How to beat mobile phone bill shock when travelling overseas

10 July 2017

International roaming costs

Planning on heading overseas? Lucky you. Planning on taking your smartphone? You might want to keep reading.

International roaming is when your phone automatically connects to a local mobile phone network while you're overseas. Although it sounds convenient, it isn’t cheap. 

The cost of the calls you make can be exorbitant, and you may also be charged for calls you receive. Receiving SMS/MMS is generally free, but it will usually cost more to send them back.

The real culprit behind overseas bill shock is the cost of data usage.

The cost of overseas data use is ridiculous: pay-as-you-go data charges while travelling are usually between 50c and $3 per megabyte (and occasionally as high as $15!), meaning that you could be charged this just for looking at a single standard web page. 

Upload a photo to Facebook and you’ll be charged around four dollars at the $3 per MB rate. If you imagine how much you use your phone each day, it is easy to see how you could get yourself into trouble.

So what can you do about it?

1. Keep Data Roaming Switched Off

Turn data roaming off and leave it off. How you do this will vary slightly depending on your handset model and carrier, but as a general guide:

  • iPhone: Go to Settings → Mobile → slide Mobile Data off. Then select Mobile Data Options → slide Data Roaming to off →  select Enable 4G → switch to off. 
  • Android: Go to Settings → Wireless Controls → Mobile Network Settings → slide Data Roaming off.

Click to enlarge

You can still use your smartphone at WiFi hotspots – you’ll find most hotels and many restaurants provide complimentary WiFi to their customers, so restrict your web browsing and app use to when you can do it for free.

2. Switch Off Location Services and Push Notifications

Another phone setting that is frequently overlooked is turning off Location Services and any automatic updates and push notifications you’ve enabled for apps. While Location Services relies on GPS to pinpoint your location, and this is free to use, it also uses mobile data for increased accuracy.

As with disabling data roaming, you can do this yourself through accessing ‘Settings’ for iPhones and Android-operated phones, and ‘Options’ for Blackberry – look for the Location Services and Notifications tabs, and switch everything off.

  • iPhone: Go to Settings → Privacy → Location Services → toggle Location Services On / Off.
  • Android: Go to Settings → Location → toggle Location Services On / Off.

3. Buy Data Before You Go

If you absolutely can’t survive without internet, buy an international data roaming pack from your Aussie carrier before you go. Most of the major carriers offer monthly packs with a set amount of data.

  • Telstra offers International Day Passes, that start at $5 per day for New Zealand, and $10 per day for all other eligible countries. These get you unlimited talk and text and 100MB of data per day. Data doesn't stack, but you can buy a 1GB add on for $25. This will last you for 31-days. 
  • Optus offers a Travel Pack for $10 per day if you travel within Zone 1. This gives you unlimited talk and SMS, plus 100MB of data per $10 pack purchase. Customers can buy multiple packs at once: for example, buy $70 worth of Travel Packs and get 700MB of data, plus unlimited calls and texts, over a full week.

If you use this option, steer clear of YouTube and streaming music and video, and try to stick to basic email and internet browsing. As we’ve said, take advantage of free WiFi hotspots in hotels, restaurants and major attractions.

Choose Vodafone’s $5 Per Day Roaming

Consider switching your current phone plan over to Vodafone and taking advantage of the telco’s $5 per day roaming costs. For this flat daily fee, Vodafone postpaid customers abroad can use their phones exactly as they would at home, minus additional roaming fees. 

You get unlimited calls, SMS, and use of your standard domestic data allowance when travelling in more than 55 eligible destinations. Even better, if you're travelling in New Zealand, you can use your plan's data inclusions, plus make unlimited calls and texts, absolutely free – without the $5 daily charge.

For travellers heading elsewhere, keep in mind that Vodafone will charge you $5 for every day that you use your phone outside of Australia. Apps that automatically search for updates, such as Facebook, may trigger the $5 fee without you knowing – so be careful. For the cheapest trip, follow the steps above, and only turn data on when you intend to use it.

Compare Vodafone plans below.

Carrier Inclusions  
  • $30 Red Plan
  • 2GB Data
  • No Contract
  • $30/mth
  • Min. cost $30
  • $30 Red SIM Only
  • 1GB Data
  • No Contract
  • $30/mth
  • Min. cost $30
  • $40 Red Plan
  • 6GB Data
  • No Contract
  • $40/mth
  • Min. cost $40

4. Buy a Local Prepaid SIM When You Arrive

A cheaper option is to swap your Australian SIM card for a local prepaid SIM upon arrival. Internet access will work out about 90% cheaper (depending on where you land) and you can make low-rate calls to local numbers.

You’ll need to make sure that your handset can be unlocked from your network, and is compatible with local networks. SIM cards can usually be purchased at airports; though it may cost you more, airport retailers are accustomed to dealing with travellers, and you can be confident it will be good to go from the minute you leave the terminal.

The one major drawback to this method is that you won’t be reachable on your regular number, so make sure you’ve left alternative contact details, such as an email address, with everyone back home.

5. Leave Your Phone at Home

Finally, if you really want to avoid the temptation of data usage and just need a way to make and receive calls and texts, buy a cheap, prepaid, old-school handset when you reach your destination, and keep the smartphone switched off and stored away. 

Save your email and Twittering for Internet cafes and hotel laptops, and save yourself the worry of a potentially nasty shock when you open next month’s phone bill.

Suitcase image via Shutterstock


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