Proposed new rules will eventually force mobile phone companies to tell you how extortionate global roaming charges are, but they won't do anything to actually make those charges lower. Follow these tactics to ensure taking your mobile phone on holiday doesn't cost more than the holiday itself.
As we noted earlier today, new rules are proposed which would require mobile companies to inform customers more clearly of global roaming charges when they take their phones overseas. A likely mechanism is a text sent to your phone when you land in an overseas market. However, it will be at least 12 months before those rules come in, and being told the charges won't reduce them.
Rather than facing a bill of thousands of dollars, follow these guidelines to minimise your spend while keeping your smartphone by your side.
For most people, the simplest way to avoid roaming is not to use it in the first place. Once you've boarded the plane, remove your SIM from your phone and don't put it back in until you land. (The small plastic cases uses to store camera SD cards are a good place to store phone SIMs if you're worried about losing it en route.)
That doesn't mean you can't use your phone. Most smart phones will work perfectly well for browsing when connected to Wi-Fi; it's only incoming calls and texts that you'll miss. (See point 2 for more on this.) Picture by Nicholas Nova
1. Switch off roaming before you go
An alternative approach, and a wise precaution even if you do remove your SIM, is to disable overseas roaming before you leave the country. The method for doing this varies; typically you'll need to either contact your provider by phone or change settings in your online account. Don't leave this until just before you leave, as the setting may not always be applied instantly.
2. Use your non-phone channels
In the smartphone era, it's worth remembering that not being accessible via a single phone number is not the restriction you might think. With Wi-Fi, you can still access email, Twitter, Facebook, and free messaging apps like Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Viber. That gives you plenty of ways to talk to others, and for others to get in touch with you in emergencies.
3. Book hotels that offer free Wi-Fi
If your hotel offers free (or cheap) Wi-Fi, you can still research and plan your day without paying roaming charges. Perversely, the more expensive the hotel, the higher the likelihood that you'll be asked to pay for Wi-Fi. But even a flat $20 a day is better than an unknown bill.
4. Locate free Wi-Fi while travelling
During the day, free Wi-Fi from cafes and other locations is your best friend. Check our detailed guide to finding free Wi-Fi for specific suggestions.
5. Update your voicemail
An obvious point, but one many people forget: update your voicemail message to explain to people that you're travelling and not regularly checking messages. That will save on deleting lots of out-of-date messages when you return. (If you're paranoid about saying you're away, simply ask people to send you an email.)
If You Must Roam
If work requirements mean you have to roam with your phone, there are precautions you can take.
6. Set up a data bundle
Most Australian telcos offer discount bundles for travel, meaning that data will only cost a prince's ransom rather than a king's ransom. If you know you'll need data options, these can be worth checking out. Telstra cut the price on its packs earlier this year, but they're still ruinously expensive. Optus has some good deals in Asia.
7. Don't use non-essential apps or sites
If you are roaming, resist using your phone casually. Bookmark the mobile versions of sites you use regularly to cut bandwidth. Consider using a separate browser; Opera shrinks data before sending it, which can majorly reduce your usage.
Using A Prepaid Overseas SIM
Another popular strategy is to use a prepaid SIM, either one you purchase in advance through a company like TravelSIM or GoSIM or one purchased where you land. This can be very effective, and your spending is capped (since all the value is prepaid). Just watch for these two common traps.
8. Make sure your phone isn't network-locked
If you purchased your phone on contract, it's likely to be locked to your provider network, and won't work with SIMs from other providers. Check before travelling. It can be worth buying a more basic phone for travel, which has the added advantage you'll be less concerned if you lose it.
9. Make sure you have the right frequencies
Especially with older phone models, make sure they support the mobile frequencies used in the countries you are visiting. If they don't, you won't be able to use a local SIM or roam with your own SIM.
10. Challenge a large bill
If you do get caught with a large roaming bill, don't take it lying down. Ring your provider and complain. You may not be able to avoid the whole bill, but you can often get a reduction. Ask the provider for a specific breakdown of why charges are incurred — if they can't provide that data, how can they justify the charges?
Got any other tactics to avoid roaming shock? Share them in the comments.