If you’re not careful you can rack up a bill of £100s or even £1,000s using your mobile/cell phone abroad. A travelling friend of mine found this out last year when she was away for 5 weeks and came home to a bill of just over £700.
Receiving a call can cost as much as £2.50 per minute, while in some places you’ll pay £8 per MB of data to surf the web – yet there are simple ways to slash the cost.
In many countries, there’s an easy trick to get free roaming simply by swapping your Sim. Elsewhere, it may be best to keep your phone turned off or stick to free Wi-Fi – but if that’s not an option, I’ll give you some tips on how to use your phone as cheaply as possible.
Use your mobile abroad and you’ll be “roaming”. ‘What is roaming’? I hear you cry! Roaming is when you connect to an overseas network and calls are routed via that network provider instead of your home network, at a vastly increased cost.
It doesn’t just happen abroad – I have been on the White Cliffs of Dover and connected to a French network and on the beaches of Wales and connect to a Republic of Ireland network, both times without realising. A 10-minute call from your mobile could cost up to £1.66 when travelling in Europe (though EU roaming charges will be scrapped entirely by the end of June 2017), or a whopping £25 outside Europe, while data costs are even more inflated.
The cheapest way of using your phone abroad depends on which network you’re with and where you’re going – options include a trick to get free roaming in 18 countries, roaming add-ons for use within and outside Europe, and for frequent travellers, specialist local and global Sims. First, though, check these quick tips to keep your post-holiday bill to a minimum:
#1 – Switch off data roaming and use Wi-Fi – for calls as well as web browsing
There are two ways to access the internet via your mobile while abroad. You can use your mobile’s 3G or 4G signal, in which case you’ll pay your mobile provider (a lot) for data usage. Or you can connect via Wi-Fi, wirelessly hitching up to a local broadband connection.
If you can, it’s best to switch off data roaming and rely on Wi-Fi when you need it. It’s usually faster and much cheaper – in fact, you can often find free Wi-Fi hotspots in bars, hotels and cafes. Remember also that much of your phone’s functionality doesn’t rely on an internet connection at all – eg, if you want to use it for music, games, photos etc.
Wi-Fi doesn’t just offer a cheap way of browsing the web – you can use it for calls too. If you’ve got a smartphone and free internet access, download an “internet-to-phone” calling system like Skype before you go. If the person you’re calling also has Skype, you’ll simply need to find a free Wi-Fi spot to call for free.
#2 – Roaming rates are only capped in the EU – watch out for charges of up to £2.50/min further afield
If you’re staying within Europe, the good news is that roaming there is now relatively cheap, thanks to EU caps on the maximum cost of calls, texts and data to other EU numbers (you’ll pay standard roaming rates if it’s a non-EU number).
If you’re roaming within the borders of the European Economic Area – which is comprised of all 28 EU member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (but not Switzerland) – you won’t pay more than €0.19/min (16.6p incl VAT) for outgoing calls, €0.05/min (4.4p incl VAT) for incoming, €0.06 (5.2p incl VAT) for texts and €0.20/MB (16.9p incl VAT) for data. A full list of EU and EEA member states can be found on Gov.uk.
Yet outside Europe costs can sky-rocket to £2.50/min and it can cost as much as an eye-watering £8/MB – that’s what Orange charges in the US, for example. Given a 30min TV programme can be 500MB, that could potentially add up to an astronomical £4,000.
#3 – When you’re roaming you’ll pay to receive calls, but not texts – so get friends back home to message you instead
If you use a UK number while abroad (including a local or global Sim with a UK number), it won’t cost friends and family at home any more to call you. They’ll be charged the standard domestic rate. However, you will pay to receive calls when you’re roaming abroad, and although this is capped within Europe, it can cost as much as £2.50/min elsewhere.
You can avoid this by buying a local Sim card when you arrive at your destination, giving you a foreign phone number – but then those at home will be charged international rates for calling it. If you’ve Wi-Fi or data access, get them to call you via Skype, avoiding these costly rates.
However it’s free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. Then, as it can cost as much as £1/text to reply outside Europe, condense your reply (lrn 2 spk txt) and it’s still relatively cheap. Don’t go back and forth, though.
Alternatively, use your mobile as a pager – get people to text if they want to chat and then use a cheaper way to call back.
#4 – Beware voicemail – outside the EU you can be charged £1/min to receive them and another £1/min to listen
EU regulations mean your provider can’t charge you when someone leaves you a voicemail if you’re travelling within Europe. However you can be charged if you listen to a voicemail message – within Europe, it’ll be capped at the usual call rate but speak to your provider before you go to see how much it’d be.
Outside Europe it can be much more expensive. Outrageously some networks – notably EE and Virgin Mobile – will actually charge you if someone leaves you a voicemail, whether you actually listen to it or not. Furthermore the amount you’ll be charged is not capped so you could find yourself in a spot of bother if anyone decides to leave you a message.
If your network charges for this it’s safest to disable voicemail for the duration of your trip. You should be able to do this by calling customer services.
#5 – Beware watching TV, films or downloading music
This one’s simple – never, ever use your network’s 3G signal to download or stream films, TV or music when you’re abroad. Doing so can use up huge chunks of data, potentially leaving you with a bill of £100s or even £1,000s when you return.If you do have a Wi-Fi connection, though, it’s a different story – though if you’re paying for it still beware of how much data you’re downloading as charges can add up fast.
#6 – There’s a €50 data roaming cap but add-ons often opt you out, so watch out
While roaming rates are only capped within Europe, thanks to EU regulations even if you’re roaming OUTSIDE Europe, providers now have to cut you off when you’ve used €50 (around £49 including VAT) of data in a month.This can be a useful backstop given it’s often unexpected data charges that result in massive post-holiday roaming bills – but there’s a catch. If you sign up for a mobile provider’s add-on package to cut costs, you may be automatically opted out of the EU €50 cut-off limit.This means you’ll have to monitor your data usage carefully, otherwise you could arrive home to a big bill.
#7 – Got a Kindle Keyboard? Pack it for free web access
If you’ve got an older model of the 3G Kindle Keyboard, don’t forget to pack it before you go, as it offers free mobile internet access across most of Europe and other countries around the world (see coverage maps).The idea is that while overseas you can download books or newspapers at no additional cost, even without a Wi-Fi connection.In the “experimental” option in the menu, however, there’s also a web browser. It’s black and white, and pretty basic. You can’t watch videos or high-end graphical content, but for scanning info sites it’s functional. It’s also good for checking web-based email accounts like Gmail.
#8 – Get special apps to compress the amount of data you use
The currently free app Onavo says it compresses data downloads for other apps like Facebook, so you can do more with your download limit. It works in 90 countries around the world, which will help minimise expensive roaming rates.Onavo says it could reduce data usage by 80% and is totally secure as it doesn’t store your data. It can’t compress downloads for apps that stream content like the BBC iPlayer or YouTube, or VoIP apps like Skype. It’s available for iPhones and Android. Onavo says it will start charging a subscription but it’s free for now.Alternatively, web browser Opera also offers a free data compression app for web surfing. The “Mini” mobile version of the browser is available for iPhones and Android phones.
#9 – Download maps before you go or use Wi-Fi
Google Maps, available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, now allows you to store maps for offline use. Since data isn’t required for the GPS function on a smartphone, this means you can navigate around the place you’re visiting without paying roaming charges.When you’re connected to Wi-Fi, open the app and search the area you want to save. Once it’s on-screen click on the bar that has the place name you search for and then select the menu button in the top right hand corner. To save it select Save Offline Map. For more information see Google help.
Many travel apps work this way and some, such as Time Out’s app, include reviews.
#10 – Keep your phone secure in case the worst happens
Losing your phone or having it stolen is enough to ruin anyone’s holiday. You obviously hope it’ll never happen – but there are practical steps you can take now to limit the damage to your wallet if it does.
- Consider insurance. You should always take out travel insurance if you’re going abroad, but many policies don’t cover gadgets, or if they do, the cover is often very limited. The alternative is dedicated mobile phone insurance that covers loss/theft – our current top pick for most phones, Insurance2go, includes cover abroad for up to 90 days a year. Always think about whether you really needmobile phone insurance before shelling out for cover.
- Lock your handset. Many people instinctively lock their phone – this is especially important to do if you’re abroad, where you may be more vulnerable to theft and (thanks to roaming charges) the consequences of the loss may be more catastrophic. Here are screen locking instructions for iOS (the Find My iPhonefeature is also useful), Android and Windows Phone.
- Lock your Sim. Even if your handset is locked, it’s still possible for those with light fingers to remove the Sim and use it in another phone, potentially racking up huge bills on your contract. To prevent this you can lock your Sim with a PIN which will be required whenever it’s put into a new device. Follow these steps if you’ve an iPhone, Android phone (may vary by handset) or Windows Phone.
If your phone does end up getting stolen, make sure you report it to the police and let your network know as soon as possible. This is important for preventing unauthorised use of your service, and may also be critical for insurance claims (most insurers only give a 12-hour window to report an incident after it occurring).
Mobile / Cell Phone Network Reviews for travelling abroad.
Roam free in 18 countries incl the US, Australia, France, Spain & Italy
When it comes to making roaming affordable, Three is leading the charge. Its Feel at Home feature allows contract and pay-as-you-go users to use their normal allowance of minutes, texts and data abroad in 18 different countries exactly as they would in the UK – and if you’re not already a Three customer, there’s a trick to get this for free:
Even if you’re not a Three customer, you can grab its Feel at Home offer. Just order one of its free pay-as-you Sims to pop into your handset while you’re away. Here’s how:
- Step 1: Order a free PAYG Sim from the Three website – it’ll work in any unlocked 3G or 4G phone, and using it in the UK costs 3p per minute for calls, 2p per text and 1p per MB. You can also buy one in-store – it normally costs £1, but the fee’s waived if you top up at the same time. You will need to top up with a minimum of £10.
- Step 2: To use Feel at Home, you’ll then need to use your credit to buy a Three add-on bundle of calls, texts and data. They cost from £5 to £25 – as an example, £20 will get you 300 minutes, 3,000 texts and all-you-can-eat data. To do this, log into your My 3 account, or call 333 using your new Sim.
- Step 3. Feel at Home works automatically when you arrive in any of the 18 countries. You’ll be able to use the allowance in your add-on the same way as in the UK.
To do this you might have to unlock your phone though – as some networks can take up to 10 days to do this make sure you leave plenty of time. 🙂
If you’re heading to Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Macau, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland or the US, this is an unbeatable way to use your mobile abroad. Here’s how it works:
- Any calls or texts to UK numbers and any data used comes from your allowance (though you’ll be charged international rates for dialling foreign numbers, eg if you call the restaurant down the street from your hotel). Receiving calls and texts is also free.
- Feel at Home should work automatically when you arrive in one of the 18 countries. You’ll get a text confirming there’s no extra cost for calls and texts to the UK, and another with international rates.
- You can only use 3G data abroad, even if you get ‘superfast’ 4G in the UK.
- ‘All-you-can-eat’ customers can use up to 12GB, 3,000 mins and 5,000 texts abroad – so your allowance isn’t technically unlimited, though in practice it should be plenty.
- Three’s terms and conditions say you can’t use your phone for tethering (in other words, use it as a portable hotspot to connect other devices to). However we have had people say it does work – we asked Three about this but it refused to be drawn on the consequences, only referring us to the out of allowance call charges if tethering takes you over the 12GB allowed if you have all-you-can-eat data.
As discussed near the beginning of this blog, in June 2017 we will see an end to roaming charges in Europe, but until then, costs are capped: won’t have to pay more than 16.6p/min for outgoing calls, 4.4p/min for incoming, 5.2p for texts and 16.9p/MB for data. But that can still add up to a hefty bill, especially if you’re used to unlimited allowances in the UK.
First check if the countries you’re going to are part of Three’s Feel at Home service. Within Europe, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Spain and Sweden are covered – if you’re going to one of those destinations, you may be best off getting a Three Sim if you don’t already have one.
Otherwise, if you’re a monthly contract customer it’s worth checking if you can get an overseas calls and texts or data add-on from your network. Here are the major mobile providers’ offerings:
What are the other mobile / cell phone network providers doing to cut costs?
Other network providers have deals with ‘Add-ons’ to cut costs within Europe.
Pay £2/day for unltd texts and calls & from £3/day for 50MB/day
EE, Orange and T-Mobile customers can pay £5/day to get three bundles covering calls, texts and data for while they are travelling in Europe.
- Euro Talk and Text Unlimited gives you unlimited calls and texts to European numbers while abroad in Europe for a flat rate of £2/day. Once you’ve opted in, the add-on applies automatically once you start using your phone in one of the available countries. This bundle is not available on pay-as-you-go for Orange and T-Mobile customers.
- Euro Roaming Data Add-on customers who pay £3/day can get a 50MB daily allowance in the EU. Or you can get a higher allowance of 100MB for £5. This bundle is for both pay-as-you-go (except on Orange) and pay monthly customers.
- Euro Pass is available to EE customers only. It lets you pay £4/day for unlimited calls and texts, plus 500MB of data per day (data speeds will be slowed down after the first 100MB). Once you’ve opted in, the add-on applies automatically once you start using your phone.How do I use it?
- For the Text & Talk package and the Euro Pass, you’ll only be charged for the days you make or receive calls or send a text. If you’re planning on sending just a couple of texts or a quick call consider paying standard European rates as this may be cheaper.
- With EE and T-Mobile, the data add-on can only be purchased while abroad – turn on data roaming and open your browser to get it. Once you’ve used the allowance in the bundle, you’ll be given the option to buy another. If not, the internet will stop working.
- The following countries aren’t included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (North), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
- On EE and T-Mobile you can’t use internet abroad without a bundle, so when it runs out you either have the option to buy another or stop using data altogether. On Orange, you’re automatically charged for another bundle up to 20 times.
£7.66 travel allowance for customers on older contracts
T-Mobile customers who joined or moved to a new contract between 1 February 2010 and 31 January 2012 get to choose one free “Booster” as part of their plan (data is not included). They can also access older Boosters no longer available on new contracts, such as the Euro Talk & Text Booster which gives a travel allowance of £7.66 to use when travelling in Europe.
How does it work?
- You can choose how you want to use the allowance but it could be spent on 20 minutes of call time, receiving up to 65 minutes of calls or sending up to 74 texts.
- For shorter trips or when you think you’ll be using your mobile more, the unlimited calls and texts bundle for £2/day detailed above is a better option – it’s also the only bundle available to newer T-Mobile customers.
Pay £1.99/day for unlimited data and special calling rates
O2 pay-monthly customers paying £1.99 a day can get unlimited data in Europe with the O2 Travel* service. Pay-as-you-go customers receive 50MB per day. There are extra costs for calls and texts.
For making and receiving calls, you’ll be charged a 50p/call connection fee. You can then talk for up to 60 mins per call. Texts cost 5p each.
Pay-as-you-go customers don’t qualify for these calling rates. Calls cost 16p/min, receiving calls costs 4p/min and texts 5p each, plus you only get 50MB of data – if it runs out, you have to buy the add-on again to get more.
How do I use it?
- Before travelling check you have O2 Travel on your account by calling customer services. If not, text TRAVELON to 23336 (on pay monthly) or 21300 (on pay-as-you-go) to activate it.
- Once activated, you’ll only be charged on the days you use your phone. There’s no charge for receiving texts.
- A day is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, UK time.
- If on pay-as-you-go and you reach the daily limit, the service will stop. If you want to use more you can reset your allowance for another £1.99 by texting MORETRAVEL to 21300 or wait for your allowance to be reset automatically at midnight.
- The following countries aren’t included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
Pay £3/day and use your UK price plan in Europe
Vodafone customers paying £3/day can use their UK price plan in Europe with the Vodafone EuroTraveller add-on. You’ll only be charged on the days you use your phone and you can receive calls for free.
If you’re on a 4G contract and travelling in one of the eligible countries, you’ll also get 4G when roaming if you pay for EuroTraveller.
For pay-as-you-go customers, the add-on’s slightly different – you pay £3/day to take your Big Value Bundle minutes and texts with you, and you get 100MB of data for each day you use your phone while away.
How do I use it?
- To opt in to Vodafone EuroTraveller, call 5555 or text ADD to 40506 from your Vodafone phone before you go. If on pay as you go, text EURO to 2345, the phone number is the same.
- A day is from is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, local time.
- The following countries aren’t included: Belarus, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Ukraine, West Bank.
- EuroTraveller uses your UK price plan’s inclusive allowances. If you exceed your inclusive UK allowances, you will be charged as if you are still at home.
- By opting in to Vodafone EuroTraveller, you’ll automatically opt out of the monthly spend limit for internet in its Europe Zone.
Pay £5/day for unlimited EU data
If the country you’re visiting is one of Three’s Feel at Home destinations, you can use your UK minutes, texts and data allowance for free without having to buy a pass. If it’s not or you need more, then the Euro Internet Pass gives you unlimited access to mobile data for just £5/day.
How do I use it?
- Buy the pass before you travel – or Three will send a text prompt to buy when you first turn on your phone in an EU country. To get it, visit the Three mobile site.
- The add-on can’t be used in a number of European countries – see the full list.
- Standard EU roaming charges of 17.4p/MB apply if you don’t buy a pass every day. Before your Euro Internet Pass expires, you’ll receive a text with the option to buy another pass for the following day. You won’t be charged after your pass expires until you re-purchase a pass or accept standard EU roaming charges.
- You can’t use it for video streaming or tethering, and streamed music may not play as well as in the UK. If you have an active Euro Internet Pass and you travel to a country where the pass isn’t valid, you’ll be charged for data at standard EU roaming rates.
- Three allows you to have one of each add-on per month, which means you can’t use the Euro Internet Pass alongside the International Saver, for example.
Add-ons to cut costs outside Europe
Outside the EEA it’s a different story altogether. Providers can charge what they like for calls, texts and data, and other than the €50 (roughly £43) monthly limit on data charges, costs aren’t capped (and if you take out an add-on, you may be opted out of this cap anyway).
Some providers charge as much as £3/min to make a call and £2.50/min to receive a call, and it’s easy to rack up bills running into £100s.
The table below shows just how steep the cost of using data outside Europe can be:
Data roaming costs outside Europe compared (incl VAT)
How to cut the cost
The first thing to check is whether the country you’re heading to is covered by Three’s Feel at Home service.
Outside Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Macau, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the US are covered – if you’re going to one of those destinations, you may be best off getting a Three Sim (as mentioned above) if you don’t already have one.
Otherwise, if you’re a monthly contract customer it’s worth checking if you can get an overseas data bundle from your network. We list the major providers’ offerings below – bear in mind though that even buying a bundle can work out extremely expensive (some cost a gargantuan £120) so you may be better off keeping your phone off or sticking to free Wi-Fi.
Pay from £3/day for 20MB/day & from £6/mth for calls or texts
EE customers can buy varying packages of minutes and texts to make or receive calls anywhere in the world to or from the UK and add a data bundle on top.
- Pay monthly and pay-as-you-go EE customers can sign up for a roaming data add-on* when travelling outside of Europe. Prices start from £3/day for 20MB, with larger allowances lasting up to seven days also available. Bundle costs may depend on the country you’re visiting, so check with EE before you go.
- The cheapest text bundle starts at £6/month for 100 texts, or you can opt for 30 minutes for the same price. There are also more expensive bundles available, which can be found on the EE website.How do I use it?
- The data add-ons can only be purchased while abroad – turn on data roaming and open your browser to purchase it.
- Once you’ve used the allowance in the data bundle, you’ll be given the option to buy another. If not, the internet will stop working.
- The talk and text add-ons run on a monthly rolling contract, but if you activate it part way through your billing cycle you’ll receive an adjusted add-on charge and allowance until your next cycle begins.
Pay £5/day for 25MB/day or to use your UK allowance
Vodafone customers have the option of paying £5/day to use their normal UK allowance (including data) while abroad or paying the same price to opt for a specific data bundle.
- If you’re travelling to one of the 26 selected countries, including Australia and the US, you can also opt for Vodafone’s WorldTraveller* add-on. This costs £5 and lets you use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without any additional roaming fees. If your plan at home gives it, you’ll also get 4G data if you’re travelling in one of 58 eligible countries.
- Vodafone’s Data Traveller* add-on can be used outside Europe in any country in its Rest of World Zone 1, and gives 25MB/day for £5/day. If you use more than this in a single day you’ll pay standard roaming rates. The cut-off limit is £36.39/month (including VAT) – if you want more data, you’ll have to arrange it with Vodafone.
How do I use it?
- To get WorldTraveller, text ADD to 40508 from your mobile to opt in. See Vodafone for more details. You’ll be charged £5/day every time you use your phone, it’s a good idea to do all your calls/texts/web surfing on one day, or limit it to just a few days of your trip, so you’re not charged every day.
- A day is from is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, local time.
- Call 191 free from your Vodafone Mobile to opt in. Then, you’ll only pay for the days you go online. Once you’ve used your allowance you’ll pay standard data rates – £3/MB up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB thereafter.
Pay £120/month for 200MB
O2 offers a Data Abroad Bolt on for pay monthly customers travelling out of Europe, which costs a whopping £120/month for 200MB. We don’t recommend you sign up for this one.
How do I use it?
- Opt-in to the Bolt On by logging into your My O2 account.
- The standard data roaming rate outside Europe is £6/MB, which is what you’ll pay after exceeding your allowance. O2 automatically caps your data usage at £40 per month while you’re abroad.
- If you exceed the allowance you’ll be charged at its standard roaming rate of £6/MB, but O2 will cap your usage at 50MB (£40) per month. If you want to lift the limit you can do so by calling customer services, although this isn’t recommended given the cost.
- Only the Blackberry Data Roaming Bolt On is available for pay-as-you-go users, which costs £5/month for 10MB. This only gives email and messenger services on Blackberry devices.
REMEMBER! Call up and cancel your package when you get home
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