Avoid mobile phone bill shock

The growth of smartphones has lead to the most connected generation ever. 24 hour on the go access to Google, email, social media and maps can be incredibly handy. However, when you leave the shores of Australia, staying connected can be costly. You may need your mobile, but you definitely don’t need to be saddled with a huge phone bill.  Guest writer Nigel Bowen, examines some of the common pitfalls of staying connected.

When you’re aching to get your hands on the latest technology from the geniuses at Apple or Samsung, it can be very easy to sign on the dotted line of a mobile phone contract that will run, on average, for two years and potentially expose you to thousands of dollars in costs without paying much attention to the fine print.

So common, in fact, that the term ‘bill shock’ has become part of the vernacular. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is also in the process of rolling out the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code in order to make it harder for phone companies to sting their customers with unexpectedly high charges – it’s been estimated Australians spend $1.5 billion more than they need or plan to on mobile phone charges, and around half of all smartphone users have experienced bill shock.

The thing about mobile phone contracts is that they are, quite simply, contracts. Once you’ve signed one you’ve entered into a legally binding agreement. So here are some things to keep in mind to avoid blowouts.

Realise the free social networking party is over

You may be under the impression that using social networking sites on your mobile is free. This was indeed the case, but since the beginning of 2013 some phone companies have either ditched or severely restricted this much-loved perk. In case you missed the memo, be aware that if you’re using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare or YouTube you may now be paying for it. 

Give your phone a holiday too

By now you’ve probably heard a horror story about a friend getting a stress-inducing phone bill after returning from a relaxing overseas trip. It can easily cost $3 to view a single webpage or $4 to upload a single holiday snap to Facebook when making use of international roaming. You’ll also be likely to pay for updates to things like apps. So turn off data roaming, cellular data and 3G at the airport and strictly ration phone usage while travelling. And don’t forget you’ll usually have to pay for any calls you receive as well as make.

Can’t live without the internet?

If you’re addicted to being connected but not the extra cost, all is not lost.

• The best way to do this is call your mobile phone service provider, (usually you need to do this 24hours in advance of travel). They should be able to bar your phone from internet usage through them or their partner networks but you can still access the internet via Wi-Fi (depending on the model of your phone).

• If you forget to call your provider, turn your phone’s roaming and data off. Check when you get to your destination as sometimes settings get automatically reset on arrival of a country.

• Look for the free Wi-Fi zones. Good places to get free Wi-Fi include Starbucks, cafes, libraries and hotel lobbies. A lot of hotels also include Wi-Fi as part of the package with the room. The free Wi-Fi varies from 30 minutes to unlimited depending on the hotel, so it’s worth checking when you book.

• It’s also worth looking into SIM cards for the country you’re heading to and your model of phone. Some travel insurance operators even provide them free, which means you could prepay for calls and access locally. You will need your provider to unlock the SIM for this though otherwise this option won’t work.

Always check with your service provider as the above depends on your provider, the program you are on, your model of phone and the country you are visiting

Accept the only real cap is prepaid

If you’re serious about avoiding nasty surprises when it comes to your mobile bill (or your childrens’), you should buy a handset outright and only use prepaid credit. Don’t be fooled: the word ‘cap’ doesn’t have the standard meaning of capped – in the sense you’re guaranteed to only ever pay a set amount – when it comes to mobile phone contracts. If you exceed your monthly allowance for calls, messages and data, use services not included in your cap, or use your phone outside of Australia, you can quickly find yourself thousands of dollars out of pocket, putting a dent in your savings plan.

While the government is moving to force the industry to make mobile phone contracts clearer and fairer, it’s still a case of buyer beware. Read any mobile phone contract you’re considering signing carefully rather than acting rashly while in the throes of consumerist lust.