Travelling is rife with complications. Your luggage may be lost, the local food may smell funny and, no matter how carefully you pack, you can never find a pen when it's time to fill in those pesky immigration forms. To cap things off, you can land in an exotic location only to discover that despite the promises of your phone provider, you can't get any kind of roaming access at all, cutting you off from the folks back home.
This is where TravelSIM's product comes in. The pitch is pretty simple: it's a SIM-only phone service (you provide the handset, in other words) that works in most of the countries in the world, at least for talk and text services. Data coverage, and most notably 3G data coverage, is considerably more spotty; if data access matters to you, it'd be worth checking TravelSIM's coverage on a country-by-country basis, although, like most roaming arrangements, it's not massively price competitive.
There's only one way to test a travel product, and that's to do a bit of travelling. TravelSIM sent us a trial SIM just as we were about to go on three different trips around the world (China, Japan and the US), so we took along the SIM to see how well we could use it to keep in contact. We connected a TravelSIM to an original iPhone 3G and iPhone 4 — chosen simply because it was the nearest unlocked smartphone. It's an important point; if your phone is locked to any of Australia's phone companies, it won't work with a TravelSIM. If you're not sure, check with your provider; some will unlock for free, especially when a contract has been completed, but there's no hard and fast rule for this kind of thing.
The SIM needs to be activated, which involves creating an account with TravelSIM. Once the SIM is activated, you will be asked to make a test call. Note that the credit balance provided is in US dollars, so it won't be the exact amount that you've charged the SIM with.
Topping up the card can be done from the online account portal or one-touch handset top-up, which can also be activated in the online portal by entering your credit card details. There's also an automatic top-up, which charges your credit card if the TravelSIM balance falls below AU$10, but that's only recommended for frequent travellers.
From the online account portal, it's possible to see your call history, although only the most recent calls are shown on the home page. To see a full history or recharge, users have to select the tabs at the top of the page.
How it works
TravelSIM strongly advises travellers to set up their service well in advance of their trip so that they can iron out any problems — for example, a locked phone — before they have to jet off. After activation, users get a call from a TravelSIM agent, explaining how the service works, and asking whether you have any further questions.
Before we set out, we placed several calls within Australia, both to local and international numbers. That was more a matter of comparative testing; TravelSIM's rates for such calls aren't particularly competitive here, but then that's not what it sells itself on. Calling out with the TravelSIM is an interesting and somewhat perplexing process. In order to make any call on a TravelSIM, no matter where you are, you'll need to dial the country code that you need to contact, and then the number that you wish to reach. Hit dial, and then ... the TravelSIM will hang up on you. It's just a momentary thing, but it's quite jarring for the first few calls, because it feels like the SIM is failing. What then happens is that your phone rings from a blocked number; answer that, and a robotic voice will inform you of your current credit before attempting to connect your call or send your SMS.
In China, we were very quickly connected to China Unicom at the same time that we were unable to connect using either Telstra pre- or post-paid SIMs. Call quality within China was reasonable; on one occasion, we struggled to place a call while sitting in a shopping mall in Shanghai, but, once it was placed, call quality was generally acceptable. There were a few brief moments of stutter, and we did notice (similar to Skype) that it worked best if you allowed a slight delivery delay.
Within Japan, we repeated the experiment while connected up to NTT DoCoMo, with much the same results. We also tested the ability there for callers to dial in to the TravelSIM itself. There are two ways to do this: either directly to the TravelSIM's own phone number, in which case the calling party covers the costs; or through a number that TravelSIM provides. You dial into the number, punch in the SIM number and the call is then charged to that TravelSIM's account (at a rate of US$0.21 per minute). We hit a few quirks on the way to placing this call. For a start, there's a disconnect between the printed instructions in the starter pack and the reality; the starter pack suggests just entering the number, while the recorded message says to hit the pound symbol after entering the number. For what it's worth, we didn't add any suffix, and it seemed to work. The other catch here is that the call just seemed to come in normally anyway; if you got a lot of calls this way, you could have others burn your TravelSIM credit without you immediately realising it. When placing a call, you are first alerted to your credit limit, at least.
In the US, the phone connected to AT&T. There were calls that came through crystal clear, but there were also calls where no amount of yelling would enable the person on the other side to hear, despite having two bars of reception. Some friends, when provided the +372 number to dial directly from their handsets, were unable to connect and were unsure why, while others managed it fine. We assumed that the former weren't properly following the instructions of typing the number as +372 xxx xxx xxx. Calling from a landline requires the international exit number to be dialled first (in Australia's case, 0011).
When sending SMSes from the TravelSIM number, friends and family can't reply by hitting the reply button — they actually had to enter our TravelSIM number for the message to be sent to us. Messages sent from the free online SMS service were sent and received without a hitch, but there's no identifier to let you know who sent you that message.
Call and SMS costs
According to our call history sheet, in China, calls made within the country and to Australia cost AU$0.79 per minute and AU$0.42 for each SMS; in Japan, calls cost AU$0.58 per minute and AU$0.42 per SMS; and in the US, calls cost AU$0.48 per minute and AU$0.45 per SMS. Calls to international destinations could also be made at these rates. There is no charge for receiving calls.
The prices in the call history sheet for the US didn't match those advertised on the website, causing some confusion. When asked, TravelSIM explained that the rates on the website were for a legacy TravelSIM card, which has higher rates for the US and Canada. Those users already on this older TravelSIM card will be paying those rates, whereas anyone who buys one of the standard TravelSIM cards will also pay the higher rates.
For further coverage costs, TravelSIM has a rates calculator on its website.
The company is in the process of selling the last of the older cards. TravelSIM said that it would be publishing both rates and the explanation on the site shortly. Customers who want to have the cheaper US rates can exchange their old card for the new one, called USA+, for free.
Calls and SMSes are nice to have, but what of data? Here the TravelSIM availability varies quite widely. Taking China and Japan as an example, TravelSIM's Japanese partner network charges 37¢/10KB, whereas its two-partner Chinese networks want 16¢ and 19¢ per 10KB block. If you took a Telstra mobile to either Japan or China (and didn't pre-buy a data roaming pack), you'd pay 15¢ for 10KB, plus a 50¢ per start-up fee per session. Presuming you didn't do a lot of very small sessions, hitting that 50¢ fee each time, you could amortise that out, and it'd be cheaper on Telstra, which is not something that we can often say. Bear in mind, though, that we're using "cheaper" here, and not "cheap". You'd almost always be better off buying a local SIM and data pack and utilising that instead, no matter who your roaming provider is. It also depends where in the world you travel as to whether 3G data will be supported. In any case, the data cost is still relatively high; you're a lot better off using the TravelSIM as a telephone and SMS service.
For the US, we were informed that data wasn't supported by TravelSIM. Some people might be able to access data, according to TravelSIM, (we couldn't) but the rates are such that the company's advice is to use Wi-Fi.
Data access in Europe has recently been made cheaper, with TravelSIM dropping its data roaming rates across 33 countries from US$3.60 per MB to US$1 per MB.
As a security measure, data use for the SIM card needs to be activated before it can be used, which can be done via a form on the company's website.
Another service, which we didn't test, but is free until 31 December this year, is personal assistant. By dialling +372991 from the TravelSIM, users get access to a concierge service that provides help with transport, hotel and vehicle information and reservations, translation and medical referrals, for example. After 31 December, the service will cost AU$15 for six months.
Call diversion from other existing mobile numbers is also possible, which is free to set-up, with a US$0.21 surcharge per minute to receive calls. The service uses a landline to divert calls, which may also result in additional charges.
As a way to feel "safe" and have a nearly always connected phone and SMS service, the TravelSIM has a lot going for it. You're not reliant on having available Wi-Fi the way you would be if using Skype for the same kinds of functions — except when travelling to the US. The calling rates aren't prohibitive, and, because it's all prepaid, you're not going to hit a bill shock problem when you return to Antipodean shores.
For those who frequently travel to a particular country, using the local SIM is likely to be a better option, but for those who always go to different destinations, or who destination hop, having the TravelSIM makes things easier, as they don't need to keep swapping out SIMs and telling friends and family what your new number is to get in contact. Since the SIM can also be given to family members or friends, the service is useful even for infrequent travellers.
At the same time, the calling procedure is fiddly and prone to dropouts, and call quality wasn't great in our tests. It's also a bit of a surprise to find that a starter pack that costs AU$49.95 only comes with AU$5 worth of call credit, virtually ensuring that you're going to have to top it up before you travel.
Irene Mickaiel contributed to this review.