Avoiding smartphone bill shock when overseas

About this time of year all the kiwis that travelled overseas in July and August to avoid a New Zealand winter will be receiving their mobile phone bills.  If they travelled with their smartphone, and actually used it overseas, then they could well be suffering from the phenomenon known as bill shock.

This usually involves opening last months mobile phone bill and seeing a total that looks like the overseas debt of a small European nation – Greece for example.  Loud swearing ensues followed by disbelief.  It must be wrong, quick, check the charges.  But there they are, all laid out and itemised.  Ah, those 20-minute phone calls to aunty cost $6.20 per minute.  Ok, using the iPhone maps application to tour Rome cost $65 thanks to the $10 per Mb data roaming rate.  All is explained in great detail.  Bugger.

Recently there has been much debate about this subject.  The New Zealand and Australian Governments are in discussions about trans-Tasman roaming rates but no matter how successful these discussions are the rest of the world remains a hole to throw money down for unprepared travellers using a smartphone.

When we came to Italy we brought with us our iPhones, iPads as well as laptops and data-sticks all with Vodafone New Zealand.  The potential to run up thousands of dollars in phone and data charges was enormous.

The simplest way to minimise incurring huge data charges is to turn data roaming off on all devices. It’s an effective solution that simply means a smartphone becomes a “dumbphone” and just extra weight to carry around.

A variation on this approach is to try and minimise the amount of data downloaded.  For example, browse with pictures turned off.  Cancel any unwanted email subscriptions.  All this is helpfully detailed on Telco websites as they attempt to forewarn customers.

But these approaches simply deals to the symptoms and there is always the potential for an expensive lapse in memory.  On one occasion a few years ago I’d taken all the precautions above and logged on to the local Italian mobile network to check my email.  An email newsletter from a club I am a member of arrived in all its 7Mb glory.  At the time data cost $30Mb, you do the math.

For travellers who are planning to spend some time in a foreign country, and by that I mean longer than a week, the cure is incredibly simple and cheap – local SIM cards.

When we headed overseas we knew that getting a local SIM cards was the best answer – in fact for us it was the only answer.  But how easy will it be?  What are the implications?  And importantly what does it cost?

Becoming a customer of a foreign Telco is easy.  We simply took all our devices into the local Italian equivalent of Dick Smiths, put them on the counter and asked for local SIM cards.  A brief discussion in two languages followed about plan options and costs.  For the phones, prepaid with a data allowance was the ideal option.  The iPads and laptops were even simpler with straight data plans.

The Italian plans through TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) are ideal. iPhones are prepaid calling with 25Mb of data a week for €2 which automatically renews.  iPads are 1GB per month plans for €9.  We walked out of the store with everything signed, paid for and working.  Top up is easy as every Tabacchi (corner tobacconist) in Italy can recharge phones and tablets electronically.  Handover cash and your phone number and they do the rest.

Changing carriers means a new phone number but that can be passed to friends, family and business partners in one (cheap) email from your phone or tablet. Local calls within Italy are cheap, as are calls around Europe. Calls to the other side of the world are, however, still expensive.  But there’s a way round this, one word – Skype.

Skype calls on an iPhone from a Wi-Fi zone are ridiculously cheap and the call quality we’ve found to be excellent.  Free Wi-Fi zones seem to be everywhere in Italy.  The worst case might be the requirement to buy a cappuccino in a cafe to make use of Wi-Fi but that’s not really a hardship is it.

Download the free Skype app, sign up, put €10 on account and start calling.  At 0.019c per minute for calls to landlines, €10 will last quite a while.

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