[UPDATED November 2011 with E587 details]
These tips were featured in the Wired UK September magazine on page 82. Click the image for a larger view.
This has always surprised me because I’ve managed to keep my data roaming costs to an absolute minimum (often zero) by following a few rules – summarised below. Hopefully by crafting this post I can help others keep their data roaming costs to a minimum.
Perhaps my surprise at the high roaming costs experienced by others should be tempered with the fact that mobile phone companies don’t publish many of these tips – they would much rather you use your home carrier for data when you are overseas and incur large roaming bills.
I’ve held international roles since 2004, and always seem to come in with the lowest mobile phone bills for any company I have worked for, even with extensive travel that has seen me visit 70 cities in 29 countries, flying nearly 1.3 million kilometres in the last 10 years according to my Tripit profile.
On a work trip to Istanbul over several days in 2007, many of my team with Blackberries turned in £1,000 mobile bills.
What had transpired was of course their handset was “always on” checking for mail 24 hours a day and therefore racking up expensive data roaming charges along the way.
Using just some of my tips below, I was able to keep my data roaming bill to an absolute minimum, and after reading this you should be able to as well.
If you have bought an iPhone or indeed any sort of handset or dongle via an operator, chances are it is “locked” to their network so that if you put any other operator’s SIM into it (other UK operator or a SIM sourced overseas), it will refuse to work.
Tip 1. Unlock your phone.
Handset locking is such a lazy attempt by mobile operators to provide you with no option but to spend big when overseas on data and voice roaming. Ask your operator to unlock the phone when they sell it to you (there will be a charge and a qualifying period), but never entertain paying more than £30 to get it unlocked. Alternatively, you can buy an unlocked phone (also called outright) from companies such as Expansys.
If you have a data dongle that is locked (they normally are to keep the purchase price down), sites such as unlocked-dongle.co.uk can help you. I have used them before to unlock the 3 MiFi (Huawei E565) and it worked well with a minimum of fuss.
You will need your phone unlocked so that you can put a local SIM card into it (allowing you to benefit from local data rates) in tip 3 below.
Tip 2. Get a second (cheap) phone.
Carphone Warehouse in the UK list a Nokia 1616 for only £4.95 when bought with £10 airtime.
What you then do is put your normal UK SIM in the cheap phone, and just use it for making and receiving calls from the UK. Then you put a local data SIM (see tip 3 below) into your smartphone. This way any data that you use will be charged at the local data rate and not the roaming rates of your UK operator.
Tip for Blackberry users: if you are trying to save on data roaming costs with a Blackberry, tip 2 will not work as you will need the Blackberry SIM (provisioned with the “blackberry APN”) for your email to work properly in your Blackberry. Instead use tip 5 (MiFi) or tip 6 (switch to WiFi) outlined below to run your Blackberry using WiFi for the duration of your trip abroad – more detailed instructions on how to do this are below.
[UPDATED] I have tested a way to use your Blackberry phone while overseas and not pay data roaming costs, yet still use all Blackberry features (push email, Twitter/Facebook etc). This takes advantage of the fact that Blackberry OS 6 and 7 phones (later models) allow Blackberry services to work over WiFi just as they do over the mobile network.
IMPORTANT: To ensure you don’t get charged by your home carrier for data roaming, in the options section of the manage connections > networks and connections screen set the “While Roaming” option to “Off”. You can leave this set like this all the time (even when back in your home country). You can confirm you have data roaming off via the red triangle in the menu (means roaming with data roaming off).
I also found this Blackberry tip sheet which may be useful in explaining how to access Blackberry services over WiFi.
Tip for US travellers: The Nokia 1616 phone above will work on most European and Australian GSM networks. If you are planning to travel to the US, you will need a tri-band GSM or tri-band UMTS phone that works on GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 or HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100 frequencies.
I recently purchased the Nokia X3-02 which does support the US networks and is available for around £120.
Tip 3. Get a local prepaid SIM card with data included.
If you are going to be overseas in the same country for more than 2 days, get a local SIM card provisioned with data and voice services. Most countries allow you to purchase a pre-paid SIM without ID.
In Australia and Spain you will need ID to buy a pre-paid SIM (Australia uses a 100 point system so take a few forms of ID with you, in Spain just a passport should be ok). You won’t need ID in the US or the UK.
Research the best prepaid data deals via the web before you go. An excellent resource is the Prepaid Wireless Internet Access wiki that lists a number of mobile broadband deals and options worldwide. Hats off to Martin Sauter from wirelessmoves.com for setting this up.
You will also need to take a note of the Access Point Name (APN) of the carrier you choose. You will need to change the APN settings in your phone to get the data working (remember to write down your UK operator APN settings first!) and you can find a good list of worldwide APNs here.
[Top tip] when visiting the mobile operator links above, use Google Translate to translate the pages so you know what each of the offers include.
In the US, it is slightly more expensive, with AT&T (GSM/UMTS operator) charging $25 for 500MB of data on a voice/data SIM or $50 for 1GB on a data only SIM. More on the AT&T plans here. [prices here correct as of November 2011].
[Update November 2011] When I was in the US recently, I switched my data provider to T-Mobile. They offer 3GB for $50 (3 x the data allowance of AT&T) – the catch is you need a T-Mobile capable MiFi (operating on non-standard 2100/1700 AWS frequencies). The T-Mobile US supplied E587 does the trick – more on this device at http://lc.tl/e587. More on the T-Mobile USA prepaid data plans here.
If you are planning to visit the UK, I would highly recommend the Vodafone Top up and Go bundle. For £24.99 (around $40) you get a USB dongle AND + comes with 500MB of UK data lasting up to 60 days. Additional TopUps are £5 for 250MB lasting up to 30 days.
[interesting] Back when I wrote this post 12 months ago with the Vodafone offer you received 3GB of initial prepaid data, so the networks really have become stingy on data allowances given you only receive 500MB as a starter.
If you already have a dongle, SIM enabled laptop or MiFi then the Three UK plans will be of interest because they don’t come with a dongle. Latest 3 UK deals for prepaid mobile broadband ( December 2011) are 1GB = £10.49, 3GB = £20.49 and 12GB = £70.49. If you need a basic dongle, that will set you back £19.99.
Tip 4. Switch to Vodafone and get the Passport tariff.
I have been a very happy Vodafone customer since I grabbed my first pre-paid SIM on a trip to London in 2005. When I moved here in 2006 from Australia I flipped the number onto a contract and have been with them ever since. Because Vodafone has a strong footprint in Europe (32 operating companies globally), they can offer cheaper voice and data roaming. They have marketed this service as Vodafone Passport for some time.
If you are a Vodafone UK customer then when you opt-in to the service, calls made when in a Vodafone Passport country (eg any EU country) back to the UK or to a number in the same country you are roaming in are billed at the normal cost, using your included minutes or prepaid minutes, plus a 75p flagfall. The service is best explained on the Passport website.
This means that calls that last just a few minutes are significantly cheaper than the normal roaming costs.
Receiving calls while roaming is also very cheap – again a 75p flagfall (one of charge per call) is charged for each incoming call, but you can talk for up to an hour at no extra cost!
When I was last in Australia I made use of this to keep in touch with my family back in London. A single 60 minute call to my mobile in Australia from London cost me just 75 pence!
Using Vodafone Passport when roaming in the EU or Australia is one way I keep my costs down. The service is not available when roaming in the US though, so you will need another solution. As this is primarily a post on data roaming, please contact me if you want to know how to keep down voice calling costs while roaming.
In summary a MiFi is a data only device that accepts a SIM card, and has an internal battery. It acts as a WiFi hotspot for up to 5 units by converting 3G mobile data (from the SIM card) into WiFi.
It is in effect a truly portable hotspot. You can achieve the same effect with a mobile phone by using the Joiku hotspot for Symbian and Windows Mobile.
I use the MiFi to run not just my iPad, but also my normal phone, and laptop from the one device. When travelling I source a local prepaid data plan as outlined in tip 3 above and run everything from the MiFi.
Where hotels charge for WiFi (normally at anything between $10/€15 and $25/€30 per day) I have found it more cost effective to run everything via the MiFi, and usually experience a faster connection than the hotel WiFi jammed with 300 people all trying to connect at once.
[Top iPad tip] If you are thinking of getting an iPad and travel internationally a lot, then just get the WiFi only model. Not only will it be considerably cheaper, you won’t be constantly having to source and swap microSIMs for each country you visit. I have not regretted my WiFi only iPad choice once, because I also have the MiFi with me when I’m out and about.
Make sure you get your MiFi unlocked before you travel! (see tip 1 above)
The type of MiFi also will be governed by where you are travelling.
The 3 MiFi E585 shown on the left (around £70 outright including 3GB of data) is a 2100MHz WCDMA model, meaning it will work pretty much anywhere except in the US where they use 1900MHz for WCDMA. I used the 3 MiFi extensively on my last trip to Australia, downloading over 30GB of data over a 3 week period without once using the $10/day Hotel WiFi.
If you are travelling to the US, then you will need the Vodafone R201 or the Huawei E587. The E587 supports UMTS (AWS 2100/1700, 850/900/1900/2100MHz) unit so will work in the US on AT&T AND T-Mobile. The R201 supports UMTS 2100/900/1900 – so AT&T but NOT T-Mobile. The Vodafone R201 is available on a plan from around £49, and in-store they confirmed it can be bought for around £150 outright.
[TOP TIP] If you are in the US, you can grab the T-Mobile E587 from one of their stores, and more information on how to unlock and the data plans available ($50 for 3GB of data valid for 30 days) can be found on my Huawei E587 post. This MiFi has become my global option for anywhere in the world now.
It appears that the R201 I grabbed as a free upgrade to my data plan is actually unlocked, but the Vodafone staff claim they are not able to unlock it, and unlocked-dongle list the unlock for the device as coming soon. I have managed to get a 3 and O2 SIM working in the R201, and I can confirm that the R201 works well on the AT&T data network in the US (1900MHz UMTS).
Each MiFi provides simple setup via a web based interface, and you can use the standard 192.168.1.1 address to access the settings just like on your home router. Battery life hovers around 3-4 hours depending on how much surfing you are doing.
Most smartphones these days come complete with WiFi, and apart from making voice calls and sending texts, everything else (email, web browsing etc) can be carried out over WiFi, which brings me to my final tip…
Tip 6. Switch off 3G and use WiFi only.
Switching off your 3G connection is not always a simple process, but doing so can save you real £/$/€ when you travel. On some phones and the iPhone/iPad you can just select the “disable cellular” option, and on Symbian devices you can increase the priority of WiFi connections above 3G – but it will depend on your device.
Once you are operating on WiFi only, you can pick up the local WiFi (hotel or MiFi) signal and all of your internet and email sessions will use WiFi.
Tip 7. [NEW] Consider Truphone if based in the US/Australia and UK and travelling between these countries.
On my most recent trip to the US from the UK I decided to give Truphone a go. I have been using them since 2006 before I moved from Australia to the UK (with their VoIP service), and they now offer a Truphone SIM. The SIM is currently provides “local rates” in the US, UK and Australia.
When I call numbers in the UK from the US, I pay just 10p/minute for landline calls and 22p/minute for mobile calls – pretty reasonable given I was on a mobile walking down the street and not able to fire up Skype. Their data charges are also reasonable – 10p/megabyte in the UK and Australia, and 20p/megabyte in the US.
[UPDATE] I decided to add additional numbers to my Truphone SIM. Now for an extra £5/month per number, I have a permanent US number (213 xxx xxxx) AND I ported across my existing Telstra (Australian) 0418 xxx xxx number. Now when I call a US number, they see my US number come up (same in Australia where they see my Australian number). Importantly, my US and Australian contacts call my local number, and I don’t pay to receive the call when in the UK, US or Australia. Brilliant!
This means that in future my US communications setup will be
- Blackberry loaded with my Truphone SIM with my UK, US and Australian numbers paying just 10p/minute to call back to the UK and 20p/MB for data and nothing to receive calls in the US
- 2nd phone (Nokia E72) with my UK SIM card so that I can still receive any text messages sent to my UK number
- E587 MiFi loaded with my T-Mobile SIM card on the 3GB for $50 plan for all my data requirements
More information on Truphone is available from truphone.com where they offer both prepay and pay monthly accounts.
In the next part, we will put all of these tips together and provide some suggestions on how to set up your devices once you arrive at your international destination.
In the meantime, happy travels. Are we connected yet on Tripit? This is a purpose built social network for seasoned travellers and it also shows up on our LinkedIn profile alerting your business contacts that you may be in their city.