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How to avoid pricey data roaming bills

When travelling overseas, phone bills can get expensive quite quickly. This is not only due to international call rates, but also to data roaming, which smartphones are now becoming reliant on. Here's how to avoid being slugged a whopping bill on your return from travelling.

When travelling overseas, phone bills can get expensive quite quickly. This is not only due to international call rates, but also to data roaming, which smartphones are now becoming reliant on.

So, what is data roaming? Your phone requires data when you access email, browse the web or do anything that requires the internet. So when your phone can't find and connect to your carrier, it will "roam" for other mobile networks that it can use — hence the term "data roaming".

Data roaming rates can be pricier than roaming voice calls and text messages. For example, watching a three-minute YouTube video takes about 2MB of data, which, if calculated with a pay-per-use international data rate of about 2.2 cents per KB, could be the equivalent of $45. If you were to add this to any other apps that require data, the bill could reach an exorbitant amount.

To prevent getting a shock when you view your phone bill on returning from your trip, we show you some very simple and easy-to-do tips in the next few pages.

Be conscious of data roaming charges

If you don't want to go through the hassle of purchasing a local SIM at your destination or buying a travel SIM, or simply just want to stick with your own mobile phone number, then there are several things you can do.

First off, here are some number-crunching facts supplied by TravelSIM CEO, Jamien Zimmermann.

Activity Amount Cost
Checking a single page on Facebook ~40Kb From AU$1.10
One-minute YouTube video ~1MB From AU$20
Text-only email (send or receive) 15KB Pricing varies from AU$0.02 to AU$0.72

These figures are based on an average mobile internet page, email and video, and will vary on the handset type and websites visited.

Another thing to be aware of, according to Zimmermann, are image-heavy websites. "Images chew up data; the larger the photo, the more it takes to download," said the CEO. In cases such as that, it's wise to keep away from these sites whenever possible, and "change the settings on your phone so it only downloads text or low-res images".

Zimmermann also recommends changing your email settings from "push" to "fetch", so you're only downloading emails when you want to, preferably when you have Wi-Fi access, rather than having it constantly fetching email.

Other things to consider, according to Zimmermann, are:

  • Purchase a prepaid SIM rather than post-paid. "The advantage of a prepaid SIM is that not only will you likely get a better data rate, but, more important, you can limit your liability." So, if you happen to leave data roaming turned on, then, at worst, you'd lose all of your credit, rather than the cost climbing ever higher into a ridiculous bill.
  • Download data compressors. While Android and BlackBerry have tools built in to the operating system to compress data, iOS does not. "These apps work in the background, and intercept incoming data before sending it to the device." Apple users can download a data compressor app from the iTunes Store.
  • Download apps that will help your crusade against data roaming. Apps (besides the app that some phones have in-built) are free or available for a small price that will monitor your data usage and notify you if you've gone over a set limit.

    There are a number of free apps that can be installed on your smartphone to monitor data usage. PhoneUsage, 3G Watchdog and Data counter widget are our faves for the Android. For the iPhone, there are DataMan Free and Onavo (this is free for a limited time only); and e-office Mobile Data Alerter (trial version) and Monitor for the BlackBerry.
  • Wherever possible, use Wi-Fi. "If you are able, remember to download some of the things you will need for the next day, like maps, when you have that Wi-Fi up and running," said Zimmermann.
  • Of course, more importantly, be aware of the roaming rates, so you have a clear understanding of how much you'll pay to use your mobile service while overseas. And don't forget, if you have a data usage meter installed on your phone, or you've uploaded an app, be sure to reset the meter just before you jet off.

    Switch off data roaming and data synchronisation

    By switching off data roaming and push notifications on your phone, you will still be able to make and receive calls and SMSes, but you won't be able to surf the internet, check or receive email or use apps that require internet connection.

    The following instructions on how to turn off data roaming on your phone will vary depending on the phone you use and the operating system, but with some mental deduction it's not too hard to figure out, once you know what you're looking for. However, if you're still in doubt, your carrier will show you how to switch off all your data settings. We also advise that you call your carrier to ensure that they can switch off data for your phone at their end, so there's no chance of any accidental data roaming.

    Alternatively, Airplane mode on some phones will automatically turn off data roaming (as well as prevent people from calling you), while still letting you use Wi-Fi, but you should check if this works on your phone before you rely solely on it.

    To avoid data roaming charges on the iPhone when you travel outside your carrier's network, you'll need to turn off data roaming in the settings.

    Go to Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming, and then slide the slider to off. Doing this means that your phone will not be able to connect to any 3G data networks. While you're still in the Network section, also turn the slider to the off position for "Cellular Data" and "Enable 3G".

    The iPhone also has a feature where you can turn on "Fetch Mode", which will allow you to manually "fetch" emails, rather than have the date pushed to your phone automatically.

    If you're still unsure of what to do, visit Apple's Support page.

    Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
    To avoid data roaming charges on an Android phone when you travel outside of your carrier's network, you'll need to turn off data roaming in the settings.

    Go to Settings > Wireless & networks > Mobile networks > Data roaming, and then untick Data roaming and Enable always-on mobile data.

    Next, you'll have to turn off background data, which constantly searches and updates calendar, contacts and email.

    You'll find the data sync setting under Settings > Accounts & Sync and then untick Background data and Auto-sync (this tells the phone to automatically sync, send and receive data at any time; it's on by default).

    If you're still unsure of what to do, visit Google's Support page.

    To avoid data roaming charges on a BlackBerry when you travel outside of your carrier's network, you'll need to turn off data roaming in the settings.

    Go to Options > Networks and Connections > Mobile Network > Data Services, and then select No or On prompt, which will prompt you every time the phone tries to roam.

    If you're still unsure of what to do, visit BlackBerry's Support page.

    Consider purchasing a local or travel SIM

    (Credit: CBSi)

    When you land at your destination, some airports will have a telco outlet where you can buy a local SIM to use for the entirety of your trip. Shop around if you can, and find the best deal — and always read the fine print.

    Alternatively, you can buy a travel SIM before you jet off. There are now several companies that offer travel SIMs for use that have cheaper prices, as they use local carriers and charge you at local prices. However, do keep in mind that this will only work for network-unlocked phones.

    Here is a list of some companies that provide travel SIM cards (some of the sites also have a handy calculator to calculate rates for the destination you're travelling to):

    If you don't want to purchase a SIM outside of your current carrier, or you're incapable of doing so because you have a locked phone (and perhaps don't want to pay a network unlocking fee), then ask your provider if they have an international data package. Some telcos provide such a package, where it can be slightly cheaper than your current plan, with reduced cost on using data abroad.

    For roaming information and data bundles, visit your carrier's website: Vodafone, Telstra, Optus, Three and Virgin.

    Use Wi-Fi hotspots

    (Free WiFi Symbol image by Brian O'Donovan, CC2.0)

    Many international airports, hotels, restaurants and internet cafes offer Wi-Fi (some for free, some at a cost), which in most circumstances work out to be cheaper than your plan's data roaming fees. There are also a number of free apps, such as Wefi, that help you find all the safe wireless hotspots, and connects your phone to them automatically.

    For more information on how to safely use public Wi-Fi hotspots, click here.

    Happy travels!