Keeping Mobile Phone Bills Down While Abroad

(c) Paul Oakley

Overseas holidays are great, but getting hit with a huge mobile phone bill when you get home can take the gloss off those magical memories of foreign shores. Join us as we look at some important ways of saving money and avoiding high costs when using your smartphone abroad.

We've come a long way since the dark days when even sending a simple SMS or making a short call on your mobile phone while overseas cost a small fortune, if it was even possible at all.

But while costs have dropped significantly, there's a new culprit in these days of the all-singing smartphone that can swallow up your holiday budget just as readily: mobile data.

When you're abroad, your phone piggy-backs off foreign networks, which means you're paying not just for your Australian carrier but also the fees it's being charged to access the network in the country you're in.

The first thing to be aware of here is that this means you pay both to make calls and receive them, as you're effectively hiring the use of the foreign network. It's an important point, as you wouldn't want to get home to a massive bill when you didn't actually make a single call!


Turning off data roaming and other services:

You won't pay to receive SMS's generally, but you will to send them – ditto MMS's too. But it's accessing web services that's the real danger. The issue is partly one of perception: between data-rich phone deals and powerful smartphones we've become used to the idea that while things like streaming HD videos and downloading large files are still a luxury few can afford on their phones, ordinary stuff like reading emails and uploading mobile snaps to Facebook is fair game.

Not so when you're outside of Australia. Even loading a single web page can cost you serious cash, so forgetting to turn off your phone's automatic email syncing, for instance, can turn into a costly mistake.

It sounds obvious, but the simplest way to avoid high mobile costs overseas is to not use your phone's mobile services at all. Switching off your cellular/3G antenna and disabling data roaming before you get on the plane is the only sure way to guarantee you won't be caught out.

That doesn't stop you from accessing the web via Wi-Fi should your hotel, restaurants or other public spaces offer free Wi-Fi, and you can still switch it all on again if you need to make a call in an emergency, but it's the first line of defence if you don't want your smartphone to cost you anything extra at all on your travels.

If you don't want to disconnect altogether, you can still disable location services and push notifications, which constantly feed off the web for the latest info and updates and therefore can quickly rack up big bills if you're doing it on foreign soil.


Pre-paid data bundles:

If you know you're going to need mobile data access while abroad but can't be sure of Wi-Fi access, you can buy a data bundle in advance from your mobile network. The costs vary, typically starting from $5 or $10 for a single 512MB or 1GB helping of data up to much more depending on what you need, but in general networks are quickly wising up to consumers' roaming needs and better deals are emerging all the time.


Check for capped daily limits with your provider:

Vodafone, for instance, has just announced a new blanket $5 daily cap on using your phone abroad while in the US, UK or New Zealand. This means that provided your use falls within your existing contract usage, you won't be charged more than $5 per day to make calls, send or receive messages and – vitally – to access the web while in these three countries.

The details of which price plans would be eligible for the offer hadn't been announced at the time of writing, but it's a good sign of how quickly things are changing and you can be sure other networks will be offering similar or even better deals before long.


Global roaming SIMs:

Another option is a global roaming SIM from the likes of GoTalk, GoSim and TravelSim. It'll mean removing your Australian SIM card (though you can still take it with you, of course), so make sure your phone is unlocked before buying or factor in the cost of unlocking in your decision-making.

Alternatively, you could simply decide to buy a local SIM once you're overseas. This generally only makes sense if you're visiting a single country, and we wouldn't advise it unless you're comfortable with the language and local network details and costs of the country you're visiting. If you do know what you're doing, however, this is invariably the cheapest straight-SIM way of keeping roaming costs down.


Globalgig portable wireless modem:

If you're only interested in data, meanwhile (and remember that services such as Skype and Whatsapp are data-based, so you can still make calls and send messages purely on data) you could go with a Globalgig portable wireless modem.

Running on the Optus 3G network in Australia and its regional partners while abroad, this handy gizmo allows up to five devices to connect simultaneously via Wi-Fi and connect to the web whether at home or abroad.

Costs are the same regardless – 1GB of data costs $19, 3GB goes for $35 and 5GB will set you back $49. The only downside is that you won't get the same kind of speeds as going via your phone straight onto the local networks.


In September the ACMA's new mobile roaming standard for Australian network providers comes into force, making it compulsory for your network to send you local pricing info via SMS when you arrive in a new country, for instance, as well as notifying you for every $100 increment your bill hits and providing you with easy tools for restricting or turning off international roaming, even while abroad.

We'd still strongly advise following the tips we've mentioned here and checking for the best deals before you go anywhere, but at the very least this should stop your phone costing you more than you bargained for while you're away from home.

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