The cost of roaming charges for phones is a constant worry for frequent travellers.
No matter how we plan to ration the use of our mobile abroad, the necessities of our working lives, and quite often our personal lives, can mean we get a nasty shock at the end of the month when the bill arrives.
The advent of smartphones has made matters worse. We all know to turn off the data and only use wifi, or at least use mobile data only when it is unavoidable, and yet still the bills quickly add up.
My own solution for many years has been to buy SIM cards for the countries I visit regularly. I keep my existing number and phone switched on for voice calls but not for data.
To make calls when in Hong Kong, for instance, I use a cheap sim and phone. It has a different number — one that my colleagues in Asia now know but that causes either amusement or consternation when I use it to phone people in the UK, and occasionally means that, as an "unrecognisable" number, I am blocked.
But it's a workable system. Unfortunately, the reason the calls are so inexpensive is that the quality of the line isn't great, and sometimes drops out altogether. But for the price, you can't expect everything.
At its most basic, Truphone is a SIM product offering both voice calls and data, worldwide, and at a vastly reduced price to my existing phone operator. It has various off-the-shelf pricing plans and can arrange bespoke deals.
I tested a basic Truphone 1,000 plan — which came with 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts and 1GB of data per month — along with an iPhone 5 on which to test it.
Depending on your contract, Truphone will make a "hardware contribution" or perhaps buy you out of an existing contract. The Truphone 1,000 plan I trialled was valid in 67 countries worldwide (the full list of countries is available on the Truphone website, but it includes the whole of Western Europe, the US, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico, as well as Australia and New Zealand).
On the Truphone 1,000 plan, you also get the choice of two numbers — a UK number (if that's where you're based), and a phone number of your choice in one of six countries (Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, UK and USA). You pay an extra £5 per month to get one of these additional countries.
In my case, I chose a UK and a US number, since I frequently visit America.
Why do this? Well, it means that when I phone a US number, my US number is the one the caller sees. If that person wants to call me back, it gives them reassurance that they are phoning another US number (and only pay local charges). The same would be true in Hong Kong — my number would show up as a local one.
This even works when calling from a third country. So, when I was at a big trade show in Germany and wanted to meet up with a US visitor at that show, I phoned him on his mobile phone and he recognised my number as being an American one.
But what about the savings? Well, they change from market to market, but to give one example, when I recently arrived back in Hong Kong, I turned on my existing smartphone with a UK provider (Vodafone) and my Truphone device (an iPhone).
I received a text on each of them within a minute or so notifying me of the charges I would "suffer" while roaming in Hong Kong. In the case of Truphone, it read: "Welcome to Hong Kong! Make calls from 0.15GBP/min, text 0.10GBP, data from 0.8GBP/MB".
Those prices are roughly a tenth of what Vodafone was offering on its roaming rate. Of course, they are a lot more expensive than what I pay with that cheap pre-pay SIM from a local provider, but the quality of the Truphone calls was the same as Vodafone, since it negotiates with Tier 1 providers in each country (in the UK, that would be the likes of Vodafone, O2 and EE).
For the pre-pay SIM, sometimes there is a constant engaged signal, and the quality of the call can be like using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) internet calls on a slow line.
The Truphone service is easy to set up, and in my case the phone, with SIM installed, was delivered to me from the UK by international courier and was waiting behind reception at the New York hotel I was staying at after flying in from London.
It worked straight out of the box, and it was simple to create a voicemail message. Truphone recommends you transfer your existing "main" mobile number onto its service, although in my case, since I was only trialling the service, I retained a separate number but then found I was using it more than my own phone when travelling.
When you start a contract with them, you can either request hardware contribution (towards a new phone) or termination of your existing contract.
Were there any nasty shocks? Yes, one.
I used a lot of data in the UAE, where it is very expensive, and should have notified Truphone to set up a "rest of the world" add-on, which costs £75 per month for up to 800MB of data. If you travel to countries such as India, there are also data and voice call add-ons.
The off-the-shelf offers are as follows (but check the website for special offers):
- Truphone 500 — £40 per month, 500 mins, 500MB, 500 texts
- Truphone 1000 —£60 per month, 1,000 mins, 1GB, 1000 texts
- Truphone 2000 — £90 per month, 2,000 mins, 2GB, 2000 texts
… and so on up to 10GB and more.
The company also offers shared plans where you can pool your allowances with others in your team.
Very good. The company is planning a website where you can access a secure members' area and check your usage in real time, which would be a welcome development, and is always adding countries.
I was very impressed by the offering, and am now weighing up whether to leave Vodafone after more than 20 years.