If there is one topic that continues to pop up week after week on the email here at EFTM and on the radio across Australia it’s heading overseas and what to do with your mobile to ensure you can make the most of it, and avoid the ever dreaded bill-shock which we’ve all heard the horror stories about.  To help you on your travels, we’ve put together a bunch of information about each of the carriers and your options when travelling overseas.

Five, and certainly ten years ago, our demands when travelling were simple – keeping in touch with home.  When mobile phones became widespread we took them with us and some people soon discovered that making calls, let alone receiving calls when overseas was a serious expense.

The message soon got through, and then the smartphone came along.  That little device in your pocket is now capable of connecting regularly to the internet to get you the latest weather information, your emails and goodness knows what else – even when you don’t actually ask it to do so.

As stories of “data bill shock” became well-known, the lesson learned was “turn off roaming” and “turn off cellular data” when overseas.

What’s the fun in that?  You’ve spent thousands on an international trip, why can’t you share it with your friends and family with photos, status updates and even videos on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

Spending a few days in New Zealand last year when Vodafone launched their roaming plans proved to me that when you’re having fun in this digital age – you really do want to share it with your friends – so why turn off roaming?

Well, the though of just roaming without worries is not on the radar – it’s still something you need to give a lot of thought to and take your time before you go and while you’re away to understand just what you’re using and what you can use.

We’ll take a look at all the main carriers and third-party options, as well as what you need to consider before you go, and while you’re away.

Before you travel

  • Check if roaming is available on your plan – Some plans don’t allow roaming, and importantly roaming is not always “active” by default, so ensure that you make a call to you telco and check that it’s possible to roam first and foremost
  • Think about what you want to do while you’re away – do you want data?  Checking emails? Instagram? Facebook?  Or do you just want to send and receive texts? Do you want to Make calls, or just take them? or both?
  • Learn how to turn off and on your data roaming – it’s easy to do, and won’t take you long to learn.  Test it out before you go!
  • Learn how to check your usage on your device – it’s on every phone, reset this at the start of your billing cycle, or when you leave for your trip, be aware, the data listed on your phone may be different to that which your carrier is counting – and they’re the boss when it comes to billing.
  • Learn how to check your usage with your carrier – all good telcos have a website or app which allows you to view your current usage.  Find it, download it or bookmark it.

Roaming with an Aussie telco

If you want to use your own number while you travel, and you don’t want the hassle of swapping SIM cards out of your phone, sticking with your Aussie telco is the easiest way to go.  It could also be expensive.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority recently implemented a new International Mobile Roaming Standard.

“This standard obliges your mobile service provider to ensure a number of consumer protection measures are in place to help you better monitor and manage your mobile roaming usage while overseas”

These measures include:

  • A warning notification sent via SMS to you on arrival in an overseas destination, warning that higher charges for using IMR services may apply.
  • Most users will also receive a notification via SMS providing price information for using a range of IMR services.
  • Providing you with IMR price information when you activate these services with your provider—separate to the information supplied to you when you sign up for a domestic service.
  • Providing you with the ability to decline the use of IMR services, at no or low-cost, at any time, including from an overseas location.
  • Providing spend-management tools via a website or an app, including notifications in A$100 increments for post-paid data usage and notifications at 50 per cent, 85 per cent and 100 per cent of included value, if you have purchased a travel pack from your provider.

Roaming with Optus

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Recently, Optus simplified its roaming plans to split the whole world into two zones.  Zone 1 contains the vast majority of the popular travel destinations including the USA, UK, Europe, New Zealand, Canada, Asia and the Pacific Islands.  Zone 2 includes Latin America, Africa and The Middle East.

If you’re only using your phone now and then, you can opt to “pay as you go” where you will spend as per the following table:

TEXT** 50c / text $1 / text
TALK (send and receive) $1 / min $2 / min
DATA 50c / MB $1 / MB 

If you’re looking to use the phone more frequently you can take out an Optus Travel Pack.  AT $10 a day you get unlimited texts, calls and 50MB per day of data in Zone 1.  If you need more data you can buy multiple days and spread the accumulated total across the period.

You need to activate roaming on your account – to do that, call Optus on 1509 or use your “My Optus” app.  If you are overseas, call Optus free from your Optus mobile on +61 2 8082 5678

Roaming with Telstra

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As with all Aussie telcos, Telstra will alert to local and international call coasts you when you arrive in another country and turn on your phone. The real issue for travellers today is data.

Telstra recommend that customers visit their “online itinerary builder“, which can help customers to estimate the cost of roaming based on where they are going.

If you want data, Telstra offers a couple of data “packs” as options you can add-on to your account to use your phone while you are away.

For people wanting a bit of data:

International Roaming Casual Traveller Data Pack (Post-Paid customers)
$29 100MB (prepaid and post-paid)
$85 300MB (prepaid and post-paid)
$160 600MB (prepaid and post-paid)
$350 1.5GB (post paid customers only)

These data packs and plans are available in 50 countries; Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Fiji, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, USA, Vanuatu, Vietnam.

If you’re thinking of calling home – take this into account : Voice call charges for the eight zones are:

  • Zone 1 $1.50 per minute: includes New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore.
  • Zone 2 $2.00 per minute: includes Greece, Malaysia and Vietnam.
  • Zone 3 $2.50 per minute: includes Fiji, Hong Kong and Thailand.
  • Zone 4 $3.00 per minute: includes Canada, Philippines and the USA.
  • Zone 5 $3.50 per minute: includes China, Italy and the UAE.
  • Zone 6 $4.00 per minute: includes Indonesia, Portugal and Turkey.
  • Zone 7 $4.50 per minute: includes Croatia, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
  • Zone 8 $5.00 per minute: includes Bangladesh, Maldives and Zimbabwe.

Roaming with Vodafone

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We’re unashamed fans of what Vodafone offers for roaming.   Not only is it easy to understand and “budget” for, it genuinely lets you roam without worry and use your phone just like you would at home.

For $5 per day of usage (so if your phone is turned off for a whole day – no charge – make a call or send a text, $5 charge applies) you can use your normal data allowance.

If you have unlimited calls and texts on your home plan, you can make unlimited calls and send unlimited texts while you roam within the country you are in and back home to Australia.  Your family can call you and you can call them – no cost difference to when you are at home, other than the $5 daily charge.

Data is where these plans really shine though.  Let’s say you have 1.5GB of data per month.  You leave the country 10 days into your “billing month” and you’ve already used 500mb of data at home.  That means you have 1 GB of data left on your plan.  If you use it all up while you are away and come home within your billing month – you’ll need to top up your data plan.  But if you use data within your total 1.5GB allowance you’re sweet – $5 a day only.

One catch – there is a limit to the total number of days you can roam for.  It’s 90 days, so if you’re travelling more than three months then hey – lucky you! Perhaps do some more extensive homework though:)

Roaming with a pre-paid SIM purchased before you go

If your mobile plan doesn’t allow you the freedom to roam within a reasonable price, or you’re worried about the price – but you want people to be able to call you and to be able to call people while you travel, you can purchase “international SIM cards” before you go.

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Our personal favourite is TravelSIM.  Easily obtained at your local Australia Post, the Travel SIM will set you back up front and you charge it up with some credit, but then while you’re away its easy to use and gives you great freedom.

Putting a new SIM into your phone means you need to check if your phone is unlocked – if it’s not -call your carrier and have it unlocked.  Give yourself time for this though, as it can take some hours and perhaps require a full restore of your phone before it’s active.

The one big benefit of a TravelSIM is you have the number before you go.  It’s a strange long international number, but you can send it to your friends and family, who can then call you any time – there is no cost to you for taking the call, however your mates back home are making an international call to reach you.

Making calls while you’re away is affordable, and all the rates are listed on the TravelSIM website. However, it’s worthwhile testing this before you go – because it’s not quite like you’re used to. You type in the number you want to dial and hit the green button – just like normal right?  Nope.  It disconnects immediately and gives you a message on the screen.  Almost immediately your phone will ring.  When you pickup the phone you’ll hear the phone at the other end ringing, then the person you are calling picks up and all is normal again.

It’s strange, but hey – it’s saving your money right?

Roaming with a pre-paid SIM in the country you’re heading to

A popular option for many seasoned travellers, getting a “local” SIM card is a great option for people visiting a single country for an extended period.

This is perfect if you’re ok being out of contact via your normal number, and also not having a number to give to family and friends before you go.

Once you touch down in your destination, head out to the local shops and sign up with a local telco.  Try to avoid the “convenience store” sign ups.

In the USA head straight to a T-Mobile or AT&T store. In other countries try to get advice from your hotel or locals about the local telco market.  You want to end up getting a SIM from their local Telstra/Optus/Vodafone equivalent, rather than some second tier player – who is likely making most of their money on travellers.

The one big catch with this one is the need to have your mobile Unlocked.  The reason this is a bigger catch when overseas is the process of unlocking is often difficult and takes time.  In some cases if calls and texts is all you want you may even be best off buying a cheap phone locally at your destination.

Learn, and Save

Overall the lesson is to learn what’s possible with you current carrier, what’s available in the market and apply this to your travel plans.  Don’t leave it too late because you want to take the time to either unlock your phone or even switch to another carrier before you go.

Remember, changing telcos is easy – takes minutes and you can keep your number – don’t be afraid – especially if it’s going to save you money.

If you’ve got your own travel tips for international roaming – drop them in the comments below!