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.
On this page:
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, 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?
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 would 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 I’m not sure if it’s quite 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 plans, such as Vodafone’s $5 per day roaming plan cancel out the exorbitant roaming charges by allowing you to use your data as you would here for just $5 a day.
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 offers roaming on both prepaid and postpaid plan types, and customers can purchase an Optus Roaming Pass for $10 per day in eligible countries. Packs give you access to unlimited talk and SMS, plus 1GB of data per day, and are available to use in Optus’ ‘Zone 1’ destinations (over 90 countries throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and New Zealand).
Customers can also add a selection of international roaming packs to their plans where available, which include 24-hour or 7-day options. These cover over 90 Zone 1 destinations and can be added to your plan via the Optus app.
If you’re unable to add a roaming pass or pack to your plan, you can opt for pay-as-you-go roaming. 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.
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, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, 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 is the pioneer of the ‘$5 a day’ roaming feature. 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.
Note that many African, Central & 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: Before heading overseas Amaysim states you must activate global roaming, and this can be done through the Amaysim app. Prepaid customers will need to add PAYG credit, and roaming charges will be deducted from this. Rates vary from country to country, but commonly visited destinations – such as the UK or New Zealand – incur call rates of $1 per minute, SMS rates of 50c per message sent, and data charges of 50c per megabyte (charged per 10Kb). Amaysim is on the Optus network, and its rates seem to resemble that of Optus.
- ALDI Mobile: ALDI is much the same story. Roaming charges are deducted from PAYG credit, and most phone calls seem to be either $1 or $2 a minute, with SMS priced at 50c or $1 per message sent, and data at 50c or $1 per megabyte. ALDI Mobile operates on the Telstra network and may share a resemblance to Telstra’s data roaming charges.
- Woolworths Mobile: Woolies Mobile customers can add 1-day, 5-day, 10-day or 15-day roaming add-ons to their plan, all of which include talk, text and data. A day pass is priced at $7 and includes 150MB of data, 30 minutes of voice calls, and 30 SMS to use in 30 selected countries. Woolworths Mobile’s most expensive option is its 15-day add-on, which costs $75 for 4GB of data, 240 minutes of calls and 240 SMS, but can be used in 67 countries. All add-ons can be bought via the Woolworths Mobile app.
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:
Messenger 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 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 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.
Boasting 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.
Unlike 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 & 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.