The shocking cost of international data

I was in New Zealand recently for a conference and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I got to meet other passionate educators, talk geeky edtech stuff and just generally hang out with them for a couple of days.  As part of the fun of hanging out with fellow geeks, I made a short video from my Nokia N95 using the live streaming ability of Qik.  The live stream was just a bit of fun, and went for a total of 5 minutes and 15 seconds.  Apart from the brief live stream, I also checked my email twice using the mobile Gmail client, and also checked my location on a Google Map while wandering through the streets of Napier.

While in Napier, a text message arrived from my carrier, 3 Mobile, saying that my account balance for the month has just reached $535.  What??!!  I mean, I know that mobile roaming can be expensive, but surely this had to be some sort of mistake!  I switched my phone off and left it off until I returned to Australia.

When I arrived back home (I was in NZ for three days) I rang 3 Mobile to clarify their message.  I was told that, yes, I had been using data while roaming and that my roaming data bill was $480 (plus my regular monthly charges).  I was stunned.  How can anyone possibly accrue a $480 roaming data bill in just a couple of days, and quite literally only using mobile broadband for less than 10 minutes in total?

I spoke to a “3 Care” operator, who kept calling me “Christopher” and repeating back every question I asked her. She was almost no help whatsoever, so eventually I insisted that she escalate this call to a supervisor.  The supervisor I spoke to was equally as unhelpful, and told me that he would have to check with a different department and get back to me.

Two days later, they called back and basically reiterated everything they said on the last call, except they were now telling me that my roaming bill was $850, as all the data had not been logged as of my last contact with them.  $850!!!!!  For a few minutes of broadband access in New Zealand!!!

Outraged, I asked what they could do about this bill, only to be told that there was nothing they could do, that roaming data in New Zealand comes through NZ Vodafone and is charged at $20/Mb.  I argued that $850 equated to roughly 42Mb of data and that I seriously doubted my mobile phone could have transferred 42Mb of data in less than 10 minutes.  The supervisor said they would check it and get back to me.

A week later, I had still heard nothing, so I called them back again, having to explain the whole story again to a new person.  This guy agreed that the data charges did seem excessive and way beyond my regular monthly charge.  He commiserated and said he was sorry, but insisted that there was nothing he could do.  He said the charges would stick, although they offered a token $100 discount.

I pointed out that I had been a customer with 3 Mobile since its inception in Australia, in fact I was one of their original “family and Friends” customers.  I pointed out that I pay my bill on time each month and do in fact pay a relatively high amount every month for their services, since I don’t have a landline and my mobile phone is my only phone.  I pointed out that between my immediate family, I am responsible for a number of phone accounts with them.  He agreed I was a model  customer, but still refused to do anything about my bill.  This call lasted nearly an hour, only to get absolutely nowhere.

So, 3 Mobile, I’m not happy with you.  You charge 50 cents a Mb for off-network data roaming in Australia, yet have the audacious gall to charge me $20 per Mb when I’m in New Zealand?  You have the courtesy to send me a warning SMS when my balance gets excessive, but the balls to wait until it’s more than six times my regular monthly spend until you bother flagging it with me?  You admit that the charge is excessive, yet you happily charge me for it? Your response to me was that I should read the terms of service more carefully and that it was all there in the fine print.  (Try finding it on their website without using the search function!)

I threatened to cancel my phone services with you, and still you insist that there is nothing you can do about this bill. You would rather lose me as a long term valued customer, than to cut me some slack on this outrageously excessive charge.

I WILL cancel all of my phone services with you, and I will take as many other account holders with me as possible.  I’m not happy, 3 Mobile.  Not happy at all.

To everyone else who reads this, my advice is to be really careful when travelling with your mobile phone overseas.  Data roaming charges can be ridiculously excessive, even for small amounts of usage.  Check the data roaming costs before you leave home and perhaps even disable it unless you really need it.  Even at those costs, there is no way I would have expected an $850 bill for a few minutes of network use.

Oh, and my other advice would be to avoid 3 Mobile as a carrier. Their attitude to their customers sucks.

UPDATE: Just received my official bill from 3 this morning…  the final amount was $874.41.  I have also lodged a formal complaint with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.  Oh, and then I also find out about this!  Wish I’d have know about it a few weeks ago!

CC BY 4.0 The shocking cost of international data by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

29 Replies to “The shocking cost of international data”

  1. I had a similar bill from Three Chris. When I moved up the coast, but using iPhone. Now I had my iPhone set to ‘no data roaming’, so was a little shocked to get the 500 smacker bill. I called them, eventually some droid agreed to $50 off, so then I asked for the ‘end my contract’ department, who then agreed to reverse the fee. They eventually said that they did not have the technology to support iPhone and/or to track data roaming over other networks, so even though it says ‘no data roaming’, they could not guarantee it. Of course when you ask them for the ‘where did I agree to this’ with my signature of voice print – they don’t have it. So bill was thrown out after 2 hours on the phone of basically repeating myself – ‘but my phone is set to no data roaming’.

    I have since moved to Vodaphone, as Three seem to have no idea about ‘data’ (and scored an N95 on the way through). Give em a call mate, they may well cave.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I was with 3 until I moved to the far north, where I am unfortunately forced to be a Telstra mobile customer (they are just as bad, believe me!).

    Anyway, my wife and I cancelled our 3 accounts (in a 3 store) in Brissy before we left so that we could take our numbers with us, yet almost 12 months (and MANY! phone calls to people who really can’t do anything more than say “yes, sir … no, sir”), later we are STILL getting a 3 Bill each month!!! It’s in credit something like $3, so it’s not a problem for us (yet!), but it is a pain nonetheless!!!


    Good luck with your huge bill mate!


    PS: While I was with 3 (for about 4 years) I had to ring them about 8 or more times I reckon to correct a bill where they had overcharged me!!! I wonder how much $$ they actually make from people who they overcharge a few measly dollars but do nothing about it?!!!

  3. Eeek.

    I have a 5GB allowance p/m with Telstra for my iPhone for $44.50(and regularly have been overcharged by up to $1000 and the hours on the phone is time I’ll never get back).

    Wonder what will happen when I go OS.

    Q. What is the best option for regular OS travellers from Australia in regards to using data? Does anyone know? What do business folk do?

    1. Get a SIM for the country you are in and put it in your device, sign up for pre-paid data or whatever and use that 🙂

      Or just pay for the Internet in your hotel room, might sound expensive to pay $20 for the night but it’s better than the $5-$25/MB you’ll pay if you use your australian SIM card (In fact being with Telstra you’ll pay exactly $15/MB plus a 50 cent connection charge)

    2. I use a prepaid account with Optus. I pay $40.00AUD a month and get all the calls and data that I need. Optus toss in these good deals and goodies when you recharge as well. Roaming was off when overseas. I had heard of similar horror stories to your own Chris. That is mongrel of a bill and you have my sympathy.

      Actually I have never switched roaming on. I always seek out wireless points and tap into those. They are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. If no wireless point then bad luck for me.

      I learnt something whilst overseas that will also resonate. The manufacturing cost of the iPhone is $147.00USD.

      1. Thanks Fictillius and John. I think using hotspots and the wireless in my accommodation is the most sensible answer at this stage of the game but hopefully the competition drives prices down in the not too distant future.

      2. The cost of components for the iPhone can easily be found on the internet but it doesn’t represent the true cost of making, selling and supporting an iPhone device for a customer. There are labor costs, distribution, taxes, marketing, r&d (including the iphone OS), support, warranties and also profit.

  4. Hi Chris,
    Somehow the lack of customer recognition by 3 does not surprise at all. Though our problem was small beer indeed compared to yours, (we hadn’t read that as of a particular bill 3 required payments to be made 2 clear business days before the listed payment date even though the payment was by direct billpay), we also were passed around the Customer NO-Care folk. As Vicki escalated up the chain the sympathy became more and more forced and full of false empathy for our situation. Eventually we did get a result in our favour but it has left a sour taste.

    In your case did you consider going to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. If nothing else they may just be another way of re-inforcing the inequity in the situation if only to save others, (moi???) from similar situations.

    Hey Dean, Unfortunately 3 and Vodaphone are merging 🙁

    Maybe may be of interest.

  5. Chris, this sounds absolutely terrible!

    I know when I went overseas we only sent text messages and a few calls, and out bill with Virgin wasn’t very bad at all. This is terrible! I really hope you get some sort of compensation!

    1. It was fun, but it wasn’t $850 fun. I thought it would end up costing me about $20 or so, and I was ok about that. But not for what actually happened.

  6. Thanks for posting this. Will pass onto family and friends alerting them to both the excessive data costs and the totally unsatisfactory service you have received from 3Mobile. I’m sure they don’t realise the number of people who will read your blog.

  7. HI Chris

    A couple of comments that might be fuel for you. I’m with Vodafone NZ – on a prepay account there is a $1/day (only on days used) for $10MB data charge OR on account (which I have) $10/month for 100MB data charge. I would seriously query the “roaming data in New Zealand comes through NZ Vodafone and is charged at $20/Mb” comment.

    When I was in the USA for 5 weeks my roaming data/text/phone bill was $180 – that included phone/text/data charges from two aussie airports as well.

    Hope you get it sorted.


    Jo Fothergill

    1. If you are using a SIM from Three in Australia and go to New Zealand you roam onto the Vodafone NZ Network, you’re not a customer of Vodafone NZ, you are Three’s customer temporarily borrowing the Vodafone NZ network. So you are agreeing to pay the data charge for being a Three customer roaming onto another carriers network for your convenience when overseas

      If you want the $1/day deal or whatever Vodafone NZ has you need yo get a SIM from them and pre-pay the account, stick that SIM in your phone and use the NZ number. While doing this you could forward your AU number to the temporary NZ number you have while in the country.

  8. What are you surprised about?

    International roaming charges are shown in the contract you signed and they are on Three’s website. The way they measure usage is just like any other mobile on the network so is it accurate? yes of course.

    Yes they are expensive, insanely expensive, however before going overseas you should always check the rates for the country you are going to. Voice and data rates vary by country. In fact in some counties you could be charged up to $10/min to RECEIVE a phone call.

    You wont get very far with the TIO because Three have done nothing wrong, they have simply charged you what they told you they would charge for using that service on your account. TIO doesn’t cover stupidity. Getting the TIO involved you might be lucky and Three may reduce the data charges to keep you happy but ultimately the bill is your fault as you knowingly used data overseas when you knew it would be expensive but you didn’t bother to check what you’d be charged.

    More over international roaming is off by default, so you must have had it activated on your account to be able to use it.

    1. Yeah I realise that, but it sucks that Voda in NZ charge $10/100Mb and yet 3 Mobile jack the price up to $20/Mb. And yes you’re right, I should have taken more notice of the roaming charges, but who seriously expects a $900 bill in three days!?

      My issue is not that I was charged… although I think the roaming charges are outrageous. But at least $450 of this bill was logged at a time when I know my phone was switched off. I know that because I was giving a workshop to a group of teachers at the time. The data was logged at 2:19pm on the 28th March. I started presenting just before 2:00pm. The phone was off.

      My original suspicion was that the data was logged incorrectly… there was just too much data traffic in too short a time period. I use data streaming etc all the the time in Australia, and I have a pretty good idea of how much usage equates to how much data… but the costs I was hit with do not balance up against how much data I could have used in the short time I used the phone to access the web. Having the log file tell me the data was transferred when I know the phone was turned off just makes me all the more suspicious.

      In this day and age, there is no real reason why data should be expensive like this. Once the IP packets enter the NZ routers, why would it make any difference at all as to where they end up? Bits are bits… once they are in the network they can flow pretty much anywhere and it really shouldn’t make any difference where they route to, be it across the street or across the world. There is tons of dark fibre running under the ocean, sitting there doing bugger all, so there is no economic argument that supports data costing 10 cents a Mb at one end of the pipe and $20 a Mb at the other… that’s outrageous, and as consumers we should be pretty pissed off about it.

      So yes, I take your point, I should have checked. But having been bitten by an outrageously unfair system that I really didn’t think too much about before this, I don’t plan to just roll over and say nothing.

      1. Vodafone NZ might charge $10/100Mb to their customers in New Zealand but no one really knows what they charge Three Australia to provide roaming data to Three’s customers. Every carriers has roaming agreements which is why the prices fluctuate depending what country you are in and what network you roam onto.

        Also you have to remember the $10/100Mb Vodafone charges their customers is an add on to what their customers already pay i.e monthly subscriptions, handset repayments etc. that all goos into maintaining the networks and providing data to the networks, when you walk in and just use it for a few days your using all that infrastructure and haven’t helped pay for anything, so there is another reason that Vodafone NZ probably charge Three Australia a higher rathe than what they would charge their retail customers. Plus then three throws on some overhead costs and a nice big fat profit and there is your $20/Mb

        I agree that the packets are packets however you need to remember there are extra costs involved, ie. your usage needs to be bundled up and sent off to your carrier back in your home country and that carrier has to enter that into their billing systems so there will always be a premium on this kind of access.

        It does suck that it’s not more affordable, but all Telco’s around the world do it so don’t expect any major changes to the charges anytime soon. Although given how connected & mobile we all are now the current charges don’t really reflect the way the world works. Everything is global and I would just love to be able to travel the world with my iPhone and not have to worry about being raped with roaming charges in each country

        Maybe one day a telco will have the balls to charge less to reflect the global nature of life now, but I high doubt it 🙁

      2. Ohh and regarding the times… you may need to ask them how the times are logged. It may be in UTC or GMT and so when imported into the systems in Australia may be calculated into GMT+10 so maybe the time stamp is the Sydney time of the use rather than the local NZ time. Just a thought

        1. Yeah I already checked that… 3Mobile assured me that the timestamps are local NZ times. First question I asked when I saw the logs. Simple fact of the matter is that phone was off at the time they said it was on. In fact although it was switched on earlier in the day, I wasn’t using it for anything other than taking photos. The log file is wrong, I don’t care what they say.

      3. Spot on Chris. The costs are a rip off. Sending those data packets costs fractions of cents. It is not unlike the banks charging $2.00 or more for an ATM transaction that costs them next to nothing. Cents. A simple five letter word underlies their governance: greed.

  9. And just to add, you can swap companies if you like, they all charge around about the same rates for roaming.

    In fact Three has the best rates for roaming in some countries where Three has a presence, e.g UK, Hong Kong etc.

  10. That is a joke!

    This is where Australia needs to catch up with the rest of the world. I just had a look at Vodafone Ireland data roaming costs and found out that it is €5/MB anywhere in the world if you are not a “Vodafone Connect Abroad” plan customer. If you are a “Vodafone Connect Abroad” customer then you get 500MB for €60 a month anywhere in Europe and 500mb/€100 if not in Europe! You can use the SIM in either a mobile phone or mobile connect device that plugs into a laptop.

    It needs to be regulated a lot more – especially now that the internet/data is such a major part is choosing a phone these days. Prices for broadband in the country in general are a joke for what you get in return.

    Good luck with fighting 3!

  11. Chris

    Unbelievable. When I was in the states I bought a card that allowed me to dial a number and then connect to my home phone and speak for some time – It worked for little cost.

    I agree with using the hotel charge. I ended up paying $60 for a week’s connect in a Boston hotel and I emailed etc… I wonder if I could video connect??

    Thanks for the outrage – Mark

  12. OH MY! I am so sorry you had this experience. If I received a cell phone bill for $870 I would just be sick. I hope you learn your present company. They should bend over backward to help you since you have been a valued customer.

  13. I just returned from NZ myself. Leah had roaming on her Optus phone, and still had voicemail enabled for missed calls. She only had 3 missed calls while we were there, which went back to voicemail, but we ended up paying for the call in both directions which I was already aware of. Each call regardless of whether the person got to leave a VM (in fact I don’t think there were an VMs left) cost $5.50 each (was a little more than I did expect though). If the phone was turned off even, she would have still copped $5.50 per call. For VM the only way to avoid these charges is to turn VM off, or set an unconditional diversion on incoming calls (meaning you’ll never get any incoming calls), leaving you only SMS or making outgoing calls.

    I think in future on longer stays international, it’s best to just get a prepaid SIM from a local carrier in the country you visit then use roaming. The charges are a complete rip off, and the data charges even more a rip off.

    Good luck getting some of the carges removed, especially when your phone was turned off, that doesn’t add up.


  14. I’ve always been wary of 3 for their hefty promises and shiny, do-everything phones.

    I just stick to Optus. Well known, trusted, and not too bad in general.

    But really it’s a case of the lesser evil.

    Sorry you’re out of pocket.

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