With the approach of Chinese New Year, many consumers travelling abroad will opt for WiFi eggs, prepaid SIM cards or fixed-rate data plans to access data roaming services. As some fixed-rate plans are competitive in prices, convenient to purchase and easy to use, they are becoming more popular. But the Consumer Council survey on fixed-rate roaming plans has found a vast variation in charges. Besides, consumers could get confused when different roaming plans vary in their policies about cross-border roaming on the same day, as well as the definition of “one day” for calculating data-roaming charges. The survey also found that some data plans activate the roaming function by default, so upon departure, mobile devices may use the roaming service automatically and start billing. Furthermore, even if the consumers purchase a roaming services package beforehand, it is still possible for their mobile devices to switch to another non-designated network with a stronger signal, which may result in a huge bill shock.
The Council suggests that consumers configure their mobile phones to manual network selection before travelling. If they do not require the data roaming service, they should switch their mobile devices to “flight mode” and switch off the mobile data and roaming service functions to avoid unnecessary charges.
The survey covered 7 mobile service operators, offering 79 fixed-rate data roaming service plans. Of these, 28 plans offered a fixed-rate day pass; 30 others offered prepaid or pre-booked plans for a specified period of days; and the other 21 were monthly plans with a contract from 12 to 36 months.
The survey revealed a wide variation in daily rates even among the day-pass service plans. For instance, daily rates for the Mainland ranged from $20 to $198, a difference of almost 9 times. Although the 2 most costly day-pass plans ($198) offered unlimited data usage, another plan priced at only $48, also offered the same unlimited data usage, with waived roaming charges when consumers travel between the Mainland and Macau on the same day.
The daily rates of 7 day-pass plans for Europe varied from $60 to $198, a difference of 2.3 times. What warrant consumers should select carefully is of the 5 most expensive plans ($198), only 1 plan charged the daily rate once for travel between European countries on the same day; 1 charged the daily rate twice at most; and 3 charged the daily rate each time the consumer crossed a border in Europe.
The prepaid or pre-booked plans (30 plans) for a specified period of days were cheaper than fixed-rate day pass, with an average daily rate from the lowest $8.5 to the highest $57.6, they all came with an expiry date and an upper limit for data usage. 5 of these plans had to be activated within 30 days, after which the fixed charge would begin and would be cancelled automatically upon expiry. The other plans must be used within 1 year, or on or before 31 March of the following year. Consumers should beware that 26 of these plans would subject to standard roaming charges after using up the pre-booked plan, and they are advised to pay attention to the data usage at all times.
Apart from comparing the price, data usage and the expiry date among data roaming plans, consumers should pay attention to how “one day” is defined when calculating roaming charges. The survey found at least 4 different definitions: generally, a charge starts to incur once the service is activated until the same day ending at 23:59 hours, but some plans base the charge on the local time at the destination while some others base it on the local time of the destination country’s capital. For instance, Ottawa time is used for calculation even if the consumer is in Vancouver, and in Bali, Jakarta time is used. Other plans used Hong Kong time, which makes it particularly confusing and difficult for users to estimate the specific number of days when choosing data roaming plans. The Council opined that some roaming plans set a period of 24 hours as one day after activation which is simpler and easier for consumers to understand, and is a good practice for other operators to follow.
Only 2 of the operators surveyed offered monthly plans for data roaming services, with contracts from 12 to 36 months, which were particularly suitable for frequent travelers. But occasional travellers should assess the plan details carefully to avoid committing to a monthly plan mistakenly.
Consumers still need to pay attention when getting around locally in remote areas, particularly those routes close to the Mainland border as it is possible for their mobile devices to switch automatically to a Mainland network nearby if the roaming function has been activated, resulting in unexpected roaming charges. The Council has received complaints from consumers that they were billed for data-roaming charges while on outings in Hong Kong. Consumers are advised to switch off their data-roaming function if they are not travelling, and pay attention to their monthly bill to catch unfair charges.
It generally takes 1 or 2 simple steps to purchase or subscribe for a fixed-rate roaming plan on a service provider’s website or in a mobile app, but consumers should not take it lightly. The should read thoroughly the terms and conditions of service plans to make sure the charge and service period suit their needs and they should retain all documents and screen images of the purchased / subscribed plan as record. Furthermore, consumers choosing a fixed-rate data plan should check the start and end dates of the plan and, cross-check whether charges in all destinations they intend to travel to are similar, as well as whether the plan is suitable only for a certain roaming network. In subscribing to a prepaid plans, consumers should always avoid large prepayments and pay attention to expiry dates.
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