20 September 2012

Using your mobile phone while travelling overseas (Part 1)


I am often asked how to cost-effectively use your mobile phone overseas. Here's my answer...

Think very carefully about your needs for your phone while travelling. Stop and think - right now.

Few people actually need a phone that works just like it does at home, even for business purposes. The only cheap method is the system I outline here -  everything else will be more expensive and/or will involve purchasing third party or foreign SIM cards with different phone numbers (often overseas mobile numbers, which will make it expensive for people at home to call you). If you do get a good value travel SIM card from an Australian provider like TravelSIM it will still be expensive.

The truth is that almost everybody doesn't need to be constantly connected or contactable. If you do need that, you simply will have to pay a serious premium when you're overseas.

Instead, try this:
Turn off data roaming


  • You have an Australian mobile phone account (pre-paid or post-paid) with international roaming activated.
  • You turn off roaming data - really important.
  • Your Australian carrier has roaming agreements with the carriers at your destinations.


Do you need to receive calls urgently? Probably not. You don't want to receive calls from someone just for a chat (not everyone will know you're overseas) - it costs you due to international diversion, and the call may be unimportant (I once received a telemarketing call in Frankfurt - it cost me $2 just to tell them to go away).

Optus Diversion
Get SkypeOut
A better option:- divert all calls to voicemail, and change your greeting to tell the caller you are overseas. Ask them, if it's urgent, to send you an SMS requesting you to call them back. You will get the SMS at little or no cost. Then you can return the call as set out below in "Outgoing".

Your voicemail message should be something like:
Hi, thanks for calling me. I'm overseas at the moment. You can hang up, or leave a message now which I will not receive until I return to Australia, or if you really need to talk to me urgently you should send me an SMS asking me to call, stating your name and phone number. I will call as soon as I am able.


Don't make calls using your normal mobile line. Instead, use SkypeOut when on wifi - 2.3 c/min to any phone anywhere in the world and it works great. Put $10 credit on your SkypeOut account and install Skype on all your devices. Top it up if you need to while you're travelling, but trust me - $10 on SkypeOut goes a long way! On the other hand, I once paid $20 just to check my voicemail from Germany. Ouch.

If it really can't wait until you get back to wifi, then send an SMS - it won't be cheap but it will be much cheaper than anything else.


Do you really need data over 3G while travelling? You probably don't. You can probably just use wifi in cafes, hotels, restaurants, McDonalds etc.

If you want to use data to get maps it will be cheaper to either:
  • buy a GPS app for the relevant countries (eg TomTom Europe for the iPhone); or
  • use Android - my Nexus 7 caches maps and is easier to use than OpenMaps (see below); or
  • use OpenMaps on your phone, after caching all the maps you need while on wifi. This is fiddly, but it works once you get the hang of it - I recently used this in Singapore.
If you really need 3G data then consider http://www.travelsim.net.au/. For example, data is $0.65 per MB (USD) in 33 European countries. This isn't cheap (65 cents to look at one page of the the Sydney Morning Herald), but it's about as good as it gets.

Using local SIM cards

This is possible and can be cheap - for example, I recall that the Woolworths (now called countdown) SIM card in New Zealand was pretty good. However, you end up with a new phone number and can't easily check for SMS on your real number (you have to play SIM-Swap), and calls back to Australia still won't be very cheap. Your friends and family won't thank you either, because they get to make an international mobile call.  Generally speaking I don't think this is a great option unless you are happy to forget about inbound calls and just use it for local data.

Don't forget to consider the size of SIM card you use. There are three types currently in use:

  1. Standard SIM -  the original big SIM
  2. Micro SIM - smaller than the Standard SIM and can be manufactured by simply cutting the Standard SIM. This size was more or less introduced with the iPhone 4.
  3. Nano SIM - introduced with the iPhone 5, and cannot be easily created from larger SIM cards.
If you want to use a local SIM you need to consider whether the local carrier provides a SIM that will fit in your phone. At the time of writing the Nano SIM was not widely available, but by January 2013 this should no longer be an issue.


  1. You ignore my advice and simply take your phone overseas: your buddy calls to organise a beer on Saturday night. It costs him $1.50 and you $1.50 just to say you can't make it. Worse still, he might ask about the trip - this call ends up costing you $10 or more.
  2. You take my advice: your buddy gets your voicemail telling him you're overseas. He forgets about drinks on Saturday night. It might have cost him 40 cents.
  3. You ignore my advice: you receive an SMS telling you there's a missed call. Then you get another one telling you there's a voicemail for you. You ring your voicemail and it's a message from a mate asking you to give him a call. You call him and he says "Do you want a beer on Saturday night?"... All for the cost of 2 x SMS, calling voicemail and calling your buddy. No actual benefit to anyone, and probably cost $10.
  4. You take my advice: your mother needs to get in touch. She rings your mobile and it goes to voicemail. She sends you an SMS asking you to ring. You ring back on SkypeOut. Cost: 1 x SMS and maybe 15 cents for SkypeOut.


Everyone has different needs, but I think these recommendations will suit most people. If not, try your own ideas.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 - Getting more technical.

© 2012 Andrew Calvin andrew@calvin.it


  1. NB GlobalGig is a new entrant with a reasonable value offer but limited to three specified countries.

  2. SkypeOut is now just called Skype calling - with credit you can call any normal number.