Since 15 June data-roaming charges have been scrapped in the European Union, but what happens after the UK leaves the EU? And what if you're going outside the EU?
We outline the current offerings of each UK mobile network when used outside the UK, plus our top 10 tips on avoiding data roaming charges. Also see: Best tech to take on holiday and MiFi buying guide.
What is roaming?
Roaming is the word used to describe using your mobile phone on another network for a short period, while still being billed by your existing provider. Your mobile phone number remains the same while roaming. When you are roaming on another network the temporary mobile phone company will bill your usual mobile phone company for calls you make while roaming on their network.
How does Brexit affect roaming charges?
Until the UK leaves the EU Britain will benefit from the new changes we've outlined below. However, when Brexit is complete you could see your international phone bill rise.
The EU flat rate charges will no longer apply once Brexit is complete.
The changes from 15 June 2017 are contained within a European regulation, not a directive, so it will be up to the UK government to decide whether or not to adopt the EU price restrictions.
Changes to roaming charges in the EU
You can read the full announcement here, but in essence the capped prices when roaming within the EU as of 15 June are:
- 3.2 cents per minute of voice call
- 1 cent per text message
- A step by step reduction over five years for data caps decreasing from €7.7 per GB (as of 15 June 2017) to €6 per GB (as of 1 January 2018), €4.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2019), €3.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2020), €3 per GB (as of 1 January 2021) and €2.5 per GB (as of 1 January 2022).
The new rules are being touted as "roam-like-you're-at-home" but it's worth checking with your provider to make sure that calls, texts and data will come out of your monthly allowance when you're travelling in the EU. If you don't have an allowance and pay as you go, you'll be charged the same rates in the EU as in the UK - up to the maximum caps above.
And once you've used up your allowance, you'll be billed as you would be in the UK.
It's also important to check exactly which countries are included by your provider, as they appear to differ. And bear in mind that the new rules are for travellers only. It will still cost more to call EU countries from the UK, for example.
Also, these changes don't apply if you're travelling outside the EU. In March 2017 Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered the Budget. One of many things changed will be a 20 percent tax paid by consumers for roaming charges. The change is set to see those who roam outside the EU slapped with a 20 percent VAT charge. It's one of the few instances where VAT would be charged to UK consumers for purchases technically made outside of the EU.
The map and chart below (put together by travel agent Jet2) show how many UK phone networks offer customers no data roaming or usage charges (as per normal contract use) and where phone networks offer new data roaming benefits across Europe.
Changes to roaming charges outside the EU
Those who are holidaying outside the EU should note that from 1 November 2017 the government will be adding VAT to roaming charges. This means your phone bills could go up in the US and elsewhere.
All mobile operators offer plans that allow you to continue using your data, minutes and texts at a fixed price, but it's essential that you contact your operator before leaving the UK to set that in place.
Vodafone explains that it will start introducing the higher charges from 10 December, when its charge for Roam-further destinations will increase from £5 a month to £6 a month.
How much does roaming cost?
As above, if you travel from the UK to an EU country, you should be able to use your allowance for data, text and calls as if you were in the UK. And the price for those things when you run out of allowance should be the same too. But some providers already offered this kind of deal in certain countries before the changes on 15 June.
3 (Three) roaming charges really do depend on which country you’re travelling to. France and the USA, for example, are Feel At Home destinations, which means you can use your device there at no extra cost.
Calls and texts back to the UK and using data will come out of your existing Pay Monthly allowance, if you have one. If you've gone over your allowance, you'll pay special lower roaming rates.
In the USA that’s 3.3p per MB (up to a £39 cap).
3’s Feel At Home destinations include: Australia; Austria; Belgium, Bulgaria, Channel Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark; Estonia, Finland; France; Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong; Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia; Israel; Italy; Macau; New Zealand; Norway; Ireland; Spain; Sri Lanka; Sweden; Switzerland; and the USA. (Note that this is not an exhaustive list.)
If you've gone over or don't have an allowance calling a UK number from the one of these destinations costs 3.3p/minute. Sending a text costs 1.3p but receiving is free.
With 3’s Euro Internet Pass Add-on you can get all-you-can-eat data for £5 a day. The Euro Internet Pass was designed for browsing, so streaming video or audio content and connecting over a Virtual Private Network (VPN) won't be as good as it is on 3’s UK network.
Also, using your phone as a Personal Hotspot, calls and texts aren't included. Euro Internet Pass is only available if you've got a Pay Monthly contract and you can only use it in certain countries.
O2 currently charges 4p per MB within the EU, and £6 per MB outside the EU. Within the EU mobile calls cost 4p/minute to make and are free to receive.
Before travelling to Europe it's best to opt in to O2 Travel on your Pay & Go account, you can check this by calling customer services on 4445.
For the days that you use data in Europe, you will be charged £1.99 for a daily allowance of 100MB, which will automatically end at midnight UK time or stop when you reach your 100MB allowance (whichever comes first).
To use more data, you can text MORETRAVEL to 21300 to reset your allowance for another £1.99 / 100MB. If you don't have Pay & Go O2 Travel on your account text TRAVELON to 21300 to activate; it can take up to 24hrs to be applied to your account.
To opt out of O2 Travel text TRAVELOFF to 21300, you will then be charged O2’s standard roaming rates. This can take up to 24hrs to be applied to your account.
Making calls in the US to UK landlines costs 99p/min, and receiving calls 99p/min. Sending texts is 49p per message. Data usage is £6 per MB.
Vodafone has announced Roam-free, which from 11 June 2017 will allow customers of new and upgraded contracts (initially) to use their data, minutes and texts in 40 foreign countries at no extra cost. Roam-further is available for 60 extra destinations not included in this list, and costs just £5 per day.
In the meantime, Vodafone EuroTraveller lets you take your UK minutes, texts and data with you anywhere in its Europe Zone for £3 extra a day. To opt in call 5555 free from your Vodafone mobile or text ADD to 40506 (if you text from abroad, Vodafone will just charge you for a standard text).
You’re automatically opted into a monthly spend limit of £42.50 (ex VAT) both in its Europe Zone and Rest of World Zone. Outside of Europe with the Vodafone WorldTraveller you can take your UK minutes, texts and data with you anywhere in its WorldTraveller Zone for £5 extra a day. To opt in, call 5555 free from your Vodafone mobile or text ADD to 40508.
Be warned: a smartphone can eat 25MB of data pretty quickly.
Making calls in the US to UK costs £1.35/min, and receiving calls £1/min. Sending texts is 49p per message.
It's a little more complicated with EE. If you're on a 4GEE or T-Mobile plan you can't use your data abroad unless you buy an add-on or Booster. If you try to use the internet on your EE phone or tablet when you're abroad, you're directed to a screen where you can buy roaming data add-ons.
With EE you have to buy a roaming add-on before you can use the internet while you're away. It has recently simplified these: you either get a Travel Data Pass or a Euro Pass.
These give you 500MB for a fixed daily price of £3 in Europe, £4 in USA and Canada and £5 in nine other countries. Also, you can opt for a £1 Euro Data Pass which gives you 50MB per day if you're on an EE Regular Plan, Extra Plan, 4GEE Essential Plan or Sharer Plan. Basically, you need to check what's available on your plan before you travel.
(Included EU countries are: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands,'French Guyana, , Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Guernsey, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Isle of Man, Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Martinique, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.)
How to avoid roaming charges
If you’ve read scare stories of massive mobile data roaming charges – where naïve users have racked up thousands of pounds on their mobile bills just by browsing the internet or downloading a few files or email attachments – then you might be worried about taking your iPhone or Android smartphone abroad with you.
Recent reports suggest that the average smartphone user gets through nearly 500MB of data a month. With data roaming charges of £7.50/MB outside Europe you can see how the bills can rapidly add up... Indeed nearly 40 percent of us turn off our phones when we go abroad, and a further 36 percent switching off data roaming.
Data roaming prices have dropped 95 percent since 2010.
1. Use Wi-Fi
This one's the first tip for a good reason. Where possible only browse or download when using your Apple iPhone’s or Android phone's Wi-Fi connection. Users are not billed for data downloaded over Wi-Fi. The only charge might be if a particular Wi-Fi hotspot charges for access, and you should be informed of that before you can start using the connection.
2. Mind your email
It’s OK to check your email, as attachments aren’t downloaded until you tell the phone to do so by selecting that attachment. That said, the text in the email is downloaded, so long lists of messages may indeed start to cost more than you’d expect. If you can, think about Tip 1 again, and check email when you're connected to Wi-Fi whenever possible.
3. Check your settings
Don't panic. Apple has made things easier for you. Keen to ensure that its iPhone customers do not unintentionally incur data costs, Apple switches off data roaming as a default. This means that none of the iPhone applications that use data (maps, email, web browser, etc) will use a data connection while abroad. The user needs to consciously switch this on and is warned at that point that costs may be incurred.
It’s definitely worth checking this has happened, though. Go to Settings – Mobile Data – Data Roaming – make sure the button is switched to 'Off'.
Android phone users should disable data roaming at Settings>Mobile Networks.
Android users should go to Settings>Data usage, and tap on the three dots on the top-right of the screen, then select "Restrict background data". Apps that you aren't currently using will not be allowed to use any data.
You also don’t want your apps to automatically update while you're using mobile data abroad. They should update only when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network, but go to the Play Store app to ensure that the Auto-update apps setting is set to Wi-Fi only.
For iPhones, under Settings>mobile, there’s a terrifyingly long list of all the apps on your phone – many of which can be secret data drainers. Here you can individually disable apps from using mobile data. Any app that can generate notifications might be downloading data in the background – look out for email and messaging apps in particular. As with Android you can stop apps from updating while you're not connected to Wi-Fi. Go to Settings>iTunes & App Store to switch off the "Use mobile data" option.
4. Get a data bundle
You may be able to sign up to a flat-rate or capped data package (aka Bolt On or Add On), where you pay a fixed amount each month for using the mobile internet. Contact your network operator to find out what they offer. These can be hard to get your head around. make sure to check they work for your travel destination. Also see the rates listed above.
5. Go to mobile-friendly websites only
An increasing number of websites now have specific sites where their pages are specially optimised for mobile phone, thus making them lighter on the megabytes. PC Advisor adapts to fit whichever device you're using. Others that include their own mobile site are BBC News Mobile and The Guardian Mobile.
There's also Google AMP articles, which appear near the top of search results. These load instantly and use less data.
Most mobile websites have a very similar address to the desktop (or 'fat') site. Try replacing the 'www' with 'm' or 'mobile'; or replace the '.co.uk' or '.com' with '.mobi', as with Microsoft's mobile site.
6. Switch SIM card
Another way to avoid high roaming charges is to switch your SIM cards.
UK company Dataroam has a range of pay-as-you-go and 30-day plans that it claims could save users “up to 90 percent” on international roaming charges, with pre-paid data SIMs starting at £19.99.
But first the smartphone needs to be “unlocked” from its home network.
(Most UK phone networks lock their handsets to prevent consumers using alternative SIMs, and so force people to pay their high rates.)
You can ask your network carrier to unlock your phone, but this isn’t always an easy request, as you might have guessed.
Alternatively there are plenty of small local independent mobile phone stores and online unlocking specialists who can unlock your phone for you.
Unlocking your smartphone shouldn’t cause any problems either in the UK or abroad.
7. Set up a MiFi
If a phone can’t be unlocked you could create your own personal (secure and fast) WiFi hotspot with a MiFi device, which will allow you to run up to five WiFi-enabled devices from that point – ideal for group or family trips abroad.
A Mifi is a wireless modem that emits a Wi-Fi signal that devices can connect to, ensuring access to the web for more than one person.
Dataroam sells a Mifi for £89.99 that uses one of the company’s data SIMs that work out much cheaper than standard network rates abroad. Set up the Mifi as a wireless hotspot, tell your friends/family the password, and you’re up and running.
8. Compress data
There’s an app for that, right? Correct. The Onavo Extend iPhone app (there’s also an Android Onavo app) promises to give you the ability to do up to five times more with your current data plan without additional fees.
Onavo Extend also provides a breakdown of your mobile data usage, showing you how much data is being consumed by each app and so allowing you to make better informed data usage choices. Onavo Extend compresses your data so that you can do more with your mobile device. It also reduces roaming charges by providing a leaner version of the web.
9. Download maps offline
When you’re away from home you actually need data more than you do normally, so the high data charges are doubly frustrating. Step off the plane/train/automobile and the first thing we want/need to do is fire up maps and GPS on our smartphones.
The trick is to download city or area maps before you leave home (you know where you’re going, right?) or do so when you get to your hotel wi-fi. You can now do this via a secret feature in the latest Google Maps app (make sure it's the most up to date); see How to save Google Maps offline - download maps for travel abroad.
iPhone users should consider Skobbler’s ForeverMap app, which gives you access to OpenStreetMap maps for almost all of Europe, installable/uninstallable maps for countries, states and cities and routes for pedestrians and cars, as well as an offline search for locations. Non-European destinations are in the works. Another great offline map app is Cities Maps 2Go, which has a bunch of free-to-download intercative maps from right across the globe.
Android users benefit from Google’s own Google Maps service. They can pre-download maps covering a 10-mile radius. Android users need to enable the "Download map area" feature via the Labs tab in the Google Maps app.
Check that any travel-guide apps – for example, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, DK Eyewitness, and Time Out guides – you’ve downloaded include offline maps.
Unless it's a busy business trip, just switch your iPhone or smartphone off for a while. Do you really need to check email morning, noon and night, access Facebook, look at Twitter, check the football scores? (OK, you probably need to check the football scores...)
See also: How to protect your iPhone from Theft