What are data roaming charges?
Data roaming is when your phone has been detected on an overseas network and expensive roaming rates start kicking in.
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.
Data roaming charges are generally the most expensive, so it's especially important that you're careful with your mobile internet use and keep streaming and downloads to reasonable levels.
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 find you 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 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.
How to avoid roaming charges
Keep roaming charges to a minimum by following our travellers tips.
1) Use free Wi-Fi whenever you can
Many hotels and café chains now offer wireless internet free of charge.
It’s worth nothing however, that some only offer the service free for a limited period after which time charges apply.
Of course, you should also be aware that WiFi 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 carrier service 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 and T-Mobile 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 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 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.
And in the case of Three, even allow you to use your phone with your UK allowances for no extra charge.
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, which we explain in more detail below.
What money-saving add-ons are there?
Three’s Feel at Home scheme lets you use your phone abroad in 18 locations for no extra cost.
Among them are Australia, USA, Switzerland, Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Three phones are automatically set up for Feel At Home.
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?
EE customers can get unlimited texts and calls abroad in a selection of European countries for £2 per day.
A daily allowance of 50Mb 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 100MB of 4G data (rising to 500MB per day from 11th May 2016), with the option to use a limited 3G allowance for messaging, browsing and email thereafter. However, it's worth nothing 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 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 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 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 there?
Vodafone pay monthly customers on its Red or Red Value plans now benefit from inclusive roaming in 40 European locations. This entitles them to unlimited minutes, texts and picture messages and a monthly data allowance of up to 4GB.
Pay as you go customers can also benefit from the same offer in the same destinations when they buy a Big Value Bundle. However, this only applies during July and August 2016.
Alternatively, 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 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?
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.
Want to know more about tariffs too? Get all the information you need here: Guide to mobile phone tariffs
Sports fans heading to Rio Olympics risk £3,900 phone bill
UK athletics fans travelling to Brazil to cheer on Team GB in the Rio Olympics this summer could easily land themselves with a roaming bill of £3,920 according to uSwitch research.
The crippling bill, which is a real possibility for consumers who opt out of network-imposed caps on spending and is based on a 16-day stay and convervative usage, is 50 times the price of the cheapest ticket for the men’s 100m final.
Without a usage cap of £40, customers could quickly rack up a data bill of £197 per day, due largely to the sky-high cost of mobile internet usage in Brazil for overseas customers.
A mobile internet allowance of around 8GB to use in Rio will cost you £40 on average when bought outside a network bundle. But that's only enough data for 16 social media photo updates, or a five-minute stream of the day’s action at the Games.
And with the average price of a single GB of data priced £4.85 (one network charges a whopping £8), even uploading two selfies to Facebook or Twitter every now and then could soon see you amassing substantial bills.
That’s before you consider the cost of calls, listening to voicemail and sending text messages, all of which are uncapped in Brazil. The result is that on some networks calls are priced up to £2 per minute.
With that in mind, customers with conservative daily usage habits of three five-minute phone calls to the UK, receiving two five-minute phone calls, listening to a two-minute voicemail message, and sending 10 texts could land themselves a bill of over £47 per day.
Not all networks’ customers are quite as vulnerable to racking up extortionate roaming bills as others, however.
EE, for instance, will not allow its customers to use data overseas without signing up for a data add-on. These entitle them to a set amount of data for a pre-determined outlay.
If you're a Tesco Mobile or iD Mobile, you can control your spend by capping your monthly bill.
Vodafone, meanwhile, offers the World Traveller add-on. This allows customers to use their domestic data allowance while they're overseas for an extra £5 per day. That means that over a 16-day stay in Brazil, they’d face an extra charge for data of a far more reasonable £80.
The survey’s findings are especially worrying in the light of a separate uSwitch study in which over 80% of those surveyed admitted they don’t check with their nework before travelling to see if any money-saving add-ons are available.
Equally concerning is that 16% think it’s free to use a phone outside the EU, while nearly half (49%) weren’t sure.
The table below shows the out-of-bundle charges for pay monthly customers roaming in Brazil across all the major UK networks and as an average cost, as well as any roaming add-ons available:
|Usage and add-ons
|Making calls to UK mobiles (per min)
|Receiving calls (per min)
|Sending 1 SMS text message
|Sending 1 MMS text message
|Voicemail (per min)
|Data (per MB)
||Daily charge of £3.00 for first 5MB, £15 for 5MB thereafter
|Roaming add ons for Brazil
||£5/10MB & £10/25MB (per day), £20/40MB & £40/100MB (per week). 30 mins £6 per month, 60 mins £10, 120 mins £20, 100 texts £6 per month, 250 texts £10
||Vodafone WorldTraveller: take your UK minutes, texts and data with you for just £5 extra a day
||No add-ons available for countries outside Feel At Home destinations
||O2 Travel: unlimited data, 120 minutes and 120 texts for £4.99 per day
||None available for countries outside TakeAway plan destinations
||None available for countries outside Home From Home destinations
Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at uSwitch.com, says: “Anyone heading to Rio to cheer on Team GB this summer could do some serious damage to their bank balances because some UK networks’ roaming offerings are decidedly unimpressive or, in certain cases, non-existent. Just re-playing a 20-second clip of the 100-metre final would cost you more than £6 out of bundle, and that’s provided there aren’t any false starts.
“Never has there been more urgency for networks to improve rates for overseas mobile usage, particularly now lower roaming prices inside the EU potentially hang in the balance following the UK’s decision to leave.
“Right now, the £40 cap is all well and good in the EU - where roaming prices are currently lower - but potentially astronomical roaming costs further afield means people are tempted to opt out, making them more vulnerable to bill shock.
“Three’s Feel At Home – one of the best roaming deals on the market – has slashed costs to zero in the likes of the USA, New Zealand and Australia, but it’s limited to 19 countries, and Brazil isn’t in the line-up.
“For those going to Rio, and reluctant to hunt out free Wi-Fi, Vodafone’s World Traveller and O2 Travel are the best offerings. You have to opt in at a cost of around £5 a day – so it’s quite pricey for the duration of the Games – but you could store up those calls and social media updates and blitz them every other day instead, only paying an extra £40.”
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 next year.
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.