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Wide Variety of Roaming Plans with Varying Service Details Telecommunications Services Providers Should Proactively Explain Terms and Conditions to Avoid Disputes

  • 2023.09.14

In this era where everyone is glued to their mobile phones, seamless telecommunication and data services are basic needs even when travelling abroad. In addition to options like portable Wi-Fi devices or local SIM cards, many people would simply choose call or data roaming service plans provided by Hong Kong telecommunications services providers (in short, “telecom providers”). With the vast variety of services available on the market, if telecom providers offer an overly simple explanation during the sales process, discrepancies with consumers’ understanding of certain details may give rise to disputes. The Consumer Council encourages telecom providers to strengthen communication with consumers, proactively clarify the differences among various data plans, value-added services, validity periods, and other service details and terms, and ensure that consumers have clearly received and understood such information which would allow them to make informed choices, so as to reduce the likelihood of disputes.

The Council has seen an increase in disputes related to roaming service plans since the resumption of cross-border and overseas travel. Some telecom providers would notify customers through text messages that if there is no explicit objection from the customer, data roaming services in their accounts would be automatically activated. The Council opines that it is debatable to treat silence from consumers as acceptance of such arrangements. Additionally, there have been cases of delayed billing of overseas calls where the consumer only received an “outrageous bill” several months after they thought the charges had been fully settled, leaving them shocked and dissatisfied.

Case 1: Automatic Activation of Data Roaming Service with Nil Customer Response

The complainant had informed Telecom Provider A to deactivate his roaming service many years ago. In May this year, the complainant travelled to the Mainland and used a Mainland SIM card during the trip. Upon returning to Hong Kong, he discovered that Telecom Provider A had charged a 1-day data roaming fee of $100. The complainant later found out that Telecom Provider A had sent him a text message in March, stating that to make it convenient for customers to enjoy data roaming services while abroad, it would be automatically activated 10 days after the message was sent. A daily charge limit of $100 was also set to avoid “Mobile Bill Shock”. To decline, customers were required to respond to the message by text.

Owing to the lengthy text message and the fact that the complainant had not registered for the service in years, the message did not draw his attention. 10 days later, Telecom Provider A sent another text message to notify the complainant that roaming service had been activated.

The complainant disagreed with the practice and requested cancellation of the $100 data roaming charge, but got denied. He therefore lodged a complaint with the Council. After the Council’s intervention, the complainant was eventually exempted from the $100 data roaming fee.

Case 2: Call Roaming Bill Delayed for Months

Eventually Came a Mobile Bill Shock of Over $10,000

The complainant had stayed in Canada for several months in early 2023 and used her Hong Kong mobile phone number for roaming calls in January and February. In March, the complainant received a bill from Telecom Provider B, showing that a total of 7 minutes of call roaming services were used in January, with a resulting charge of $170. In April, the complainant received another bill from Telecom Provider B, indicating 160 minutes of roaming calls was used in February with a total charge of $4,900. Though flabbergasted by the huge bill, since the bill showed that the roaming service was calculated to the end of February, and there was no such usage since March, she paid the amount as requested and considered the matter resolved. However, the complainant received yet another bill in May, this time involving 165 minutes of call roaming services on 27 February with a charge of $5,050. In summary, Telecom Provider B charged the complainant approximately $10,100 between March and May for call roaming services.

The complainant was very dissatisfied with the severe delay in invoicing, opining that as call roaming usage was only registered on bills 2 or 3 months later, it could potentially mislead consumers to continue using roaming services without realising the high charges. In addition, the complainant's April bill indicated that usage was calculated until 28 February, but the May bill suddenly included charges for usage on 27 February. Telecom Provider B explained that this was due to delays in receiving roaming usage data from the local service provider in Canada. Furthermore, the complainant noticed that calls to voicemail were also charged at a high rate. She sought assistance from the Council and also participated in the “Customer Complaint Settlement Scheme” (CCSS) by the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA). Telecom Provider B responded to the Council that they had followed up with the complainant directly, explained the bill, and agreed to offer a 20% discount. They also complied with the complainant’s request to deactivate call and data roaming services, and the complainant finally accepted the telecom provider’s proposal.

Case 3: Prepaid SIM Expired Before Data Passport

Additional Recharge Required to Extend Validity

The complainant purchased a prepaid SIM card from Telecom Provider C’s store and, at the same time, paid $280 for a “365-Day Europe and US Data Roaming Passport” bundled with the card. After activating the prepaid SIM card for nearly half a year, the complainant received an email notification from Telecom Provider C, stating that the prepaid SIM card would expire in 7 days. To continue using the SIM card, a minimum recharge of $20 was required before the deadline, and the duration of extended validity would depend on the recharge amount. Since the bundled data passport still had 6 months of validity remaining, the complainant enquired with Telecom Provider C, who explained that validity periods of the prepaid SIM card and the passport were different, and services provided with the bundled passport could only be used within the validity period of the prepaid SIM card. Subsequently, Telecom Provider C extended the validity of the complainant's prepaid SIM by half a year at their discretion.

The complainant believed that the differing validity periods of the prepaid SIM card and the bundled passport seemed to be a tactic to compel additional payment. To align the validity periods of both, a minimum SIM recharge of $100 would be required, which the complainant considered an indirect way of charging extra fees for full access to the 365-day roaming passport. The complainant also pointed out that the salesperson did not mention the differing validity periods at the time of purchase and therefore filed a complaint with the Council. Telecom Provider C responded to the Council that they had reported the complainant’s case and feedback to relevant departments. The Council also suggested to the complainant that she could lodge a complaint with OFCA.

Local telecom companies and service providers offer a wide range of roaming products. Consumers should consider the following when deciding whether to activate roaming services or use other service offerings:

  • Read text messages or emails sent by telecom providers carefully. Objections to changes related to account settings or services should be voiced promptly by contacting the telecom provider directly;
  • Check the bill every month and for any unexplained charges, contact the telecom provider promptly;
  • Consider using instant messaging apps to communicate by the same phone number while abroad if data roaming has been arranged. However, be aware that this method does not apply to direct voice calls, so take note of the differences;
  • Consider purchasing daily plans or other suitable packages if call roaming is needed. Also, be mindful of whether the telecom provider calculates charges based on Hong Kong or local time zone. Some telecom companies also provide overseas call apps to help save on call roaming charges;
  • Prepaid SIM cards and data passports are 2 different products, possibly with varying validity periods. Recharge before expiry date may be needed to continue using the SIM card. Before purchasing a prepaid SIM, make sure to enquire with the telecom provider about the terms and conditions. If considering purchase of additional services, such as data bundles, check whether validity periods align to avoid discrepancies in the understanding of actual validity period;
  • In case of disputes that cannot be resolved directly with a telecom provider, contact the Consumer Council. If the dispute relates to billing disputes that have reached an impasse, consumers could enquire with OFCA about the eligibility and application procedure of the “Customer Complaint Settlement Scheme”.


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