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When in Rome, save on roaming

Arvind Jayaram | Updated on November 19, 2014

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Going abroad? Here’s how to stay in touch without racking up a giant phone bill

For some of us, travelling abroad is a chance to get away from everyone and everything, if only for a little while. But if you’re the type that needs to be connected 24/7 with your family, friends or business associates, all those phone calls and SMSes could land you with a hefty bill once you get back home.

In fact, the worst thing you could do is just utilise the standard international roaming service offered by your cellular phone provider, which is not cost-effective. There are ways, however, to mitigate your expenses, depending on your usage profile.

Yes, mother

If your primary communication requirement when travelling overseas for an extended period is to receive calls from your family, the best option is to rent an international calling card from a service provider such as Matrix or TSim.

While on roaming with your regular mobile phone connection, the cellular rates for incoming calls are ludicrously high, going up to ₹70 per minute. But in the case of a Matrix calling card, incoming calls are free in most countries, which gives you the luxury of having extended conversations without fear of your bill shooting through the roof.

So if you speak for 100 minutes during your vacation, you’d effectively be saving ₹7,000 by ditching your domestic sim card in favour of an international calling card.

Calls to India using an international calling card are also far cheaper than ISD roaming rates fixed by mobile service providers: an outgoing call from your regular sim card could cost you ₹140 per minute if you’re calling from the US. With Matrix, it could be as low as ₹15 per minute with certain plans. Some plans also offer free local calls.

Keep in mind that there is a daily rental cost for an international calling card, which varies depending on the country you’re visiting as well as the plan you are choosing.

There are also global cards in case you’re travelling to multiple countries.

Call of business

Let’s say you’re travelling to a foreign country in the hope of expanding your business or tying up with suppliers. In such a situation, you can expect to make a fair amount of calls to fix meetings or arrange transport. While an international calling card could still save you money compared with international roaming on your Indian sim card, it might be even better to pick up a local sim card in the country of your visit.

It would be wise to consider the cellular rates in the country you are visiting. For example, the rates in countries such as the US and the UK are far higher than in Asian destinations such as Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand.

A prepaid sim card in the US could cost upward of $35 (₹2,069). On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, you could pick one up for less than ₹500, which includes data services. Local rates on these cards are usually lower than those charged by Matrix. Take a call on whether to opt for a local sim card based on your expected usage. There’s no point letting excess minutes on a pre-paid card go to waste!

This is also the best option in countries where your service provider doesn’t offer roaming, or an international calling card doesn’t work.

Prolonged visit

If you have access to a landline, the best option to save money on outgoing calls is to ditch your mobile phone altogether in favour of what’s known as a local access card.

These are essentially pre-paid cards available at a variety of price points, starting from $10 (₹590).

The primary rationale for going for this is that outgoing call rates are cheaper than any other option.

For example, you could call India from the UK at 1 cent per minute or from the US at 1.4 cents a minute.

Be aware that there may be hidden costs on many cards, such as a 15 per cent communication fee on every call.

If you don’t have access to a landline with the local access facility, you can use a payphone, but you would have to bear a 99 cents surcharge on every call made.

Can’t do without it

For many of us, it’s important to be reachable on our regular mobile phone number at all times; the benefit of being in contact could often outweigh the costs involved in international roaming. But it still pays to peruse the various special packages on international roaming offered by service providers, rather than using a conventional roaming plan.

For example, both Airtel and Vodafone have special packages that offer lower roaming rates than normal, albeit at a cost. These packages come with free minutes for both incoming and outgoing calls. Once this runs out, you either have to pay the standard roaming rates or reactivate the package.

In some cases, the packages can actually save you money: for example, Airtel’s post-paid Saudi Arabia pack with a ₹786 monthly rental offers you both local calls as well as calls to India at ₹15 per minute; incoming calls and SMSes are chargeable at ₹5 per minute.

This could work out even cheaper than using an international calling card, with the benefit of retaining your normal phone number.

Published on June 08, 2014

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