It’s holiday season again - at least for parents and school-age children – so it’s time to pack your suitcase and go on vacation. [Updated July 18, 2013: Carrier data charges amended, and EE data add ons included. Updated June 16, 2013; EU bans data roaming charges; latest information from iPhone carriers O2, Vodafone, Orange and Three; plus some suggestions for Android smartphone users. Updated: December 4, 2013: carrier Three helps travellers in the US.]
If you’ve read recent 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...
See also iPhone 5 review
(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.)
The EU is planning to ban all roaming charges from July 2014, and prices fell in July 2013, but you still need to be careful to avoid bank-busting bills when taking your smartphone or 3G-enabled tablet abroad.
3 or Three or whatever it's calling itself these days is a carrier that has gone further than most in helping reduce its users roaming charges. Three’s customers travelling in the US will now automatically roam onto the networks of AT&T and T-Mobile USA, which, like most of the world, use the GSM network standard. Three offers the same 'Feel At Home' terms in these territories: Ireland, Australia, Italy, Austria, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark), Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Macau.
Apple’s iPhone and the latest Android smartphones can’t be beaten for mobile Internet access. They show you web pages as they were meant to be read, not in some awful texty cut-down version.
So here’s some advice for iPhone and Android users heading out on holiday or abroad for some other reason. Taking your smartphone abroad needn't cost the earth.
Your unlimited data and Wi-Fi allowances only apply to usage in the UK.
O2 currently charges 46p per MB within the EU and £6 per MB outside the EU.
Vodafone charges 45.9p per MB in the EU; for the rest of the world it's £3 for each MB up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB after that. You can opt to take your UK minutes, texts and internet to EU countries for £3 a day with Vodafone EuroTraveller. 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 you can opt in to Vodafone's Data Traveller for £5 a day for 25MB for every day you go online. Be warned: a smartphone can eat 25MB of data pretty quickly.
Orange charges 45.9p per MB within the EU, but the highest rest-of-the-world rate is £8 per MB.
3 (Three) sadly isn't free. It charges 45.8p per MB in the EU, and £3 per MB outside the EU. See above for its generous 'Feel At Home' terms.
Using your EE phone abroad: It's a little more complicated with EE. 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. EE has so many roaming add-on options it's confusing. If you have a 4G EE phone plan with roaming included you can pay 50p per 2MB for 24 hours, up to 1GB for 30 days for £25 within Europe. If you don’t have roaming included in your EE 4G phone plan 3MB costs £1, up to 200MB for £35 in Europe. It all depends on where you are, with EE. If you're in Japan an add-on costs a staggering £195 for 50MB.
As you can see web browsing for a few hours a day over the course of a week could cost you dear - especially outside the EU on EE.
(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.)
Opening an email that includes a picture taken by a 5-megapixel camera or downloading a three-minute video from YouTube takes about 2MB of data. Vodafone stimates that 20 mobile-friendly web pages uses about 1MB - but remember that the majority of websites are not mobile friendly.
Top 10 Tips for avoiding data roaming charges abroad
Tip 1: Use Wi-Fi
Where possible only browse or download when using your Apple iPhone’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.
Tip 2: Mind your email
It’s OK to check your email, as attachments aren’t downloaded until you tell the iPhone 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.
Tip 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 – General – Network – Data Roaming – make sure the button is switched to 'Off'.
Android phone users should uncheck data roaming at Settings>Wireless & Networks >Mobile Networks.
Tip 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.
Tip 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, for example, has its own mobile website. Others include BBC News Mobile and The Guardian Mobile.
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.
(in fact, you could read this very article on PC Advisor's mobile site.)
Tip 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.
Tip 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.
Tip 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.
Tip 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.
Tip 10: Relax
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...)
EU regulation caps data roaming charges
New EU Legislation that came into effect on 1 July 2010 stated that “Mobile Operators will cap what they charge for data services when customers are abroad. Operators will keep customers adequately informed of the charges that apply for data roaming services".
This forces mobile carriers to cap the cost of data roaming to €50 (O2 has converted this to £40, Vodafone £43, Orange £44, Three £43).
From 1 July 2013, 1MB of data – equivalent to browsing five web pages or downloading 40 emails – will be capped at €0.45 (38p) within the EU. Calls made by British travellers in the EU will cost a maximum of €0.24 (20p) a minute, or €0.07 (6p) a minute to receive one. Text messages are €0.08 (7p) each.
No one can be charged more than €50 (£43) in one billing period, over their normal monthly contract.
While these charges were expected to fall further in 2014, the EU now plans to ban them altogether – EU bans mobile roaming charges. Consumers will be able to use their smartphones and tablets across Europe for the same price they do at home.
O2 says that a default £40 limit will be built into all tariffs. Customers will receive a text when they start to use data abroad to let them know they will not be charged more than £40. There is a bar set at 50MB. Once this has been reached data roaming will stop.
O2 also offers an Opt Out where customers who do not want a cap on their data usagejust need to call customer services and ask for the cap to be removed.
Data roaming charges for all the above options remain at: £3/MB (EU) and £6/MB (Rest of the World).
Orange Pay Monthly customers will be alerted by SMS when they have used 8MB of data, and again when they are approaching their 16MB allowance. Orange Pay As You Go customers will be alerted when they have used 6MB of data and again when they are approaching their 12MB allowance.
Three will send customers texts to let them know when they've reached 80 percent and 95 percent of its £43 limit.
The data limit is applicable in EU countries only, and can be removed by calling your mobile carrier.
What about overseas call and text charges?
O2 iPhone call charges overseas
From July 2012 consumers travelling in another EU country than their own will pay no more than 24p to make a phone call, 7p to receive one and 8p to send a text message. This will fall in July 2013, and again in July 2014 – see above.
According to O2 all the pay monthly tariffs for iPhone come with International Traveller Service (ITS), which means you get discounted rates compared to its standard prices when you make and receive calls abroad. That doesn’t make them super cheap, remember – just not as expensive…
You will be charged at the international mobile call rate of your mobile phone company for the international leg of the call and at the mobile call rate of the local mobile phone company for the leg carried on that network. This differs from receiving calls while not roaming, where the caller pays for the calls.
You can use your inclusive text allowance to send text messages from abroad back to the UK. But note that one SMS sent from abroad will costs four SMS from your inclusive allowance. Once you’ve used up all your SMS allowance, you’ll be charged at O2’s ITS rates.
Vodafone iPhone call charges overseas
Vodafone customers can sign up to Vodafone Passport (available in over 35 countries, including Australia and New Zealand) by calling 5555 from their mobile. This allows them to take their UK price plan with them to over 35 countries simply by opting in for free. They can use any inclusive minutes in their UK price plan or Freedom Pack.
Using Vodafone Passport customers can make and receive calls for the same price as in the UK (although with an additional 75p connection charge). Besides the connection charge, it is free to receive calls up to 60 minutes and 20p per minute when talking for more than 60 minutes.
Texting back to the UK costs 11p (customers can’t use their inclusive texts abroad).
Orange iPhone call charges overseas
From £5, Europe Traveller gives Orange customers discounted rates to make calls in any European destination and receive calls for free. They can get either 200 or 1,000 minutes’ worth of discounted calls at 28p a minute. This bundle can be purchased for 30 days or on a monthly recurring basis.
World Traveller also costs £5 a month and gives customers discounts of up to 30 percent on calls and texts.
See also: How to protect your iPhone from Theft
Follow Simon Jary on Twitter