mapping travelling

What is data roaming?

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Data roaming, also known as international roaming or global roaming, is undeniably convenient, but it can also be costly. However, it can be a useful alternative to buying a separate SIM card to stay connected while you’re travelling.

Staying connected on overseas trips used to be a challenge. Before phones, the only way to keep in touch with home was to send a postcard or make an expensive international call on a hotel phone. Thankfully, those days are now long behind us: now we can send an email, SMS, or call from our mobiles thanks to data roaming. In this guide, we’ll explain what is international roaming and how to use it, as well as give some useful tips on how to save money when using your phone overseas.

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What is data roaming?

Data roaming is what your smartphone plan does when it cannot connect to your default mobile phone network and there is another network available that it can connect to. You’ll still be billed by your standard phone network provider (if international roaming is available from your carrier), although roaming on other networks can lead to some hefty costs. Typically this happens when you travel overseas (characterised more accurately as global roaming or international roaming) although it is possible to use data roaming in Australia. This is rare, but it’s possible.

Usually, the roaming network provider you connect to has some kind of commercial agreement with your default provider. Your provider will cover your network charges will overseas and then forward you the bill.

In most situations, you will be allowed to use your existing phone and mobile number to make and receive calls, voicemail’s and texts, however you will be charged much higher than the standard rate. Expect phone calls to cost over $2 a minute, a simple text to cost anywhere around a dollar, and data to cost up to and over $1 per megabyte – when browsing Facebook uses over a megabyte per minute, you know you’re in for some bill shock! And don’t even think about watching that cat video!

Data roaming rates depend on your provider as well as the country you’re visiting. Generally speaking, unless you can talk fast, sending an SMS or MMS will be the cheapest option as they are free to receive and comparatively affordable to send.

What does data roaming mean?

Waiting at airport

Data roaming, in short, means you’ll be able to use your smartphone for calls, texts and internet usage on the go, no matter where in the world you are. It’s even possible in Australia, although places where you can data roam here, are few and far between.

Data charges are where you’re most likely going to be stung. It’s hard enough to manage data usage on your default network sometimes, let alone when you’re overseas! Many providers will charge you by the megabyte, meaning costs will quickly add up.

Again, the price you pay does depend on a few factors, though travelers will usually find their provider charges between $2 – $3/Mb depending on your provider – that could cost you up to $40 to watch a 5 minute YouTube video!

You might have heard the horror story back in 2009 of a man who was charged $62,000 for downloading a movie while overseas. The movie in question was Wall-E, which might be a good movie, but it probably isn’t worth $62,000. If you feel the same way, then you need to be careful with your data usage while on your overseas holiday.

Fortunately, some telcos offer roaming options as part of your standard plan (usually available for postpaid plans only) such as Vodafone’s $5 per day roaming and $5 a day roaming from Optus which cancel out the exorbitant roaming charges by allowing you to use your data as you would here for just $5 a day on top of your monthly plan fees.

There are plenty of providers which offer special roaming deals, however, if you don’t have time to organise a travel SIM, then take additional precautions to avoid coming home to a staggering bill.

Continue reading to see just some of the apps you can use to contact those back home and some potential steps you can take to save money on global roaming.

Global roaming fees & plans

Below are some of the biggest providers in Australia, and their global roaming plans and rates. If you’re savvy and organise a global roaming plan before you travel, you may be less susceptible to bill shock.

Optus Roaming

Optus international roaming is available on both prepaid and postpaid plan types, however what is available to you depends on which plan you have. Its $5 a day roaming is only available to eligible postpaid customers, while customers on other postpaid plans may have to purchase an Optus Roaming Pass for $10 per day in Zone 1 countries.

The $5 option gives you 5GB of data per day, along with unlimited standard calls and SMS while in Zone 1 countries, plus it’s auto activated when you land in an eligible country and can be managed through the Optus app.

The $10 pack gives you access to unlimited talk and SMS, plus 1GB of data per 24 hours to use in Zone 1 destinations (over 90 countries throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and New Zealand).

If you’re unable to add a roaming pass or pack to your plan, you can opt for pay-as-you-go roaming or roaming packs if you have a prepaid plan. Rates will vary depending on which ‘zone’ you’re travelling in, but Zone 1 countries incur charges of $1.50 per minute for calls, 50c per SMS sent, and $1 per megabyte of data (billed in 10kB increments). Before using your device, it’s important to be wary of the rates you will be subject to – watching videos and making lots of calls could see your bill skyrocket.

Telstra Roaming

If you’re on a Telstra mobile plan, you can activate an ‘International Day Pass’ before you head overseas. This costs $5 a day if you’re heading to New Zealand, and $10 daily in over 70 other countries, including popular destinations such as the US, UK, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, France and Germany. Activating this feature means you’ll enjoy unlimited talk and text — plus 1GB of daily data use — for $5 or $10 each day. Telstra’s International Day Pass is only charged on days you use your phone, so you aren’t subject to an ongoing rate.

Otherwise, rates are ‘pay as you go’: the US, for example, costs $3 per minute for a call, 75c per text, and $3 per megabyte of data.

Vodafone Roaming

Vodafone’s $5 a day roaming feature is pioneer of more affordable international roaming. For an extra $5 per day, you can use all the inclusions on your phone plan (including data) exactly as if you were still in Australia, at Australian rates. This applies to a massive 100 destinations, mostly across Europe, North America, and Asia. As with other travel packs, $5 Roaming will only be charged on days you actually use your device. Keep in mind that you can only use your standard data inclusions, and any unlimited data can’t be used while roaming.

Note that many African, Central and South American nations feature ‘pay as you go’ rates, which are standard across all countries. if you use PAYG roaming, you’ll pay $1 per minute to make and receive calls, 75c per text sent, and $1 for each megabyte of data. $5 roaming may add up over a three or four-week holiday, but it’s potentially much cheaper than if you don’t activate it at all.

Roaming With Other Providers

As for SIM-only mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), it’s best to check with them directly about what’s on offer in regards to international roaming. Here are three of the more popular providers’ rates:

  • Amaysim: International roaming with Amaysim is much easier thanks to its selection of roaming packs if you’re looking for international roaming with your prepaid plan. These packs vary in price but all are available over a 365-day expiry period.
  • Boost Mobile: Another prepaid provider offering roaming packs, Boost Mobile’s international roaming comes in the form of add ons that you can purchase to add on to your prepaid plan. Roaming packs vary in price and expiry.
  • Belong: Postpaid provider Belong offers a simple roaming add on which is available to use in over 30 destinations.

Related: The best Travel SIMs and Roaming Packs

Apps to use for messaging and calling overseas

As mentioned before, calling and texting your loved ones back home can become ridiculously expensive. If you’re looking for high-quality services that allow you to make contact back home, then you might want to consider some of the following apps:

Facebook Messenger

facebook messenger iconMessenger is a free-to-download extension of Facebook that allows those with a Facebook account to chat with friends both on mobile and on the main website. The main purpose of messenger is messaging, as the name suggests, but it also has a video calling feature in HD that allows for free calls regardless of location, so long as you are connected to a Wi-Fi network. With 900 million monthly active users, Messenger has an average consumer rating of 3.5 stars based on reviews on the android and iTunes stores respectively. It might not be the most highly regarded app on this list, but it is the most convenient, as it is free to use and you will already have all of your Facebook friends as contacts.


skype iconSkype allows video chat and voice call services in addition to basic messaging. It has over 300 million active users each month. Skype also has extremely low international call rates, with details listed on their website. Like the others in this list, it is recommended that you have an internet connection before making any calls, unless you want to double the cost of your holiday. Skype is sitting on a 4-star rating on both the app-store and the android store.


whatsapp iconWhatsApp is the world’s most popular communication app, with a user base of approximately 1 billion worldwide. It is an instant-messaging client for smartphones that uses the internet to allow users to send texts and videos without SMS. Messaging internationally using WhatsApp is completely free as long as you are connected to a Wi-Fi network. It currently has a 4-star rating on the iTunes app store and a 4.5-star rating on the android store, so it is clearly a highly regarded app for messaging purposes.


wechat iconBoasting the 3rd highest user base of any messaging app, WeChat is available on Android, iPhone, Blackberry and Windows phones. In early 2016, WeChat announced that users would be able to make international mobile and landline calls using the app. To get started, WeChat allows $0.99 worth of free calling credit, which can allow up to 100 minutes of international calls. Users can check the region calling costs within the app. It has a 4-star rating in the iTunes store and a 4.2-star customer rating from Android customers, making it slightly less preferred than WhatsApp in this regard.


rebtel iconUnlike the other entries on this list, Rebetel doesn’t require an internet connection to make international calls, making it a much more convenient choice. Instead of using Wi-Fi, Rebtel connects both users to your standard carrier’s network, and charges you at the same rate that you’d pay for a regular local phone call. This fee is in addition to the extremely low $1 per month you have to pay for their services, but this is only after the 1 year trial they offer. If you’re looking to make international calls without an internet connection, then Rebtel is the app for you. It has a 4-star consumer rating on both the Google Play and App Stores.

Tips for saving money on data roaming

Despite the ease with which global roaming can be obtained and set up, data roaming can still be very costly if not used mindfully. A simple phone call to your mum while on Contiki tour can cost well over $50, and simply scrolling through Facebook for a few minutes can cost $5. So if you need help saving money on your communication and data needs, try the following tips.

Disable data roaming

Disabling data roaming should be the first step that you take when travelling overseas, and you should only turn it on if necessary. By turning off data roaming, your phone won’t be able to access any 3G or 4G networks on its own. Turning it off may force you to consider the next option.

Hunt for free Wi-Fi

Depending on where you’re travelling, Wi-Fi can be quite prevalent and often free – every email you send over free Wi-Fi is one less you send over roaming data. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming more and more common nowadays, and the most common places you’ll find them are at popular restaurant and fast food chains such as McDonalds and Starbucks, as well as public libraries and hotels. Just try and be polite when using their Wi-Fi – you might be using a seat that could be used by a potential customer, so be mindful of where you are and maybe make a purchase or two to thank them for the Wi-Fi.

If you’re a Telstra customer, you’ll also have free access to the Fon network of WiFi hotspots worldwide on all postpaid and prepaid mobile plans, provided you install the Telstra Air app.

Buy a prepaid SIM for the country you’re travelling to

This can be a very cost-effective option, and the amount you spend is capped, so you can’t be charged excess fees. However, be careful if you’re travelling to multiple countries as a SIM you buy in one might not work in another, even if they’re neighbours. Phone plans for overseas are furthered explained here.

Challenge your bill

Don’t be afraid to challenge any large bills you get, as it is always possible that they made have made a mistake, and there are multiple cases of phone companies trying to unfairly penalise customers who have travelled overseas. You’re unlikely to avoid paying the whole bill, but might be able to get a reduction. Ask for specific details on the charges you’ve incurred – if they can’t back them up then why should you pay them?

Arrange to receive calls and texts while travelling

This one can be quite tricky to organise, and may not even be necessary if you follow the previous four steps, but nonetheless, it could potentially save you money on your trip. Be careful, though; some providers still like to charge for even receiving a call! Receiving a text also costs nothing so if you’re waiting on an important memo from back home, don’t be afraid to open that text – just try not to reply back!

Should I use data roaming while travelling?

Mobile phone data roaming is handy, but you do tend to pay the price for convenience. While you should absolutely roam the city streets of a foreign country, you might want to question whether your mobile phone goes along for the ride. When even a quick phone call or a few texts can cost over $5, as well as data costing over $1 per megabyte in many cases, you have to consider whether having this service is worth it.

Often you can mitigate costs by turning off roaming on your mobile phone and instead seeking out free WiFi hotspots to upload that Instagram picture. Some providers such as ALDI Mobile and Amaysim even recommend purchasing an overseas prepaid plan, instead of using global roaming features.

While there are packs you can buy from the big providers to somewhat offset the cost of global roaming, they may still be quite expensive compared to what you are normally used to back home. In any case, global roaming is a very convenient option when heading overseas, but be prepared to pay for that convenience.

Phone plans compared

Looking for a new phone and plan before you take off overseas? The table below shows a selection of comparable postpaid and prepaid SIM plans from our database, listed in order of cost, with the lowest price first and then by data allowance highest to lowest. Use our comparison tool to see a range of plans from other providers. These are products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with a minimum of 10GB of data, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use Canstar Blue’s phone plan comparison tool to see a wide range of plans on offer from mobile providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of prepaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with a minimum of 10GB of data, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to see a wide range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

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Tara Donnelly
Utilities Editor
Tara Donnelly is an internet and mobile expert - sectors she’s spent a decade covering - and also oversees energy and consumer technology content. She holds a Bachelor of Communications from the University of Canberra and has shared her expertise on national media including 9 News, 7 News, Sunrise and the ABC.

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