Stay in touch while travelling overseas?

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 2GB of data get you anyway? Should you get a local or dual 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

The major NZ 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. When walking around a city, you can now download Google Maps to work offline. In Apple Maps iOS 17 update, travellers will be able to download a specific area on the map to use offline. (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.

As a guide, in one hour you will use approx 40MB of data browsing the internet or on social media or 72MB data on Google maps. An hour of streaming music uses 120MB, an hour of chatting on Skype uses 220MB. Avoid video streaming like Youtube as this is very data heavy, 480MB per hour!

One NZ Roaming: If you’re on one of their eligible Pay Monthly plans you can use your plan minutes, TXTs and data in one of 104 international destinations for $8 a day with Daily Roaming. If you are on a Prepay plan, you can buy bundles of data/minutes/txts – e.g $22 per week for 1GB data/100mins outgoing & 100mins incoming. 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.

Spark: if you have a Prepaid or Pay Monthly contract, you can add NZD$30 roaming packages (based on similar use to if you were in NZ) which will give you 2GB of data, 300 mins outgoing, 300 mins incoming and 300 texts for 14 days in 45 countries including much of Europe, North America, Asia and the Pacific.

2degrees: also allow you to use your NZ plan for $8 per day in over 100 destinations worldwide.

Skinny offer roaming packs, e.g $23 for 200 Mins/200 Texts /1GB data.

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.

Dual SIM Cards / eSIM

Each SIM has its own phone number. Each one can also have a separate plan or pack associated with a mobile network. You can use both of the phone numbers linked to the SIMs. Use both SIMs on one phone to make and receive calls and texts from both numbers. In your phone settings, you can switch between SIM profiles and turn a SIM off or on. For specific instructions, check with your device’s manufacturer. Most dual SIM phones are Dual SIM Dual Standby, or DSDS. If your phone supports DSDS, you can assign each SIM to voice, data and/or texts. You can only use one network at a time. For instance, if you’re on a call on one line, you can’t get a call on the other SIM at the same time. Here are some phones that support dual SIM with standby:

Huawei: Mate 20 Pro, Huawei nova 5T, P40 Pro
Nokia: Nokia 7.2
OPPO: Reno 2 & OPPO A9 2020
Apple: iPhone XR, XS and later (on the latest software version)
Samsung: Galaxy A51, Galaxy Fold, Galaxy Z Flip, S20 series

With eSIM you can run two numbers on your phone – one for work and one for play – so you never have to carry two phones again. Travel from country to country without constantly switching between physical SIM cards

Local SIM Cards

Travellers who want to make local calls at their destination sometimes buy a SIM card from a provider like EE, Orange Holiday Europe, T-Mobile or AT&T which gives them a local phone number — and local calling rates. “Local” SIM cards only work within one geographic area. If your phone is locked, you’ll need to contact your current carrier and request them to unlock it before you can use local, international and travel SIM cards overseas. Phone companies usually charge a fee to do this and it can take a few days, so don’t leave it until the last minute before you travel. At your destination you’ll need to visit a phone store, electronics store or supermarket to buy the SIM card, then activate the card with instructions that are, alas, sometimes in another language. You can tailor data limits and call/text benefits to your needs and these are often prepaid pay-as-you-go options with no lock-in contracts.

NOTE 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. $99 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.

Free public Wi-Fi hotspots is now available in most towns and cities worldwide and opens up a whole new set of affordable uses for your phone, like making voice calls and texting. Use free apps like Facetime or WhatsApp and you can make free phone calls (as long as both parties are members). 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.

Alas, unsecured 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!