Use these travellers’ tricks to avoid coming home to a smartphone data bill shock.
We’ve all heard the horror stories. “Tourist in Istanbul billed £2318 for iPhone usage”, “Business trip to USA ends with $7357 bill shock”. There’s the pained disbelief of the victims – “But I only used maps on my phone to find my way around Istanbul”; “I just downloaded company emails.”
When you travel overseas, your phone should flash a warning – “Misuse of this device can severely affect your wealth.”
“It’s completely outrageous the way the telcos indulge in wild price gouging for roaming,” says Nicholas Gruen, head of Lateral Economics.
“You want to be able to go overseas and pay 50 per cent more for your telecommunications, not 5000 per cent more.”
While every user knows that you’ll pay a high price to make a call using your phone overseas, it’s data roaming that can cause your bill to skyrocket. When you activate data overseas on a typical smartphone the gears start grinding on a whole host of apps, data floods in and, without doing very much at all, your wallet just got slimmer.
Check email, turn on a music streaming app or view a YouTube cat video and you risk a four-figure bill, even with Telstra, which has now reduced its data roaming fee to A$3/MB if you go over your allowance.
In order for data roaming to work, your telco must have a reciprocal agreement with each foreign network. But as Gruen says: “There are lots of legal agreements to be sorted out before you can get coverage everywhere. The people putting these network packages together have to get the lawyers out and write agreements in each of these places and it’s just really costly.”
There is also a view that data roaming is expensive not because of the cost of providing the service, but simply because the telcos can get away with it.
There is nothing in it for the host telco. As a customer you’re simply dipping into their network at your own convenience so they might as well extract a usurious one-off fee. All these network-to-network agreements work to the mutual advantage of each telco, the one billing and the one hosting.
The customer can easily opt out by turning off data and using a SIM card from a local provider. But human nature being what it is, from time to time some customers will activate data roaming. So it’s still worthwhile for telcos around the world to play host to out-of-country subscribers who would like to use their services.
What is required to reduce the price of global roaming is political will. But politicians can really only play game-changer where a single legislature has regulatory power over multiple countries. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the European Union.
Since 1 July 2014, the price for data roaming within the EU for anyone with an EU-country SIM card has been capped at €0.20/MB (plus VAT). This is in preparation for the final slaying of the dragon, when anyone using an EU-issued SIM will pay no more for data roaming within the EU than they would in their telco’s base country. The original date for abolishing out-of-country roaming fees – 15 December 2015 – will likely be pushed back to allow for a more gradual reduction, but EU lawmakers have demonstrated their political mettle.
Even more intriguing, EU legislators have pegged the wholesale cap, which applies operator-to-operator, at €0.05/MB. This suggests that the real price to a host of providing global roaming is lower than that, which makes the profit margin for telcos from global roaming truly adventuresome.
Stop the shock
Seasoned travellers share their tips (and gripes!).
Managing director, GTI Tourism
The first thing I do when I get on a plane is turn off cellular data. My husband and I are pretty tech-savvy but in the USA recently I broke my own rule, turned on data to check directions twice, and ended up with a A$250 bill.
CEO and creative director, Lateral Event Management
We bring a number of UK personalities to tour Australia and I have always been jealous of the deals they have of around £5 a week for global roaming, while we have to buy bundles that cost 10 times as much and are far less flexible.
While their mobiles operate exactly the same in Australia as they do at home, using my Australian mobile in the UK or Europe only gives me email headings – to download the actual message is excruciatingly slow. Which means I don’t bother – I rely on Wi-Fi wherever I go.
Managing director, Asian Travel Media
The only strategy that works is to:
- turn off cellular data on your home phone when you are overseas, and
- have another phone for overseas use and get a local SIM card for each location. It can be a nuisance, but is worthwhile as SIM cards purchased overseas for local use have a credit limit and you can’t exceed what you pay without topping up.
Brand strategist, marketer, artist, writer
In key destinations I used to buy a local SIM card – so my office had a range of telephone numbers to reach me. Turning off global roaming was the best policy. Many years ago I ran foul of the system, with a very hefty bill!
Data without tears
Turn it off
Control your bill by turning off your phone’s cellular data. Confine data downloads to those times when you have free Wi-Fi: in your hotel, in cafes or in offices. Even if your hotel imposes a stiff charge for Wi-Fi, chances are you’ll end up paying a lot less than if you were to turn on cellular data.
Buy a data plan
Most telcos in Australia now offer daily plans that peg the cost of global data roaming. Activating this plan is as simple as logging onto your telco’s website. You may even be advised of this facility when you activate your device on landing in another country. The cost is comparatively modest and you’ll be notified when you approach your data limit.
Buy a multinational data SIM card
The Data Sim from Go-Sim (www.gosim.com) gives you 200MB of data for US$49 (A$52) and works in 55 countries. TravelSIM (www.travelsim.net.au) has a similar product, with prices starting at A$1.17/MB (prices depend on location). The Data SIM Card from WorldSim (www.worldsim.com) is another option, with rates starting from about US$0.20/MB.
Buy a local data SIM card
Whether it’s Bali or Brazil, if you want to access data over the local network at rock-bottom prices, this is the way to go. Most countries make Data SIM cards easily available, but without a local billing address, you’ll be restricted to a pre-paid SIM card, which will work only in the country of purchase. For example, if you purchase an Orange SIM card in the UK, you will not be able to take advantage of the favourable data rates throughout the EU that would apply to a post-paid UK SIM card.
Operating at Melbourne and Sydney’s international airports since late 2014, this retail outlet sells local-network, prepaid SIM cards that will work from the get-go in a number of countries. These are general purpose SIM cards, with telephone and data allowances built in, and their convenience and reasonable value are tempting. For example, the A$50 USA T-Mobile SIM card gives you unlimited local calls and text within the US and unlimited data, although only the first 1GB at 4G speed, and is valid for 30 days from activation.
This article is from the June issue of INTHEBLACK.