In the current age of smartphones and constant connectivity, it’s hard to imagine not being able to access the internet, message your friends, and share your photos on the internet while travelling. Despite this, something that has barely improved is the cost of international roaming.
Most carriers in Australia have made the idea of bill shock from roaming a foreign concept, but that doesn’t mean the roaming plans on offer now are the best value around. Some of these can cost up to $10 per day, adding up when you’re on the road for three months. You can use a few other strategies to find cheap international roaming options.
While previously, your best option was to purchase a local SIM card, for many reasons, this is becoming more difficult and, in some cases, impossible. I choose to use the Airalo eSIM app for the most flexibility. When looking at ways to save money while travelling, this is a relatively small one, but access to connectivity on the road often saves you time and can make your travel easier.
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Roaming packs do save you money
- You know what you have to pay upfront
- No need to acquire a new phone number
- Data allowances are generous enough
- Easy to contact people back in Australia as this is included in the cost.
- Costs can add up quickly on longer trips
- If you aren’t travelling to one of the included countries, the costs can skyrocket
- Some carriers will charge you the rate for the pack even if you only need to send one SMS
- Requires you to be on specific plans to be eligible for the roaming pack
The big three carriers – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone- offer their own roaming packs. This is the idea of paying a fixed price and being able to use your phone overseas for most things. The current offerings are:
- Telstra: Unlimited calls, SMS and 1GB of data for $10 per day ($5 per day in New Zealand). Particular ‘Zone 3’ countries do not include data. No ability to roam in countries not included in Zones
- Optus: Unlimited calls, SMS and 5GB data for $5 per day only if on the ‘Choice Plus’ plan or $10 per day for 1GB. Packs only apply in Zone 1 countries. Otherwise, it is Pay as you go (PAYG)
- Vodafone: $5 per day to use your regular plan allowance in 100 countries (capped data not included)
These plans offer you the ability to use your existing phone number and service as you would at home, which is very handy, especially when trying to reach or be reached by people back home. This can be an okay cost for a short one-week trip, but once you’re travelling for 2-3 months, it can quickly add up. You can see from Vodafone’s roaming map below that although many popular countries are included (red) in these roaming plans many destinations are not (blue and grey).
Some carriers, such as Telstra, have no ability to use PAYG rates which, while done to avoid bill shock, can become annoying when needing to do small things. I was stung by this when trying to respond to a bank verification SMS to confirm a transaction which on PAYG is only $0.75, and I had to pay $10 to use the pack for the day as there was no alternative.
I want to note that all the main Australian carriers support WiFi calling. This means connecting to a WiFi network allows you to make calls even if the signal is poor. A cool trick here is that this works overseas, so if you’re connected to your hotel or airport WiFi with WiFi calling enabled, you can use your phone just as you would at home with no additional roaming charges.
Local SIM cards are much cheaper than using international roaming
- Very cheap calling and data rates
- It gives you a local number for calling businesses and hotels
- If you don’t have a dual SIM phone, it can mean switching SIM cards if you need SMS verification codes.
- You may need a new SIM card in each country you visit on a more extended trip.
- Many countries now have stringent verification requirements before acquiring a local SIM.
This is what I have used previously for a long time. Buying a local SIM card at the airport was easy, and as a bonus, you’d get lots of data and included calls at much cheaper rates than those available in Australia. Even better, buying a SIM card in the EU would give you free roaming throughout other EU countries, making it the perfect companion for your Europe trip.
Compared to the above roaming rates, if I were to buy a local SIM card on a visit to Kenya, paying the equivalent of $10, I would get 30GB of data for the month! You save less in European countries, but typically, the prices of data overseas are much lower than those found in Australia. A big downside here is that in many politically unstable countries, prepaid SIM cards have been used by terrorist organisations to communicate. Countries like Kenya are much stricter when selling SIM cards to foreigners, and some stores require a national ID card before selling to you. This process significantly diminishes the ease of acquiring local SIMs and it is sometimes impossible for foreigners to acquire one.
In the worse case, you may be able to buy a tourist SIM, providing you temporary access to the network but because these are targetted at tourists, they are priced accordingly. This makes the value proposition a lot less and means you have to change your phone number and have issues accessing verification codes for not very much savings.
Buy an instant eSIM via the Airalo app for the best of both worlds
- Convenient to access – you only need to download the app
- No ID checks needed
- Cost effective – while not always as cheap as a local SIM, it is much cheaper than international roaming.
- Most eSIM compatible phones will be dual-SIM allowing you to keep both numbers active or at least easily switch between them.
- Requires an eSIM compatible phone
- Only provides data access; no phone number included
Airalo is a company I was introduced to a couple of years ago when I was travelling, and it has many advantages over the other options. I found myself in Bosnia, a non-EU country, meaning my UK SIM card did not allow me to roam here. Luckily Airalo allowed me to buy an eSIM using the airport WiFi network for a very low price.
Using Airalo is very simple. You download the app and search for the country or region you are in. The single-country plans are much better value than the regional ones. Once you’ve found a plan you like, you pay and download the eSIM profile. It loads on your phone, and you’re done!
The advantage here is that if you need to receive SMS codes from your bank or other apps, you can still do so. If you have a standard SIM card on an iPhone, you can keep that active at the same time as your eSIM (while disabling data on your home SIM), or if you have an eSIM at home, switching between them is as simple as selecting it from the menu. There’s no need to turn your phone off and change SIM cards anymore.
Airalo also means you can access data in regions which don’t fall under the Zone categories included in roaming plans from the leading carriers. This means if you’re travelling to more remote areas, you can usually find an appropriate plan to give you internet access. A downside here is that you only get data access with your plan. This means you can’t use your phone for phone calls or SMS, but it will still work with iMessage, WhatsApp, and Messenger, including calling functions like Facetime, as these operate over data networks. You can try using my WiFi calling trick above if you need to make phone calls.
There are many ways to save money on roaming costs when you’re travelling. With all the options available, you should never be paying excessive roaming fees. Airalo offers a good combination of cost and convenience, so I recommend you try it out.