Data-roaming charges will be scrapped in the European Union in June 2017, but in the meantime if you're taking an iPhone or Android phone abroad you need to be careful you don't return to a hefty phone bill. Here are our top 10 tips on avoiding data charges abroad. Also see: Best tech to take on holiday 2016 and MiFi buying guide.
UPDATE: With the UK in the process of leaving the EU the cost of using a mobile phone in Europe could rise as the EU flat rate charges won't apply once Brexit is complete, as both BT and Vodafone have suggested. The changes due in June are contained within a European regulation, not a directive, so it would be up to the UK government to decide whether or not to adopt the EU price restrictions.
You can read the full announcement here, but essentially these will be the capped prices when roaming within the EU as of 15 June:
- 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).
Until the UK leaves the EU, these caps will apply in Britain too, and you'll benefit from the cheaper prices if you travel abroad within Europe from the UK.
Bear in mind that, while the new rules are being touted as "roam-like-you're-at-home" it doesn't mean that data, calls and text will come out of your monthly allowance while you're abroad in the EU. Depending on your plan, you could be charged for using data, making phone calls and sending texts up to the maximum price caps. So it's worth checking with your provider if you're not sure.
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 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.
New EU roaming charges: From April 2016
Data roaming charges will be abolished within the European Union by 15 June 2017. The ban is preceded by a 14-month interim period, in which telecoms operators can still add reduced surcharges. But with the UK set to leave the EU this benefit may not continue for long.
From April 2016 mobile operators can add a surcharge of no more than:
• 3.5p (€0.05) extra per minute for calls
• €0.02 extra per SMS sent
• €0.05 extra per MB of data used
The cap should make EU roaming data 75 percent cheaper during this interim period. Calls charges are cut by around the same. Texting charges are reduced by two thirds.
Making a phone call in Europe once would have cost about 16.5p just to get connected, but now the price is just 4p. Data downloads – previously a maximum of 17.4p – will also now cost 4p.
However, uSwitch warns that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and mobile operators may look to recoup costs elsewhere.
“This could be a major win for consumers who have been especially vulnerable to roaming charges since the smartphone market exploded and mobile data consumption soared. Bill shock from holidaying in the EU affects more than 9 million UK mobile users a year according to our research. But the major concern is if and how mobile operators will recover their costs because we all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
“If this regulation change isn’t properly managed, higher mobile phone bills for all may just prove to be the sting in the tail, with infrequent travellers drawing the short straw. If price rises do follow, consumers can show their disapproval by moving to another network,” says uSwitch.
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. In 2015 Three claimed its Feel At Home service had saved customers £1.3bn in roaming charges, saving each customer on average £330 per year.
Apple’s iPhone and the latest Android smartphones can’t be beaten for mobile Internet access. 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 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 just announced its inclusive roaming deal for new and upgrading customers to its Red and Red Value contracts, which offers unlimited calls, texts and picture messages, and a monthly data allowance of up to 4GB within 40 countries.
For old, PAYG, SIM-only and mobile broadband customers, Vodafone charges 4p per MB in the EU; for the rest of the world it's £5 for 25MB then, then £3 per MB after that.
With Vodafone EuroTraveller you can 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.
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.
Using your EE phone abroad: 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.)
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 estimates that 20 mobile-friendly web pages uses about 1MB – but remember that the majority of websites are not mobile friendly. Check the links above for carrier picture message costs.
Top 10 Tips for avoiding data roaming charges abroad
Tip 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.
Tip 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.
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 – 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.
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 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.
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...)
See also: How to protect your iPhone from Theft