How to stop paying data roaming charges when you’re travelling

The embedded SIM, out soon, will finally allow travellers to do all they want on a phone or tablet without worrying about their bills. In the meantime, carry a dual-SIM smartphone or special handset, or buy a virtual ‘global SIM’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 April, 2017, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 9:43am

When it comes to data, globalisation is a lie, as anyone who’s made a phone call or used the web on a smartphone while abroad will know all too well. While more and more of us travel and use our smartphones and tablets aboard, exorbitant international roaming charges just won’t go away. So how can you escape them?

One of the cheapest ways for international travellers to reduce the cost of calls and data (which is what most of us are really after) is to buy a local SIM card. That’s easy to do in Hong Kong, but it can be impossible in many countries – including China and Singapore – that demand registration, proof of residency and identification documents.

In fact, visitors to Hong Kong are spoilt for choice, with a plethora of cheap prepaid SIM cards to choose from provided by China Mobile, China Unicom, CSL and others. Others are designed to work around Asia, such as Three’s International Roaming Rechargeable SIM (HK$48), which gives special roaming rates in China, Macau, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

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Visitors to Europe should know that data roaming charges within the EU will be scrapped in June 2017, so any local SIM card will work across the European Union (including the UK until it leaves the EU in two years’ time). But there are issues if you buy a local SIM card; you have to travel with multiple, often tiny SIM cards in your possession, swap them in and out, and you have to find a SIM that physically fits your phone (iPhone-sized nano SIM cards are harder to find).

An easy way to get around all this is to use a phone with individual slots for memory card and SIMs, which are common in Hong Kong. If you do have a dual-SIM phone, there are an increasing number of low-cost international roaming deals around, but there is one major drawback. “The challenge is that using multiple SIMs means you cannot always keep your number while travelling,” says John Devlin, a telecoms analyst at Futuresource Consulting. It gets more complex, too; to roam in Japan and Korea only phones that support 3G-UMTS work, while for the USA, a triband phone (which operates on three broadband frequencies) is required.

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Data-savvy travel is a minefield, and that’s a problem that a four-year-old Hong Kong start-up has seized upon with its Handy product. “For most people, travel is a very infrequent activity – something you do twice a year – and even with roaming SIMs it’s so expensive,” says Terence Kwok, ‎founder and chief executive officer of Tink Labs.

Its Handy T1 smartphone gives guests free web access anywhere within the city they’re staying in, as well as free national and international calls. Handy lets users log in to and interact with social media apps while they’re in that city (it blanks once you check out), provides a constantly refreshed city guide, and can be used to order from hotel room service. “A lot of tourists just think it’s something offered by the hotel, but we’re happy to let the hotels take the credit,” says Kwok.

Handy is in 100,000 hotel rooms, mostly in Hong Kong, Singapore and London, including Ritz-Carlton, Intercontinental and Sheraton hotels, London’s Eccleston Square Hotel, and The Serras Hotel Barcelona. The aim is to go from 20 to 100 cities by the end of 2017.

Although it neatly circumvents the problem of international roaming, Handy is only a help if you happen to be staying in top-end hotels. If you’re a frequent traveller, the easiest way to avoid all international roaming charges is to use a SIM at home that lets you use your allowance abroad. Happily, more and more networks and resellers are doing just that.

“They negotiate deals with mobile network operators in multiple countries and provide seamless roaming with no additional fees, and no need to change SIM cards,” says Devlin. “These are growing in popularity for both businesses and consumers.”

A classic travel hack for business travellers in recent years has been to buy a global “travel SIM” from the likes of Truphone, GigSky, WorldSIM and AlwaysOnline Wireless, which create a virtual global mobile network and let users access low rates in an umbrella of countries, using either prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans. Depending on the destinations to which you frequently travel, these can be a great way of saving money. They also often allow the adding of a couple of phone numbers to allow specific people – likely a spouse or business partner – to call you at their local home rate.

Travel SIM companies are now creating new and unique products: international data bundles for iPads and WLAN roaming devices. The former appeals to business travellers using tablets who want built-in global roaming, while the latter – often called a Mi-Fi – creates a Wi-fi hotspot that’s perfect for those using multiple devices, or travelling in a group.

“They allow you to connect multiple devices – usually up to five devices – when roaming for a single, low-cost fee instead of paying roaming charges,” says Devlin. Those devices can be anything from smartphones, tablets and laptops to cameras, wearables and children’s toys. “It’s a separate device that can be bought or hired instead of fiddling with more SIM cards, and you are able to keep your usual number for voice and SMS,” adds Devlin.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could surf the web from any device anywhere in the world without worrying? Owners of first-generation Amazon Kindles will know what that’s like; they continue to have free global access to 3G networks years after newer Kindles have abandoned offering the service.

The embedded SIM – or eSIM – promises global access without the need to change SIM cards, and it could be coming to your next smartphone. It will allow you to choose, and activate, any mobile data deal you want from inside an app or browser on your phone or tablet. The eSIM is due to go mainstream during 2018, but is already being installed in some devices. “Already companies like Apple, Xiaomi, Huawei and Coolpad have either released, or considered building in, user-friendly roaming solutions,” says Devlin.

For travellers, the eSIM could change everything, finally putting an end to the worry that any activity on a phone will mean hefty mobile bills when you get home.