Using your phone overseas: how to beat the global roaming rip-off

Passport, business cards, smartphone – that's pretty much the essential packing list for today's business traveller.

But staying connected on that overseas trip comes with some caveats, the biggest of which is a hefty global roaming hit for voice calls and data.

Most road warriors write that off as an unavoidable cost of doing business.

But making and taking calls overseas shouldn't cost as much as it does, even though it happily costs less than it used to.

Here's a quick guide to avoiding getting hit by heavy roaming charges. 

1. Get to know your telco's roaming options

Optus, Telstra and Vodafone have different ways to handle international roaming.

Telstra sells International Travel Passes covering 40 countries, with usage spanning from three days to 30 days.

There's unlimited talk and text within each country plus a set data allocation, starting at 150MB for three days at $15 through to 1.5GB spread over 30 days for $300.

Optus Travel Packs are a flat $10 per day in most countries, with unlimited talk and SMS plus 50MB of data.

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As a regular overseas traveller I reckon Vodafone's Red Roaming comes up trumps. For a flat $5 per day you can use your Australian plan's data, text and call allowance in almost 50 countries.

That includes unlimited standard calls back to Australia as well as within the country you're currently in, plus free text messaging.

2. Buy a local prepaid SIM card

Picking up a prepaid SIM card on your arrival overseas is always the best value, especially when it comes to data. It can even be faster and cheaper than in-room Internet access at your hotel.

You can usually pick up a local SIM card on arrival at the airport, as long as you're not in a rush to get to the hotel or your first meeting.

Phone stores in the city will also sell you these cards, but that means taking extra time to find and visit the store (don't forget to bring your passport, which is often needed as form of ID).

The longer you'll be in that city and the more often you'll be returning, the better this gets.

On each return visit you can buy a 'recharge' card at airport – often sold at convenience stores – and you're back on the air.

The downside? Clients and contacts at home can no longer directly call or text you on your Aussie number.

Many business travellers are reluctant to be in that situation, so they stick with their Aussie mobile number and carry the roaming costs. You need to decide which model suits you best.

3. Buy your roaming SIM card before you leave

A time-saving twist on getting a prepaid SIM card for the country you're visiting is to buy it right here at home.

For that reason I often recommend Aussie company SimCorner to colleagues.

SimCorner sells overseas SIM cards online but also has shops at the international terminals or Sydney and Melbourne airport where they'll also install and activate your card.

There's a range of plans for New Zealand, Asia, the US, Europe and the UK at prices which are generally comparable to what you'd pay overseas.

But even if they come out slightly higher, I'd trade that against the convenience of having my roaming sorted before I step onto the plane.

4. Data-only SIMs for your iPad

There's also been increased uptake of data-only SIMs designed for tablets such as the iPad, lessening their reliance on finding free WiFi hotspots.

Most telcos carry data-only SIM plans, and this month Apple began selling its own Apple SIM to Australian iPad owners.

This clever little card lets you sign up for a prepaid data roaming plan directly from your iPad as soon as you step off the plane, rather than buying and loading a local SIM card for each country.

Apple has partnered with GigSky – which touts itself as "the first global mobile network designed for travellers" – to offer short-term data plans in over 90 countries.

Switch on your Apple SIM-equipped iPad, choose Set Up Mobile Data and tap the GigSky option to see the plans available. Then pick your plan, pay up and start surfing.

However, such simplicity comes at a cost.

GigSky's plans tend to be more expensive compared to buying a local prepaid SIM, so it pays to do a little research before you travel.

For instance, GigSky's options for Canada start at $A10 for a barely-useful 20MB, with $A35 for 120MB and $A50 for 250MB.

By comparison, Canadian telco Bell offers 250MB for just $A15 with 500MB for $A20 and a meaty 5GB for $A35.

The bottom line: do a little extra online research on your iPad SIM options before settling yourself on the Apple/GigSky plans.

What's your global roaming strategy, and what's your recommendation on local prepaid SIM cards in the countries you often visit? Let us know in the comments. 

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.

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