Alternatives to Roaming: 4 Options and Their Costs
What are the practical alternatives to roaming. This is the thought that popped into my head after writing a recent guide on how phone calls work while travelling. I put together this guide on my preferred alternatives to roaming when it comes to making calls and using data while travelling - I’ve backed this up with references and solid data on the different options that are out there.
The best alternative to roaming is to buy a local SIM card that provides data and calls. Other options, particularly for calls, include Skype, Whatsapp and other apps, or VOIP. If a provider offers a bundle or add-on for roaming, this can also be a good alternative.
In this guide to roaming alternatives I’ve included:
- Pros and cons of each option
- Typical costs
- Instructions on how to use
In the table below is a summary of the typical costs for the different options. Further below are the pros and cons lists, and the instructions for each option.
|Roaming Alternative||Typical cost (USD)|
|Local SIM card||$5 - $35|
|$7/month + 1-2 cents per minute|
|$5.50 - $18 per month, 1-5 cents per minute|
|Roaming bundle||$5 - 12 per day|
I’ve also included details on roaming bundles / add-ons, including costs, for popular providers from:
- US and Canada
- The UK
- Australia & New Zealand
Buying a Local SIM Card
Buying a SIM card like a local will give you access to calls, data, and text messages at rates comparable to what a resident of the country you’re visiting would pay.
- Usually cheaper than roaming
- Flexible - typically includes local and international calls, and data
- Harder for people to contact you (have to give them your new number)
Typical cost: $5 to $35 (USD)
Local SIM cards are my preferred alternative to roaming. Every country I’ve been to has a way to purchase a SIM card like a local, and then use that card to make or receive phone calls.
How to buy a local SIM
To buy a local SIM card:
- Locate a SIM card shop
- Purchase a SIM card with data and minutes for calls
- Put the SIM card into your phone, activate if necessary
Often I find local SIM card shops at the airport. In many countries these are the best way to purchase SIM cards in a foreign country. Check out my guides here for more details.
Skype is a Microsoft product that allows voice and video calls between Skype users and out to land lines and mobile phones in nearly all countries around the world.
- Easy to set up
- Requires data
Typical cost: $7 per month to receive calls, 1-2 cents per minute to make a call (USD)1
Skype is a good alternative to roaming for making and receiving phone calls. I like to use it in conjunction with a local SIM card. I’ve found it also works over hotel Wi-Fi in many countries, though it doesn’t often work over free Wi-Fi.
How to use Skype
To use Skype for receiving phone calls:
- Register with Skype and add credit
- Register a phone number in a home country
- Give people that phone number to reach you on
To use Skype for making phone calls:
- Register with Skype and add credit
- Dial the other person’s phone number (remember to select the country or use the
xxrepresents their country code)
- The other person picks up the call and you are charged per minute
Skype does require your phone or computer to be connected to the internet; when travelling this means buying a local SIM card with data or using Wi-Fi.
Using an App
Downloading a chat app to your phone can be an easy way to make voice and video calls to another person.
- Needs data
- Needs both people using the app
I’ve found so many apps these days for voice and video calling people. There seem to be endless options. They all boil down to the same limitations for me - both people need the app and both people need a data connection.
How to use an App
To use an app for making a phone call:
- Download the app and register your details
- Get the other person to download the app and register their details
- Connect with each other in the app and make a phone call.
Example apps I’ve used include: Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, Line, KaKao Talk and WeChat. My favourites for phone calls are Whatsapp and Facebook messenger because of how widespread they are.
Apps require data to be used; I typically buy a local SIM card with data to use an app, though Wi-Fi is an alternative. I’ve found it hard to use apps over free Wi-Fi (it is possible though), good quality Wi-Fi such as at a hotel is preferred.
VOIP is a system that uses the internet to make telephone calls. This includes assigning phone numbers and making or receiving phone calls. It works with landlines or mobile phones in nearly every country around the world.
- Easy for others to use (you get the same number everywhere)
- hard to set up
Typical costs: $5.50 to $18 to set up a number, then 1 to 10 cents per minute to make or receive calls (USD)
How to use VOIP
To use VOIP for receiving calls:
- Register for a VOIP service
- Get a local phone number (fixed line or mobile)
- Set up a redirect to that provider
To use VOIP for making calls:
- Register for a VOIP service
- Add the SIP settings to your phone
- Make calls using the SIP line
Last time I did this was using a company called voip.ms. The sign-up process wasn’t easy, I had to take a photo of my identity with proof of address before they’d activate the number. But between their great customer service and that they provide numbers in countries that other companies don’t, I’m happy to have my VOIP service with them.
Many mobile phone providers offer a bundle, cap, or add-on that aims to reduce roaming costs. Typically this is a daily or weekly additional charge that enables roaming at a cheaper rate. If none of the other options on this list work, I highly recommend buying a bundle rather than paying casual roaming rates.
- Easy to set up
- Easy for others to contact you
- Still more expensive than the other options
Typical costs: $5 to $12 per day (USD)
I’ve included details here of how to use roaming bundles for the larger providers around the world; links to their instructions can be found in the references section (click the numbers to jump there). All prices in this section are in the home currency.
AT&T offers a $10/day International Day Pass2. It includes:
- Unlimited calls back to the US, and to many countries
- Unlimited incoming calls
- Data quota which comes from your regular plan
To activate AT&T’s International Day Pass, log in on their website and follow the instructions there.
T-Mobile offers low roaming rates instead of offering bundles3. Data can be quite slow to use, but there is no need to set up, register, or pay a monthly fee for roaming.
Rogers offers a $8/day bundle for use in the States, or $12/day for many other countries4. Data is deducted from your monthly plan while talk and text is unlimited.
Telus offers the same deal: $8/day for the US and $12/day for many other countries5. Data is deducted from your monthly quota, talk and text is unlimited. Activation is done by logging into Telus’ website and following the instructions.
Bell has the same roaming bundles: $8/day for the US and $12/day for other countries6. The bundle can be activated by texting
ROAM to 8000, charges only apply on days roaming is used.
Vodafone has a £6 per day7 bundle that allows you to roam in many countries using your UK quota. Log in to the website or use the app to activate.
EE only offers data in its add-ons, which start at £4.80 per day8.
O2 includes unlimited data in its £4.99 per day9 roaming bolt on. It seems there’s no need to register, O2’s website says as soon you make a call, send an SMS, or use data the roaming bolt on is triggered.
Telstra offers roaming bundles (International Day Pass) of $5 per day for New Zealand and $10 per day for many other countries10. The bundle only includes 200mb of data however. Use the My Telstra app to activate.
Vodafone charges $5 per day to use your Australian quota in another country11. Vodafone’s website states there is no need to activate the bundle prior to departing, simply turn your phone on in a supported country and start using it.
Optus has an Optus Roaming Pass add-on that costs $10 per 24-hours and includes 1GB of data12. Log in to your account or My Optus app to use it and review costs.
For New Zealanders
Spark has a 7 day bundle for $20 that includes 1GB of data13. The bundle can be activated via their website or app.
Vodafone charges $7 per day to use your New Zealand quota while travelling abroad14. Enable this via the app.
My favourite way is:
- Pick up a local SIM with loads of data
- Use apps to call people that have the app
- Use Skype to call people that don’t
I like using a local SIM as it means I can use data on maps and searching things of where I am without having to worry about the costs.
I’ve also found in some circumstances it’s cheaper to roam than to buy a local SIM card. Some examples are where countries are close to each other and have very favourable roaming agreements, such as:
- Hong Kong to Macau or Mainland China (if staying 1-2 days it’s cheaper to roam)
- Australia and New Zealand (it can be cheaper to roam for journeys of 1-2 days)
- Canada to the US
- Singapore and Malaysia
- The EU
Written by Chris who travels frequently for work and understands what it can be like to arrive somewhere new and unfamiliar.
I wrote Landing Last Minute to help the hurried traveler get necessary information about any destination.