In our daily lives we have become inseparable from our smartphones. We're always a phone call away from friends, family and the local Chinese restaurant. If we see something interesting on the street, we take a picture and upload it to Facebook. If we're lost while trying to locate a bar, then out comes the phone and we're drinking in minutes.
But what happens when we're visiting another country? Well, that's when the headache begins. First we need to check the power plug for our destination and ensure that we have the correct adapter. Then, especially with Americans travelling abroad, we need to check if the country we're are visiting is on the same cellular network - many American networks use CDMA, whereas most other counties use GSM. Then, if and when, we start using our phone abroad, we're likely to get a nasty surprise when the bill arrives – sometimes in the form of hidden data charges that cost more than the flight!
Those travelling to European countries are particularly hard hit by these roaming charges. Visitors to Europe may enjoy the ease of carrying a single currency and avoiding border checks, but the cost of calls, texts and data is a different story. Simply checking an email containing a picture can cost US$40!
The European commission has for years been working to address this problem, but the phone companies are extremely reluctant to stop what has been a very nice cash cow for them. Phone calls while abroad can be up to 4 times more expensive than at home and data charges can be between 500 to 1000 times more expensive. Furthermore, we're so used to our phones that the idea of leaving them behind just isn't realistic anymore.
Fortunately, a solution in the form of a company called Tep Wireless
What Tep offers is a unique service to visitors of 16 European countries including UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain (Australia and USA are to follow soon). The service lets you borrow either a local (but very up-to-date) smartphone. Or alternatively you can hire a Wireless dongle device, which they call a "Pocket WiFi". The Pocket WiFi is simply a portable WiFi hotspot that you can connect, or tether, your own smartphone or tablet to, wherever you are.
While you are away you simply use Tep's smartphone or their Pocket WiFi device to make internet calls, send emails, post pictures or browse the internet. The beauty of the service is that you pay a relatively small up-front cost and Tep pays for everything else at local rates.
What's more, the phone or Pocket WiFi can be delivered to your home before you leave, picked up at the airport upon arrival or delivered to a place of your choice in the country you're visiting (i.e. hotel, office, private residence). When you're finished, you simply pop the device in the post using a pre-paid envelope that Tep provide.
The service has been around since 2009 and is already very popular with American tourists visiting Europe. Tep, who were formally called Fonmigo, plan to roll out more countries soon. Their website also has a neat calculator so you know how much you'll save.
If you're planning on travelling to Europe, then this really is a no-brainer, but to be a little more helpful we've put together a brief FAQ. If you'd prefer to skip the question and answers, then visit Tep Wireless now!
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the costs vs savings?
Let's say you are an American tourist or business person visiting the UK for a 5 day trip and you want to use your iPad while you're away.
If you were to view approximately 100 web pages in that period, or the equivalent of 250 emails, your US carrier would charge you around US$800 for the privilege.
If you used a Tep Pocket WiFi and connected your iPad through that, you would pay around US$55, which is a massive saving of over US$700. Furthermore, the longer you visited the UK, the cheaper the price plan would be.
What is the difference between hiring their Pocket WiFi vs their Smartphone?
The Pocket WiFi device uses the 3G connection in the country you're visiting. You can then connect any WiFi enabled device (like a laptop, smartphone or tablet) to the Pocket WiFi. Once connected you can make internet calls (i.e. Skype), browse the internet, send emails, update Facebook, Tweet and so on. It's a bit like having a WiFi hotspot in your pocket.
Alternatively you can simply borrow a local Tep smartphone and use that as you would your own phone at home. Again, you can then text, make calls or browse the internet at local rates. Tep currently offers the latest Samsung Android phones so you will have all the features you're used to on your own smartphone. Just make sure you have your contacts and calendar entries updated on Gmail before you go - so you can then sync them with the Tep phone.
How much data can you download?
If you are visiting the UK, Germany, France or Italy, there is no limit to how much you can download each day.
If you are visiting other mainland European countries, the limit is 50Mb per day, however you can upgrade to a 100Mb allowance if you need more.
In which countries is the service available?
Tep currently provides the devices for the following countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Australia and USA are coming soon, followed by other counties after that.
What are the benefits?
There a quite a number of benefits from using a Tep device:
Avoid getting stung by a massive phone bill when you arrive home
Avoid paying expensive Hotel WiFi charges
Find hotels, bars and restaurants and places of interest on Google maps while you're away
Upload holiday snaps to your Facebook, Flickr or other photo sharing account
Stay in touch with your friends, family or colleagues on Facebook or Twitter
Call your friends using Skype while you're away
Access your company's website or VPN so you can work remotely
Easy of use - pick it up at the airport and post it back free of charge
What happens to the data on the Tep phone after I return it?
Tep will erase all personal information and data as soon as they have received it through the post.
Are there any other options when travelling abroad?
Actually, there are. If your phone is Dual, Tri or Quad-band phone and you know that it will work on the network of the country you plan to visit, then you can Unlock your phone (if it isn't already).
Unlocking allows you to use a local SIM card in your phone. Rather than using a Tep device, you could just buy a local SIM card in the country you're visiting. It might take a bit of research to find the best local SIM card to buy, how much the charges are and where to buy it from, but it's a feasible alternative. The problem is that local SIM cards are only really for calls and texts and don't offer good rates for data.