guide to Global Roaming and Wifi Usage

There are few things more fun and rewarding than travelling to another part of the world to take in the sights, sounds and culture – and of course, you want your friends and family back home to see what you’re seeing and share in the adventure and excitement. Back in the pre-mobile days, that meant taking loads of photos – on film – and bringing back a collection of photos to show everyone. These days, everything’s immediate – digital photos shared on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and via apps like Snapchat or Whatsapp. We live in a wonderfully connected world.

But how do you connect in the first place, when your smartphone is with an Australian provider and all your calls and data usage are based on you being on their network? The answer is global roaming – essentially, connecting to another phone provider in another country for your calls and data. That provider then sends the bill for your usage back home to Australia where your local telco adds that cost to your bill. And it can be seriously expensive.

So how do you avoid what’s become known as “bill shock”? That sinking feeling when you see charges adding up to thousands of dollars on your bill can make for a nasty end to an awesome trip. The key is to plan ahead – there are some easy steps you can take to reduce the pain.

 
 

Check Your Phone Provider’s Rates

 

Now of course, this is going to be the most expensive option – one which you’d only want to consider if you know you’ll need to make and receive calls for the duration of your time overseas. It used to be astonishingly, punishingly expensive to do this – times have changed, but you’re still going to be spending a bit of cash.

For example, if you’re with Telstra, you can buy an “International Day Pass” to cover the countries you’re heading to. Priced at $10 per day, it gives you unlimited calls for the day – there’s no need to track your call usage. Data is a different story, with data limited to 200MB per day. The pass activates any day you send a call or text while roaming, so if you make calls or text on three days, it’ll cost you $30. The Day Pass in New Zealand is discounted to $5, by the way.

Vodafone, meanwhile, takes a similar approach – after all, they invented the concept! They offer a flat-fee for roaming of $5 per day (free for New Zealand), which is automatically activated when you take your Vodafone mobile overseas. The $5 charge is billed for every day you use your phone – for anything. If you make a single call, send a text or if any app uses even a byte of data, you’re billed. To use this on the cheap you’d want to have your phone turned on only when you need it – which of course makes it impossible to receive calls. The other caveat here is that all of your usage – calls, text and data – counts against your plan’s monthly allowance. It’s generally cheaper than Telstra even if you use it every day, but do the sums before you start relying on it.

Optus, meanwhile, offers Travel Packs for $10 a day, usable for unlimited calls and text in North America, Europe and New Zealand. Your ten bucks gets you 50MB of data per day – yep, that’s right, only 50MB. A few visits to Facebook and your allowance will vanish in the blink of an eye – 50MB is a primitively low allowance in the smartphone era. You can stack multiple packs, for example, buying 10 packs will give you 500MB to use over 10 days – but that’s still low, and as the fine print says, if you go over your limit “standard data roaming rates for the country you are in will apply.” And those rates? 50c per MB – or $500 per gigabyte. Best advice for Optus users is to disable data roaming in your smartphone, and use free Wi-Fi where available.

 
 

Alternatives to roaming

 
 

The Alternatives

 

Of course, you don’t have to buy global roaming time from your Australian provider at all. Technology has come to the party with plenty of ways for you to keep in touch while overseas without sucking up the charges from your local telco. Here’s some tips to get you started – some of which won’t cost you any money at all!

Buy a Prepaid SIM Overseas

As long as your phone isn’t locked to a provider, you can quite easily pick up a SIM card for the telco in the country you’re visiting, taking advantage of their non-price-gouged call rates and, even better, a data allowance you can use freely without worrying about going over a limit. It’s not a perfect solution, of course – you will have a different phone number for the duration, which you’ll need to let your friends and family know about – but it can, depending on the country, be incredibly economical to forget the roaming and just become one of the local network’s natives.

Use Skype

You can, if you feel you won’t want to have regular phone access at all while overseas (and hey, nobody did until relatively recently anyway!) simply turn off roaming on your phone for both voice/SMS and data, and throw yourself on the mercy of free Wi-Fi access around cafes, fast food outlets, hotels and so on. The trick here is to let the people you want to stay in touch with know that you’re going to be on Skype for the duration. The Skype app is free for all mobile platforms as well as PC/Mac, and Skype-to-Skype calls are completely free as well. Get your friends to download the Skype app on their phones and you can chat endlessly for free – wherever you can access Wi-Fi. For a nominal cost, you can attach a real phone number to your Skype account and make and receive calls to and from the regular phone network (and if you’re a subscriber to Microsoft’s Office 365, you already have free monthly Skype minutes!)

Turn Data Roaming Off

This is good advice all round, really – unless you really need data access on the go, turn data roaming off on your device and rely on public Wi-Fi instead. With the telcos’ travel packs all supporting unlimited calls and texts, this means you can call and text as normal and deal with those Facebook uploads when you’re back at the hotel – without having to worry about clocking up a nasty bill. And you don’t want those app auto-updates firing off while you’re on a limited roaming data connection either (especially with some apps clocking in at 1GB or more). Save the data crunch for when you’re within the sweet embrace of free Wi-Fi!

Buy Cheap Data – On A Sticker!

Of course, there are those that do need to have data access while out and about overseas – for maps and navigation, for example. A new alternative recently popped up in the form of a company called Flexiroam X, which specialises in roaming data. You pay US$10 a year to subscribe to the service, and can then buy data packs which work in 100 countries and have a one-year expiry date – for example, US$30 for 1GB. Purchase of the data pack is handled through their free iOS/Android app, and to get onto their networks around the world, they provide a novel solution. It’s a paper-thin film sticker with a microchip on it that you apply to your SIM card, which allows you to switch between your regular mobile data network and the Flexiroam one.

 
 

Be Aware Out There

 

Ultimately, only you can know your communication needs and desires while you’re travelling around, but it pays to take a moment to work out exactly what forms of communication you’ll need most while travelling and spend accordingly. Don’t just opt for your local carrier’s roaming without checking out some of the cost-saving options available – they could save you hundreds of dollars. And whatever you choose to use, be sure you’re able to keep an eye on your usage so you don’t start clocking up that bonus bill. While laws have changed in recent years to protect consumers, it’s not always something you can rely on (for example, telcos will notify you if you’re reaching your data limit, but that notification can take up to two days to be sent to you!)

Do you have any tips and tricks for mobile use overseas that you’ve picked up in your travels? Let us know in the comments below!

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