Most of us would like to use our smartphones while traveling abroad but choosing an affordable method can seem very complicated. Should you buy an international roaming plan? And if you do, what does 100 megabytes of data get you anyway? Perhaps you need a hot spot pass? Or a local SIM card? If you don’t want an eye-popping phone bill, it’s essential to decide before you’re on the plane.
Phone Company Plans
Major domestic phone carriers offer prepaid voice and data packages designed for foreign travel that you can buy before you fly, the option many people feel most comfortable choosing. The cost of a text message or the cost per minute of a phone call is fairly straightforward (check your phone company’s website for pricing). But the cost of data — sending text-only emails, posting photos on Facebook, searching the Web for the addresses of restaurants and monuments — is not.
How much data you use depends on a variety of things, including the resolution and size of your photos and videos. Always opt for the lowest when sending or uploading. Another way to save: When walking around a city, use offline mapping apps like City Maps 2Go and OsmAnd, which can work without an Internet connection. (Such apps can take a toll on your phone’s battery life so consider the time-honoured tradition of carrying a paper map.) And of course patience will save you money: Spend the day taking all the photos and videos you want but upload them later using the free Wi-Fi at your hotel.
Vodafone’s Data Angel: If you’re on one of their eligible On Account plans you can use your plan minutes, TXTs and data in one of 17 international destinations for $5 a day with Daily Roaming. They’ll send you a TXT when you’ve used 80% and 100% of your data, so you’ll always know exactly what you’re spending. Packages start from $15 for 40MB in Fiji, UK, USA and most of Europe and Asia. http://www.vodafone.co.nz/mobile-services/data-angel-overseas/
Telecom: if you have a Pay Monthly contract, then they have a $10 per day package (based on similar use to if you were in NZ) which will cover data roaming in Canada, China, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, USA. http://www.spark.co.nz/shop/mobile/internationalroaming/zonesandprices
2degrees: offer great value prepaid data packs for Australia but not beyond at this stage. http://www.2degreesmobile.co.nz/paymonthly/plans/roaming
You may also wish to set a ‘spend cap’ on your phone & data plan to avoid nasty roaming-related surprises when you get home!
Bottom line: Phone company plans are not always the most affordable way to go, but they offer one-stop shopping directly with your carrier. All of our major NZ carriers do have good information on their websites about how much data roaming will cost you should you use it overseas.
Local SIM Cards
Travellers who want to make local calls at their destination sometimes buy a SIM card from a provider other than their home phone company, which gives them a local phone number — and local calling rates. To do so, your phone must be “unlocked,” allowing it to be used on another network. At your destination you’ll need to visit a newsstand or mobile phone store to buy the SIM card, then activate the card with instructions that are, alas, sometimes in another language. You won’t be using your own phone number if you go this route. And because you’ll have a local number, if anyone from NZ calls you on it and doesn’t have an international calling plan, they’ll get charged a lot more. If you go down this road, it can be worth just buying the cheapest most basic phone to insert your local SIM into (approx. $25 in NZ) or taking an old phone with you and so you can still access your NZ number/texts etc without constantly swapping SIM cards around.
Bottom line: If you’re an inexperienced traveller or visiting someplace where you don’t speak the language, there can be a learning curve involved in using a SIM card that you may not want to tackle. But this continues to be one of the best ways to make cheap local calls.
If you use a lot of data and want to avoid data roaming fees, your best bet is to turn off data roaming and buy an unlimited pass for citywide Wi-Fi instead. One company, Boingo, offers one-month unlimited mobile Wi-Fi access for two devices at more than 700,000 hot spots worldwide for $7.95 USD. This is a recurring subscription, so if you want the service for only a month, you have to cancel, but there’s no fee for doing so. If you were to use Boingo in London, for example, you would discover that there are 32,209 hot spots in public spaces, 721 in restaurants and 244 in retailers. You can see city maps with hot spots at Boingo.com.
Wi-Fi opens up a whole new set of affordable uses for your phone, like making voice calls and texting. Download Skype before you travel and you can make free phone calls (as long as both parties are members). You can text for free too, using apps like WhatsApp. Note, though, that calls and messages through these services are free only if you’re using them over free Wi-Fi. Data charges apply when you’re not.
In some cities, you don’t even have to buy a Wi-Fi pass, thanks to free public networks. Paris, for instance, has more than 250 free hot spots. Apps like Free Wi-Fi Finder, which works even if you shut off data roaming, can help you locate Wi-Fi.
Alas, free public Wi-Fi has a significant downside: Users are at risk of “sniffer” attacks, designed to steal information like IDs and passwords. We’d advise against using Internet browsers to log onto websites like Gmail, Yahoo and Facebook. You would be wise not to do your banking either. It’s less dangerous to download email through inboxes you configured in your phone’s operating system. But of course the safest option is to avoid free hot spots altogether.
Bottom line: If you use a lot of data and are willing to gamble with free public Wi-Fi, you’ll save serious money.
As you can see, each method has its pros and cons. Just be sure to choose before you travel. And remember: You’re exploring someplace new. Soak it up. Put down the phone!