What are roaming charges?
The term ‘roaming' refers to using your phone while you're overseas. You're deemed to be roaming the moment your phone is detected on an overseas network
In the past consumers have been charged a significantly higher rate for using the internet, making calls and sending texts when they’re in the EU than when you're in the UK.
But things have got a bit better for consumers since the days when bill shocks totalling thousands of pounds regularly made headlines in finance news pages.
Changes in the law from 15th June 2017 mean you can use your monthly allowances of calls, data and texts while you’re in 28 locations in the EU for no extra charge.
So, if you want to check your work emails or give all your followers holiday envy by posting sunny selfies on Facebook, you won’t have to pay any more than you would at home.
That’s good news, right? It is. But despite the new EU roaming laws, there’s still a chance the unwary can get caught out.
For one thing, not everyone knows which countries are in the EU. Some countries that you might assume are in the EU aren’t. If you're not sure yourself, we’ve got a handy list further down the page.
And even if you’re holidying in the EU, there are still ways to build up a massive phone bill, irrespective of whether you’re within your monthly allowance.
That’s because higher EU roaming charges still apply if you go beyond your monthly usage allowance. At which point you could be charged up to 8 Euros (about £7) per extra GB of data you use.
And that’s not all. Amid all the fanfare about ‘free EU roaming’, less attention has been focussed on the fact that networks apply so-called ‘fair usage’ limits for customers who are roaming.
The result is that networks can cap your data allowance below what you’d get at home. So once again, you could be in a nasty bill shock if you’re not aware of the cap and exceed the lower limit.
We take a closer look at fair usage and how it could affect you below.
How does fair usage work in relation to roaming allowances?
As stated, fair usage means networks can cap your roaming data allowance below what you’d get at home. The upshot is that you could still rack up high data charges if you exceed the lower limit.
Confusingly each network applies a different fair usage policy, depending on your data allowance and the plan you’re signed up to.
Take, for example, O2’s pay as you go Big Bundle at £30 per month.
In the UK you get a monthly allowance 20GB. But under the terms of the ‘fair use’ policy, this is actually capped at 10GB when you’re using your phone in the EU.
By the same token, with giffgaff’s Always On tariff you’ll have to pay over the odds if you exceed 6GB of usage.
Three pay as you go customer? You’ll be charged extra if you go over 9GB. And EE’s fair use cap for all customers is 15GB.
The only way to be sure whether your data usage is capped and by how much is to ring your network.
Where can I use my allowances for no extra charge?
By law all networks let you use your monthly allowances in 28 EU locations. These are:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
However, some networks allow you to use your monthly allowances for no extra charge in non-EU European locations too, as well as select locations further afield.
To see what your carrier offers and which locations they cover, head to our network-by-network breakdown:
How to avoid roaming charges
Keep roaming charges to a minimum by following our traveller's tips.
1) Use free Wi-Fi whenever you can
Many hotels and café chains now offer wireless internet free of charge.
It’s worth noting, however, that some only offer the service free for a limited period, after which time charges apply.
You should also be aware that Wi-Fi coverage usually only extends to certain areas of a hotel, such as the lobby or a bar.
So if you’ve got roaming switched on, you could automatically be transferred to a local mobile phone network without warning.
2) Check if your network offers a roaming add-on
Most carriers now offer the chance to pay a little bit extra and get an add-on that will provide you an allowance of data, texts and minutes to use abroad. If you pay for these, you’ll only pay the price of the add-on and won’t be liable for charges outside that.
If you’re not sure what your network offers for roaming add-ons, ring them and they’ll be able to advise you.
3) Don’t opt out of your networks’ usage caps
After years of reports of bill shocks in newspapers, all UK networks except EE now enforce an automatic cap on data usage worldwide. This typically comes in at between £40 and £49.
It’s easy to opt out. You just have to make a phone call. But we heartily recommend you don’t, or risk losing track of your spending and usage.
4) Consider buying a local SIM
To keep the cost of calls and texts messages down, it’s a good idea to buy a local SIM card and top up with pay-as-you-go credit.
To use a local SIM, though, you’ll need an unlocked handset.
5) Check whether your destination is bound by EU regulations
It might surprise you which countries aren’t bound to abide by EU usage caps. Turkey, Northern Cyprus and Egypt are all popular destinations that are outside the EU.
Charges in Switzerland also vary on a network to network basis.
6) Take a look at Swytch
Swytch is an internet phone service that lets you rent a secondary UK number for your phone for a small fee.
This means that when you're overseas you can receive calls and texts sent to this number on your smartphone and you won't pay for incoming calls.
You'll also benefit from cheap outgoing calls and texts, which are charged at local rates.
What roaming schemes and bolt-ons does my network offer?
We take a look at each of the major networks below.
What does Three offer?
Three‘s Feel at Home scheme offers inclusive roaming in 60 locations.
Among them are Australia, USA, Switzerland, Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia and New Zealand.
It's worth noting that Feel at Home is reserved for customers on Three's Advanced Plans.
If you're on a Three Essential Plan, you'll still be able to use your allowance for no extra charge in the EU. But you won't qualify for inclusive roaming in locations further afield.
Does Three cap your data roaming usage?
Three applies a worldwide data roaming cap of £41.29 per month. That covers data alone.
No cap exists for calls and texts because Three customers can use their UK allowances with the Feel at Home add-on.
What does EE offer?
All existing EE pay monthly and pay as you go customers benefit from inclusive roaming to 47 European destinations as part of their mobile, mobile broadband or tablet allowance.
If you're on a 4GEE Max plan you'll benefit from EE's Roam at Home incentive, which gets you free roaming in 52 locations worldwide.
These include EU countries as well as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. This covers over 80% of time EE customers spend overseas.
EE customers can get unlimited texts and calls abroad in a selection of European countries for £2 per day.
A daily allowance of 500Mb of data in the same locations is £3 per day.
For heavier users, EE offers the Euro Pass, which provides unlimited roaming calls and texts for £4 per day.
It also includes 500Mb of 4G data, with the option to use a limited 3G allowance for messaging, browsing and email thereafter. However, it's worth noting that this extra 3G usage can't be used for streaming or downloading.
There's also the Euro Data Pass for customers who are on EE Extra tariffs. They automatically get unlimited texts and minutes in the EU as standard with their tariff. Priced £3 per month, the Euro Data Pass provides 100MB of 4G data per day too.
Once this is used up, they can continue using data at 3G speeds, with a limit of up to 400MB per day.
Does EE cap your data roaming usage?
EE customers cannot use data overseas unless they sign up for a data roaming add on. For that reason, no data cap is applied.
Calls and text charges are also not capped.
What does O2 offer?
All existing O2 pay monthly and business customers get inclusive roaming in 47 European destinations in O2’s Europe Zone.
A caveat, though: while pay as you go customers get inclusive roaming in most of those locations too, for them the Europe Zone does not include
Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Monaco and Switzerland.
However, they can extend the area covered by the scheme to include these locations by signing up for a Travel Bolt On.
Add an O2 Travel add-on to your bundle and you get unlimited data to use within the EU for a daily outlay of £1.99.
This also allows customers to make and receive calls within Europe for 50p per call and talk for up to 60 minutes for no extra charge. Text messages with an O2 Travel add-on are free to receive and 5p to send.
There are also O2 Travel roaming add-ons for Turkey and outside Europe, which are priced £3.99 per day and £4.99 per day respectively.
Does O2 cap your data roaming usage?
Within the EU, O2 caps data use at £48. Spending on data for customers travelling outside Europe is capped at £40 per month.
You can raise the cap to £120 per month, however, by texting DATALIMIT200 to 23336.
What does Vodafone offer?
Vodafone customers qualify for inclusive roaming in 50 locations, under its Roam Free scheme.
For £5 per day, you can sign up to its Roam Further scheme. This lets you use your UK allowances in a further 60 locations, which are generally further afield. You'll only pay the £5 on the days you use your phone.
Does Vodafone cap your data roaming usage?
Vodafone customers who travel inside and outside the EU are automatically opted in to a monthly data-spending limit of £41.29. This does not include calls and texts.
What does Virgin Media offer?
Virgin Media customers get inclusive roaming in 43 destinations with its Roam Like Home scheme.
As well as the 28 EU locations, this includes non-EU territories, such as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar, and extend to overseas territories including Canary Islands, French Caribbean, Martinique and Reunion.
Virgin Media pledges that customers who exceed their allowances will be charged no more than they would at home.
Does Virgin Media cap your data roaming usage?
Virgin Media caps data spending outside the EU at £45. This is solely for mobile internet and doesn’t include texts and calls.
Within the EU, a cap of 50 Euros (around £35) on data spending is applied.
What does Sky Mobile offer?
All Sky customers on Sky Mobile plans can use their mobile data, calls and texts in 36 European locations for no extra cost.
For customers with Unlimited Calls and Texts as part of their plan, all calls to landlines and mobiles and all texts sent within the EU are included.
If you're on Pay As You Use calls and texts, you'll pay the same rate as you do in the UK.
The other big 'sell' with Sky Mobile as far as roaming goes is that if you've already stored a trove of unused data your Sky Piggybank, you can use the data when you're in Europe too.
Does Sky Mobile cap your data roaming usage?
Yes. Sky caps your monthly data roaming spend at £45. Note that this doesn't include texts and calls.
The cap, which applies anywhere you use your phone outside the UK, is 'on' by default.
So if you do want to remove it, and we really advise you don't, you'll need to let Sky Mobile know.
Want to know more about tariffs too? Get all the information you need here: Guide to mobile phone tariffs
What does Brexit mean for roaming charges?
On paper at least, 2017 is the year that roaming charges for using your phone in the European Union (EU) disappeared forever. And right now consumers can indeed use their UK allowances in EU locations for no extra charge.
However, in the wake of the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU, the future of roaming charges is now a lot less certain.
In the long term, there is a chance that the cost of EU roaming could rise.
In the event that the UK formally leaves the EU within the two-year timeframe it's obliged to comply with, it’s possible that the existing caps on roaming charges will no longer apply. The result is that Britons could be paying much more for roaming.
Whether that happens depends on if the government decides to enforce the current capped prices for roaming with new legislation. If the government chooses not to do so, UK networks could theoretically hike roaming charges in the EU.
We hope that doesn’t happen. Given that UK networks, such as Three, offer free roaming in locations as far away as Australia, New Zealand and the USA, there’s every chance networks can negotiate comparable deals with EU countries.
Assuming they do, we’d hope pricing after the UK’s exit from the EU is complete will be in line with the current, capped prices.
We'll be updating the information here when we know more, so make you sure you check back before you head off on your holidays.
What's happening with charges outside the EU?
The government has announced that it plans to add VAT to roaming charges outside the EU, meaning it will cost 20% more to call, text and surf the web on your phone.
We don't know many more details at the moment. But we asked our resident mobiles expert Ernest Doku what we thinks lies ahead and how the changes will affect consumers.
He told us: "Depending on which network you're with, and what destination you're travelling to, roaming outside the EU can already prove expensive, particularly if you’ve not taken measures to prevent yourself incurring unwanted charges. This additional 20% VAT is likely to make a noticeable impact.
"Whilst spending caps are imposed by all the UK networks, these can be opted out of very easily – and in some cases, this opt out happens by mistake when buying a travel bolt on, for example. Consumers often don’t realise they’re out of range of wi-fi or they forget to turn off data roaming – so many are still getting stung by bill shock, and an additional 20% will add insult to injury.
"On the one hand, a 20% price increase might make bill shock a harder pill to swallow, on the other, it might deter more people from using their phones abroad altogether.
"Neither are particularly welcome advances and are something the networks will likely need to work hard to manage. In a best case scenario, networks will respond with provisions and perks to offset the higher costs.
"Given that roaming is already a contentious consumer issue, and one that will increasingly take the spotlight as Brexit talks advance, today’s news from the Chancellor shows there is greater responsibility than ever to ensure consumers are clear about how to keep their bills manageable when using their phone abroad."