What are data roaming charges?
The term 'data roaming' refers to using your phone to get online while you're overseas, for which you can pay a much higher rate than when you're in the UK.
Data roaming charges apply the moment your phone is detected on an overseas network. And if you're not wary, the extra cost can send your bill spiralling.
For that reason, it's vital you keep streaming and downloads to reasonable levels.
Of course, it's not just data that costs extra when you're outside the UK. Calls and texts are pricier too.
What's more, even if you're careful with your mobile phone abroad and avoid making unnecessary calls, you can still be charged simply to receive a call or pick up a voicemail message.
If you pick up voicemail while your phone is registered overseas, not only are you charged an overseas rate for the message being left, but you will be charged again to pick the message up.
What can I be charged for?
A uSwitch study found that out of 91% of you who take your mobile phones on holiday, 85% aren't sure of what you're being charged to use it.
While most of you are aware that making calls abroad can end up costing a lot, over 4 in 10 people have been shocked by expensive post-holiday phone bills.
If you do need to make phone calls abroad, the roaming costs can be hefty.
Over the last few years, EU guidelines have however progressively capped the maximum amount a mobile phone provider can charge for services in Europe. In June 2017, they're due to be waived entirely.
Whether they stay that way or are reintroduced depends on how the UK's looming exit from the EU pans out, as well as agreements the UK goverment comes to with networks in the meantime.
In the meantime, in March 2017 the government announced that VAT is to be added to the cost of roaming in countries outside the EU.
The result is that the cost of calls, texts and data is set to go up by 20%.
At the time of writing, we don't know for sure when the charges will come into affect. But we'll update this guide as soon as that's made public.
The move also raises questions whether VAT will also apply to EU roaming charges once we leave the EU. Once again, we'll let you know when we do.
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 WiFi 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.
As of 15th June 2017, roaming charges will be abolished within the EU. This means you can use your regular allowance of calls, texts and data for no extra cost from anywhere in the European Union.
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.
You’ll also be able to call or text anyone in the EU from anywhere else in the EU at your normal UK rate. So, you’ll be able to call your friends while they’re away or they can call you and it won’t cost anyone any extra.
What does my network offer for international roaming?
Most UK carriers now offer add-ons or sweeteners that make it much cheaper to use your phone overseas.
Here, we take a look at each of the major networks to see what they've got to offer.
What money-saving add-ons are there?
At the time of writing, Three’s Feel at Home scheme lets you use your phone abroad in 42 locations for no extra cost.
Among them are Australia, USA, Switzerland, Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia and New Zealand.
From 15th June 2017, Three is set to expand the range of countries covered by the scheme to 60.
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 from 15th June. But you won't qualify for free 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 money-saving add-ons are there?
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.
If you're on a 4GEE Max plan you'll benefit from EE's Roam at Home incentive, which gets you free roaming in select locations. This also includes the option to use a huge 15GB of data per day before EE downgrades your service to 3G.
And from 15 June, all existing EE pay monthly and pay as you go customers will get inclusive roaming to 47 European destinations as part of their mobile, mobile broadband or tablet allowance.
This will work in the same way as Three’s Feel at Home scheme, by letting you use your monthly allowance of calls, texts and data in any EU country for no extra cost.
EE has also introduced a new range of 4GEE Max plans for new and upgrading customers that allow customers to use their monthly allowances across 52 destinations 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, and currently includes more destinations than any other network.
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 money-saving add-ons are there?
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.
And from 15 June, you'll be able to use your monthly allowance of texts, calls and data within the EU for no extra cost.
What money-saving add-ons are there?
From April 12th 2017, Vodafone introduced inclusive roaming in 40 locations on all contracts, under its Roam Free scheme. Previously inclusive roaming was restricted to customers on its Red or Red Value plans.
The result is that Vodafone customers will be able to use their UK monthly allowances for no extra charge when they're holidaying in the countries covered.
For £5 extra 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.
The caveat is that in order to qualify for these free and cheap roaming schemes, you'll need to be a new customer or an existing customer who upgrades to a new plan.
If you're an existing customer and want to take advantage of Roam Free or Roam Further, you can ring Vodafone on 08080 044 848 to upgrade to a new contract. This will not extend your contract term.
In the event you were on Red or Red Value plan before Vodafone introduced its new roaming schemes, you continue to benefit from inclusive roaming in 40 European locations as you did before. This entitles you to unlimited minutes, texts and picture messages and a monthly data allowance of up to 4GB.
There's also the Vodafone’s WorldTraveller scheme that lets pay monthly subscribers use their UK calls, text and data allowances while they’re outside Europe for an additional daily charge of £5 per month.
Some of the locations included in its WorldTraveller zone are Australia, India, USA, South Africa and New Zealand.
If you're not on the Vodafone Red or Red Value plan and took out your contract before May 2016, you can sign up for EuroTraveller add-on.
This works in the same way as World Traveller but for destinations in Europe. Priced £3 per day, it allows subscribers to use their UK minutes, calls and data within the EU.
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 money-saving add-ons are available?
Virgin Media customers travelling within the EU need a Travel Pass add-on to use mobile data.
These are available in 10MB, 50MB and 250MB denominations and are priced £1.50, £6 and £20 respectively. These last for 30 days.
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 money-saving add-ons are available?
From 1st June 2017 all Sky customers on all 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?
2017 was supposed to be the year that roaming charges for using your phone in the European Union (EU) disappeared forever.
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.
What we know for sure, though, is that in the short-term the cost of data, calls and texts in the EU is very unlikely to be affected. So if you’re holidaying in the EU in the near future, you’ve almost certainly got nothing to be concerned about.
During this time roaming charges will remain capped at €0.05 per minute for outgoing calls (about 3p) and €0.014 per minute (less than a penny) for incoming calls.
Texts will be capped at €0.02 per message (about a penny) and data at €0.05 per megabyte (once again, about 3p).
These caps will continue to apply until the EU triggers the Article 50 clause to leave and will remain in place while negotiations with EU member states are ongoing. This process is likely to be lengthy and could take up to two years.
This means that the EU regulation that is set to waive roaming charges entirely in mid-2017 could still come into force. If that’s so, roaming may yet become free on June 15th.
In the longer term, though, 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."