Born to Roam For Free

If you travel overseas, chances are you often get a sky-high surprise from your mobile phone service after your plane has landed.

It happened to me about three years ago. I was on a vacation trip to Hong Kong when my elderly mother took a turn for the worse. Sprint socked me with a $400 phone bill when I got home.

It could have been worse. Before I left I signed up for a special Hong Kong calling plan. Otherwise the bill would have been $1,200.

Roam4Free CEO Pat Phelan hopes to set road warriors free from this particular kind of tyranny.

Last week the Cork, Ireland-based MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) launched its prepaid mobile phone service that lets callers use mobile phones when traveling abroad with incurring roaming charges. “It’s really the final frontier,” Phelan says. “People shouldn’t have to pay these kinds of charges when they travel.”

Roam4Free’s charges are considerably less than other mobile carriers. “You can roam and you can call home for forty to fifty cents a minute — as cheaply as a landline call,” comments Phelan. Inbound calls in most places are free.

So far customers seem to agree. “In the last 24 hours we’ve got 50 orders and 70 percent of them are from the U.S.,” Phelan says.

Roam4Free works with a SIM card that you buy from the company for €20. It comes with a €5 in calling credit and can be re-charged at the company website. With the SIM you get a new cell phone number for the Roam4Free service. Initially the company is offering only European phone numbers. U.S. and U.K. numbers will be available in the next two months.

But my phone is locked, you say? Not to worry. Roam4Free offers a €9.50 service on its website that provides the numeric codes for unlocking most phones. “Seventy percent of phones can be unlocked on our site,” says Phelan. “It takes two minutes.”

If your phone isn’t on the list, or you don’t want to monkey with it, there’s a simple solution. Buy a cheap phone for travel. (You might also want to do this so you can keep your main phone number operational.)

Making calls from you Roam4Free service is a callback process. You call the international number as you would normally. The call disconnects. Then Roam4Free calls you back and connects you to the number you’re calling.

Phelan isn’t a fan of VoIP-over-mobile calling — another way to cut roaming costs — for a couple of reasons.

First there’s the problem of finding a WiFi signal to carry the call. (A non-trivial problem. As I write this, I’m working in a café and wondering what happened to the municipal WiFi signal I used to pick up here.)

Second, there’s the smart phone requirement. “Ninety percent of the world has a €50 handset, not a €600 handset. And those people are making long distance calls.”

However, an opportunity Phelan thinks VoIP providers are missing is the market for pre-paid calling.

“There are people who want Skype, Jajah and myBlueZebra who don’t have credit cards. How do they pay for the service? I’m a huge believer in pre-pay. That’s an area we’re looking at very closely.”

Next up for Roam4Free is a premium account, which will give customers local numbers that forward calls to the Roam4Free SIM. “You’ll be able to roam the world with a local number,” says Phelan. “People won’t have to know where you are before they call you.”

How will established mobile carriers respond? “Right now roaming charges are 22 percent of any network’s charges,” comments Phelan. “I hope they’re going to make an effort to fight back.” Certainly we would all benefit.

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  • alexdds

    I like the fact the sim card phone number and credit does not expire, however the number they give you is an estonian mobile number which means that anyone calling you will be paying long distance charges to this number. Broadvoice for example charges .50UScent/min which can add up either way. It might be simpler to use a call back feature service such as minowireless.com or talkonaut.com where you only have gprs charges to initiate the call and no need to buy another sim card. I suppose this service might work out if they offered an ability to change the sim cards phone number from the website based on the destination you are travelling or add an additional local number so that family members can call you using a local number. This could be even a free world dialup skype or IP number/address that will forward calls to this sim card. The way it is now many destinations such as the carribbean are still vary expensive take a look at the British Virgin Islands rates to call back to the US is expensive to receive calls is expensive and family will be calling estonia mobile. Might as well use a sipura adaptor from the hotel.

  • ygeffens

    Well, one might take a look at this site: http://www.prepaidgsm.net/en/international.html

    There is a ‘complete’ list of providers offering what is described above, with either a number in Estonia, Monaco, UK, Ireland, …

    I’m using the GeoSIM. The support is outstanding.
    Calling a UK mobile is much cheaper than the others, the quality is excellent!

    Yves / Belgium

  • stufried

    I pack several roaming sims and think they are handy. I just don’t see how roam4free is any different from the United Mobile, Geodessa, and 09 offerings. In fact, based on a cursory review, this SIM seems remarkably similar to an offering on the market for sometime by Travelsim.com.

    The article speaks of “European phone numbers” generically, and as anyone who is a regular of Voxilla knows, the price of calling European mobile numbers is all over the map. The author should have provided the country and type of service that this SIM uses. (It uses an Estonian mobile exchange). It is often far cheaper to call a foreign number than a special service or mobile number in your own country.

    Be careful with the free incoming calls routine. These calls are effectively a collect call. If your friends pay $US0.80 to call you while roaming, the call is not free. If you have an Isle of Mann SIM and your friends have a mobile-to-mobile plan in the UK, that is a different story.

    The comment about voip over mobiles not being a cost effective alternative is also debatable. The author concedes that a PDA phone runs around $600 but points out how a roaming bill from one trip to Hong Kong could have been $1,200. Using those figures, the phone would have paid for itself in one trip.

    Purchasers of these SIMs should also know to carefully research their countries before buying the SIM. The SIM is exceptionally expensive to use in India, the US, Canada, and various other countries. In the hypothetical of Hong Kong that Ms. Schuck posted, she managed to run up a $400 roaming bill with Sprint. While her bill would have been cheaper with a roam4free SIM, she would have hardly been roaming for free. Incoming calls are EUR 0,43 and outgoing calls are EUR0,71. Add to this the cost of calling an Estonian number which is somewhere like $0.25 a minute on a discount plan. If Ms. Schuck walked to the currency exchange booth at Hong Kong International Airport on landing, she could have bought a CSL prepaid SIM for roughly US$12 and paid roughly US$0.02 a minute to receive calls and calls to most US destinations $US0.12 a minute. Oh and the rate for calling a Hong Kong mobile on a good voip plann is $0.02 a minute (free on voipcheap).

    I also disagree that a voip enabled handset is not practical for the average business traveller. I have a Nokia E61 sect-band phone with voip. I cannot use voip everywhere, but if I am staying in a wired hotel, traveling through an airport lounge with wifi, and working on a wired client site, I can easily cut my roaming bill in half.

    I’ve normally enjoyed the author’s articles. This article is too light on facts. I agree with the prior poster about prepaidgsm.net offering a list of numerous alternatives. I think the one thing everyone can agree on is that roaming on your home carrier is rarely the smart option.

  • cpe

    I would have to agree with most of the above comments. Experienced travelers know it is usually cheapest to simply purchase a local SIM card at the airport upon arrival in the foreign city to make local and international calls while in the foreign city. However, it can be expensive for those back home to call you on this new overseas number depending on the location and their local service rate plan to that city. I am sure the rate to call HK is alot more than .02 a minute if you do not use a voip service. A good solution to use so those back home can call you in the normal manner is to purchase one of the FX-300 Call Director products listed in the Voxilla store. With these products you can redirect your local landline and/or cell calls over your voip service to the number of the new SIM card you purchase in the foreign city. This is especially useful if you mostly receive calls back home on your mobile. With the FX-300 GSM Call Director you simply insert your local SIM chip into the FX-300, then connect the FX-300 to your voip ATA and program it to forward all your cell calls to the number of the new SIM chip in the foreign city. You will be charge the voip rate for these forwarded calls to the foreign city and the normal cell charges to your minutes plan for the inbound cell calls. Also in many cases you will be able to find a voip calling plan with unlimited calling to many foreign cities. So the voip charges to forward all your cell calls to the foreign city should not be that expensive. You can do the FX-300 programming remotely when you arrive in the destination city by placing a call to your local cell phone number. Then the only thing you have to worriy about is to be sure to turn off your mobile phone at night while in the foreign city so you can get some sleep. So it is also a good idea to get a sim chip in the foreign city that has voice mail function. Moreover, if you want to screen or limit the calls forwarded to you then program the FX-300 to only forward those callers in your “Private User Group” this is done via CID function (up to 15 numbers) Cell calls from callers not listed in the “Private User Group” would not be ansewered/forwarded and would be directed to your local cell voice mail which you could check from time to time using your foreign SIM card to call your local cell voice mail access number. If you only need your landline calls forwarded you can use the FX-300 Analog Call Director or a Sipura 3000 if your voip service provider allows you to byob.