Update: Optus and Vodafone have both updated their roaming offers since this article was written and now have flat rate plans available in select overseas regions.

Planning on heading overseas? Lucky you. Planning on taking your smartphone? If you can’t bear to be parted from it for the duration of your trip, you may be concerned about being hit with a massive bill on your return - and rightly so. Using your smartphone overseas is in the top three causes of mobile plan bill shock, and it’s mostly due to uninformed travellers using international roaming with no idea what checking those emails is really costing them.

International roaming means that while overseas, your phone will use the network of a mobile phone carrier in your destination country with which your Australian carrier has a roaming agreement. Although it sounds convenient, it isn’t cheap – and you’ll generally pay for the calls you receive as well as make. Receiving SMS/MMS is free, but it will usually cost more to send them, so check with your provider. The real culprit behind overseas bill shock is the cost of data usage - looking at a single standard webpage usually costs around three dollars (not including connection fees); upload a photo to Facebook and you’ll be charged around four. Times this by the amount of browsing, social networking and downloading you might do in an average day and it’s not hard to see how you can get yourself into trouble.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has asked the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to develop a new industry standard to inform Australians overseas how much they will be charged for making calls, sending texts or using data, via an alert sent to their phone when they arrive at their destination. However, this initiative will take at least 12 months to develop and implement, and won't necessarily prevent hidden fees associated with taking your phone overseas.

Thankfully, there are options if you don’t want happy holiday memories marred by a coronary-inducing phone bill. We’ve put together a quick guide to avoiding overseas bill shock in just a few simple steps.

Keep Data Roaming Switched Off

Turn data roaming, cellular data and 3G off and leave them off. The method may vary slightly depending on your handset model and carrier, but as a general guide:

  • iPhone: Go to Settings → General → Network → slide Data Roaming, Cellular Data and Enable 3G to ‘off’.
  • Android: Go to Settings → Wireless Controls → Mobile Network Settings → uncheck Data Roaming, Data Enable and 3G Data options.
  • Blackberry: Go to Options → Mobile Network → Data Services → select ‘Off When Roaming’.
  • Windows Phone: Go to Settings → Mobile Network → Data Roaming → and select ‘Don’t Roam’.

You can still use your smartphone at WiFi hotspots – you’ll find most hotels and many restaurants provide complimentary WiFi to their customers, so restrict your web browsing and app use to when you can do it for free. Another benefit of using WiFi is that there are many applications such as Skype and Viber which offer free or low-rate phone and video calls and texting with other users – definitely something to look into if you want to stay in touch with home.

Switch Off Location Services, Push Notifications and Automatic Updates

Another option that is frequently overlooked is turning off Location Services and any automatic updates and push notifications you’ve enabled for apps. While switching off roaming should prevent this, for your own peace of mind make sure these options are turned off manually anyway. As with disabling data roaming, you can do this yourself through accessing ‘Settings’ for iPhones and Android-operated phones, and ‘Options’ for Blackberry – look for the Location Services and Notifications tabs, and switch everything off.

Also, make sure you disable the Fetch New Data option for your email and calendar and turn off notifications for any apps that have their own individual tabs in Settings/Options (for example, on the iPhone you’ll find applications such as Facebook and Skype have their own options in Settings). Check your manual or phone manufacturer’s website for instructions specific to your device.

Buy Data Before You Go

If you absolutely can’t survive without internet and application access whenever you need it, buy an international data roaming pack from your Aussie carrier before you go. Most of the major carriers offer monthly packs with a set amount of data – unfortunately, it’s only applicable abroad, and anything you don’t use will be forfeited at the end of the month. This will still be more expensive than what you’ll pay for data domestically - you’ll be looking at between $20 and $40 for only 10MB of data – but is still a cheaper alternative than regular international roaming.

If you use this option, steer clear of YouTube and streaming music and video, and try to stick to basic email and internet browsing. As we’ve said, take advantage of free WiFi hotspots in hotels, restaurants and major attractions – any excess usage outside your plan will generally only give you a 20% discount from the standard international rate, so you’ll be looking at about $8 or more per megabyte.

How about a Globalgig?

If you really need access to data, and you don't mind if the speed is a tad on the slow side, an Aussie product called Globalgig. This is a portable mobile broadband modem with Wi-Fi hotspot functionality; meaning you can connect up to 5 devices simultaneously.

The SIM card inside the modem works on the Optus 3G network in Australia, but when you go overseas (to the UK, USA or Hong Kong) the SIM roams to compatible networks in these regions, and you continue to pay for data at the same price you would in Australia -- $19 for 1GB, $35 for 3GB or $49 for 5GB.

The downside here is that the typical data connection is pretty slow. In the US, Globalgig resells data on the Sprint network, and in our experience it is more often 2G than 3G-like speeds, even in big cities. But if all you need is to check email or a quickly reference Google Maps, this could have you covered.

Buy a Prepaid Global Roaming SIM Before You Leave

Alternatively, you can buy prepaid global roaming SIM cards before you leave the country. There are a few on the market so as always, shop around and find one with a package that will meet your travel needs – brands include GoTalk, GoSim and TravelSim (which is available at Australia Post outlets). As with above you’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked and will work wherever you’re going.

Buy a Local Prepaid SIM When You Arrive

A cheaper option is to swap your Australian SIM card for a local prepaid SIM upon arrival. Internet access will work out about 90% cheaper and you can make low-rate calls to local numbers.

You’ll need to make sure that your handset can be unlocked from your network, and that you’ll receive coverage where you’re travelling first. SIM cards can usually be purchased at airports; it may cost you more, but airport retailers are accustomed to dealing with travellers and you can be confident it will be good to go from the minute you leave the terminal.

You can also check ahead with your hotel to see if they can assist you when you arrive. The one major drawback to this method is that you won’t be reachable on your regular number, so make sure you’ve left alternative contact details such as an email address with everyone back home. And make sure that your Australian SIM is stored safely.

Leave Your Phone at Home

Finally, if you really want to avoid the temptation of data usage and just need a way to make and receive calls and texts, buy a cheap, prepaid, old-school handset when you reach your destination, and keep the smartphone switched off and stored away. Save your email and Twittering for Internet cafes and hotel laptops, and save yourself the worry of a potentially nasty shock when you open next month’s phone bill.