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Cheap (Free) mobile data overseas

Have you ever felt the frustration of not having access to data while overseas? Or have you ever lamented the prices your service provider is charging you for data roaming? Well, this is the article for you as it covers ways to stay connected without busting the bank.
In my previous job, I had the luxury of being sponsored data every time I go on a vacation. So long as I produce a valid receipt of some reasonable amount, the firm’s finance department will normally reimburse me the cost. I no longer have access to “free” data for my new job and so the desperate struggle to stay connected began for me. I list below a few ways you can get free or cheap data for your next holiday.
Free wifi hotspots
This goes without saying. Be on a lookout for free wifi hotspots when you travel. Telltale signs would be stickers on an establishment’s door front or on the walls. Normally such hotspots require some purchase in order to be told the wifi password. So why not keep the password saved on your phone so that if you ever walk back that same way, you can always try to grab some free data as you stand outside the shop.
CAUTION: While such free wifis are helpful in filling up this gap, be sure to keep an eye out for potential security risks with hackers posing as the establishment and beaming their own wifi signal in hopes of you entering some confidential information when you try to login to use their wifi.
Cheap data cards
While phone service providers tend to market heavily their data roaming packages, such packages are mostly rip-offs with a large premium being charged to the consumer for a small amount of data used.
Instead, consider buying a local phone card to benefit from cheap local rates. My recent holiday in Malaysia saw me buying a 5GB data card for RM40 (USD 9) that lasted me a month. Not only did I save on the actual cost of the data, the real magic behind this is that I can make use of Uber and other similar services to get around places and also have real time access to Google maps. If you ever visited Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam or Bangkok, one common problem is drivers refusing to use their taxi meter or using a rigged meter. Uber and other similar apps allow you to avoid such ripoffs saving quite a bit of money at the same time.
The prices for a data card in Southeast Asia are rather affordable and all tourists should consider getting one when they reach the airport on arrival.
The same rule applies in Europe.
However, the prices you pay are generally way more expensive. When I was in Amsterdam last year, I paid 10 euros for 1 GB of data. While expensive, it would still be cheaper than data roaming.
While there are operators that allow you to continue using the sim card in another neighbouring European country, you should be aware of false selling by the retailer. When I was in London, I bought a 3GB card (if I remember correctly) and I asked if that data could be used in both England as well as continental Europe (so I could avoid buying multiple sim cards as I travelled from country to country). The store’s salesperson confirmed that this was the case and off I went with my card. To my horror, while the sim could be used outside of England, the data was limited to just 500mb. Caveat Emptor!
Post Script: I understand Europe is going through some market reforms where countries agree to drop roaming charges. So check with the service providers if you can benefit from this arrangement. The European Council released a press statement:

“EU all set for free roaming from June
As from 15 June, mobile users travelling to other countries in the EU will be able to call, text or surf the net without paying any extra charges. The last requirement for abolishing mobile roaming fees was met today with the adoption by the Council of the legal act that limits how much operators may charge each other to allow roaming across Europe.

Roaming without paying surcharges, or “roam like at home”, is for those living in Europe and who travel to other EU countries for work or leisure. It will also be introduced in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway shortly after 15 June.
“Roam like at home” is meant to make communicating while travelling easier. It is not intended to allow permanent roaming where a customer would take out a subscription in the cheapest possible country and use it to roam in his home country.
Special rules apply to phone plans with unlimited data and pre-paid cards. For information on these and other practical questions, see the Commission’s FAQ (link below).

Commission’s FAQ

Q25. I have a pre-paid card. Do I get roam like at home?

Yes. If you pay per unit, and your domestic unit price of data is less than €7.7 per GB, your operator may apply a roam like at home volume limit on data. That limit should be at least the volume obtained by dividing the remaining credit on your pre-paid card when you start using data roaming services (excluding VAT) by €7.7. For instance if you have €13 (€10.8 excluding a 20% VAT) left on your SIM card when starting roaming data, you will have at least 10.8/7.7=1.4 GB of roaming data. For your information, €7.7 is in 2017 the maximum price that your operator has to pay the foreign operator for 1 GB of data when you are abroad in the EU. This means that you get in Roam Like at Home exactly the volume of roaming data you have paid for in advance. For voice and SMS, you will pay exactly the same unit price as at home.

Data roaming passports
Some service providers over a hybrid data roaming service. Instead of charging you separately for data roaming, such service providers over a service where in return for a monthly fee (if you are from Singapore, think M1), you can use your home data package overseas. While this is sounds great, it will likely be more expensive than if you had actually gone and bought a cheap data card overseas. This may work for a multi-city holiday involving a particular region such as Europe where you will avoid having to find a foreign sim card for each different country. So check in with your service provider and see what they have available.
For my foreign readers, fret not for I have not forgotten you (if you appreciate my small gesture, please follow this blog and also my FB page – your views matter to me).
AT&T offers something similar with their International Day Pass (home data package at USD 10/Day).
O2 offers what they call O2 Travel which appears to offer its users an all you can use service for “£3.99 a day in Turkey and £4.99 in selected destinations outside Europe”.
Optus and Telstra offer a variant with their Optus Travel Data Pack (200mb at AUD 10/Day) International Day Pass (100mb at AUD 10/Day) respectively.
Another option (though not the cheapest for the occasional traveller) is the service being offered by Flexiroam
Flexiroam describes itself as:

Flexiroam X is a thin microchip that is attached to your existing SIM card and enables you to access Flexiroam’s low cost data roaming whilst overseas, connecting you to the local networks. It is an easy one-time application to overcome the hassle of switching SIMs every time you travel.

How it works is that you paste a microchip over your sim and purchase a data bundle. Your data usage will be subtracted from that data bundle.
I will provide a review on Flexiroam in another upcoming post but until then a quick comment is that while it is not the cheapest option for data, it provides a useful service for a traveller that i) does not need much data while on the go (e.g. having wifi access at hotels/offices) and only needs it for the occasional email/ Uber/ Google maps. The reason why it is useful is because the data is a universal pool that you can tap on no matter where you are. For example, during my last business trip, I was using my data in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan without having to swap out any sim card. This means you can avoid i) “wasting” data that you bought but could not finish during your stay in a particular country (especially relevant in data expensive regions such as Europe) or ii) the hassle of purchasing sim cards in countries where it is difficult for a foreigner to do so (e.g. China – Where I have personally been rejected for not having a local Chinese passport/ID or have heard of friends being rejected for a similar reason).
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Did I miss out any other free/cheap data a traveller should be aware of? Let me know in the comments below and I will include them.
Be sure to check out my other posts for other tricks you can use during your travels.

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