How to avoid the overseas data roaming rip-off

Mobile phone wrapped in chains and a padlock

Don’t get reamed by Aussie data roaming fees. A business travel expert details how to travel smart and stay connected on your next business trip.

Business travellers love that their smartphone keeps email, websites, apps and online services just a few taps away.

But as many have accidentally discovered during an overseas trip, the cost of using 3G data as a ‘roaming’ service is a killer. You can easily return home to a bill for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in accidental data roaming fees – and (even worse?) have to face up to your manager or finance controller.

Use your smartphone overseas and you’ll be slugged an average of $15 per megabyte, which is about 300 times the cost of a domestic data plan. That makes Australia’s exorbitant data roaming rates the third highest in the word according to a report released last year by the OECD.

And while tourists can blithely switch off their mobile and rely on email at internet cafes to stay in touch, to most business travellers their smartphone is an essential bit of kit. It’s not just about calls and emails, but those oh-so-handy apps when you’re out and about.

Google Maps makes for a perfect personal navigation system when you’re walking around in an unfamiliar city. Airport apps let you check the status of your flight and stay on top of delays and gate changes. (Talking of which, both Sydney Airport and Melbourne Airport have free iPhone apps which are well worth the download.) Then there are the likes of Urbanspoon for finding great places to eat and drink.

The problem isn’t just that you become so accustomed to tapping an icon to get your information on the go, that you forget the amount of data being sent and sucked down behind the scenes.

Some of this megabyte-munching activity happens in the background and can catch you totally unawares.

Last year I visited Beijing with a colleague and after our four-day business trip he was hit with a data roaming bill for his BlackBerry of over $500. The reason? His BlackBerry was automatically checking his email account to see if new messages had arrived, and as best he can figure it was doping this roughly every 15 minutes. Each quick email check created a ‘data session’ with the local Chinese telco, and just that action alone came with a cost – even if there were no emails to download.

Here are your options to stay connected but avoid getting reamed by data roaming on your next trip.

Buy a global roaming pack

Adding an international data roaming pack from your Aussie carrier onto your existing smartphone will give you a chunk of data to use overseas, provided you’re in a country which has a network partner for your Australian telco. The prices are still incredibly steep, starting at $20-to-$40 (depending on the carrier) for a mere 10-to-15MB. But they’re a fraction of what you’d be hammered for casual data usage if you didn’t buy an international data pack or plan in advance. 10-to-15MB is sufficient for basic email, some very light web browsing and simple app usage, but steer clear of YouTube and other streaming video services. It’s best to overestimate how much data you’ll need, and pay a bit more up front, because excess usage can see you slugged at the casual connection rates.

For business trips across the pond to New Zealand, Vodafone offers prepaid NZ Roaming Packs starting at a far more realistic $25 for 100MB. Optus subscribers who’re headed to Asia should grab a Bridge DataRoam Unlimited pack which for $27 across three days or $40 over five days gives you unlimited data on Optus’ Bridge Alliance partner networks in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

And here’s a real-world travel tip. If you prefer to be roused from sleep by your smartphone’s alarm rather than rely on a wake-up call from the hotel, set your phone to ‘flight mode’ before you hit the hay. This will stop you being woken at 2am by a call from Australia where it’s middle of the afternoon.

Buy a local data plan

A far more cost-effective option is to swap your Aussie SIM card for a local prepaid voice and data SIM when you arrive at your overseas destination. You’ll get internet access at affordable rates – literally 90 percent cheaper than global roaming rates – and you’ll also be able to make low-rate calls to local numbers rather than be hit for several dollars per minute.

A bit of research online can help find the best deal before you travel, although when setting foot in a new country I sometimes rely on any telco that’s set up in the airport. They might charge me a little more than a downtown shop but I know they’ll be used to dealing with travellers and I’ll be connected before I even leave the airport. Alternatively, call ahead to your hotel and ask if the concierge can recommend a local SIM card or even buy it in advance and have it waiting for you on arrival.

The main drawback of using a local SIM is that you’ll no longer be reachable on your regular Australian mobile number. I suggest changing your voicemail greeting shortly before you fly out of Australia, with the new message asking calls to email you instead (and not to leave you a voicemail, as you probably won’t pick those up until you get back home a week later).

You’ll also need to ensure your smartphone is unlocked, meaning that it will work on any network rather than only recognising your Aussie carrier.

Network-locking is common for high-priced mobiles on a contract, and while some carriers will unlock your phone for free others will charge $20 or more for the service. Be sure to stow your Aussie SIM card where it won’t be lost. I tuck mine into a zippered compartment in my passport wallet, which also contains the iPhone’s SIM card removal toothpick so I can easily swap back to my regular SIM card as soon as I’m home.

And hang onto your overseas SIM cards: if you ever visit the same country again you need only pay a small top-up fee to be back online.

  • http://www.ctaspley.com.au Sonia Cuff

    Try $20 per MB in New Zealand (Vodafone local network there, 3 Australia plan here in Australia). Only turned my mobile data on once to find a location in Google Maps. That cost me $17.

  • http://www.mobipassport.com.au SImon Holt

    Excellent article. We agree so much that we started a business (Mobi Passport) about a year ago to help individuals and businesses take advantage of the significantly better rates available through local mobile providers..

    We have a growing range of pre-activated local SIMs for overseas destinations that we post to any Australian address before you depart (Express Post optional). Most have generous bolt-on data plans (500MB-2GB) for less than $30, and you can distribute your overseas number before you depart.

    We are constantly searching for the best local SIM deals, so if you need any help let us know!

  • http://www.getawayguru.com.au Leanne Anderson

    Took my iPhone 4S for an O/S trip recently and came home to a bill of $18!

    You’ve got to love free Wi-Fi – meant I could pull down emails and update facebook etc whilst travelling and avoid exorbitant charges.

    Also, check out Viber – an application for iPhone and Android phones that enables you to make free international phone calls and send text messages to anyone who also has the Viber application (using 3G or Wi-Fi).

  • http://www.simcardsasia.com Charlie Young

    I couldn’t agree more with this article! Don’t pay high roaming charges, get a LOCAL SIM card for the country(s) you’re planning to visit, which will definitely save you money on calls, texts and data usage. For example, in Thailand using the True InterSIM you can call from just 1 Baht/min to USA/CAN, Australia, NZ, HK, UK plus most European countries for just 1 Baht/min and in Cambodia using Beeline SIM just US$0.06c/min to the same countries!!
    Also if you buy your SIM card before you travel from a site like http://www.simcardsasia.com you can give out your new number to friends family before leaving home!