Mobile roaming charges

Roaming charges used to be the bane of every traveller. We have all read the horror stories about those returning from holiday to be greeted with a phone bill of hundreds (or thousands) of pounds. But we now live in a time when price caps have been put in place to prevent this from happening as frequently. With the UK leaving the EU, though, the situation with roaming could well become complicated once more. That’s why it’s still important to know how mobile roaming works. Whether you’ve spotted mobile roaming charges on your latest phone bill or you’re planning to travel abroad, here’s a look at what these charges are and why they’re applied.

Woman using mobile phone abroad

What is data roaming?

When you use your phone overseas, ‘roaming’ is the term applied as soon as it’s detected on the new country’s network. In the past, mobile roaming charges could be quite high. Consumers were charged a noticeably higher rate for sending texts, making calls or using the internet overseas. Fortunately, these charges have eased up with new regulations, especially when it comes to UK phone users using their handsets in the EU (something that has stayed the same, despite the implications of Brexit).

EU roaming charges

Before the UK left the EU, roaming regulations meant that you can use your usual monthly allowances of texts, data and calls within the EU - the main networks detail all the countries in the EU where you can roam for free on their relevant websites. With the UK leaving Europe, this is now not the case but all mobile operators are currently sticking to this system (as of January 2021). Essentially, you can use your phone as normal, without paying extra charges. This doesn’t mean you have unlimited data and because many of us use more mobile data when abroad, it’s easy to get caught out. If you go beyond your monthly allowance, you may be charged extra for the data you use. 

Your network provider is obliged to offer you warnings, however, about the amount of data you are getting through and there is a cap of (excl VAT): €0.032 per minute of voice calls made, €0.01 per SMS, €3.50 per GB of data. 

If you don’t have a mobile plan that’s paid monthly, your normal pay-as-you-go rates from within the UK will apply. 

Brexit and roaming charges

EU roaming regulations did apply to UK consumers up until December 2020 but we are now beyond that point and have officially left the EU. Thankfully, nothing has changed as of yet.

While the future of EU roaming charges will depend on the post-Brexit landscape, at this stage it is up to mobile providers to determine whether or not to apply roaming charges. Most mobile providers have made statements implying they will not bring back roaming costs and this remains the case (as of January 2021). 

Roaming charges outside the EU

Roaming charges outside of the EU will vary depending on location, but you can be hit with rates as high as £8/MB for data and £3/minute for making or receiving calls. The government has added 20% VAT to international roaming charges, which will add more to your bill. Most mobile operators, however, have a bolt-on service that can be used to prevent high charges and allow you to use your mobile phone as you would in the UK. 

You can verify what the roaming charges will be in advance, but you’ll also be notified by your provider by text when you enter a new country. As mentioned, most networks offer add-on packages or specialised roaming plans to help you budget for your travel communications. 

There are a few things to keep in mind when calculating the cost of roaming charges. For example, you’ll be charged for answering calls from friends and family back home. However, texts are usually free to receive. 

Voicemail is a surprising cost as well. If someone leaves you a voicemail message, you’ll be charged whether or not you listen to it. To prevent this, turn off your voicemail before you go abroad. 

How does data roaming work at sea?

Traditional, land-based 2G, 3G and 4G networks are often not available at sea. If you’re taking a cruise anytime soon, you’ll probably need to use the ship’s own satellite connection instead. Worldwide data limits don’t apply to this type of connection, so charges can be quite high. Check with your provider before cruising to find out how much you’ll be charged, or stick to the public Wi-Fi on deck. 

Fair usage and roaming allowances

Some networks apply fair usage limits on roaming customers as well, which could cap your data allowance. Each network has its own fair usage policy, dependent both on your data allowance and monthly plan. Fair use caps vary quite widely, ranging from 6GB of usage with giffgaff to 15GB with EE. 

Be sure to check your caps and monthly limits to avoid these mobile roaming charges abroad. You can view your contract details online, or give your provider a call before you travel to prevent unwanted surprises. 

Roaming packages and offers

There are a number of international roaming offers out there to help you save. 

  • O2 Travel: Top up O2 pay monthly contracts with the O2 travel pass, for £4.99/day in selected countries. This flat rate includes 120 minutes, 120 texts and unlimited data.

  • EE Roam Further: The Roam Further pass covers your EE roaming charges in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the USA.

  • Sky Mobile Roaming Passport Plus: Use your usual Sky Mobile UK data allowance for a flat daily rate. It applies in 12 popular destinations, including Australia, Canada, Christmas Islands, Cocos Islands, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, Qatar and the USA. 

  • Three Feel at Home Around the World: This plan covers 71 destinations. Three Go Roam is one of the most generous plans, with your usual, text, and data allowance provided without extra cost. 

  • Vodafone Global Roaming: Upgrade your Vodafone pay monthly contract with access to 104 destinations. A £6 daily charge unlocks your usual UK allowances abroad. 

Travel tips to cut roaming charges

Add these tips to your pre-travel checklist to save money on mobile roaming charges.

Find out if your provider offers an add-on service

It’s worth researching what your carrier offers before you hop on that plane. Most networks offer attractively priced bundles of data, texts and minutes to use overseas at a far lower cost than pay-as-you-go roaming charges.

Take care with usage caps

All UK networks, with the exception of EE, place automatic caps on data usage. This varies by provider, but typically is capped at £49 in monthly data costs. Although you have the option to opt out of this cap, it’s best not to because you run the risk of running up a big bill. 

Take advantage of free Wi-Fi 

Most restaurants, hotels, bars, and museums offer free wireless internet. Before you start using your data, try connecting to the local Wi-Fi to cut your roaming charges down to size. Use time spent at a chain café to download relevant apps and maps you’ll need on your travels. 

Messaging applications like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger use your mobile internet connection, so you can touch base with friends without roaming on the network. Be sure you’re connected to Wi-Fi if you want to send and receive messages for free. You should also check your phone settings to see which apps are connected to mobile data. Disable the ones you’re not using to save data and money. 

Data security is another issue to be aware of when using public Wi-Fi networks, especially those in busy airports or hotel lobbies. Stick to encrypted, secure websites when using a public network, and avoid using personal finance apps until you’re on a private network. 

Purchase a local SIM

Do you plan on using your phone frequently during your time overseas? If you have access to an unlocked handset, you can purchase a local SIM card on arrival and simply top it up with pay-as-you-go credit. If you’re planning on staying abroad for some time, this is usually the most cost-efficient option. 

Download maps in advance

One of the primary uses of a smartphone during travel is to navigate your way around a new place. Prevent eating up your data by downloading maps to your device in advance. You’ll be able to view maps offline via Google Maps, although you can’t search for additional info about the destination without switching your mobile internet back on again. 

The same applies for downloading media or entertainment files. Download films, photos, and music before you head to the airport so you can enjoy them on the plane without penalty. Take care if you’re outside of the EU when opening emails. Large attachments can eat up a surprisingly high volume of data. Generally, it’s a good idea to avoid updating social media or watching streaming content unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi. 

Keep your device secure

Finally, don’t forget to plan ahead to protect your electronic devices. You’ll need the right power adapters for the countries you’re visiting. A portable battery pack keeps your phone fully charged on the go, and it’s also a good idea to fully charge all devices before you head to the airport. Charging ports are often in short supply. 

Data roaming settings

An easy way to prevent overspending is to switch off your data roaming feature when you’re not using your phone overseas. This is usually disabled by default, in order to prevent surprise bills. When you wish to use your mobile data, you’ll need to go into your phone’s settings to enable data roaming. 

Android devices: open the Settings application and go to the Networks & internet > Mobile network area. Enable ‘Data roaming’. 

iPhone devices: Visit the Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data section of your Settings app. Click on Cellular Data Options to enable ‘Data Roaming’. 

This feature will need to be enabled whether you’re in or out of the EU. It’s a good idea to disable your data roaming feature once you’ve returned to the UK, or you run the risk of tearing through your allotted data down the road. 

You should also check in with your mobile provider before crossing any borders to ensure your account is set up for international roaming. Some require your approval first rather than offering an automatic opt-in, and you don’t want any surprises when you land at a foreign airport. 

Another thing to keep an eye on is the mobile network your phone connects to. If you’re travelling near international borders, your phone may connect to an unexpected mobile network in a different country. Rates may be higher across the Mexican border than within the USA, for example.

Protecting your phone when roaming abroad

Roaming charges can be particularly unpleasant if your phone is lost or stolen while abroad. Tourists are often targeted, so take extra care when using a smartphone in public. It only takes a matter of minutes for a thief to rack up a huge bill on overseas calls. Unfortunately, you may be held liable for roaming charges accrued between the time your phone goes missing up until it’s reported as lost or stolen to your provider. 

According to Ofcom, if you report your phone as missing within 24 hours, you’ll only be held responsible for charges up to £100 for unauthorised usage. This applies to customers with Three, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone, EE or O2. Vodafone caps unauthorised usage at £500 if the phone is reported as missing within five days. 

It’s clear to see that time is of the essence when it comes to reporting a stolen or missing phone abroad. The sooner you report it as lost or stolen, the lower your unauthorised roaming charges will be. When you ring your provider, you should be able to place a temporary bar on your account. The provider can stop anyone from using the phone by blocking its 15-digit IMEI number, so it’s worth writing this down somewhere safe before you travel. 

As at home, apps like Find My iPhone are also handy for tracing your phone and wiping its sensitive details remotely. With a bit of preparation, you can minimise roaming charges while keeping your phone safe.

Last updated: 14 January 2021