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The Herald on Sunday produces more evidence today of the perils of using your phone for email and surfing the internet while abroad.

While making calls and sending text messages while abroad has become much more affordable for consumers and the charging schedules easier to understand, the same cannot be said for using mobile data services.

I’ve heard numerous stories of people returning to shocking bills after using their phone to keep in touch via email while abroad.

Ernie Newman, ever-present advocate for consumers as head of the Telecommunications Users’ Association (TUANZ) told the HoS:

“People go overseas without any concept of how quickly these costs can mount up. It’s what’s known in the trade as bill shock and unfortunately it’s a recurring story.”

Here in New Zealand on a Vodafone plan, 100MB of mobile data will cost you $10. When you roam overseas as a Vodafone customer, 10MB will cost you $100 – yes, one hundred dollars.

As the table below shows, people using data services overseas typically pay 10c per 10kb of data. Now, 10kb is enough to get one or two plain text emails via a device like the Blackberry or a Windows Mobile phone. If you are just clearing a few email it isn’t too expensive, but heaven forbid you download, say a 300kb PDF file ($3), or a 2MB Powerpoint presentation ($20).

What’s even worse is that as a Vodafone customer, if you do not roam on a Vodafone network in the country you are travelling in, you’ll pay 30c per 10k. So that 300kb PDF file is suddenly costing you $9, the 2MB Powerpoint file a whopping $60.

The minimum charge in plenty of countries you are likely to be travelling in – Canada, Denmark, Fiji, Kong Kong, South Korea, is 30c per 10kb. And some providers, such as the US arm of T-Mobile, charge minimum connection fees, in its case – the minimum charge for a data session is $3.

Telecom quotes data charging, probably more realistically by the megabyte. One megabyte in Australia will cost $8, in the UK, $10, in Fiji and China, $25.

To their credit, the two mobile players Vodafone and Telecom have got a lot better about warning customers about using mobile data overseas. This from Telecom’s website:

“…if your laptop automatically downloaded a security update of 30mb it could cost you up to $900 depending on where you are, and you may not even be aware it happened until you received your bill back in New Zealand.”

Avoiding mobile data roaming bill shock

1. If you are picking up email on your phone, make sure you are receiving them in text only form and with the option to open attachments if you choose. Avoid at all costs opening attachments on your phone while overseas.

2. Be very careful about using GPS mapping applications to find your way around foreign cities – these can rack up significant data transfer which at 10 – 30c per 10kb could cost a small fortune.

3. Want to access a restaurant review or tourst guide on your phone? Avoid doing so – websites, especially those that aren’t optimised for mobile web browsers, can take several hundred kilobytes to load. Even optimised, virtually text only pages, will take 10k – 30k per page to load. That’s potentially 10c – 90c per page to load.

4. If you are using a mobile data card or USB dongle to get your computer online overseas, BEWARE. Data charges will escalate quickly. Make sure you turn off Windows updates, antivirus software updates, peer to peer file sharing applications. Don’t use Skype, don’t even have it running. I’d very very wary about using my computer with a data roaming service. At least with a mobile phone, you are likely to be assured to only have one application running at the one time. Your computer is a potential gateway to sucking large amounts of data as the various useful bits of software you have installed query servers on the internet for updates.

5. Always stay on partner networks, when roaming. You can, for instance set Vodafone as your default network so that Vodafone will be the first network you connect to as soon as you walk off the plane in a country where Vodafone operates (or has an affiliate). The same goes for Telecom’s XT network.

A cross-section of roaming destinations and Vodafone charges

A cross-section of roaming destinations and Vodafone charges

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