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Mobile data roaming explained

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mobiles - guides - What are mobile roaming and data roaming charges?

What are roaming charges?

Roaming is the word used to describe using your phone while you're overseas. You're 'roaming' the moment your phone is detected on an overseas network.

Back in the day, consumers were charged a significantly higher rate for using the internet, making calls and sending texts abroad.

But things have got a bit better since the days when bill shocks totalling thousands of pounds regularly made headlines in finance news pages.

Before Brexit, EU roaming regulations meant you could use your monthly allowances of calls, data and texts while you were in 28 destinations in the EU for no extra charge.

Since the UK is now no longer part of the EU, these roaming regulations don't apply to Brits, so technically you could get roaming charges added to your bill if you use your phone abroad.

Luckily, it seems that most of the major UK networks will still allow their customers to roam for free, or for a very small fee, in the EU.

So, if you wanted 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.

But, you can still get caught out.

For one thing, some countries that you might assume are in the EU, aren’t. To help out we’ve got a handy list further down the page.

And even if you’re holidaying 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 roaming charges still apply if you go beyond your monthly usage allowance. At which point you could be charged up to €8 (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 for an unwanted high bill if you’re not aware of the cap and exceed the lower limit.

"Roaming with your smartphone can be a costly exercise unless you keep tabs on data costs at your holiday destination, and your settings when you get there. Check with your network operator to find out about any roaming charges you might receive when travelling in the EU, now we're in a post-Brexit world. Outside of the EU can also have unique charges, so make sure you're aware before you go. Lastly, turning of data roaming can be a last ditch effort to curb costs, make sure to take advantage of local SIMs or free (and secure) Wi-Fi where you go."

Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at Uswitch.

What does Brexit mean for roaming charges?

As of 1 January 2021, the date when Brexit officially came into action, UK mobile phone users no longer receive free roaming in the EU by law. Since that date, most major networks have either reintroduced roaming costs, announced a date when roaming costs will return, or pledged to keep roaming free for their customers.

We've detailed what the networks are doing in their respective sections below, but to be completely sure you don't get any unwanted surprise bills, we recommend checking with your network before you set off on your travels, to find out what its current roaming policy is for your specifc travel destination.

How does fair usage work in relation to roaming allowances?

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 slightly 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.

Are you a Three pay as you go customer? You’ll be charged extra if you go over 12GB. And EE’s fair use cap for all customers is 25GB.

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?

Some networks allow you to use your monthly allowances for no extra charge in EU and non-EU European locations, as well as select locations further afield.

Roaming charges have slowly been creeping back since Brexit came into effect. Currently, the UK networks that don’t charge you to use your phone in the EU are:

  • O2

  • Virgin

  • BT Mobile

  • Smarty

  • Tesco Mobile

  • iD Mobile

To see what your carrier offers and which locations they cover, head to our network-by-network breakdown:

Roaming in Ireland

As a UK resident, you may be wondering what your network’s stance on roaming in Ireland is. While Northern Ireland is a part of the UK (so roaming there is automatically free as technically you’re not even roaming), the Republic of Ireland is not. However, due to its close proximity and relationship to NI and the UK, all UK networks currently allow for free roaming in the RoI.

As for Republic of Ireland citizens, the three main RoI networks have pledged not to charge roaming fees to users travelling anywhere in the UK, including NI. But it's best to check with your provider before you head off because different roaming charges may apply depending on your network. In fact, that’s something we’d recommend for any roaming situation, whichever price plan you’re on or country you’re visiting, it’s always worth giving your network a call to clarify their policy before you jet off.

Roaming outside the EU

Using your phone further afield can come with costs, especially after the Government added 20% VAT to roaming charges outside the EU. So you’ll have to pay a bit extra to call, text and surf the web on your phone. In some cases, you can even rack up bills well over £100 if you’re not careful.

Costs differ from country to country, but some popular destinations such as UAE and Morocco are known to be particularly pricey.

Thankfully, most networks offer add-ons and allowances, so find your provider below and see how their roaming plans match up to your holiday destination.

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 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.

See how much you might end up paying abroad if you're hit with unexpected roaming charges.

What is my network's roaming policy?

Roaming charges are back. Not all networks have brought back charges to use your phone overseas, but some have. You might only have to pay charges if you signed up to a specfic network after a certain date. For a quick overview of some of current roaming charges, take a glance at the table below.

Want a closer look at what each network offers? Scroll down a bit further and we'll outline all the major UK networks' roaming schemes in a bit more detail.

Network roaming policyWho does it apply to?CostDestinations coveredFair usage (applies if data tariff is above amount mentioned)
Three Go RoamCustomers who signed up or upgraded after 1 October 2021£2 per day for EU countries, £5 for some countries outside of the EU71 destinations12GB fair usage limit
Vodafone EU destinationsCustomers who signed up or upgraded after 11 August 2021£2 per day to use your UK plan48 destinations25GB. £3.13 charge for each subsequent gigabyte used past limit
Vodafone Rest of the worldAll customers on new pay monthly plans£6 per day to use your UK plan104 destinations25GB. £3.13 charge for each subsequent gigabyte used past limit
EECustomers who signed up or upgraded after 7 July 2021£2 per day to use your UK plan53 destinations25GB. £6 charge for each subsequent gigabyte used past limit
O2 Europe Zone UsageAll customers on new pay monthly plans (not PAYG)None47 Europe Zone destinations10GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period
O2 Full Travel Bolt-OnSelect phone-and-tariff plans on 4GB or 15GB or aboveNone75 destinations worldwide10GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period
Tesco Mobile Home from HomeAll customers on pay monthly or PAYG plansNone48 Europe Zone destinations12GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming over 120-day period
Plusnet Mobile Roam Like HomeAll customers on pay monthly or PAYG plansNone52 Europe Zone destinations15GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming over 120-day period
Sky Roaming PassportAll customers on pay monthly plansNone36 Europe Zone destinationsNone
BT Roam Like at HomeAll customers on pay monthly plansNone47 destinations15GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period
iD Mobile Roam Like at HomeAll customers on pay monthly plansNone52 destinationsOnly applies to some SIM only customers. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period
SMARTY roamingAll customersNone35 destinationsNot specified


What does Three offer?

Three has announced its plans to bring back roaming charges from 23 May 2022. New Three customers or those who have upgraded from October 2021 will now need to pay a charge of £2 a day use their data and minutes in EU countries. This is bumped up to £5 a day for countries outside the EU.

However, Three customers will have a worldwide data roaming cap of £45 automatically enabled. You can opt out of this, but you will need to explicitly choose to do so. This means that you won't get stung with an unexpected phone bill when you get back from your holiday.

On top of this, Three offers data passports for £5 a day, which get you unlimited data usage for 24 hours.


What does EE offer?

EE was the first network to bring back roaming charges. It has announced that from January 2022, customers who upgraded or signed up to a new pay monthly or SIM only plan from 7 July 2021 onward will have to pay a daily charge of £2 to use their data and minutes in Europe.

EE pay monthly and pay as you go customers who are on plans from before 7 July 2021 will still 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.


What does O2 offer?

O2 currently has no intention of reintroducing roaming charges. 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, O2's Europe Zone does not include Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Monaco and Switzerland.

If you're travelling further afield, O2's Travel Bolt On will get you unlimited minutes, unlimited texts and all the data you need in 63 countries for £6 a day.

For customers signed up to a VOLT package with O2, you can roam for free in an extra 27 destinations in the O2 Travel Inclusive Zone. This includes popular holiday destinations, such as US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. This offer is also available to customers on selected pay monthly plans.

Take a look at our range of O2 SIM only deals.


What does Vodafone offer?

Vodafone customers on its Essentials and Red Extra plans qualify for inclusive roaming in 48 locations, under its Roam Free scheme.

For £6 per day, you can sign up to its Roam Further scheme. This lets you use your UK allowances in 104 extra locations, which are generally further afield. You'll only pay the £6 on the days you use your phone.

Customers who signed up to one of Vodafone's Red Entertainment plans after 15th August 2018 qualify for roaming in 77 locations worldwide for no extra charge. However, if you signed up before this point, you come under the Roam Free scheme, which is limited to 50 locations in Europe.

Vodafone's low-cost Basics plans don't offer inclusive roaming at all. So if you're signed up to one and want to use your phone overseas and not rack up large bills, you'll need to upgrade to another plan.

However, Vodafone has now announced that roaming charges are set to return in January 2022.

From January 2022, all new and upgrading customers will have to pay up to £2 a day to use their phones in all EU destinations.

Vodafone will also allow customers to halve the charges if they buy eight-day or 15-day roaming passes.

Customers on Vodafone Xtra price plans will still have roaming included in their contract.

See our best Vodafone SIM only deals
See our latest Vodafone mobile deals

Virgin Mobile

What does Virgin Mobile offer?

Virgin Mobile has announced it will not bring back roaming charges. Its 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 Mobile pledges that customers who exceed their allowances will be charged no more than they would at home.

See our best Virgin Mobile deals.

Sky Mobile

Sky Mobile's Roaming Passport Plus costs £2 per day and gives you 10GB of data, along with free calls and texts in 55 popular destinations, including the EU, UAE, USA and Canada. This £2 pass activates automatically when you land in one of the Roaming Passport Plus destinations.

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.

Sky Mobile customers will not be charged to receive texts and calls abroad.

Compare Sky Mobile SIM only offers

Ultimately, it’s all about being aware and having the right information before you head off on your holidays.

Our resident mobile expert Ru Bhikha says: “The best tip for British holidaymakers is to do a little bit of research and preparation. Most networks now offer specific tariffs or add-ons to help prevent customers from losing out. So before travelling overseas, it is worth checking whether your destination is covered by your existing deal, or if an add-on is available.

“In many cases, you will then be able to use your phone exactly as you would at home, but if you are in any doubt, ensure your data roaming is turned off on your handset. Data is where the real costs are often incurred, and quickly - though most networks do now operate caps to prevent bills spiralling out of control.

“If you have to roam while away, try to keep your phone usage to a minimum and, wherever possible, connect to the Wi-Fi at your hotel or any location you are at. Alternatively, if you must use your phone a lot when abroad, the most cost effective option is usually to buy a local SIM.”

Want to know more about tariffs too? Get all the information you need here: Guide to mobile phone tariffs