International Roaming – dangerous traps for staying connected (smartphone)

International Roaming has become vital to Aussies holidaying overseas. Editor Ray Shaw has just returned from Egypt, Scandinavia, and the UK. He discovered first-hand that it is challenging to stay connected.

What is International Roaming

International Roaming means that you keep your Australian mobile phone number and the ability to receive and make voice calls and SMS service in supported countries. You pay a fee per day (nominally A$5 or more) to buy a specified amount of international call minutes (inbound/outbound) and data (Megabytes or Gigabytes) for use with Search, email, Google Maps (or similar) and more.

If you don’t pay for international roaming, calls/SMS and mobile data can be expensive. A mate has just received a $1,250 bill for a few weeks’ use in Italy.

Why is international roaming now so important?

We last went on an extended international holiday in 2017. Our experience then was buying a local sim for a few pounds or Euro (or whatever currency) and getting a temporary phone number and data allowance was all you needed. In 2023 that is the worst thing you can do. Why?

Times have changed. Smartphones and mobile data have become an integral part of tourism. Due to global staff shortages, most café/restaurants/pubs now have QR codes to access menus, order and pay. Most transport, tours, and tourist attractions must be booked and paid for online. Many service providers only have apps or use email to communicate vital logistics to you.

Now due to increased security, anti-fraud, and two-factor authentication, you must have a registered Australian mobile number to get an SMS verification code to make payments online (card not present – more later).

But there are some caveats to the effectiveness of International Roaming packages whether you use Telstra, Optus, Vodafone or their MVNOs (Coles, Woolworths, Boost, Aldi, etc.).

Coverage traps

The first is that coverage is only as good as the Australian Telco’s local provider. For example, Woolworths (which uses Telstra local network providers) did not cover significant tourist areas of Egypt. In some cases, we could only get 3G and a single bar, yet locals had good coverage with their providers. I am sure the same applies to Optus and Vodafone and their MVNOs.

In fact, the Telstra local provider coverage was so patchy that we could not use it. Woolworths has graciously refunded part of the international roaming package cost.

Sim traps – what kind of sim/mobile data account do you have?

I use a Woolworths Post Paid SIM (paid monthly after the invoice by direct debit). Woolworths trusts I will pay them promptly, and it can legally add additional charges to the standard monthly account amount. With this type of SIM, I can buy a 1-day/150MB, 5-day/1GB, 10-day/2GB or 15-day/4GB pack, which is billed to me via the standard postpaid system. I purchased a 15-day package.

My wife has a Woolworths Pre-pay recharge SIM by credit card. That plan can only have a 1-day/30 countries or 5-day/67 countries (including Egypt) international roaming add-on that must be paid by credit card at the time of order.

Hint: Don’t assume that your SIM plan allows for international roaming, especially if it is prepaid with no lock-in contract.

Things came severely unglued!

This is not a criticism of Woolworths Mobile. It spent over 1.5 hours with me to explain why the issues happened to help write a balanced story. As far as I can tell, all Telcos and MVNOs have the same problems.

Credit card not accepted and account locked

At the end of the first five days, I tried to renew my wife’s international roaming package. First, I used a web browser (on Windows 11 laptop) to access the account, order the add-on, and enter the credit card details. The payment was declined.

Unfazed, we used the same laptop and a VPN with a Sydney endpoint, and the payment was denied. WTF?

So, we got our daughter in Australia to log in and try to buy another add-on. Payment was denied regardless of the credit card used.

I then received an email from Woolworths stating that my account had been locked due to suspicious activity. We were unable to log in via the browser. WTF?

I tried using the Woolworths Mobile App on my phone (not my wife’s). As I use fingerprint access, it allowed me to access the app without two-factor SMS authentication. But despite this, the transaction also failed.

Woolworths explained that to protect the user’s account, it will lock the account if it detects a hidden proxy (as we had on the Nile Cruise boat), a VPN (as we used on the second attempt), if the IP address is international, or there is suspicious activity. My response was incredulous. “You don’t allow payments over a secure VPN? How can you renew international roaming if you are overseas?”

The bottom line is that pre-paid recharge accounts can’t use the online ‘card not present’ payment facility to top up or buy add-ons like International roaming.

Using a local SIM

We got to London around 21 May and spent considerable time with Woolworth’s helpline (free call in Australia but not internationally) to sort this out. The bottom line is that it could do nothing, but we could lodge a complaint. I knew that would be useless and time-consuming, and waited until I returned to Australia.

Our only option was to use a UK provider that could also cover Scandinavia, where we were heading next. EE (previously Orange) looked good, and we bought two £10, 8GB, 30-day pre-paid SIMs. That means new UK numbers, but at least we could make and receive calls, send and receive SMS, use Google Maps and search etc. EE worked well in Scandinavia until 6 June, when it advised that international roaming was no longer available on pre-paid SIMs (WTF).

The real issue is from online ‘card not present’ payments – you cannot do it

Yes, you can use local SIM data, but ‘card not present’ online payment is the problem.

For increased security and ‘card not present’ transactions, the credit card company or bank uses two-factor authentication – sending an SMS to your registered Australian smartphone number that you need to respond to. Catch 22 – you have an international number, and it is almost impossible to change the Bank/credit card to use that number or an email address – we tried!

That means you cannot use online ordering and payment if you have an international number.

Summary

If travelling OS, contact your Telco or MVNO and discuss these issues.

The days of buying a cheap local international SIM are long gone.

Other tips

Use a phone with the best camera, battery life and fast recharge

We were lucky to have two OPPO Find X5 phones (one Pro OPPO Find X5 Pro – a superb Android flagship with insanely fast charge and one standard OPPO Find X5 – the more affordable flagship sibling). We chose these for their camera prowess, incredibly fast charge, and long battery life.

As a backup, we also took a cloned Samsung S23 Ultra (Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra – the world’s best smartphone (review) and Motorola ThinkPhone Motorola ThinkPhone – for thinking people (review).

Take a phone with an e-SIM

All phones had a physical SIM (single or dual does not matter) and an e-SIM. Before leaving for OS, we converted the physical SIM to e-SIM – easy and free. It meant we could put a local international SIM in the slot. It also meant that if the phones were broken, stolen, or lost, we could transfer our Australian number instantly to a new e-SIM-based phone.

If you intend to travel, look for an e-SIM-based phone. It also made it easy to turn the e-SIM off to avoid horrendously expensive voice and data use without an international roaming package.

Data use – don’t be conned into paying for huge data packages

Over the seven weeks, I expected to use quite a lot of data. We turned off Google Photos and cloud backup and used the phones for Maps, email, browsing, and search. Data use averaged about 50MB per day, so don’t be conned into paying for larger Gigabyte allowances you may not use.

You need a great phone camera

If you take lots of photos, especially inside dark Pyramids, tombs, castles, and churches, OPPO’s MariSilicon night mode was fabulous, producing impossibly colourful and detailed phones putting other brands to shame. Only Samsung S23 and Google Pixel 7 have effective night mode. We also found the Ultra-wide-angle lens essential for capturing expansive shots.

Google Photos and cloud backup is a data hog

Let’s say we each took 50 x 4MB photos a day – that’s 200MB of data a day if we backed using Google Photos.

Instead, we backed photos up daily to an external SSD. The OPPO has USB-C 3.1 and treats an external USB-C SSD as a mountable drive (Samsung does not), so it was easy. Or you can use a PC as an OTG (on-the-go) intermediary to back up the hundreds of daily photos to the SSD.

International Roaming resources

(Note you can only use the Telco or MVNO you are connected to). Read the fine print and ensure your current SIM plan can use International Roaming.