The cost of international roaming: Using your phone overseas

07 December 2017

Planning an overseas trip can be complex. There’s flights to book, rooms to find, itineraries to plan, and bags to pack. The fact you’re reading this page suggests you’ve already thought about another really important element: how to use your phone or tablet when you're in visiting another country. This should be easy, but unfortunately it often isn’t. And it can be pretty expensive too. 

There’s a couple of factors you'll need to consider before you starting roaming. Cost is one a major one, but you'll also need to know the following: 

  • Is your phone compatible with local networks?
  • Is your phone network locked?
  • Does your local provider support global roaming?

Australian phone networks work on GSM technology. This is the standard in most countries around the world, so your phone should work in significant parts of Europe and Asia, in the US, UK, and New Zealand. Other countries may have a mix of technologies, so you might have to do a bit of research to make sure there's a provider who'll support your device. 

Also, make sure your phone isn't network locked by your provider. All phones sold on contracts in Australia, including new Samsungs and iPhones, are now unlocked. But, if you’ve bought a cheaper handset sold with a prepaid SIM card, there's a good chance that it's locked. 

If this is the case, you’ll need to contact your provider to have it unlocked before you use it overseas. Depending on how long you've had the phone, there may be an unlocking fee. 

Read more about phone compatibility here.

Pro Tip: it is generally cheaper and better value to buy a local SIM card after you land at your destination. Like, much cheaper. The downside to using a local SIM card is that you’ll have a different phone number during your trip.

Postpaid Roaming

The upper echelon of smartphone plans now include global roaming as standard plan feature, meaning you can roam without paying any more than your monthly bill. These plans will set you back over $100 per month, but they could still end up being a cheaper than the alternative if you're overseas regularly. 

Telstra 24-month plans starting from $129 contract currently include international roaming as a standard. On top of unlimited talk and text while roaming, the $129 XL plan gives you 1.5GB of monthly overseas data, the $149 XXL gives you 2GB, and Telstra's "Premium" $199 plan gives you 4GB. This data can be used in any Telstra's roaming zone, which covers all but a few countries (such as North Korea, Somalia, and Cuba). 

Excess data is billed at 3c per MB, which is roughly equivalent to $30 per gigabyte. 

Optus' top two 24-month contract options both now come with international roaming inclusions. $100 per month gets you 1GB of roaming data, and $120 per month gets you 1.5GB of roaming data. Both plans include unlimited standard national and international calls and unlimited text for when overseas. If you exceed your data, it's billed at the standard pay-as-you-go rates for that country. 

There is however a small catch, you can only use these inclusions in Optus' Zone 1 countries.

Read more about postpaid roaming here

Vodafone $5 Roaming

Vodafone's still one of your best options for overseas travel, at least for short trips. If you're a Vodafone postpaid customer, you'll pay $5 for each day you're overseas. This lets you use all your inclusions - talk, text, data, and international calls - just as if you were at home. 

$5 Roaming is available on most Vodafone postpaid plans. This applies to no-contract plans too, so even if you’re not a Vodafone customer, you could switch always over before your trip.

Read more about Vodafone $5 Roaming here

Travel Packs and Passes

If your postpaid plan doesn't include roaming, bolt-on Travel Packs are your next best option. Travel Packs give you a fixed amount of talk, text, and data to use when you're overseas, for a set number of days. They're a little pricey, but they're still a much more economical option than pay-as-you-go roaming.

Travel Packs can cost more depending on your destination, and in some cases, a Travel Pack option might not be available for the country you're travelling to. 

Optus, Telstra, and Virgin all offer Travel Packs in Australia. 

Optus Travel Packs

Optus keeps it pretty simple when it comes to Travel Packs: $10 will get you a day of unlimited talk and text, and 100MB of data. Essentially, you're looking at $10 per day you're overseas. 

You're also able to buy multiple packs over consecutive days, in which case your data will stack. For example, if pay $70 for seven days, you'll be able to use the 700MB at any time throughout that week. 

Optus' Travel Pack will work in any Zone 1 country, which is most of the world.  If you’re travelling to a Zone 2 country you'll have to pay-as-you-go. Zone 2 is predominantly made up of the United Arab Emirates, Africa, Central America, and South America. 

Telstra International Day Pass

Telstra's International Day Passes are quite similar to what's offered by Optus, with a few small differences. Pricing will vary depending on your destination

  • Travel in Zone 1 - which is actually just New Zealand - you'll pay $5 per day.
  • Travel in Zone 2, it's $10 per day.

Regardless of your destination, you'll get unlimited talk and text, and 200MB of data per day. Unlike Optus' Travel Packs, your allowance won't stack, it's just 200MB per day and any unused megabytes expire at midnight. 

If you go over your daily 200MB, Telstra will automatically add another 500MB for $10 with a 31-day expiry. You won't eat into this allowance until you've exceeded your daily 200MB.

The following countries are part of Telstra's Zone 2:

Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lao, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, UK, Ukraine, USA, Uruguay, Vanuatu, and Vietnam.

Virgin Roaming Data Packs 

Virgin's Data Packs are a little different to what everyone else is doing: as the name suggests, you only get data. Talk and text are still billed at pay-as-you-go rates. 

Data Packs will give you extra data for any country under Virgin's Zone 1 classification. There's four options:

  • $30 for 500MB
  • $45 for 1GB
  • $60 for 2GB
  • $85 for 3GB

All of Virgin's Data Packs have a 30 day expiration. 

The following countries are part of Virgin's Zone 1: 

Austria, Denmark, Fiji, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Thailand, United Kingdom, and United States.

Prepaid Roaming

Prepaid providers are now starting to get into the roaming game, but in most cases, you'll still need to pay-as-you-go. Telstra and Vodafone are two key exceptions. 

If you're a Telstra prepaid customer who wants to avoid PAYG pricing, you're able to get yourself an International Roaming Browse Plus Pack (dumb name, we know). $29 will get you 100MB, $85 will get you 300MB, and $160 will get you 300MB. All three options have a 30-day expiry.  

Telstra's International Roaming Browse Plus Packs might seem expensive - and they are - but they're still slightly cheaper than the $3 per megabyte you'll pay for as-you-go data.

Vodafone's prepaid roaming options are slightly better. A $25 bolt-on gets you 100MB of data, 30 minutes of talk, and 30 text messages for use within three days. A $35 add-on ups your inclusions to 250MB of data, 60 minutes of talk, and 60 text messages for use within seven days. 

If you just need data, $25 will get you 200MB for three days, and $35 will get you 500MB for seven days. 

Read more about Prepaid Roaming here.

Pay-As-You-Go Roaming

Pay-as-you-go roaming is almost certainly the most expensive option when you're overseas. Depending on which carrier you're with, you're looking at between $0.50 and $3 per megabyte of data, which can add up very quickly. Calls can cost as much as $4 per minute, and a text will typically set you back $0.75. These rates vary from provider to provider, but below is what you'd if you were to PAYG as an Optus customer.

Indonesia New Zealand United Kingdom United StatesThailand
Cost to call Australia per minute $1.50 $1.50 $1.50 $1.50$1.50
Cost to send text message to Australia $0.50 $0.50 $0.50 $0.50$0.50
Cost of data $1.00 per MB $1.00 per MB $1.00 per MB $1.00 per MB 1.00 per MB

It's worth noting that pay-as-you-go roaming rates can very depending on whether you're on a prepaid or postpaid plan. For example, Optus' prepaid roaming is slightly cheaper than its prepaid roaming.

Unless it's an absolute emergency, we'd advise against pay-as-you-go roaming. For example, uploading a single photo from your phone to Facebook could cost you as much as $12.

For more about overseas rates, check out our pay-as-you-go roaming guide

Providers that don't offer roaming

Not all mobile phone providers offer international roaming. If you're with one of the following providers, your best bet is grabbing a local SIM at your destination. 

  • Lebara Mobile
  • GoTalk
  • Jeenee Mobile
  • Woolworths Mobile
  • Kogan Mobile
  • Hello Mobile

Other things to remember

Despite the relative savings, a major problem with buying an add-on international data pack is that you won't always be able to monitor their usage when travelling internationally, as most of the services provided by telcos will only track data and call minutes used domestically (although this isn't always the case).

Another point about data use: many telcos don't necessarily charge per kilobyte, rather in increments of 10KB or more, which means you can end up paying for more than you use. 

Overall, sticking with your local provider when abroad isn’t the most wallet-friendly option. Even smaller telcos such as Amaysim, Boost, and Vaya will charge rates comparable to those of the big telcos if you want to roam internationally with any of their plans.

Image credit: Kuster and Wildhaber Photography


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