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PostHeaderIcon Staying in Touch

Staying in Touch, Maria Bekiaris – Money Magazine, November 2009, p. 60

Money Magazine explores the money-saving options for staying in touch when you’re travelling overseas


Jetlag, your credit card statement, and washing that badly needs to be done is the norm for most people returning from an overseas holiday. But there might be more bad news – the size of your phone bill. If you don’t go prepared you might find a bill in the hundreds – and even thousands – waiting for you.

“Mobile roaming is now the third largest cost for overseas travellers after airfares and accommodation,” says the CEO of BackChat Mobile, Danny Nathanson. He says customers can pay as much as $8 for a one-minute call back to Australia, which is way over the actual costs. Just check out our table comparing some of the costs – if you’re in China a call to Australia can set you back $7 a minute.

A recent parliamentary inquiry into international mobile roaming (where you use your existing mobile phone and number to make and receive calls while overseas) attributed the high cost to the lack of transparency in pricing to consumer, the complex technical nature of roaming, and Australian telcos’ inability to negotiate favourable deals for Australian consumers.

It made several recommendations but concluded that it will be some time before Australians are offered really competitive roaming rates.

The good news is that there are ways to keep in touch with family and friends while travelling overseas that won’t cost you a fortune.

One option is to but an international roaming global SIM before you go. They’re available from companies such as www.backchatmobile.com.au. You buy a prepaid starter pack which can be used in about 150 countries. A certain number of credits are included but you can top it up with more. Rates can be as low as $1 a minute in many European countries, and receiving calls is free in about 50 countries.

A starter pack costs around $50 which includes credits - $15 in BackChat Mobile’s case. You can then top them up as you need to. Your phone has to be “unlocked” for you to use a global SIM – if you’re on a contract this may not be possible.

Ask your phone provider or borrow the SIM card of a friend’s mobile from a different service provider and see if it works, says Doug Purdie from Phonechoice. “If the phone turns on and you can make a call you are in business,” he says. If it doesn’t, check the desk drawer at home. Many people have a spare old mobile that could be used, Purdie adds.

You’ll be given a different phone number to use. Nathanson suggests you leave a voicemail message on your usual number with your international roaming number before you go. Let your friends and family know the temporary number before you leave. To use the phone when you’re overseas simply call the number you want and your phone will then ring you back. Answer it and your call will be connected. “The first time you use it it’s weird,” says Nathanson.

Another option is to buy a prepaid local SIM card overseas. “They’re available just about anywhere – try a convenience store at your destination,” says Purdie. “This will allow you to call back home at cheaper rates than mobile roaming, and can also make local calls to your travelling companions if they have also purchased a SIM card. People back home can call to the new number of the prepaid card.”

As with the global SIM, your phone needs to be unlocked for this option to work. It generally works only in the country where you but it so, if you are country hopping, keep in mind you’ll probably need to but a different one for each place you visit.

Nathanson also warns some countries have introduced security legislation which makes it very difficult for a foreigner to obtain and top up a local SIM card. “Research this option very well for each country you are visiting before you leave” he says.

Another cheap option is VoIP. “If you don’t have a notebook, you can visit an internet café and make your VoIP calls that way.

“If you already have a VoIP account, then this will be the cheapest option as the rates are ridiculously low at around 2c per minute.”  

Buying a calling card in the country you are travelling in is another alternative. “Again these can be bought at a convenience store once you have arrived – they offer very cheap rates from a landline to back home,” says Purdie.

“To use a calling card you dial a special local number and then the number back home and you are connected.”

Purdie does have a couple of warnings: “Be wary of using them in hotels as they often charge a fee on top of the normal cost. And calling cards are preloaded with credit so beware of buying too much credit in one go in case the card is lost.” Purdie also suggests you read the fine print as some cards are very expensive to use.

You can buy a prepaid calling card in Australia. For example, Telstra offers the PhoneA-way card, which works both in Australia and overseas in most touchtone phones.

If a touchtone phone is not available, the call will go through to an operator. As the table shows, the rates are quite competitive. The drawback, Nathanson points out, is that your family, friends and colleagues can’t contact you – although some might see this as an advantage!

Of course, if you’re only going for only a short time and don’t want the hassle, you can take your own mobile using your existing service. Keep in mind this will probably be the most expensive option.

Make sure you understand exactly what it will cost you. “Check the rates for making and receiving calls, sending SMS and using 3G data or GPRS services on overseas networks,” says a spokesperson for Optus. Data in particular, such as emails, can be a huge cost so avoid using your phone this way.

Consider using SMS because it’s a cheaper way to communicate, and make calls only when absolutely necessary.

Note you’ll also be charged for incoming calls. The caller is charge the standard call rate while you will have to pay for the international portion of the call. See below, Need to know, for more tips.

Before you go overseas, make sure you contact your provider to arrange for your roaming function to be activated. An Optus spokesperson also recommends you check that your handset will work in the countries you plan to visit. “Destinations such as USA, Japan and Korea have networks that may not be compatible with your handset,” he says.

Need to know
It’s a good idea to change the numbers in your handset phonebook to international format, for example +61 4** *** *** for an Australian mobile number, says an Optus spokesperson. This will allow you to call back to Australia from your handset contacts in the usual way.

Sending a text message can be a cheaper way to communicate, but BackChat Mobile’s Danny Nathanson says you should avoid “text conversations”, that is, to and fro text messaging. It could end up costing you more than a quick call.

To get your money’s worth with SMSs, Nathanson recommends: “Use up your full 160 characters per message.”

Switch off your voicemail as the call will bounce back and forth to Australia and cost you an international roaming call to retrieve messages, says Nathanson.