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International roaming: know your rights

13 September 2011

Many people want to stay in touch with friends and family when they travel overseas, but are unsure whether their mobile will work and if it does, if they will receive extra charges for using it.

Australian telecommunication companies have agreements with various overseas networks to provide Australian customers with the ability to use their mobiles while overseas; these are called roaming agreements.

When you are roaming on another network, a mobile company from the country you are visiting will bill your usual mobile company for the calls using their network and these charges are passed on to you.

While being able to use your phone overseas can be handy, it can be very expensive. The TIO regularly receives complaints about the size of roaming bills, and the quality of information a telecommunications company (telco) gives when a person has asked about making calls overseas. Adding to the complexity is that charges can vary within and between countries. In the past year complaints in this area have increased about 80 per cent. We also receive complaints from people who are concerned about the accuracy of their bills.

Can I use my mobile in the country or countries I plan to visit?

Australian mobile companies are continually negotiating roaming agreements with offshore mobile companies, but there is no guarantee that you will be able to use your mobile in the country you will visit. If you can use your mobile overseas, your telco may need to "activate" roaming on your phone.

How much will it cost to use my mobile while overseas?

You will most likely be charged to make and receive calls while you are overseas and you should ask your telco about both fees. You are charged for calls you receive because the person calling you may not know that you are overseas. Therefore, you are charged for the international leg of the call and the person calling you only pays the usual charge to call a mobile in Australia.

The cost of international calls you make while overseas will vary because they are charged at rates set by the international mobile company and your Australian telco will generally include an additional administration fee.

I have a smartphone; will I be charged extra for data usage?

Since you are accessing your data through a mobile network, you will be charged extra for data usage overseas. Like calls, each country has different rates for downloading data, so check with your provider before using the GPS on your iPhone. Even if you are signed up on a plan with free data in Australia, it's unlikely this data will be free if accessed overseas. For example, if your mobile plan ordinarily includes 500mb of data under a cap and you intend to access data overseas, it's likely any usage will not be included in the cap and you will have to pay for each data session overseas separately, potentially making each access very expensive.

How will I be notified if I spend an excessive amount on my mobile while overseas?

Be aware that international roaming charges can add up quickly and you might accrue a large bill in a short time. The TIO recommends you ask your mobile provider about its policy on notifying you when you have accrued a high bill and whether you can monitor your usage online while you are overseas.

Your telco should be able to explain to you the arrangement it has with its roaming partner about when and how it is obliged to notify you of any impending excess usage overseas. You should make a note of the information you are given.

How can I minimise the cost of roaming?

To avoid incoming international call charges, many telcos recommend an unconditional diversion to voicemail is set while still in Australia. This means that any incoming calls never the leave Australian network and therefore no international charges apply.

You can also turn off the data roaming facility on your mobile when overseas. If you are not certain about how to do this, speak to your service provider.

How can I reduce my call costs?

When you ask your telco make sure you clearly understand what you will be charged for each type of action (i.e. SMS, making and receiving calls, and data usage). If you are unsure about the information given to you, ask for literature from your telcos, since most major providers have brochures or information online about roaming fees. If you don't understand any of the information you have received, make sure that you speak with your provider to clarify any issues prior to using your service overseas.

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