It’s school holidays again, and for many Australians that means it’s time to head off on holidays. While a good number will holiday within Australia — we’ve got an awful lot to see at home — many will want to holiday overseas. It’s coming to the end of the northern Summer, but it’s still a beautiful time of year to visit the US, pacific islands, or to travel through Europe or Asia. In fact, travelling anywhere is awesome, and we encourage you to do more of it.

Sadly, though, some things don’t travel as well as people, and mobile phones have always been a questionable proposition when travelling. Do you buy a local SIM card? Do you just rely on free WiFi? Do you use your Australian carrier SIM and just wear the costs? What’s the best option? I’ve stumbled through this myself, and had my folks asking me for advice on this as well.

We thought the best thing to do would be a bit of a round-up of the options, starting with roaming options for our local carriers, and other options as well.

International Roaming

Once a truly scary combination of words that usually resulted in swift removal of all your money in favour of your telco, international roaming has become a lot more affordable these days. There’s still a fair amount of variation between our three major telcos on cost, but by and large, there are some good options to be found. Let’s take a look at their post-paid offerings — prepaid gets a little more complicated.


Before we jump into the carrier offerings though, be mindful that there’s ways to control international roaming on your handset, too. Most Android phones (as well as iOS devices) give you options to enable international roaming and data while roaming. If you’re conscious of cost, you can switch off data while roaming altogether, and purely have your phone switched on to receive calls or SMS.

It also pays to consider band support; most 3G handsets these days will support the major 3G bands worldwide, but 4G is far less universal. Some carriers do offer limited 4G roaming in other countries, but this is far from being commonplace. Equally, though it may be offered, your handset may not support the local 4G bands in some countries, meaning your experience will be all the more hit and miss.

If you are travelling a lot, having a handset with dual-SIM support can be very very useful. Your SIM from home can live in the primary slot, and be used for sending/receiving SMS and receiving phone calls from home. A secondary SIM, set up as a data-only connection, can be a wonderful thing and could even save you money, as well as offering you access to faster 4G networks in many places. A point to consider for the frequent traveller.


There’s also the need to have realistic expectations. In Australia, we’re kind of spoilt. We think of some networks as better than others, but let’s face it, all three carriers have amazing coverage and network speed, and we rarely find blackspots and no coverage areas unless we’re truly off the beaten track.

Overseas, though, mobile networks vary SIGNIFICANTLY. Roaming in the US can be a real pain for example, depending on which network you use. AT&T’s network is fairly good, T-Mobile’s is less good, and Vodafone can roam on both of those. Roaming in New Zealand is pretty reliable, though with such a small population over a large geographic area, you can drive for an hour or two in areas that have no signal, before reaching civilisation again (though, to be fair, this isn’t a limitation of roaming, it’s the local networks).

Depending on your home carrier, you might roam onto an expensive carrier network overseas, or a really cheap one, and the service can vary significantly. Vodafone, for example, roam with the M1 network in Singapore, which is not especially well known for being a high quality network. Don’t get me wrong, it works, and it’s quite usable, but data speeds are not quick, and there can be throughput issues.

These are just a couple of examples based on my personal experiences. Dan and Jason have travelled elsewhere and noted similar experiences; roaming works well in some places, and not others, and it can vary by country, network, and even what phone you’re using. It helps to have realistic expectations — you’re staying in touch and meeting the basic needs. If you want first-class service, you’re probably going to be better off buying a local pre-paid service on a reputable network.


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International roaming is activated as standard on all Telstra plans established from 12 May 2015, but if you’re heading overseas with an older service, you might want to give Telstra a call to make sure it’s enabled if you want it.

For post-paid customers, Telstra offers two zones of roaming pack. For a one-off charge, Telstra’s International Travel Pass gives you unlimited voice calls and SMS to and from standard numbers. You’ll also receive a data allowance to use in eligible countries for the period of the pass. An International Travel Pass becomes active the moment you take it up, so Telstra recommends you purchase it when you land overseas — to do this, you call Telstra (for free) on +61 439 125 109.

Zone 1 includes New Zealand, Indonesia (and Bali) and Thailand. With plans ranging from $15 for three days (incl. 150MB of data) through to $150 for 30 days (incl. 1.5 GB of data) there’s enough in the range to cover most trips, with options for 7 and 14 days in the middle. Across the range, it works out to $5 per day, and on top of the included data you have unlimited SMS And voice calls to and from standard numbers. MMS charges will still apply, though, so be careful with those picture messages.

Zone 1 countries
$5 per day pack available
Zone 2 countries
$10 per day pack available
New Zealand, Indonesia (includes Bali) and Thailand Cambodia, Canada, China (excluding Macau), Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), United Arab Emirates, United States of America.

Sadly, though, that Zone 1 pricing isn’t available in too many places. If you want to go further afield, to places like the US, UK, throughout the rest of Asia, and through Europe, you’re into Zone 2, which costs twice as much at $10 per day. The inclusions are the same – 150 MB on the $30/3 day pack through to 1.5GB on the $300/30 day pack – including the unlimited SMS and voice calls.

With capped price packs, there are no per-minute or per-SMS rates, and we’d strongly suggest using one of these rather than relying on default roaming costs, which can quickly escalate as shown below. A 5 day trip would be covered by the 7-day pack, which costs $35 or $70 depending on zone, vs the potential costs demonstrated below.

Telstra trip to the US Number Cost Total
Calls 2 x 5 minutes per day $3 per minute $30
SMS 5 per day 75c per SMS $3.75
Data 15MB per day (e.g. maps) $3 per MB $45
Per day $78.75
Five day trip $393.75
5 days w/ pack in USA  (Using 7 day pack) $70
5 days w/ pack in NZ  (Using 7 day pack) $35

Conclusion: Telstra offers great coverage and competitive rates locally, but their international roaming (outside NZ, Indonesia and Thailand) is still fairly pricey.


Zone 1 in aqua, Zone 2 in dark blue.
Zone 1 in aqua, Zone 2 in dark blue.


Optus has its Optus Travel product, which offers a similar travel pack style service to Telstra. Like Telstra, all roaming costs are in addition to any included plan value, and SMS are free to receive. Optus, too, uses a 2-zone roaming system, though the countries included within each zone are a little different, and travel packs (including some capped service) are only available in Zone 1 countries.

Fortunately, Optus’ Zone 1 includes many of the countries frequently visited by Australians heading overseas, including the US, UK, all of Europe and most of Asia except Vietnam. The Middle East, Africa and south America (including Mexico) are within Zone 2, where travel packs are not available.

International roaming is active by default on Optus services since 15 September 2013, but if you’re on an older service, you’ll need to make sure you turn it on. Call 1509 from your Optus mobile (in Australia), or SMS the number 7 to phone number 9999 and follow the instructions. If you’re already overseas, call +61 2 8082 5678 to enable roaming (it’s a free call).

Optus Travel packs cost $10 per day, which include unlimited talk and SMS, as well as 50MB of data to use in Zone 1 countries. If you need more data, just buy more packs; they’re cumulative! So, a five day trip? Just buy five packs, and that’ll give you unlimited voice and SMS, and 250MB of data to use while in any Zone 1 country (or combination of them). Buying the packs is easy – you can do it online via My Account, on your mobile using the My Optus app, or by calling that phone number above if you’re already overseas.

Zone 1 countries
$10 per day pack available
Zone 2 countries
no pack available
Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guam & the Northern Marianas, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Kazakhstan, Korea South, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lativia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkey, US Virgin Islands, USA, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vatican City All others

While the zones are different, Optus’ pricing for NZ, Indonesia and Thailand is higher than Telstra’s, but for other countries in Optus’ Zone 1, the pricing and data inclusions are virtually the same — $10 per day with 50MB data to use. Optus gives you a bit more flexibility with per-day pricing, but otherwise there’s little difference in it.

Optus trip to the US Number Cost Total
Calls 2 x 5 minutes per day $1 per minute $10
SMS 5 per day 50c per SMS $2.50
Data 15MB per day (e.g. maps) $0.50 per MB $7.5
Per day $20
Five day trip $100
5 days w/ pack in USA $50
5 days w/ pack in NZ $50

Conclusion: Optus has cheaper default rates in most popular countries than Telstra, and while Optus Travel packs cost a bit more for NZ, Indonesia and Thailand, they’re the same price as Telstra’s for most other countries at $10 per day. Depending on your usage, you might almost consider forgoing a travel pack on Optus for some countries, especially if you’re not using data.


vodafone redVodafone has kind of turned international roaming on its head in mid 2013 when it introduced its new Red plans, which include their roaming product known simply as Red Roaming. The premise is simple; for $5 per day, you can use whatever your plan includes in Australia while you’re overseas. If you’re like me, and have 12GB of data included each month, and unlimited calls/SMS/MMS, you can access that in any supported country for $5 a day, which can be significantly cheaper than other options.

Red Roaming is available in a lot of places Australians like to visit (some 50 countries worldwide), but certainly not all of them. NZ, USA, many countries in Asia and most of western Europe is included, but there are plenty of places that aren’t, including Canada, Mexico, most of South America (except Brazil), all of Africa (except South Africa), Russia, and most of the Middle East. In those countries not included, there’s no travel pack-type option available, and you’re left with Vodafone’s default international roaming rates, which really aren’t too bad at $1 per minute to make or receive calls, $1 per MB of data and $0.75 for SMS or MMS sent.

Red Roaming countries
$5 per day pack available
Non-Red Roaming countries
No pack available
Albania, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, USA, Wales All others

Vodafone’s Red Roaming is great when it’s available; you don’t need to pre-buy a pack, and if you happen to leave your phone off for a day while you’re overseas, you don’t pay for that day. It’s $5 per day when used, up to 90 days in total per year, and with that you can access whatever your inclusions are at home. Better yet, the way calls work is kind of neat; if you’re in the US, and you have unlimited national minutes at home, you can make unlimited national calls within the US while you’re there too, without it coming out of any included usage.

Astute viewers of Vodafone’s terms and conditions will note that Red Roaming is advertised as ending on 1 December 2015. We’ve sought clarification from Vodafone on this before, and we’ve spoken to Vodafone’s Chief Strategy Officer & Corporate Affairs Director, Dan Lloyd who tells us:

Vodafone recognises how much our customers value $5 roaming, and there are no plans to end it or wind it back.

In other words, it’s here to stay. Let’s take a look at that hypothetical trip to the US for Vodafone:

Vodafone trip to the US Number Cost Total
Calls 2 x 5 minutes per day $1 per minute $10
SMS 5 per day 75c per SMS $3.75
Data 15MB per day (e.g. maps) $1 per MB $15
Per day $28.75
Five day trip $143.75
5 days w/ pack in USA $35
5 days w/ pack in NZ $35

Conclusion: In countries covered by Red Roaming, Vodafone’s offering cannot be beaten on cost; there’s no 50MB per day limit, and you can use as much or as little as you like. If your 5 day trip includes a full day away from your phone, leave it off and save the $5 for that day. I’ve used this service in NZ, US and Singapore, and it works flawlessly. However, if you’re outside a Red Roaming country, Vodafone’s costs can quickly add up a bit more quickly than Optus’, though still cheaper than Telstra’s in most places.

The Wrap

When it comes to international roaming rates, there’s certainly a lot of difference.

On travel packs, Vodafone’s Red Roaming is the best value hands down if it’s available in the country you want to visit. $5 per day to access your plan inclusions from home is significantly better than the competition. However, with just 50 countries covered, there’s plenty of places people like to visit where this simply isn’t an option. Vodafone’s default pricing is good, but it isn’t the best; Optus’ Zone 1 pricing is cheaper, and is available in many places, including Canada, throughout Europe and most of Asia.

Telstra’s pricing Zone 2, at $10 per day, is on par with Optus, and available in many of the same places, including Canada, much of Asia, and western Europe.

Once you stray off the beaten track, though — and by this, we mean to places like most of South America, Africa, and countries in the Middle East — the good roaming deals are hard to find. There’s no pack-type options available (for the most part), and you’re left with default roaming rates from the majors. Here’s a couple of examples just to highlight the disparity:

  • Roaming in Iraq:
    • $2 per min on Optus / $1 per MB
    • $5 per min on Telstra / $3 per MB
    • $1 per min on Vodafone / $0.75 per MB
  • Roaming in Argentina:
    • $2 per min on Optus / $1 per MB
    • $5 per min on Telstra / $3 per MB
    • $1 per min on Vodafone / $0.75 per MB
  • Roaming in Vietnam:
    • $2 per min on Optus / $1 per MB
    • $2 per min on Telstra / $3 per MB
    • $1 per min on Vodafone / $0.75 per MB

So, which offering is best?

In countries where Red Roaming is available, and that does include many popular tourist destinations, Vodafone is by far the best option. It’s half the price of the competitors, and offers significantly more included value. It’s worth noting, though, that Optus’ travel packs at $10 per day are available in significantly more countries than Telstra’s $10 per day options, and each have more countries than Vodafone’s Red Roaming.

If you’re not using a travel pack, Optus’ rates can be cheaper than Vodafone in some places (North America is a good example), but elsewhere, Vodafone leads the pack with $1 per minute and $0.75 SMS in virtually every country, and data in 85% of them. Telstra’s rates vary wildly, from $1.50 a minute in some places through to $5.00 per minute in others.

With that, Vodafone offers best value across the board; the cheapest travel packs with the most inclusions, and outside of those, the lowest standard roaming rates. Optus is probably second, given the wide coverage of its $10/day packs which have fairly reasonable inclusions, and their reasonable roaming rates outside of those countries. Telstra brings up the rear, with the most limited coverage of travel packs, and significant variation in standard roaming costs.

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Erland Howden

I see the justification of just covering the 3 major networks most people are on, but not even giving an honourable mention to, eg. Lycamobile which is a fraction of the cost of any of these 3 options seems a bit slack. I’m not spruiking here, Lycamobile’s service kinda sucks and I wouldn’t choose them in Australia…however, I am on an extended trip right now and switched to Lycamobile a few days before I left just because of the value of their international roaming rates. It’s been pretty amazing – travelling through about 12 countries AUD10 credit lasted me almost… Read more »


Good feedback. Thanks. I was going to look at other offerings but it tool long enough to research just these three. Sometimes we have to make calls like that. We’ll consider looking at prepaid and MVNO offers next.


What part of this couple of thousand word write-up screams “SLACK” to you? How about asking (Politely) for a writeup of 2nd and 3rd tier carrier offerings?


I’ve bought local sims for my trips to New Zealand and Argentina, and it’s much cheaper than roaming prices. Especially in Argentina. Personal offer unlimited prepaid data packs for ARS$40 / month, which works out to well under AU$10. No way you can roam cheaper than that! Coverage is pretty awful once you leave Buenos Aires, though


A very handy piece you’ve put together here Chris and Ausdroid. A lot of time and research no doubt. Good stuff.


Went to NZ (South Island: Otago, Fiordland, Canterbury). My mate on Vodafone had no issues where as being on Optus, my connection was very poor and patchy and costed me heaps. I would be buying a pre paid roaming pack for sure next time.


There’s quite a lot of free wifi in New Zealand, though there are still some hotels where you need to pay for wifi. Getting a prepaid ends up cheaper. Next time I go, I’ll be sure to remember my SIM tool!


Roaming is still one of the big ripoffs for travelers. Vodafone most likely has the best at $5 / day and use your normal plan but if you’re on prepay your screwed.. When I was in AU last month from NZ I bought a Optus $2 / SIM which great for a tourist not too good for locals. My wife who is on Spark NZ used their $39 / month roaming plan that gave he 500 Meg data, 100 outgoing minutes , 100 incoming minutes and 100 SMS out going which did her fine. You would think with the close… Read more »


If you guys can do a similar article on what International Calling Options/Rates are provided by the Big 3, that would be awesome 🙂

Max Luong

Why not use Hangouts, Facebook, Skype, Viber or WhatsApp for international calling?


Because I often end up in places with poor WiFi or poor data connection and making an important call to family overseas has ended up costing me a fortune.


Just a tip for people using Vodafone in the USA. You can go to network select and choose at&t instead of T-Mobile. Depends which bands your phone uses of course if this will improve data speeds.


Definitely; AT&T performs MUCH better than T-Mobile, certainly in California. Locking the carrier to AT&T is certainly a good idea, where the coverage is good.

Max Luong

Personally, I just buy data SIMs when I’m overseas. It tends to work out much better.

You guys should follow this up with an article on buying a local data SIM and compare it to international roaming.

Alvin Ng

Buying SIMS locally is the best option if you’re visiting one country. But if you’re visiting multiple countries on different continents and not staying for more than a few days in each country, using Vodafone’s $5 international roaming is the most convenient (not cheapest) option.

Max Luong

Good point. I hadn’t thought of that since I only ever visit one country at a time.

Another thing to note though, is that those of us on pre-paid or data-only SIMs are not eligible for the roaming that’s highlighted in this article.


Indeed. The subheadline ought to be “you could, but you shouldn’t”.

If you are heading towards the UK and Europe then the THREE Sim + £20 “All in One” pack with “Feel At Home” is going to be hard to beat (unlimited data). It’s even going to work for UK and then US.

Phill Edwards

Agreed, a local SIM article would be great.


Thank you – this is an exceptional article, which takes a complex issue often shrouded in terms & conditions and presents it in an easy-to-digest format. One question I have on Vodafone Red Roaming: their website says that this offer is scheduled to end 01/12/15. Does this mean that after that date, normal pro-rata billing rates (per minute/megabyte/sms) will resume and there will be no ‘$x per day’ option on that carrier?


Thanks for the glowing feedback! The short answer is no, it will continue beyond 1/12/15. I’ve put a quote from Vodafone in the article to address this 🙂