Global roaming: How to save when you travel

Heading overseas? Don't get stung by exorbitant roaming charges.

Global roaming, or international roaming, is the act of using your Australian SIM card to make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, or use mobile data while travelling abroad. As anyone who's ever had any experience with global roaming knows, it's a convenience that often comes at an exorbitant (and unexpected) price.

To avoid returning home to several thousand dollars in excess data charges, you'll want to explore your global roaming options before you travel. That's why we've put together this guide on how global roaming works and what you need to know to stay connected without paying a fortune.

Quick tips

What are my options?

For many business travellers, remaining in contact while overseas is a must, regardless of the costs involved. And if your company is willing to foot the bill for the luxury then you're one of the lucky few. For the average consumer, however, remaining in contact 24/7 might not be a priority (especially if you're chilling poolside in Fiji). If you're an average mobile user, you have four main options when travelling overseas.

  1. Do nothing and use global roaming
  2. Purchase a travel pack from your mobile carrier
  3. Purchase a new travel SIM for the country you're travelling to
  4. Purchase a prepaid SIM from your destination when you touchdown

Option 1: Use global roaming

Whenever someone uses their mobile phone while overseas, they are actually connecting to a foreign mobile carrier's network. If the customer is using their Australian service in a different country, it means their mobile carrier (eg Telstra, Vodafone, Optus) has a roaming agreement with the foreign network's carrier.

Roaming agreements vary drastically from carrier to carrier and country to country, as do the charges involved. For example, in Hong Kong, mobile data roaming could cost you as "little" as $1 per megabyte (MB) if you're an Optus customer. If you're a Telstra customer, however, you could be slugged as much as $3 per MB.

Where can I use global roaming?

Again, where you can use international roaming is entirely dependent on what countries your mobile carrier has established agreements with. As such, it's critical that you check with your carrier before leaving the country. For example, Optus customers travelling to Suriname will find themselves in a spot of bother if they've planned to use their mobile during their trip, as Optus does not permit global roaming in Suriname – Telstra, on the other hand, does.

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Option 2: Travel packs

Depending on which mobile provider you're with, you might be able to purchase a travel pack for your existing phone service before heading overseas. These packs differ between mobile providers, but they typically come with a set amount of call and data inclusions for use in specific countries. Any usage outside those countries will be charged at standard roaming rates though, so be sure to double-check eligible destinations if your trip involves a lot of border crossings.

For the current travel packs offered by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, check out the tables below.

Telstra International Day Pass

Only available in eligible countries
CallsSMSMMSDataPrice
Unlimited standard national and international callsUnlimited standard SMSNot included200MB per day$10

Eligible countries: Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, UK, Ukraine, Uruguay, USA, Vanuatu, Vietnam.

Optus Travel Pack

Only available in eligible countries
CallsSMSMMSDataPrice
Unlimited standard national and international callsUnlimited standard SMSNot included100MB per day (charged in 10KB increments)$10

Eligible countries: Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Greenland, Guam & the Northern Marianas, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Mongolia, Monaco, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA, US Virgin Islands, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vatican City.

Vodafone $5 Roaming

Vodafone's travel pack is charged differently from Telstra and Optus. For a fee of $5 a day, Vodafone customers can use their included plan value in over 60 different countries. The handy thing about Vodafone $5 Roaming is that, so long as your plan was connected after 23 April 2014, you don't have to go out of your way to activate it, meaning you're free to set off on your travels without worrying about setting up a travel pack.

Eligible countries: Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Serbia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tonga, Turkey, Uruguay, USA, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Wales.


Pay As You Go Roaming

If you're a prepaid Vodafone customer, there are also options available for you when travelling overseas. On Pay As You Go, the roaming rates are as follows:

  • $1 per MB
  • $1 per minute when making or receiving calls
  • 75c per SMS or MMS
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Option 3: Purchase a travel SIM

Some companies offer prepaid travel SIM cards that boast far lower call and data rates than local telcos typically charge. These SIMs are handy for those who don't want to deal with purchasing a fresh SIM card in a country they've never been to before since you don't need to worry about speaking the local tongue or carrying around local currency – purchasing and recharging your travel SIM is all done online.

Regular travellers or those hopping between multiple countries in one trip can save even more thanks to the value bundles many travel SIM companies offer. These bundles come loaded with data and call minutes to use in specific regions like Europe or America, and typically work out quite a bit cheaper than paying as you go.

Best of all, it's not necessary to have friends and family memorise a new phone number when using a travel SIM: many companies now offer the ability to redirect your existing mobile number to your temporary travel SIM. If you're going to be overseas for a decent chunk of time, you may also consider adding a local landline number from Australia to your travel SIM. This will allow anyone from Australia to call you overseas for the price of a local landline call rather than forking out international call rates.

Check out the latest deals on travel SIMs below:

ChatSim Unlimited

ChatSim Unlimited from ChatSim

ChatSim Unlimited offers unlimited text that lasts up to a year and multimedia add-ons to use when traveling abroad. Click here to find out more.

View details
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Option 4: Purchase a local SIM card from your destination

The fourth and often most wallet-friendly option when travelling overseas is to purchase a prepaid SIM card when you arrive at your destination. You won't be using your Australian phone number, but it will work out a lot cheaper since you'll be accessing the local mobile network directly rather than through a pricey roaming agreement. If you already have a destination in mind, check out our comprehensive round-up of the best international SIM cards for hundreds of destinations around the world. Otherwise, here are our top tips for purchasing a SIM card overseas:

  • Be sure to check if your phone is unlocked from your carrier's network before you go. Seeing that "SIM not valid" message is dreadful at the best of times, let alone when you're thousands of kilometres from home. Check out our comprehensive guide to network unlocking any phone here.
  • Activate global roaming before you leave. Even if you're not going to use it, it's always handy to have your Aussie SIM card ready in case of an emergency – just remember to keep it somewhere safe (eg with your passport).
  • Turn off your Australian handset before departing. Better yet, remove your SIM card completely. Sure, many airlines have onboard Wi-Fi these days, so it's always nice to have your device on hand. However, if you forget to switch off your phone before entering the country, you could get hit with some unexpected data charges.
  • Purchase your SIM card directly from the airport. Many mobile carriers will have retail stores located in international airports. Not only is it handy to get connected as soon as possible, but airport staff are well-versed in dealing with clueless travellers who don't know what to ask for.
  • Remember to ask where the prepaid SIM card will cover you. When travelling in particular regions, you might find yourself hopping between countries on a daily basis. Some SIM cards (especially around the EU) will only cover you for use in certain countries, and you could suddenly end up without coverage if you're not prepared.
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Bonus option: Wing it with Wi-Fi

Your last option is to not use roaming or even a SIM card at all. Most modern devices can connect to a Wi-Fi access point, and most hotels and resorts these days offer a (sometimes free) Wi-Fi connection. Not only that but most cafes, restaurants, libraries and airports also offer free Wi-Fi, so you can get connected pretty much anywhere for free.

With the amount of communication services available on the Internet these days, you really don't need your SIM card to stay in contact with loved ones while travelling abroad. There are many alternatives, like Facebook, iMessage, WhatsApp and Skype, for contacting home, all of which can be used over a Wi-Fi connection.

You can still use your smartphone or tablet during the day to take photos, record video and listen to music with airplane mode switched on (which blocks all incoming and outgoing mobile data from your device). Then, if you want to upload the truckload of selfies from the day, you can put it all up on Instagram when you return to the warm embrace of free Wi-Fi.

Finally: Our top tips for global roaming

  • Set your own usage alerts on your phone. Android phones allow you to manually set a data limit in settings. If you go over this limit you'll be alerted and your data will be switched off.
  • Leave your phone on airplane mode. If you're not planning on using global roaming, you may as well leave airplane mode on for the entirety of your trip. You can still connect to Wi-Fi when in airplane mode.
  • Switch off voicemail. Does anybody still use voicemail? If you absolutely must use your mobile while overseas, we recommend switching off voicemail, as the charges are not usually included with your travel pack allowance.
  • Switch off background data, automatic updates, location settings etc. Basically, turn off any setting that automatically uses data. The last thing you want is for your phone to begin downloading the latest Fortnite update while you're birdwatching in Panama.

Latest roaming headlines

Brodie Fogg

Brodie is the Assistant Publisher at finder.com.au for everything tech and telco. When he's not drooling over the latest comic book releases or grinding away at the newest time-devouring RPG, he's helping people choose between Australia's streaming services, suggesting better broadband plans or comparing the latest mobile plans.

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4 Responses

  1. Default Gravatar
    RodAugust 19, 2017

    Traveling to France with a stop over in Doha.

    Do we purchase SIM cards in France or pre pay in Melbourne before leaving?

    • Default Gravatar
      MariaAugust 19, 2017

      Hi Rod,

      As finder is a financial comparison website offering general advice, we are not permitted to provide our users with personalised financial advice or make product recommendations.

      However, we do help guide you through the process of comparing your options.

      You may find useful information on roaming with your existing mobile plan on our page for Prepaid or Postpaid.

      You can also read our page on Using a Prepaid SIM card while traveling around the European Union.

      I hope this helps.

      Cheers!
      Maria

  2. Default Gravatar
    AnneAugust 16, 2017

    Travelling to Dubai, Portugal, Spain, UK and Iceland from Australia from 13th September 2017. Best plan/card to use. Can I keep my own number while travelling?

    • finder Customer Care
      RenchAugust 16, 2017Staff

      Hi Anne,

      Thanks for your inquiry.

      If you have an existing contract mobile plan, it’s always wise if you know you’re going to travel to purchase a roaming allowance from your contract provider rather than simply enabling roaming, because the associated costs can be quite high. You can get this info on this page.

      You can also do roaming with a prepaid plan. It minimizes the possibility of outright bill shock simply because you can’t spend more than the amount you’ve already given your telco before you travel. You can get more helpful info on this page.

      Hope this information helped.

      Cheers,
      Rench

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