Been burnt by extortionate roaming charges? Jenny Southan reports on how to keep your phone bill in check.
Every savvy traveller knows the perils of leaving data roaming on when overseas. In China, just 2.5 minutes of web browsing (using 1MB of data) will cost you £8. Check ten emails with attachments (18MB) and you could face an additional £144, while if you make a 15-minute video call on Skype (540MB) you could be forced to fork out an insane £4,320. Before you know it, your expense account is screaming. Even making long-distance phone calls, which might not rack up thousands of pounds as rapidly as using the internet, still generates some seriously steep bills when they are £1.65 a minute.
Posters on our online forum, businesstraveller.com/discussion, are all too familiar with the cost of communicating abroad. In November, VintageKrug wrote: “I worked with someone who once, unbeknownst to him, racked up a €15,000 bill when using a roaming 3G data card overseas.”
The upshot is, the only way to avoid being stung is to modify your relationship with your smartphone – and the way you work. “I have a business phone which remains on, but all the sexy stuff is turned off to avoid racking up extortionate bills,” VintageKrug said.
A spokesman for mobile network Truphone, which creates partnerships with local operators to enable customers to avoid hefty roaming rates, says: “The mobile phone is the fastest-growing piece of consumer technology in the history of the planet – the reason for that is it is phenomenally important, is very efficient and is the thing you use to make your life work. However, our stats show that about 60 per cent of people turn off data, and about 90 per cent radically change the way they use their phone when abroad.”
Curbing your phone use when travelling can make doing your job more difficult. And whether the pressure of keeping your bills down is self-imposed or a rule set by your company, it is equally stressful.
The good news is that last July the European Commission introduced caps on roaming charges for making and receiving calls when in EU countries (about 24p and 7p respectively, excluding VAT), sending texts (8p) and using data (58p per MB). They are set to fall again this July (downloads will be 37p per MB) and in 2014 (16p per MB).
The bad news is that some operators have reacted by increasing the charges for countries outside Europe, and there is no legislation against it. Mobile network O2 hiked many of its prices in November – making a call in South Africa, for example, jumped from £1.20 to £1.50 a minute. Sending texts from the US went from 25p to 40p, while using data outside of Europe remained at a reliably hefty £6 per MB.
Tomas Mendoza, managing director of smartphone rental provider Tep Wireless, was quoted on computing.co.uk as saying: “O2 is doing this simply because it can. There is no cross-continental regulation or body with jurisdiction. It’s the ‘wild west’ where phone operators can charge what they want.”
He added: “The biggest rip-off nowadays is the cost to access the web while overseas. It’s all about data – not phone calls or text messages – because the average smartphone user spends 80 per cent of their time on internet-related activities.”
Given the solution to this problem is not going to be resolved any time soon, the only approach for travellers is to establish a middle ground between convenience and cost, and decide on a method that best suits your requirements. The most convenient option – to use your mobile abroad just as you would at home – is also the most expensive. The least convenient, but cheapest, is to buy a local SIM card for every country you visit on arrival.
John Butterfield, director of international pay-as-you-go SIM card provider ritesim.com, which launched last summer, says: “Buying a prepaid SIM card will always save the traveller money, whether they are going away for four days or two weeks. You can call a UK mobile on an Indian SIM card from India for 15p a minute so it’s far cheaper. The cost of data in Africa, Australasia and India is between 2p and 5p per MB but most networks will charge you £1.50 to £6 per MB when roaming. Vodafone and O2 charge [from] £3 and £6 per MB in India – so £3,000-£6,000 for 1GB. We buy 1GB of data in India for US$2 and sell it for US$10.”
According to a poll on our website, about 41 per cent of readers use a local SIM card for the countries they visit most frequently. Forum poster LuganoPirate says: “I have four SIM cards – one for Switzerland, one for the UK, a Portuguese one and a South African one. The Portuguese one has the lowest roaming tariffs in the EU and that’s the one I use when travelling in the EU apart from the UK. The credit remains valid for a year whether used or not, but continues to remain valid if a top-up is made. It’s then valid again for another year.”
Getting a local SIM can be challenging, however, as Butterfield explains: “In most countries you need to register and activate your SIM because there has been a lot of misuse on prepaid SIM cards for terrorist activity. If you travel to Africa or India you would, at least, need to go in, show your passport and sign a few documents to get it activated. In Brazil you virtually need a local to guarantee you as you need a national insurance number.”
In some countries, such as in Europe, it is easier but it can still take up to 48 hours to activate a SIM – RiteSIM will make sure you are up and running by the time you arrive though.
SIM cards that are local to a specific country also offer the added benefit of a local number, whereas global SIMs, which allow you to roam across a number of countries at a reduced fee, don’t tend to. The latter are sold by dozens of retailers – GoSIM, 0044 and World SIM are three of the biggest – but as with local SIMs, you need to make sure your phone is unlocked to support them. This is perfectly legal and you can ask your network to do it for you, though some will charge you for it.
Toggle Mobile, which provides a prepaid global SIM with the option of adding up to nine local numbers, claims to reduce roaming rates by up to 90 per cent. Yet Butterfield says: “The reality is you could save 1,000 per cent if you use a local SIM.” Plus, you only reap the benefits when using it in Toggle countries such as France (3p for calls, 15p per MB for data). Ring the UK from China, a non-Toggle destination, and it will cost you £1.61 a minute, or from the US, £1.71, and you can’t use data.
If you don’t like fiddling around with multiple SIM cards and need data included, you might consider switching to the “world’s first global mobile network”, Truphone. Its pricing is a little complex, but there are essentially two options – a prepaid personal SIM, and price plans for businesses that want to avail of it as their primary network.
The company promises savings of up to 90 per cent in Truphone-affiliated countries (the UK, US, Australia, the Netherlands and Hong Kong), up to 60 per cent in Europe and 30 per cent in the rest of the world. In the US you would pay 10p per minute to call UK landlines (or 22p for mobiles) and a far more reasonable 20p per MB for data; in France, 25p per minute for calls and 60p per MB; and in China 79p per minute to call the UK and £1.80 per MB. It also offers local numbers for Truphone countries.
For those who know they are going to eat their way through a lot of data and won’t have access to free wifi, a good idea is to invest in a mobile hotspot. Miikka Hatala, marketing associate for hotspot manufacturer Uros Goodspeed, says: “Productivity requirements are so high for executives – in these cases we offer a solution which gives them availability for normal laptop use everywhere. We make agreements with local service providers, such as T-Mobile in Germany, and offer 500MB to 1GB a day.”
The Goodspeed hotspot, which is roughly the size, look and dimensions of a smartphone, costs about £220 and requires a SIM to be installed for each of the countries you want to use it in. (There are only ten to choose from, though, and all in Europe at the moment.) There is a monthly subscription fee of €9.90 but data can be as little as e5.90 a day for 1GB, and up to five devices can be connected to the password-protected wifi – handy if you travel with colleagues.
I tried the hotspot in Paris and found it worked well – with two iPhones and two laptops connected to it at one stage – though it was a little fiddly to open and took a while to register. But more pertinently, it offered a significant financial saving, priced at €16.90 a day for 500MB against O2’s £120 for 300MB. Be realistic about your usage, though – the average smartphone user will take two weeks to consume 500MB of data, and free public wifi is becoming far more common.
Novatel Wireless launched its first wifi hotspot, the Mifi, in 2009, and has most recently unveiled its latest model – the touchscreen Liberate – in the US. Its hotspots work in much the same way as the Goodspeed but are sold in conjunction with mobile operators as you need a data plan. In the UK, mobile network Three offers a 15GB-per-month device for £18.99 on a 24-month contract.
Now all you have to do is crunch the numbers, work out which countries you spend the most time in and decide which solution is best for you – it may feel like a Herculean task, but it will almost certainly pay off in the long run.
- Boingo Locate free wifi hotspots around the world and connect automatically. iPhone, Android; free
- Onavo Extend Automatically compresses web traffic data so you get up to five times more out of your data plan – and it reduces roaming charges. iPhone, iPad; free
- Plingm Make free calls and send free messages to Plingm users anywhere in the world, and get reduced-rate calls to those outside the network. iPhone, iPad, Android; free
- Snappli Reduces data usage by up to 85 per cent by compressing it; also offers video and image compression. iPhone; free
- Viber Make free calls and send free texts and photo messages to other Viber users on any device in any network or country, so long as you have 3G or wifi access. iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Nokia, Bada; free
- What’s App Connect to the internet and communicate via instant messaging instead of texting. iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone, Nokia; free
DATA CHARGES COMPARED
EU legislation means data roaming worldwide is capped at between £40 and £50 per month for 50MB, but if you need to use more, you may pay a premium:
- EE (4G T-Mobile and Orange merger) You need to buy an add-on to use data abroad – in the EU this costs between £1 for 3MB and £35 for 200MB. Zone A countries such as the US and China cost from £5 (10MB) to £50 (200MB). Zone D countries such as Brazil and Japan cost £195 for 50MB. ee.com
- ORANGE 69.6p per MB in EU; or 30MB bundle for £3 a day or £15 a month; 150MB bundle £50 per month; 500MB bundle £150 per month. £8 per MB in US or China, with bundles up to 500MB for £175 per month. Data roaming cap set at £49. orange.co.uk
- VODAFONE 69.6p per MB in Europe zone; £3 per MB up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB thereafter in World zone. Global 50MB monthly data cap of £50. Data Traveller package for World zone is £5 a day for up to 25MB. vodafone.co.uk
- THREE 69.6p per MB in the EU, £3 in the US, £6 in China. Global data limit capped at £49 per month. three.co.uk
- O2 £1.99 a day for up to 25MB with add-on, otherwise 69p per MB in EU. Once your data hits the global £40 for 50MB cap, you will not be charged until you reach 100MB. If you go beyond 100MB a day, you need to contact O2 to increase your limit to £120 for 300MB. £6 per MB in rest of world. o2.co.uk
- T-MOBILE Data roaming will not work overseas unless you buy an internet booster, which costs up to £10 per 50MB in the EU, or £30 per 50MB in China and the US. t-mobile.co.uk
- RITESIM 5GB of data for 30 days costs £40 for a US SIM card; 300MB (plus 15 minutes domestic calls, 240 text messages and £13 credit) costs £35 for a Chinese SIM. ritesim.com
- TOGGLE MOBILE (personal SIM) 15p per MB in France; no data in non-Toggle countries. togglemobile.co.uk
- TRUPHONE (personal SIM) 60p per MB in France, 20p in the US, £1.80 in China. truphone.com
- UROS (Goodspeed hotspot) e9.90 a month plus data from e5.90 to e16.90 for between 500MB and 1GB a day. A SIM card must be purchased for each of the ten EU countries it functions in. uros.com
Nepomucene - 04/02/2013 08:49
A simple solution to this data roaming problem is to rent a mobile hotspot (mifi) in the country you are visiting. You don't need to swap SimCards (and temporarily loose your home phone number), just book online and receive the device int he mail. Once you have it, switch it on, connect your phone (also tablet and laptop) to the wifi signal and surf at the local price.
To find a local provider google "rent mobile hotspot" + the country you want to visit.
For France, "rent mobile hotspot france" brings FrenchConnection! http://FrenchConnection.fr
MichaleMavi - 26/04/2013 10:26
If you have an unlocked phone then buy a roaming sim card while traveling. There are numerous advantages from buying one. One number, Low costs and convenience. I've been traveling with roaming Sim cards for quite a while and have some experience using them. Some are very bad quality. Beware! Check Amazon for reviews. The best traveling sim card I've used so far is from Tellink Roaming.
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