Phone services while overseas

Submitted: Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 11:55
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Hi All,

May I draw on the collective wisdom. We expect to be travelling to the UK shortly and I see two or three needs for a phone while there.

1. To cover the possible need to stay in touch with family and deal with crises etc in Australia.

2. For occasional local calls within the UK.

3. Maybe enough data capacity to handle minor email traffic.

There seem to be dozens of Australian options ranging from Telstra's global roaming at around $2 per minute for both incoming and outgoing calls, down to 18 cents per minute for outgoing from Woolworths and Roaming.sim. Even that last option is confusing - the two offerings appear almost identical, though the startup price on Woolworths is about $30, and for Roaming.sim about $20. Woolworths expires after 6 months unless refreshed, Roaming after 12 months.

All seriously confusing, and then there's the whole spectrum in between with all sorts of variations. Another range of options opens up if you look at buying a UK sim and swapping it for the Australian one while over there.

What have ExplorOz people found to be satisfactory for this sort of use and reasonably affordable?

Thank you for any recommendations.


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Reply By: Member -Pinko (NSW) - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 12:24

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 12:24
Hello John
I have been researching this subject and I think I will be going for this one:
Living is a journey,it depends on where you go !
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Reply By: Member -Shakeejob - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:11

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:11
G'day John,
In my experience its not the calls that are the problem but the data. Downloading emails and sending them uses up a lot of data and at 15c mb it can be expensive.
I had a bad experience in my last trip to Europe, where I didn't fully comprehend the issue and it cost me $1600 for three weeks.
Make sure you disable the data roaming on your phone before you go and use free WIFI where you can for data.
We are off to Kenya and the UK later this month and will buy a local sim card when we get there. This means of course that you have a new phone number but you need a hotmail or gmail account to get data.

Have a great trip,

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Reply By: Zippo - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:18

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:18
Not the UK, but parallels exist ...

On our (three) trips to the USA we purchased pre-paid local services direct from AT&T. Waaay cheaper than any aussie roaming deal. Ditto 2 Degrees in UnZud.

I'd suggest exploring the UK offerings, but make sure that whatever appliance you plan to put their SIM into is UNLOCKED before you go. Also be sure to check in advance whether your phone/tablet can operate on all the frequency bands used by the intended network operator.

You may find people offering cheap UK-based pre-paid SIMs on ebay that you can get in hand before you leave Oz. Handy in that you know (and can pass on to family etc) the destination phone# in advance, BUT note that activation is usually dependent on receiving an SMS to the appliance with that SIM fitted, and (in the case of USA at least) that won't arrive until you do, so you can't be 100% sure it's all a goer until you're there.

Another trap for the unwary here in Oz - and I cannot see any reason that elsewhere would be different - is coverage. Yes, by comparison with the UK our beloved Oz is empty and far from blanketed in cellphone coverage. Telstra are by far the best for coverage BUT the overwhelming majority (all but one in fact) of the resellers offer "Part of the Telstra network" and the difference is all in the lesser populated areas. So check the coverage of any network operator or reseller before committing.

On a separate aspect, unless you aren't driving around there you may need some satnav or mapping. While we use a Garmin Nuvi here in Oz/NZ (and USA) the cost of "foreign" maps for these can be annoying. Using a smartphone as a substitute can work OK but will chew through your data at an unhealthy rate. Consider using an off-line mapping app and downloading all the maps for the region before departing. While these won't give you turn-by-turn instructions, it will use the phone's inbuilt GPS (assuming it has one) to show where you are on the street-map. We even use that function here in the Oz outback as a supplement to the Garmin unit.

And most of all, have a safe and enjoyable trip.
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Follow Up By: The Explorer - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:41

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:41

With respect to navigating using your smartphone while on holiday OS I have over the last two months used a free app called MAPS WITH ME (or Maps.Me).

Maps are sourced from the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project which are, from what I can figure, great (for cites/towns at least - not so flash outback). Has POIs as well (train stations, hotels, landmarks etc). Just a case of downloading your area/country of interest (routeable and non-routeable versions - best done when at home/free wifi)...turn on gps and away you go. With the exception of the initial app and map download it operates offline - no internet required.

Only does routes for cars which can result in it suggesting the long way around if you are actually walking (i.e. it only goes one way down one way streets) but spot on if you are driving. Also no voice directions.

Recommend for anyone travelling. Apple and Android versions (and blackberry).

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Follow Up By: Zippo - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:09

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:09
Greg, I'll have to look into that. Although we already have an app ("City2Go") and the downloads for Oz, having routability may one day come in handy if the Garmin goes tits-up. Thanks.
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Reply By: Peter_n_Margaret - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:20

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:20
We have roaming for phone calls, but would not make more than one a month, so that is fine for all of those needs.
We then try and get a local data only sim, or use free hot spots.
Skype is useful for otherwise expensive phone calls, if you have an internet connection.

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Reply By: oldbaz - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:44

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:44
Hi John, we have been researching the same issue recently & on the advice of recent
travelling friends, have opted to go with "WhatsApp". Wazat? I hear you say..
It is a free App that allows you to text message anyone, anywhere in the world..
provided they have also downloaded the App. This is free anywhere you can get free
WiFi. So if you get your rellos & others on board, you can send text & photos free
provided you find free Wi Fi locations.
A good friend recently travelled widely in UK, Europe & Turkey & says this is by far the
best mobile phone contact system she has used. On prior trips she used various
"Travel Sims" & found them all complicated & unreliable.
If you get contacts to test message you, their contact will be added to your app & you
then nominate that contact when you wish to message them.
Hotel Lobbies, Airports, Train Stations etc are good sources of free WiFi as are large
Shopping Complexs & Maccas..:))
So we will shut down Data Roaming & use WhatsApp. You can always allow Data
Roaming if you find it necessary.
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Reply By: TomH - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:52

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 13:52
On two trips to the USA we did the following.

On first trip with an Iphone 3S (Unlocked) we bought an AT &T prepaid sim which wasnt a success as in Utah it didnt work too well, whereas others were getting reception on T mobile .
Last trip to Canada and USA (Unlocked Samsung Galaxy)bought a cheap sim card for two weeks in Canada.
In New York we bought a $35 T Mobile sim at a hole in the wall shop for $20 with a month of unlimited calls on it. Just topped it up at end of the month with $10. Worked everywhere. No data on it as had laptop for use on Wifi at hotels.

For navigation had a US GPS bought cheap on Amazon Sold it when came home for more than we paid for it

Friends were told only to email us except for one who we gave the phone number for emergencies.
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Reply By: dean ( SA ) - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:33

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:33
Last year we used 2 travel sims ( probably the same as aus post ) in the UK/France in our UNLOCKED phones.
We picked up a twin pack for $50 however some places had them for $50 each, shop around.
We also had our telstra sim as a backup in case something didn't work which we didn't use.

So, we found the travel sim to be excellent for calls and sms.
You do have to put a minimum of $25 on each card so there's $ 100 before a call is made in our case.
Don't know about data as we didn't take any tablets etc or care about email or internet.
We don't need it in the outback so why Europe.
We came home with probably half the credit which is lost or you can use it here.

Regarding data, every hotel, B&B, etc. that we stayed in had free wifi so with the kids ipod's we could check our email if so desired and they kept in touch with school friends daily.
Unless you really must have data you can get by easily with out it.
A lot of pubs, restaurants had it as well and you just asked for their password.


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Follow Up By: dean ( SA ) - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:46

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 15:46
I didn't mention gps but others have so here goes.
We simply took our Garmin and bought a $20 cheapie European maps from ebay and it worked fantastic.

And on the phone don't stress, just go with the easiest as whatever you choose it's just a few beers difference in cost as compared with the whole trip.

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Reply By: Member - Boobook - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:17

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:17
I travel overseas quite frequently. I always find that there is no substitute for unlocking your phone if it is locked, and getting pre paid cards in the country that you are travelling within, and calling from.

Phone calls, including those to home or overseas are 20 to 100 times cheaper than even those silly travel plans / card you can get here and data is cheaper still. With a lot of data, you can use google maps, research your trip, use watsapp and free / cheap call services such as skype.

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Follow Up By: Member - RUK42 (QLD) - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 20:41

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 20:41
I would endorse this option. It will take only a few minutes at Heathrow (or wherever) to buy a local prepaid sim. A quick google will even tell you what telco shops are available at the airport - send them an email and ask what the procedure is when you get there.
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Reply By: Member - Michael P (QLD) - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:33

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:33
Going OS in a couple of weeks. The travel insurance co offered me a free SIM card pre- paid service. I have opted for that seems pretty good call costs to Aus. from the countries that I am travelling to are pretty good ,(most expensive to call OZ = 47c per min.) texts 25c.
That Co. is Cover More Travel Insurance. They checked phone compatability etc & have run tests here all okay.

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Follow Up By: Member - Boobook - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:26

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:26
If you get a vodafone prepaid ( in the UK not here) it is 10 pounds. For that you get 1.5 pence a minute to Australia plus 150 mins of local UK calls, free texts and 500mb of data.

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Follow Up By: TomH - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:44

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:44
Good luck with Covermore I had Policy with them and had to go to a hospital in Seattle Cost $1700.

Took Covermore 7 months to pay it and took me a lot of phone calls to get them to do it.
In the meantime I got threatening letters regarding non payment from the hospital.
All this happened because the muppet I rang at Covermore gave me the wrong information and said for me to get the bill and forward it to them when it should have been sent direct to Covermore.

They said so when I got home.

Wouldnt touch them with a bargepole.

Last trip we used Fastcover 65 days cost just under $1000 for both of us.

Covermore cost $1750 for about 46 days. Both in Canada and USA
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Follow Up By: TomH - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:45

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:45
Forgot to say I had a claim this time for damaged glasses and a lost notebook stylus. Was all sorted and paid in 3 weeks after I lodged the claim on return.
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Reply By: Member - Robert1660 - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:41

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 17:41
Hi All,
We did the UK, Irish Republic trip last year. The first thing to note is that mobile phone coverage out of the main city areas in the UK is to say the least mixed. The locals complain about the black spots all the time. They seem to spend more time swapping providers than they do talking on the phone. In the more isolated areas there is no 3G coverage so even downloading emails is a challenge.
We decided to buy an iPhone and an iPad sim at Sydney airport. The first thing they did at SimCity was to check that the iPhone was actually unlocked as it was supposed to be. Believe it or not it wasn't fully. After dealing with this I purchased a Lebara sim for the phone and an EE sim for the iPad. The Lebara sim turned out to be a nightmare. They refunded my purchase price. The EE sim for the iPad was excellent but did require some assistance with setting up. A point to note is that in the UK you cannot use your Aus credit card to top up online. This is quite an annoyance.
I left my phone with its Telstra sim and purchased a 30 day data pack. The phone worked throughout the UK and the Irish Republic. It would connect to a great variety of providers. This is useful as of course as soon as you cross into the Irish Republic you are in a foreigh country and UK sims often don' t roam.
As mentioned many times in this thread free WiFi is available everywhere. We stayed exclusively in B&B's and all provided WiFi thus phone and tablet data useage is not an issue.
The reality is that you don't make that many call when you are away. Thus a Telstra sim worked well everywhere. A local tablet sim is worth getting. For the UK I can recommend EE. Hope this helps.
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Reply By: Member - John and Val - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 18:21

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 18:21
Thanks everyone for your experiences and suggestions, we will follow them up. We are just looking at phone calls only and probably not many at that. We have data covered via wifi at most of the places where we will be staying. Thanks also to those who mentioned navigation. When last in the UK we used a free program called Navigator on a portable windows device - it uses open source maps, has turn by turn and voice, with many POIs and served us very well. Especially for the price! This time we will have it running via an Android app on a tablet with inbuilt GPS (plus on phone as a back-up) - have used it locally and works just as well.

Keep the phone options coming.


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Reply By: Member - johnat - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:33

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 19:33
John (excellent name, by the way!)
We travelled to the US a couple years ago, and found that the easiest way was to buy a prepaid SIM card there. Beat the heck out of Telstra roaming because we expected to be using it to talk to motels etc, as well as family there, so was going to cost a few arms and legs to do that with roaming.
On the other hand, we travel regularly to Japan, and use roaming there as we do not expect to do much talking while there, use local wifi for data and emails (some places in Japow have free wifi, and we use that whenever possible) and only check calls at night while there.

We advise the family that it costs us for all calls, even incoming, to our number, so they know to use it only for emergencies. - of course, when in Japan, we are skiing most of the day, no point having a phone on slope - cannot hear and don;t want to stop!
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Reply By: PhilD - Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 23:06

Friday, Apr 03, 2015 at 23:06
I use Viber when travelling where there is free wifi, and it saves a lot of money as it is voice or SMS over Internet. Skype and WhatsApp are versions of the same thing. You are not risking expensive data costs, as you are connecting to the wifi in the hotel, Starbucks, Maccas, etc. The person you are calling needs to have the same app. For the times that I do not have internet coverage, I use a Woolworths sim, but that is not very often.
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Follow Up By: Zippo - Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 12:08

Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 12:08
Viber and Whatsapp both require both parties to have the same app, which is fine for a personal circle of acquaintances. Skype does not have this limit - it can call any phone regardless. We used it a fair bit in the US for calls back to Oz, as our AT&T prepaid deal didn't include any international calls.
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Follow Up By: Member - John and Val - Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 16:33

Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 16:33
Thanks Phil, an interesting service. We use skype a lot and is now our preferred option for talking to family members both here and overseas. While we are travelling though we may need to contact the hire car company and owners of our various B&Bs and rental properties, so really need a standard phone service.


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Reply By: Michael H9 - Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 23:17

Saturday, Apr 04, 2015 at 23:17
I've tried most of the overseas phone options and a pre paid sim bought in the local country on its best network is preferred in my opinion. It's amazing how scarce the wifi is in a lot of supposedly civilised countries so using things like skype out to dial normal phone numbers is hit and miss. The only problem I've had is activating or recharging the sim in a country that doesn't speak English.
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Reply By: Sand Man (SA) - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 08:22

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 08:22
Interesting to read of other folks experiences.
On a trip through Canada a couple of years ago, I attempted to buy a local sim card from their two major Telcos and discovered that their sim cards would not work in my Australian model iPhone 4S. The sim cards were not recognised by the phone. Appears their GSM technology is incompatible with the Aussie GSM network. As Canada use the same technology as the US, I assumed that the same problem would occur in the US.

So I resorted to using Global Roaming on my Telstra sim card and used sparingly, knowing that call costs would be significantly higher.
Family could keep in contact with us should they have had the need.


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Follow Up By: Michael H9 - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 09:03

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 09:03
Similar to New Zealand. We had to use Vodafone over there because the NZ Telecom (or whatever they were called but Telstra equivalent) used different technology in their phones. If I recall correctly they didn't even have sim cards. That was a while ago though.
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Follow Up By: Zippo - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 18:33

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 18:33
I'm surprised, Sandman. As recently as two years ago we used standard AT&T pre-paid SIMs in our (x2) iPhone 3GS, and friends/rellies have done the same since with 4S and 5's. In Canada, Rogers' network uses the same as AT&T (and has a roaming agreement with them, but you wouldn't want to use it as the price makes roaming with your Telstra SIM a bargain).
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Follow Up By: Sand Man (SA) - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 18:56

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 18:56
Hi Zippo,

The plot thickens!
Both Rogers Telecom and Telus, two of the biggest Telcos for Moble Phones were visited at a large shopping centre.
Staff tried prepaid sim cards at both companies, with the same result. They just weren't recognised by my "Aussie" GSM iPhone.

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Follow Up By: Zippo - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 21:16

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 21:16
Bill, you refer to an Aussie "GSM iPhone". Can you let us know which model, as they have all been backward compatible with GSM, and certainly from the 3G/3GS model onwards (having not experienced any before those) they were also all 3G. Our Aussie ones were IIRC quad-band and did cover the bands used by AT&T and Rogers. If not unlocked they would have failed though.

Did your phone not recognise the SIM, or did the network not recognise the phone with their SIM installed? There's a big difference, just as a random SIM in my satphone - in fact I tried an extinct AT&T one! - gets "recognised" but after boot-up it is rejected as "invalid account"'

There was also a trick to get data to work on AT&T. They would sometimes sell you a data add-on but would always say it wouldn't work and you wouldn't get a refund. After applying the required APN profile changes, it always worked. The sales droid in AT&T's corporate store in Ft Worth was in disbelief so we set ours up in the store and demoed it for him.

I also took an old CDMA model, as Verizon were using that in a lot of the back-block areas where T-Mobile and AT&T had no coverage. The Verizon ppl couldn't get it to register on their system even though it was "compatible" in the eyes of the manufacturer Qualcomm.
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Follow Up By: Sand Man (SA) - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 06:57

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 06:57
It was the standard 4GS unlocked iPhone as sold in Australia.
Rogers was the first shop I visited. I asked for a prepaid sim card to suit an iPhone and after installing it, it was not recognised by the phone.
The assistant played around with it and finally determined their GSM sim card was incompatible with my iPhone, as available in Australia. I have no idea if he selected an AT&T sim card.

Then went to a Telus shop, with the same result. Their sim card was not recognised by my iPhone 4GS.
With my original Telstra sim card installed, all was well and as it had International roaming enabled, I decided I would just make do with that.

I also had a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 Tablet and as most of the Hotels we stayed at had complementary wi-fi, I used this to communicate back home via email and to perform internet banking transactions.

The phone was used on a couple of occasions to ring home.

I did think of buying a cheap pre-paid phone with a Canadian sim card, but as we were only in Canada for a couple of weeks, decided it was not worth the extra expense over using my own phone for the occasional call.

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Follow Up By: TomH - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 08:27

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 08:27
Very strange as we bought a prepaid sim in Canada and it worked no problem.

Have also used both AT&T and T Mobile in the USA with no troubles on an Iphone 3S and a Samsung Galaxy.

Are you sure the phone is unlocked. Not all are unless you ask for it to be done, especially Telstra.

My Telstra Iphone was locked to Telstra when I got it and had to get it unlocked prior to going overseas.

Same with the Samsung.

Easiest way to find out is buy a $2 Amaysim starter pack and stick the sim in your phone If its unlocked it will work If its not it wont.

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Follow Up By: Zippo - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 11:40

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 11:40
(I know we are wandering off-topic somewhat, but this may be relevant to some people.)

Our experiences echo Tom's. My iPhone 4S came from a business who acquired them on the usual 24-month "plan" with Telstra. At the end of each term, they got new phones on new contracts and they disposed of the out-of-contract phones. I acquired one, and stuck my SIM in it expecting it to work. During the contract the phone is locked to Telstra, and many people assume that they are automatically unlocked when the contract ends - but they AREN'T. I had to submit a web request for unlocking (to Apple, which gets passed to Telstra who then unlocked it).

What those foreign network operators WON'T do is unlock a BYO phone for you because of their domestic arrangements with phone manufacturers.
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Follow Up By: TomH - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 13:47

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 13:47
To Sandman You say you had a 4G S Do you mean a 4G phone as against a 3G.

If so it wouldnt work in North America as They use a 700 /1700 frequency whereas we use 1800 and a different part of the 700 spectrum.
3G is the same as here and does work.
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Follow Up By: Sand Man (SA) - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 14:39

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 14:39

The iPhone 4S was a 3G phone.

I think Zippo may have nailed it.
My last three phones have been with Telstra and on a 24 month plan.
The possibility is that it may have been "locked", something the Canadians wouldn't have checked, or even known about. I certainly didn't.

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Follow Up By: TomH - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 14:48

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 14:48
Exactly what I said previously. You got it finally Yes on a plan they used to lock them Certainly the Iphones usually were. Have seen that now they dont always do it but I suspect they still do to keep loyalty.

The sim would have given "Unknown network" if locked.

They wanted $100 to unlock my Samsung in first 6 months. Finally got it done free but after a lot of hassles
They will unlock them free at end of contract but ONLY if you ask.
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Reply By: Member - John and Val - Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 17:41

Sunday, Apr 05, 2015 at 17:41
Again, thank you everyone for your thoughts. The diversity of options is evident above!

If there is a trend emerging it is that one should travel with an unlocked phone and swap in a sim from a reputable operator in the destination country.

Another gem of wisdom was that if you've spent tens of thousands on fares and accomodation, why begrudge Telstra their few dollars? Good question - it just galls me that they want so much more when offering no more than can be bought from others for less than 1/10 the price!

This thread has become a valuable source of information for anyone planning overseas travel. Thank you all for contributing.


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Reply By: howesy - Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 07:13

Monday, Apr 06, 2015 at 07:13
depends on how much you plan on using the phone as to how much you consider too much.
I have vodafone Non contract $50 red sim and for $5 per day (only pay the days you use) I can use all its benefits overseas, so last trip I paid my $50 for the month and for the month i was there i used it 25 days paying a total of $175 that month.
Fot that I got completely unlimited phone calls over there, 300 minutes of international calls, 3gb of data usage (use wifi where possile) and incoming aussie calls were as if they were taken in Oz with no extra fee for receiving them.
I worked out how much I usually spend on prepaid overseas and for the convenience it was well worth it and worked out about the same.
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