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International Travel and Phone Calls

31st May 2017 Print

The phone you have is almost certainly a GSM device. GSM or ‘Global System for Mobile Telecommunication is a worldwide standard. It works on agreed frequencies and network standards which are identical the world over. That means you can use your phone overseas if you want to. Not everyone did want to. 

There were two groups of people who used to make calls on their phones while overseas. First was the Business Traveler. He or she did not pay their own phone bill. They considered themselves (perhaps even took pride in the fact they were) important enough to incur the extremely high costs involved in roaming. Secondly, there was the Average Consumer who went on holiday and returned to a laughably large bill, usually from the use of a few MB of data. They argued with their phone company, often involved the newspapers and, eventually, were ‘let off’ most of the cost.

The world has changed markedly since then. Businesses and individuals have wiped $billions from the balance sheets of phone companies around the world tying together new modes of communication to avoid big bills. 

Avoiding a big roaming bill 

Some of these methods will be familiar to you. Some won’t. 

1. Research coverage and competitors before you go : The best thing you can do before you leave is to get on the internet and establish two things. First, which networks have coverage where you’re going to be and second, which phone companies have the best plans. Most countries have comparison services. In Australia, this site will help you compare the best phone plans. In the UK, we find this comparison engine the best. In the USA, you might like to consider this site. In fact, in all our travels, Germany is the only exception to the rule. Everywhere else has a comparison site you can use for free. Many phone companies will even let you order a Prepaid SIM ( see below ) before you arrive and get it delivered to the hotel.

2. Get a SIM at the airport : It can’t have escaped your notice that phone companies usually have booths at the airport where you land. Telcos love travelers because they spend a lot of money on their phones. I have worked at a number of phone companies and, in the old days, it is said, phone companies used to ‘flood’ airports with signals from their networks deliberately. Engineers would score wiring along it’s plastic sheath to drown airport arrival areas with microwaves. Extra towers would be brought in by each phone company in an arms race for the strongest signal. Why ? Because they knew that new arrivals were likely to pick the strongest signal the minute they landed. Whether or not these stories are true, they make clear the importance of travelers to phone companies. As roaming revenues have receded, this desire for a buck has led to airports now being lined with phone company retail outlets. 

3. Use a prepaid service : We recommend prepaid SIMs when you’re travelling. You pay up front for a prepaid service so you know exactly what you’re getting. If it runs out, you have to consciously decide to recharge it. That means if you use all the data you have in your plan in the first day, you can take some time to think about what you’ve been doing to make that happen before you are automatically charged more.

4. Use ‘Over The Top’ Competitors : ‘Over The Top’ communication services are a nightmare for the phone company. They are the main reason telco rates have fallen for roaming. All those newspaper stories about travelers getting huge bills, quite rightly, scared people. Using Facebook messenger or WhatsApp for an Instant Messaging chat or even a voice call is essentially free. These services use a tiny proportion of your existing data connection to carry the voice signal and there are literally dozens of services to chose from. 

5. Use free Wifi Networks : In the USA, free WiFi is almost everywhere. It’s expected. Outside the US, however, it can be hard to find. Where it’s available, we recommend using a free WiFi service wherever you can. We make this recommendation with a single caveat. You need to have some VPN software installed on your phone or computer before you do. Open WiFi signals are a lure for the technically informed nefarious hackers of the world. It’s rare but, unless you secure your signal, using an open network could expose you to others seeing and potentially stealing your personal, private information.

The cost of phone services differs incredibly between markets. For $3USD in Cambodia, you’ll get 10 GB of data. For $20 USD in Germany ( paid in Euro of course ) you can expect 1GB. A few simple steps before you leave will stand you in good stead. Compare online, so you know what your options are, pick a SIM up at the airport. Making use of free alternatives where it’s safe to do so. And enjoy your trip.