Buying a roaming SIM before you travel

Planning a trip soon? Don’t want to get stung by punitive global roaming fees? Here’s what you need to know about buying a SIM in advance for your phone.

Before you decide on a provider, you need to check off a few simple items to ensure that your phone will work when you land overseas.

Is your phone unlocked?

The biggest single factor that could trip you up with a change in SIM is if your smartphone is locked to your existing Australian provider. Locking is the process whereby your phone is software bound to a particular provider ID. Putting a different provider SIM in such a phone will result in no service whatsoever, whether at home or abroad.

If you purchased your smartphone outright you don’t have to worry about this step in most cases. The only slight exception here are the very cheap "prepaid" phones, typically sold for less than $100 in mass market outlets such as department stores or supermarkets. They’re pitched towards the budget-centric crowd and are sometimes still locked to a given provider, so if you got your phone that way, it would pay to check beforehand. The fees for unlocking vary by provider and the length of time you’ve had the prepaid service for, with many omitting a charge if you’ve used the service for a long enough period of time.

If your phone was on a contract, it’s worth checking with your provider if the phone is locked as well. Many providers may well try to tempt you with their own roaming solution, and depending on the provider that may well be the most attractive price option. You can check our guide to the big three telco providers here. Still, they should also be able to inform you if your phone is locked even if you don’t wish to use their existing roaming services. Locking for contract phones is significantly less common than it used to be, but it’s still something to be wary of.

Telstra’s guide to unlocking iPhone devices can be found here. If you’re using a Telstra prepaid phone, the instructions for unlocking your phone can be found here.

Optus doesn’t lock all that many contract phones, and doesn’t charge for unlocking a contract phone or prepaid handset that’s been recharged for at least $80. You can find Optus’ general guide to unlocking here.

Vodafone also doesn’t lock many of its phones, but it provides an unlocking tool online for the phones that it has locked. The fee for unlocking a prepaid phone varies by the amount of time you’ve used it, with a notable discount for unlocking through the website. You can find the full details here.

If you're with a mobile virtual network operator the odds are very low that your phone is locked unless you've procured it on contract with them. It's still wise to check upfront if your phone is unlocked.

What size SIM do you need?

The next step is to determine which size SIM your phone will need prior to swapping the SIM out. Our guide to SIM sizes can assist you with getting the right size SIM from your travel SIM provider.

Which services do you really need?

There are numerous SIM providers that focus on international traveller use, and as with any kind of mobile contract purchase, it’s worth weighing up your likely usage patterns before you go. Many travel SIM providers focus strongly on calling provisions, utilising Voice Over IP (VOIP) to minimise costs, which can often involve complex dialling procedures in order to actually place a call.

The payoff for that added complexity is significantly cheaper call costs, but the trap is that such services don't often place much of a premium on low data costs. Data costs on that style of provider can often be more than you’d pay with your regular prepaid or postpaid carrier, even when roaming.

Other services focus exclusively on data access for those who want roaming data on the go but aren’t so fussed about calls. You can always use these services to access Skype or Whatsapp or similar services for a faux-phone style connection, as long as you keep an eye on your data usage.

ChatSim Unlimited from ChatSim

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

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Do you need a single-country SIM, or a multi-country one?

Most travel SIMs sold in Australia are designed to work in multiple countries, but the way they charge for services can vary widely depending on where you're travelling and the services you wish to access.

It's worth carefully considering the costs associated with the country or countries you wish to travel to. Some providers offer blanket packages for popular destinations that may prove better value than grabbing a SIM that'll work in multiple locations if you're only planning to hit a single destination.

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