Mobile phones: How to avoid a nasty 'bill shock' if you roam abroad
A two-week holiday abroad can lead to an expensive roaming bill for using your mobile phone in a way that you take for granted in the UK.
Every photo posted on Facebook, every text sent to friends and every unwanted sales call received can cost several pounds, thanks to sky-high charges levied on UK users who use their phones abroad.
To give you some idea of the costs involved, consider these figures. If you take your EE phone to Thailand, it will cost you £1.50 a minute when you receive a phone call, while Virgin will charge you £3 to use a megabyte (MB) of data – enough to browse Facebook for less than 10 minutes. Within a two-week period, rates like these make it easy to come home to a phone bill running into hundreds of pounds.
Using your phone in the EU
(Please note: this article was originally written before the EU Referendum vote and result. For now, the following details are still applicable. See our story 'Can I still use my mobile abroad after Brexit? Moneywise answers' for more information.)
Those who are travelling to the EU on holiday this year will benefit from a cut to data roaming prices that became law on 30 April 2016. The maximum charge per megabyte of data has fallen from €0.20 to your domestic price + €0.05, while the cost of texts sent has fallen from €0.06 to your domestic price + €0.02, with outgoing call costs falling from €0.19 per minute to your domestic price + €0.05 a minute to make, and incoming calls dropping from €0.05 to €0.01.
This fall means that, for light phone use, your UK phone contract may be a viable option if you’re on holiday in the EU – although costs will still mount up if you browse the internet.
“Cheaper isn’t the same thing as cheap, and if you aren’t careful it can still end up being bloomin’ expensive,” warns Duncan Heaney, expert at comparison site Broadband Choices.
Turn off data roaming
One solution to the problem is to switch off the ‘data roaming’ setting on your phone and to rely on wi-fi only to access the internet, to make and receive calls via the internet and to send messages via the web. Wi-fi is often available for free in hotels, bars, and restaurants worldwide.
You could even switch your mobile off while you’re on holiday. However, simply limiting phone use is unpalatable to many of us who rely heavily on our phones, particularly for checking emails and browsing the internet, as well as for travel-friendly apps such as Tripadvisor.
All networks automatically cap your data usage at €50 a month when you travel abroad, to avoid so-called ‘bill shock’ when you run up huge roaming costs without realising it. But Ernest Doku, tech expert at comparison site uSwitch, warns: “This cap has two flaws – it can be opted out of by text message very easily and it doesn’t apply to charges for calls and texts, which can rack up fast. “Most providers notify customers of any potential charges when they arrive at a destination, but it is worth contacting your provider in advance to make sure you are aware of the potential costs and are on the best package for you.”
If you’re not happy with what’s offered by your provider, there are other ways to keep charges down, particularly for those who have an unlocked smartphone that can accept SIM cards from another network.
Some mobile providers offer special packages to travellers both inside and outside the EU. Virgin Mobile offers three data travel passes, with customers able to buy 10MB for £1.50, 50MB for £6 or 250MB for £20.
EE offers a Euro Data Pass for £3, including 500MB of data on superfast 4G. If you’re travelling to the US with EE, you can buy 20MB of data for £3 a day. If you are travelling to Thailand, you can buy 40MB of data for £20.
Vodafone allows you to take your UK minutes, texts and data allowance into the EU for £3 a day and to 58 destinations worldwide for £5 a day.
New and upgrading Vodafone customers on one- and two-year contracts can also get tariffs that include free mobile roaming in 40 countries, although their data allowance will be capped at a low level. Users on a 12GB package will get 4GB of allowance while those on an 8GB tariff will get 2GB to use across Europe.
In the absence of a special package, your bills will soar outside the EU. The tables above and on page 36 compares the cost of calls and data roaming in four popular holiday destinations for all of the main mobile phone operators, including those signed up on existing Vodafone contracts.
As our research shows, only customers on Three mobile and on Vodafone’s new contract can relax while roaming outside the EU, and then only in selected destinations.
Three’s Feel At Home plan ensures that you can use the minutes and data from your contract in 19 other countries, including the US, Australia, France and Spain. Outside the plan, however, costs can be steep, with travellers to Thailand paying £3 for a megabyte of data.
Customers of ID Mobile can choose to buy its TakeAway plan, which allows free roaming in 22 countries. However, it is a 24-month contract and more expensive than its other options, so is only suitable for regular travellers.
(Click on the tables below to enlarge.)
Buy a local SIM at your destination
“Buying a pay-as-you-go SIM from a local company in your destination could save you hundreds of pounds,” says Dave Dean, author of travel and technology blog TooManyAdapters.com. “Local SIMs are your best bet in most of the world. You’ll typically get a useful amount of calls, texts and data for £10 to £20, depending on where you’re going.”
Pay-as-you-go SIM cards are available in most popular holiday destinations. In most cases, you can buy one, stick it into your phone and use it immediately, topping it up when necessary. It will not work if your phone is locked to your current network, so either use an older phone that is out of contract or ensure your current phone is unlocked before you leave.
In some destinations, buying local SIM cards will offer you a thousand times more data than your overseas roaming plan for a similar price. For instance, buying a data- heavy SIM at your destination is cheaper than using your own phone contract or buying a SIM from Holidayphone.co.uk.
In an extreme case,if travelling to Thailand, a local SIM could save you thousands of pounds. One gigabyte (GB) of data is charged at £6 a megabyte on an O2 contract – that’s £6,000 for a GB. With a local SIM, the same amount of data costs just £4.
If you’re travelling to the US, an AT&T SIM, available for £31, would give you 2GB of data. Customers on Virgin are charged £5 a megabyte to travel to the US, so the same amount of data would £10,000.
While many local SIMs don’t offer good rates on international calls or texts, they do allow you to use your data plan with What’sApp and other messaging apps to contact family abroad.
The major drawback is trying to find a SIM in the country you are travelling to, and getting it set up.
Mr Dean advises travellers to Google the major providers in their holiday destination and says you can often find SIMs for sale in major international airports and convenience stores. “Find the largest one or two phone companies in the country and if they have any retail stores near the place you’re staying – they’ll often be in the downtown areas of even reasonably small cities,” he advises.
(Click on the table below to enlarge.)
Buy a local SIM before you go
If you are nervous about finding a SIM when you are abroad, you can buy a holiday SIM card in the UK from HolidayPhone.co.uk. This may also allow you to redirect your UK number to your overseas SIM, saving costly charges for receiving calls.
However, you are paying for convenience – the packages it offers are more expensive then those available on the ground. Although the company offers a refund if the SIM doesn’t work, you can’t try it out before you go, so you could be left high and dry on holiday.
Local SIM cards compare extremely favourably with roaming packages, whether bought at home or abroad. Compared with £6 a megabyte of data from O2 in many destinations, or £5 for Virgin Mobile, the Holidayphone SIM could save you a considerable amount. The Australia SIM offers 2.5 GB of data for £46.90 – that’s 18p a MB, as well as international calls and texts.
Even heavy mobile users in Europe could benefit from a Spanish SIM from Holidayphone, which gives you data at 2.79p a MB, compared with the new roaming rates of your domestic price plus €0.05 per MB in Europe, with international calls thrown in.