Roaming charges. Proof that European phone companies are evil entities, bent on extracting as much money as they can out of any poor fellow traveling abroad. But what if I told you, it’s actually quite easy to dispense with them?

Last week, I was comfortably snoozing inside the Thalys. My lover’s head was resting on my shoulder, and she was sound asleep. We were on our way to Paris for a well-deserved city trip. Suddenly, as we were crossing the Belgian-French border, my mobile phone displayed a text message from XXXX, my Belgian mobile phone operator. It read something like this:

Info XXX (insert whichever name, it makes no difference whatsoever). When abroad, calling an EU number costs 23 cents per minute, receiving a call 6 cents per minute, sending SMS 7 cents per message, receiving SMS is free (oh, so nice).

It was immediately followed by an even more outrageous message:

Surfing the net costs 54 cents per Mb. Sending or receiving MMS 54 cents per message.


Nice roaming charges, huh?Oh my! 54 freaking cents for one lousy megabyte? Just downloading my emails and checking my Facebook account is going to cost me more than a nice dinner at the Mini-Palais!

Expensive? It’s even more than that: it’s downright piracy. Did you try to convert your monthly national data subscription to such a rate ? Mine is 5 GB a month (it’s a business phone, and I’m quite often out of the office). That means 5000 MB. At the rate my operator is charging for roaming abroad, these 5 GB would cost me 2700 euros! I pity the fool who even thinks about such a limited use like turning Google Maps on for a moment in order to find his hotel. Think this is a lot? In Burkina Faso, my phone company charges 14,52 euros (excl. VAT) for one megabyte. Check the picture.

Your local operator can go f##ck itself!

OK, so we all agree here. Mobile operators are worse than roadside bandits. But how can we avoid making their executives even fatter than they are? Certainly not by relying on stupid EU regulations. But we don’t need MEPs telling phone companies what to do. There is actually a very easy way to avoid all that. It’s both less difficult than it looks and applicable anywhere in the world. So far, I’ve tried it in France, Mauritius and Burkina Faso.

Actually, I spent a whole month in Mauritius, half-vacationing and half-working. I used 4,45 GB of mobile data, called my clients almost every day and even went on a Foursquare rampage just to see how many mayorships I could snatch in 4 weeks. Oh yeah, and my clients kept calling me on my Belgian number, most of them being totally unaware that I was on the other side of the globe. No extra cost for them, and how much did it cost me? Less than 30 euros, communication costs included. Here is how I did it.

First step: go local

Prepaid phone cards are just wonderful. In most countries, they cost next to nothing (2,5 euros in France, around 5 euros in Mauritius and Burkina Faso). Granted, it sometimes takes a while to get the actual card in your phone. In Ouagadougou, I had to wait for two hours in the main office of Airtel (an Indian phone company covering most of West Africa), and then find a street vendor who could cut my card properly to mini-SIM format and sell me the credit I needed to make the phone work. Once the card is in your phone, you’re all set. In most countries, it is possible to buy only data, which is what I advise you to do if you’re there for a short stay. That being said, SFR in France offers a one-week local calls and SMS credit that might do the trick for you if you need it. But the most important thing is to get a decent 3G or 4G data package. In Burkina Faso, they have 3,75G (don’t ask) but the infrastructure being what it is, it’s more like 0,25G one-third of the day and nothing much besides.

Second step: go global

One you have your local phone, it’s time to work on a solution to call home cheaply. My advice: VOIP. Most of them have pretty decent rates.

I use Mobile VOIP, an app available both on iPhone and Android. This app allows you to connect to a fairly decent amount of VOIP operators. All you have to do is compare their rates. I chose CosmoVOIP because they offer you a very interesting rate to fixed and mobile phones in Belgium. The only thing you need is a decent internet connection (3G, 4G or WiFi) and some credit on your VOIP subscription. And if the connection is too poor, you can use the « callback » function on Mobile VOIP: the service calls your correspondent and calls you back on your mobile number. All you have to do is « verify » your local number, which is done at no charge through a simple confirmation code sent by SMS. VOIP callback can solve the communication quality problem (happens a lot in Burkina Faso, not in Mauritius or France) quite efficiently, and is usually not a lot more expensive. Anyway, MobileVOIP tells you the rate before you make the call, so there is no hidden costs here (another striking different with your national telco).

Third step: be reachable anywhere

Which leaves you with the third (and trickier) problem to solve: being reachable on your home country phone number at no extra cost (or an insignificant one). Here, there is no perfect solution unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the countries where you can get a Skype Phone number. All you have to do then is leave Skype on.

But what if you don’t? Don’t panic. There are two solutions, depending on whether you have an iPhone or a real smart phone, meaning Android (he he he).  Both solutions are based on the same idea: get a VOIP-based phone number in your country. For Belgium, I warmly recommend Cleverphone : they have a very helpful customer service and will really go the extra mile to get you up and running with what I suggest here. A phone number at Cleverphone costs 10 euros a month, and you get extra call credit with it. Super huge extra bonus: you can set up your mobile phone to reroute your unanswered calls to your Cleverphone machine, which sends them to you by mail. Yes, by mail. French telcos do it routinely, but to my knowledge no Belgian telco does.

So here is how to do it:

  1. Check your home mobile phone subscription and adapt it if necessary: what you need is free unlimited local calls to a fixed phone. Most business offers include that kind of perk, and many private offers also do. This is important, as you will see in step three.
  2. Get a phone number at Cleverphone. Why Cleverphone? Because they offer free transfer of incoming calls to your Skype number. See where I’m going, now?
  3. Set up your Zoiper account with Cleverphone. Zoiper is a VOIP solution that allows your phone to ring when called on your VOIP number. Useful when you have an iPhone. Less when you have an Android phone, as many Android phones just let you set up your VOIP number, all you have to provide is the domain of your phone company (it is all very well explained in the Cleverphone tutorials).
  4. There you are. Before leaving your home country, just activate call deviation to your Cleverphone number. There will be no extra charge if you completed step number one. You can then decide whatever you do with your calls from your Cleverphone control center. You can either send them straight to your voice mail, send them to Skype or let them ring on your smart phone. If you have an iPhone, leave Zoiper on. If you have a decent Android phone, it just rings. Provided there is WiFi or 3G coverage where you are.

The only downside is: it’s pretty demanding as far as power goes, so better have your charger, an extra battery or an emergency recharge kit available. But then, you only need to be reachable during your own office hours, which is when you can have Skype open on your computer and have Cleverphone direct your incoming calls to Skype (it’s free).

A few extra tips

So here you are, all set and ready. Before you leave, I have a few extra tips to share that will make your life even easier:

  • If you have a Mac, there is an even better option than leaving Skype Open: use Telephone, a free VOIP app that can connect to your Cleverphone account. A lot easier to set up than Zoiper for Mac (recommended by Cleverphone, but I was never able to configure it properly, even when the helpful people at Cleverphone tried to help me. They finally offered to go to their office and have their people set it up for me, which I think is more than decent customer service, but in the meantime I had discovered Telephone)
  • VOIP rates are quite cheap, but there is one thing better than cheap calls: free calls. This is what you get, at least in Belgium, by activating Skype Premium on your Skype account. You can call fixed lines for free as long as you want. Pretty useful when you want to call people at their office.
  • CosmoVOIP, which I recommended earlier, offers unbeatable rates on calls to mobile phones in most of Europe, so indulge yourselves and have fun.

I hope you found this post useful. In any case, please, do share your experience here. By sharing tips and tricks, we can all grow smarter and free ourselves from outrageous roaming costs!