International roaming: How to save when you travel

Now that the world has opened back up to Australia, here’s how to avoid bill shock if you’re out of practice.

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If you're about to travel overseas and you've booked your tickets, hotels and entertainment, the next order of business is working out how to use your phone overseas.

On the vast majority of mobile plans in Australia, you can just take your phone and use it, but each call can cost up to $5/minute, and data can also quickly add up to the price of a small car.

We've put together this guide to explain how roaming charges work and to help you avoid any bill shock while you're overseas.

What are my roaming options?

Depending on your reasons for travelling, different roaming options on SIM cards will be better tailored to your needs.

Your 4 options are:

  1. Use international roaming
  2. Use a travel add-on from your mobile provider
  3. Buy a specific travel SIM card
  4. Buy a local SIM card at your destination

For example, if you're just on holiday, then you might just want to be able to post pics to Instagram and FaceTime with Mum, in which case you could just get a cheap SIM card at your destination.

If you're travelling around a few different countries, a travel SIM might be better.

But if you're a business traveller who has to be contactable 24/7, you'll probably need to keep your number (or put on call forwarding).

Best plan for international roaming

Vodafone $40 SIM-only Lite Plan

Unlimited
Calls & Text
80GB
Data
$40.00
per month
Vodafone $40 SIM-only Lite Plan logo

Vodafone not only offers the cheapest roaming add-on, it also covers the most amount of countries. For $5 extra a day on top of its normal plan cost, you get to use your Vodafone plan like you would back in Australia.

Its $40 plan strikes the right balance between generous data and value to cover the extra you might use while travelling (for example, video calls home, uploading photos and videos to make friends jealous back home).

Option 1: Use international roaming

This is the most expensive option, and one we would only recommend under dire circumstances, or if someone else (like your boss) is paying.

If you're not with a major carrier like Telstra or Optus, you'll need to double-check they offer roaming, and you'll also need to confirm if your country is covered.

Checklist for international roaming:
Does your carrier support roaming?
Is the country you're visiting supported?
Check the call and data rates. This can vary wildly, starting at $1/MB, with some carriers charging $3/MB.

The big 3 telcos have sliced the world up into "zones" of countries that dictate how much you'll spend on roaming while you're there. The "zone" your destination is in makes a huge difference in price.

You can see on the map below how the roaming costs break down from the major providers: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

Option 2: Travel add-on packs

If you're only going on a short trip for a few days or want to keep your Aussie phone number while you're away, then a travel pack is the best bet. These packs differ depending on the provider, but usually come with a set amount of call and data inclusions for selected countries.

Any usage outside of these countries will be charged at standard roaming rates though, so it's good to double check that the places you're going to are covered.

The big 3 Australian telcos have roaming packs with varying generosity:

Telstra only offers 1 roaming add-on called its International Day Pass on its Upfront plans, and is the least generous of the major telcos.

CallsSMSDataPrice
UnlimitedUnlimited500MB/day$10/day

If you go over your allocated data amount, additional data will cost you $10/GB.

Optus splits its roaming offers depending on what type of plan you're after: postpaid or prepaid.

For Optus postpaid plans, you have 2 options of roaming add-ons that apply to countries on their Zone 1 destination list:

CallsSMSDataPrice
UnlimitedUnlimited1GB/day$10/day
UnlimitedUnlimited5GB/7 days (equivalent to 1.4GB/day)$50/7 days (equivalent to $7.14/day)

If you go over your data limit on either pack, they'll charge you another $10 for each extra 1GB.

Zone 1 destinations for Optus include:

  • Albania
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Austria
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bangladesh
  • Belarus
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Cambodia
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China
  • Colombia
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Ecuador
  • Estonia
  • Faroe Islands
  • Fiji
  • Finland
  • France
  • French Polynesia
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Greenland
  • Guam
  • Guernsey
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Ireland
  • Isle of Man
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Jersey
  • Kazakhstan
  • Korea, Republic of
  • Kuwait
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macao
  • Macedonia
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Mexico
  • Moldova
  • Montenegro
  • Myanmar
  • Nauru
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Palestine
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Puerto Rico
  • Romania
  • Russian Federation
  • Samoa (Western)
  • San Marino
  • Serbia
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Solomon Islands
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan, Province of China
  • Tajikistan
  • Thailand
  • Timor
  • Tonga
  • Turkey
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • US Virgin Islands
  • Vanuatu
  • Vatican City (Holy See)
  • Vietnam

Optus prepaid, on the other hand, offers a much better roaming deal but only if it suits the destinations you're heading to.

CallsSMSDataPrice
NoneNone10GB/14 days (equivalent to 0.71GB/day)$20/14 days (equivalent to $1.43/day)

The catch is that it only includes mobile data (no calls) and that it only works in 10 destinations: Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, UK and USA.

Vodafone has arguably the best postpaid roaming offer available across all its plans, and works quite differently to the rest.

Instead of buying an add-on with a set amount of inclusions, you'll just need to pay an extra $5 a day and you can use your mobile plan as though you were in Australia, with all the same data and call inclusions.

That means if you're on a Vodafone mobile plan that usually gets you 40GB for $40 each month, you'll be able to use 40GB overseas for $45 ($40 as your usual plan price, plus an additional $5 for roaming).

It works in more than 100 countries, so chances are good that you'll be covered.

Eligible countries include:

  • Aland Islands
  • Albania
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Austria
  • Bangladesh
  • Belarus
  • Belgium
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Cambodia
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China
  • Colombia
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Costa Rica
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Dominican Republic
  • Estonia
  • Fiji
  • Finland
  • France
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Gibraltar
  • Greece
  • Guatemala
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • India
  • Indonesia (includes Bali)
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kuwait
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macau
  • Macedonia
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Mexico
  • Republic of Moldova
  • Monaco
  • Mongolia
  • Montenegro
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Nauru
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Samoa
  • San Marino
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Serbia
  • Singapore
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • Solomon Islands
  • South Africa
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Republic of Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • East Timor
  • Tonga
  • Turkey
  • Ukraine
  • UK (England)
  • America (USA)
  • Uruguay
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vanuatu
  • Vatican City
  • Vietnam
  • Virgin Islands, U.S.
  • Scotland
  • Northern Ireland
  • Wales

If you're on Vodafone prepaid, you can pay $5 a day to get 200MB of data per day, though there are incentives when you buy days in bulk – $35 gets you 2GB to use over 7 days.

Option 3: Use a specific travel SIM

Whether you travel a lot or just want a SIM that can take you to multiple countries, there are a couple of retailers in Australia that can sell you just the thing you need.

Both SIM Corner and FlexiRoam sell SIMs that cover whole continents or particular bundles of countries, with credit lasting 7–60 days and prices starting at $30. These typically work out to be cheaper than paying as you go on your regular mobile plan.

1 - 2 of 2
Name Product Number of countries Data Range Shipment Time
SimCorner Travel Sim Cards
80+
1GB-Unlimited
1-12 business days
Flexiroam X
140+
1GB-7GB
3-7 business days
loading

Compare up to 4 providers

Option 4: Buy a local SIM card at your destination

This is usually the cheapest option if you're only visiting 1 country for more than a few days. You might not be able to call home as readily (depending on the offer from the telco over there), but you will likely have more data for cheaper, and a local mobile plan that you can use to call hotels and taxis.

If you do choose this route, here are some tips for a smooth process:

  • Check your phone: Make sure your Australian phone isn't locked to your carrier and is compatible with the technology available in that country (for example, if you're on a 3G phone, make sure they still use a 3G network).
  • Keep your regular SIM card with you: Take out your SIM card before you leave and keep it somewhere safe in your suitcase so you don't lose it, but have it with you in case something goes wrong. This way you won't accidentally rack up charges, but can still activate international roaming if your new SIM doesn't work.
  • Know where you're covered: If you're traveling through different countries in 1 continent, ask which countries the SIM card will work in. Not all SIMs cover countries within the same continent (e.g. Europe), so you don't want to be stuck paying extra charges because you've used your phone somewhere that isn't covered.
  • Bring a SIM ejector tool or a paperclip: This is so you can actually change the physical SIM card.
  • Do your research ahead of time: For the really organised, look to see which local providers are popular and good value before you arrive. That way, you'll know which brand to look out for rather than buying the first one you see at the airport. These could cost you more than getting one in the local shopping centre.

Bonus option: Travel from Wi-Fi hotspot to Wi-Fi hotspot

If you're travelling for fun, why not just stay in the moment and save some money? You can have your phone in Airplane Mode and use it to take photos, and then just upload over Wi-Fi at the hotel or a cafe.

If you need to call for help, your phone might still be capable of making an emergency call to 000, 111, 911, etc., depending on your country and phone (that's what "SOS Only" means).

Some extra tips for international roaming

Once you've decided which type of roaming option you're after, consider the following to really keep your usage low and avoid any hidden costs:

  • Turn off automatic downloads: This can easily eat through your data allocation without you even realising it's happening in the background. You can also go through your phone and turn off data access for every app you don't strictly need.
  • Download instead of stream: If you have a premium subscription to a music streaming app, download your favourite playlists over Wi-Fi and then turn off data access to the app so you don't accidentally blow through your savings on excess data charges.
  • Set a data limit: Android phones allow you to set a data limit in settings so you don't go over your allotment.
  • Track your daily data consumption: On iPhones, you can "reset usage data" before you put your phone in Airplane Mode on the flight there, so you can track how much data you've used each day and which apps are consuming data.
  • Turn off any settings you don't need: This includes voicemail (which isn't usually covered) and MMS (which is almost never covered by roaming packs).

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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.

      I would also want to advise that you learn more about how to use prepaid SIM cards 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?

    • Avatarfinder 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. Please feel free to read more about global roaming and see how it can help you save money in your travel.

      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 through our roaming prepaid guide.

      Hope this information helped.

      Cheers,
      Rench

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