Updated April 2023
When traveling overseas it’s always good to pre-plan how you’ll use your mobile phone abroad. Many people have come home to find a surprisingly large phone bill waiting them with roaming costs being extreme in most cases. Generally it is the data costs that will hurt more so than the calls themselves but it is important to note that when roaming you can be charged to receive calls as well as make them so it doesn’t take much for costs to add up before you even realise it.
Things to Consider
- What roaming packages are available from your carrier, daily costs vs PAYG usage.
- Do you need to have your number available overseas or you just want access to a phone number and/or data while away?
- Cost of a local sim card, what inclusions do you get, what are the costs to call back to your home country if you need to call home.
- If you do setup roaming, will you be on a different time zone to back home? You don’t want to be getting calls from your friends and family at 2am because of time zone differences.
- What local provider will your carrier roaming work with? Sometimes your carrier may roam with the worst network with poor coverage and it may be better to get a more reliable local sim.
- Do you need to roam to start with? Can you just get by with wifi while you’re away?
- If you just want your number available to receive SMS notifications from your bank etc for example some carriers will not charge for this if roaming data is turned off.
- Some carriers will work over Wifi Calling with no roaming costs but this is hit or miss and not all carriers support it. Remember to keep roaming turned off so it only uses local wifi.
- Some carriers will deliver sms over wifi as well while you’re away but this is only starting to see support from carriers.
It is important to always check what roaming plans your carrier provides. If you do not setup a plan up front you may be stung with per megabyte charges or worse that can be $5 per mb or higher (mb NOT gb). Roaming without knowing your plan upfront could cost you thousands or more.
Roaming on Post-Paid vs Pre-Paid Plans
There’s often big differences with what your provider will include when it comes to your plan. Often pre-paid plans are not eligible for certain roaming deals or may not even be able to roam at all. Be sure to check your providers site before you travel.
Lately some prepay carriers are offering much better roaming offers than postpaid carriers so again it’s a good idea to check what the market is like when you’re shopping for a sim. Of course this isn’t really a viable option if you MUST have your own number while traveling but if you just want an Australian number while overseas so you can be easily reached then this may be a good choice.
Not All Countries are Equal
In 2020 it’s expected that everywhere in the world has super fast internet at your fingertips 24/7 but this just isn’t the case. Just because a particular country, city or area is a tourist haven does not mean it will have great connectivity. While 5G has been the topic of the day for the naysayers in recent times, some countries are barely off 3G and onto 4G technologies.
It’s not always the case that the flagship carriers for a particular country will be your roaming partner. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and other times not so much. I have also experienced roaming that has moved between multiple carriers in the destination with one carrier having good signal and the other not so much.
Do your research up front and see what others have experienced with their usage. I have landed before and gone with the best looking deal for data with a local sim and found out later that the coverage is horrible or only 2G service is available in most areas. It doesn’t help to have 100gb of downloads if you can barely load a website.
It has got a lot easier to search upfront as many countries off a tourist sim that only works for a set period of time and others will have had experience with them so finding reviews shouldn’t be too hard. Check that you get a phone number if you’re thinking you may need to make calls, eg to book restaurants etc as sometimes the tourist sims only come with data.
You may find some areas have agreements to cover your usage over multiple countries, for example in much of Europe carriers will often provide like for like usage of data and calls across multiple schengen countries in the European union. Be sure to check the plan details as some may limit usage outside the initial country but this is a great way to save buying a new sim everytime you cross a border throughout Europe.
Also many networks have lower roaming charges if you’re going to New Zealand from Australia and may halve the price of daily roaming, be sure to check with your carrier if this applies.
Also super important to check your carriers list of included countries in their roaming plan before setting sail as some countries will not be available for the roaming plans or may not offer roaming at all.
I have written previously about visiting Australia and the best practices for getting online. You can read that article here.
Depending on where you’re going there’s plenty of research to be done. Check what other peoples experiences have been so you can get the best value with the options available to you.
My previous Telstra plan included unlimited roaming calls and texts and 2gb a month of data while overseas. While visiting Manila in the Philippines this worked great for me with awesome coverage and good data speeds, however transiting back in to Singapore both the coverage and speeds were horrid and left me banging my head constantly. It worked, but barely.
Other times I have had a local sim, for example in Fiji I connected with Digicel in Nadi and it was just terrible, the 3G coverage was often slow or just non-existent whereas my partners Vodafone coverage was good.
The weirdest experience was transiting from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I had purchased a Singtel sim in Singapore which offered roaming to Malaysia, however once in Malaysia it become apparent that to make calls you had to first dial a service number and then then you’d receive a call back to connect the call. Also the data roaming was horribly slow. I ended up roaming on my Telstra sim which only cost around $30 for 3-4 days which was still cheaper than the money I had spent on the Singtel tourist sim to begin with.
Unfortunately Telstra no longer do great roaming plans with a Roaming Day Pass costing $10 a day (not in all countries) and only having 1gb of data included.
As I mentioned before, Tourist Sims are usually setup to offer you just enough to get you by for a very short period of time. Be sure to read all the fine print before you hand over your cash and check reviews before leaving home.
I see many people questioning if they can have their home sim setup on their phone as a physical or esim and add a local sim/esim when they travel. Of course this is an option and you’re able to turn on and off either of the sims on most phones and change which one is used for data or which one has roaming turned on so this may be a useful way to only turn on your home sim when you really need it or set the local sim as your data sim while you’re traveling and disable roaming on your home sim. Check what options your phone has. If you have an iPhone or Android these options should be available to you. Some newer phones will also work with either a sim + esim or 2 esims. Remember you can normally add many esims to your phone but only use 1 or 2 at a time so you can keep the other disabled in the background for when you return to another country etc.
Don’t Share Your Travel Sim
It might be tempting to pass your unused sim over to a stranger when you’re flying out of a country but it is ill-advised. Remember when you signed up for that tourist sim and they took your passport details to activate the number, you are the one responsible for it’s use and you just don’t know what the next person may do with it. Any illegal activity would be placed squarely on your shoulders especially if you’re unable to provide the identity of whoever has the sim card now.
Some providers may allow you to transfer unused credit to another number or even provide a refund on unused credit, if you’re really unhappy about parting with it be sure to read the fine print and see what your options are.