How to get almost free global roaming in the USA

By danwarne, January 19 2011
How to get almost free global roaming in the USA

If you're travelling to the USA, there's no need to pay outrageous global roaming fees -- there are a couple of great tricks with Skype to make calls almost free of charge.

Ultra-cheap calls from the USA to Australia

Cost-conscious travellers have been using Skype for years to avoid telcos' outrageous global roaming fees, which are typically around $3.50/min to call Australia from the USA on global roaming. (Admittedly not half as bad as the $9.95/min rate in Tajikistan.) 

Making calls using Skype costs just 3.5c/min to Australia -- a hundredth of what Telstra charges for global roaming calls, or 30.9c/min to Australian mobiles -- less than a tenth of Telstra's rate. 

It's also no longer necessary to find a net cafe to use Skype on a PC — Skype is available for quite a few smartphones, including the iPhone, Nokia handsets that run the Symbian OS and Android phones. (It has also been built for Blackberry devices, but US telco Verizon has snapped up a worldwide exclusive deal on that with an unknown end date.)

Using Skype on a smartphone simply requires you to connect the phone to a WiFi hotspot in a hotel or cafe (hint: it really pays to carry a portable WiFi router with you such as Apple's Airport Express to plug into the wired connection in your hotel room to create your own in-room hotspot).

Once your phone is connected, you can make calls to other people with Skype on their PC or Mac, or dial phone numbers for a per-minute fee.

Super low-cost incoming calls, too

The basic concept is this:

  • Rent a "Skype Online Number" (previously called SkypeIn) which provides a real telephone number based in Australia which will connect to you on Skype. This costs €15 (AUD$20) for 3 months.
  • Buy a prepaid SIM card in the USA. (See Buying a SIM card in the USA, below)
  • Open Skype on your computer, and in its settings, set up call forwarding to your US SIM card's phone number. You can also do it at
    Setting up call forwarding in Skype
    Setting up call forwarding in Skype

Now, when people call your Skype Online Number (at the cost of an Australian local call) using an ordinary phone, it will divert to your US mobile number, and cost you only the Skype call-forwarding cost, which is, at the time of writing, a mere 3.5c/min.

Buying a SIM card in the USA

There is one catch to this trick — in the US, unlike the rest of the world, incoming calls on a mobile cost the receiver (not the caller) money, so the trick is to get a prepaid plan with enough minutes to cover your expected incoming call volumes.

Australian Business Traveller has found T-Mobile's Even More Plus Plan with FlexPay plans to be the best — a plan with 1000 minutes (16 hours) of call allowance only costs $US39.99. A plan with 500 minutes talk time and unlimited data costs $US59.99.

These plans are a little confusing — they are not prepaid plans (the official T-Mobile prepaid plans are much worse value) — but rather, are month-to-month plans that automatically disconnect if you don't pay the monthly fee. T-Mobile staff say this is not the same as defaulting on a contract — there is no contract, and no penalty if you don't pay for another month.

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