The cheapest way to use your Australian mobile when travelling overseas

The cheapest way to use your Australian mobile when travelling overseas

  • Mobile phones are now a necessity for overseas travellers, but they can be expensive to use.
  • We look at the costs and convenience of Pay-As-You-Go international usage, roaming plans, pocket Wi-Fi and travel SIMS.
  • Compare travel SIMs with local SIMs purchased at your destination.

In an era where we’re all joined at the hip to our mobile phones, enduring withdrawal symptoms can be a nasty side-effect of travelling overseas. No one wants to rack up a $1,000 phone bill in Bali, or pay $500 for less than a minute’s data use in the UAE, but there will always be times when using your phone is simply unavoidable, even though the cost is shudderingly expensive if you haven’t planned ahead.

You may be running late for a really important business meeting, or you realise you’ve left your wallet behind at the restaurant where you had lunch two hours ago. Perhaps you’ve just taken a world-beating shot of a snow-covered peak in the Dolomites that you absolutely must share on Instagram right now. Or you’re a solo traveller, and having the means of contact with the world right there in your pocket gives you the extra feeling of security that you need.

Whatever your reason, the phone is begging to be used, but it could turn out to be an expensive option if there’s no free Wi-Fi available, and you’re relying on your phone company’s Pay-As-You-Go rates or even a roaming plan.

Young female traveller looking at mobile phone

Scoring free Wi-Fi overseas can be a nightmare

It would be comforting to assume that there will always be free Wi-Fi available when you really need it. Many hotels, airports and global fast food chains offer free or low-cost Wi-Fi. And for around $15 per month you can sign up to Boingo Wi-Fi and get access to over a million hotspots worldwide. Which is fine, unless you’re in a taxi running late for that vital meeting, or on a train speeding away from the luggage you inadvertently left on the platform. That’s when you really need to be able to pick up your phone without it costing you an eye-watering fee.

Australian telco Pay-As-You-Go international call fees are alarming

Fail to plan ahead for your internet, data and phone access while travelling, and you could be stuck with paying your phone company’s Pay-As-You-Go international call and data rates if an emergency arises – or those withdrawal symptoms become just too much to bear.

Let’s say you are on a two-week holiday or business trip in North America. Here are a well-known Australian phone company’s current Pay-As-You-Go charges for customers needing to make calls and use data in the USA:

Make or receive calls$3.00 per minute
Send an SMS75c
Receive an SMSFree
Data usage$3.00 per MB
Send an MMSStandard charges + $3.00 per MB
Receive an MMS$3.00 per MB
Access voicemail$3.00 per minute

Case study – 14 days in the US

If you’re taking a two-week holiday in the USA you may want to use your phone to find great places to eat or plan your visit to unmissable local sights and activities. Google Maps will come in handy too, and you’ll also want to let your friends back home know what a great time you’re having. 

Here’s what it could cost on Pay-As-You-Go rates:

14 x two-minute calls to Australia$84
14 x two-minute call from Australia$84
14 x one-minute voicemail checks$42
28 x SMS messages sent$21
28 x 500kb MMS sent$42
14 x 500kb MMS received$21
Web browsing 15 minutes (37.5MB) per day$1,575

This is a worst-case scenario, since your telco would probably send you a message alerting you to your usage and its cost before your bill reached this horrific level, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the holiday-wrecking potential of Pay-As-You-Go international phone rates. And, if you want to leave your Australian SIM in your phone while travelling, make sure you turn off data roaming, location services and push notifications if you want to avoid accidental bill shock.

International roaming plans are better, but still expensive

The good new is that many Australian phone companies can sell postpaid users (those already on a mobile phone plan with the company) a day pass for international roaming. Day passes are usually available for most popular destinations – such as North America, Western Europe, parts of South America, India, South East Asia, Oceania and South Africa – meaning that for a charge of about $10 per day (or about $5 per day for New Zealand) you’ll get:

  • Unlimited talk and text

  • 200MB of data per day (more data can be purchased for an extra charge)

  • $10 charge only applied on days when you actually call, text, or use data

Assuming that you did, in fact, use your phone every day while you were away, the most you would pay is $140 for the US 14-day case study above, provided you kept within the 200MB daily data allowance.

But what happens if you’re a pre-paid mobile user? In this case, you may be able to purchase an international roaming add-on from your carrier. The available facilities vary widely, but you may, for example, be able to add a data-only pack starting at around $30 for 100MB with a 30-day expiry, and rising to about $150 for 500MB. 

Depending on your carrier, you may also have access to a combined call and data add-on for around $35, including about 60 minutes of incoming and outgoing calls and 60 texts, plus 250MB of data, but with a 7-day expiry date. This would cost about $70 for the US 14-day case study but could end up costing much more if you exceeded the data limit and ended up back on Pay-As-You-Go rates.   

Still too expensive? Or maybe your carrier doesn’t offer international roaming? There are other options.

two couples riding motorbikes together

You could use a pocket Wi-Fi hub instead

There is another compact way to carry international Wi-Fi access around with you, other than in your phone. You can rent a pocket WiFi hub before you leave Australia, or at your destination. Rent one at an Australian airport for about $9 a day and drop it off there on your return. You can connect up to five devices simultaneously, enjoy fast unlimited internet data in over 100 countries, and also use it as a powerbank – the device retains its power for 10 or more hours without recharging. A 16-day rental (to cover the 14-day US case study trip, plus flying time) is going to cost you about $144, roughly the same as an international roaming plan, but you’ll have access to unlimited data and be able to use other devices besides your phone. 

You could also choose to pick up a pocket Wi-Fi for a similar cost at your destination (about $HK55 – $AU10 – in Hong Kong, for example), but this could be a nuisance if you’re returning to Australia from a different airport. The supplier may provide you with a prepaid satchel to return the modem, but it’s still a hassle, and the daily cost, when converted to Australian dollars, may be higher than renting one as you leave Australia.

Business man on the phone in airport

But what you really need is a travel SIM

If you have an unlocked phone (i.e. not one that you bought with a prepaid plan included) you can simply switch to a travel SIM when you’re going overseas. You can buy one in Australia for $25 via Australia Post or direct from TravelSIM. But you’ll get more included credit for calls, texts and data by buying a starter pack direct from TravelSIM – $5 credit included with Australia Post, but $25 with TravelSIM, which will easily cover the calls and texts in the US 14-day case study, at 25c per outgoing call per minute or per text, incoming calls and texts free. Add 1GB of data for a further $25, and the total cost for 14 days is only $50. 

Woolworths sells a cheaper travel data SIM for only $27, including 700MB of data, but it no longer sells voice and SMS SIMs. You’d have to use the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook or FaceTime to call Australian contacts, and you’d struggle to make local voice calls at your destination.

You may prefer to buy a prepaid local SIM from a carrier in your destination country. In this case you’ll end up with a local phone number, rather than an Australian mobile number advised to you before you leave. This could be a problem, because instead of being able to hit the ground running you’ll need to give your new temporary overseas number to anyone in Australia who may need to contact you. 

In the US you’ll need to steer clear of the carrier Verizon, which works on a CDMA network which is not compatible with Australian mobile phones. The best option would be to buy a SIM from large carriers like AT&T or T-Mobile (both compatible with Australian GSM phones), from one of their many stores, or from a convenience store. For example, for about $US30 ($AU44) you can purchase a SIM specifically aimed at tourists, with 1000 minutes of domestic talk, 100 minutes of international talk and unlimited texting and data, with a 30-day expiry. You could even buy one in Australia before you leave and have it shipped to you from Melbourne, but this is a more expensive option, and you need to add a further $AU15 if you want to include international voice calls.

A travel SIM is the cheapest option

No matter where you’re travelling – the US, as discussed in detail, or Europe or Asia, a travel SIM or local SIM is likely to be the cheapest option for your phone and data needs, easily trumping Pay-As-You-Go (hello, bill shock), better than international roaming (convenient, but still expensive), and still only about a third of the cost of a pocket Wi-Fi hub (which may, however, be a better option if you want to use data on your laptop or tablet as well as your phone). 

Budget-conscious travellers will also want to carry a credit card that comes with no foreign transaction fees, or complimentary travel insurance cover, or frequent flyer points, or free airport lounge access. Combine reducing your phone bill with a money-saving credit card, and you should be able to travel more often.