Alarmed by tales of extortionate costs of international roaming, I was in a quandary.
One way to be safe is to take out your SIM completely, or to leave your phone at home. However, for family reasons, it was imperative that I could keep in touch with home easily. Plus, my wife would rather eat a hammer than visit a museum or a monument and I feel the same way about shopping.
So we often split up and then find each other again during the day. But a friend ran up a bill of $1400 in 10 days in New York while her phone was switched off. Another poor soul thought he'd turned roaming off, but was billed $37,000.
Unable to use our mobiles in Argentina, we hired a couple. With a good rate of exchange, it was very affordable. Since then, a friend has reported success with a local SIM in his iPhone.
In Shanghai, I couldn't find a phone shop where the staff spoke English. As I spoke no Mandarin and couldn't get answers to my questions, I gave up.
Security and identity requirements were so stringent and daunting in Singapore that I gave up on buying a cheap local phone and SIM.
For short hops, it may not be important. However, the issue became crucial as we were planning a longer trip. We decided to try a TravelSIM, after a globetrotting friend had used one for six months.
• You can buy it in Australia online (travelsim.net.au), at Australia Post, or in numerous phone shops for $49.95, including $5 worth of credit.
• Activate it online or by calling the polite and patient staff at the Australian support centre. A couple of attempts set up my phone for calls, SMS and voicemails.
• We set up my wife's phone for SMS and calls, but couldn't manage voicemail, despite the hard work of the support staff. They refunded her money amicably and we opted for a French SIM or a cheap local phone.
• You have to unlock your phone.
How to use it
• It sounds complex, but you soon get used to it.
• Whether overseas or in Australia, dial every number you want to call, in full international format, as if you are calling from outside that country. So, you dial +, country code, area code (drop the zero), local number. For mobiles, you drop the area code and the first zero.
• The phone "goes dead" after dialling and then rings you. On answering, you get a voice message reciting the account balance and then your phone calls the number you want. As I say, you get used to it.
• Texting is easy. Just follow the full international format.
• All TravelSIM numbers start with +372 . . . it's the country code for Estonia. Don't ask . . . I don't know why. To call you, Australian contacts have to dial +372 etc or 0011 372 etc.
• The support staff will help you to test calls, SMS and voicemail before you leave home.
• You can leave home, using your own phone, knowing that you can keep in touch.
• It's prepaid and works in more than 190 countries.
• You have one phone number, wherever you are. This is great if you visit several countries. It saves you from buying a new SIM in each country, with a new phone number, new set up hassles, recharge problems and a new language to deal with.
• You can register to top up credit in Australian dollars from the handset.
• It's easy to check the balance from the handset.
• Instructions are in English.
• Data is available at $US1 per megabyte, but we relied on wi-fi.
• Credit lasts six months and any left over can be used in Australia.
• Much cheaper than international roaming. It saves about 75 per cent and incoming calls are free.
• The service cost me about $40 per week. Each SMS cost between 43¢ and 68¢.
• It can be complex to set up, as in my wife's attempt.
• It costs more than a local SIM in many other countries.
• Calls can be expensive, as with most prepaid services, so keep them short. Texting made up the bulk of our use.
What about a local SIM?
• Struggling in a combination of French and English, a French SIM cost us 10 euro with 5 euro credit. We immediately topped up with another 20 euro and the credit lasts a month.
• The sales clerk helpfully set up the phone instructions in English for us. We often received SMS offers in French from the phone company, but ignored them.
• On leaving France, our credit was still valid in Italy and Austria, but texts and calls cost a bit more. We decided to use up the French credit and buy a new SIM later, if we had to.
• However, the credit lasted three weeks in three countries and we arrived home with 25 euro cents to spare. My wife sent more than 150 texts at an average of 12-15 euro cents per text.
On balance, despite the disparity in cost, I was happy with the combo of TravelSIM and local SIM.
On leaving home, I was pretty confident that I could keep in touch with Australia, which was one less hassle to worry about. The local SIM made sure we could keep in touch with each other economically, but we didn't have any certainty until we arrived in Europe.
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