Taking your mobile abroad can turn it into a cash assassin in some places, costing as much as £2.50/min to receive a call. The easiest solution is to leave your phone at home but sometimes this isn't possible, so be prepared to pay.
This is a guide to getting the cheapest mobile roaming (the term for overseas use), either via your network's hidden deals or using special international Sim cards.
Basic tips for using your mobile abroad
Use your mobile abroad and you'll be "roaming". This is when you connect to an overseas network and calls are routed via that network provider instead of your home network, at a vastly increased cost.
It doesn't just happen abroad - you could be on the White Cliffs of Dover and connect to an overseas network without realising. Calling from your mobile while in the Europe can cost up to £1.90 for a 10-minute call, or £30 for a 10-minute call outside Europe.
Consider some of the tips below to avoid these hefty charges. And be very careful to avoid making calls from a hotel phone - these usually cost a fortune.
It doesn't cost others more to call you
Whether you decide to take your own phone or buy a local or global Sim with a UK number before you go, it won't cost friends and family at home any more to call you. They'll be charged the standard domestic rate.
However, you'll pay to receive calls, and although this is capped at 5p/min within the EEA, it can cost as much as £2.50/min elsewhere. You can avoid this by buying a local Sim card when you arrive at your destination, giving you a foreign phone number - but then those at home will be charged international rates for calling it.
If you do this, people trying to contact you can use the International CallChecker if they're calling from a landline, or one of the low-rate international calling apps in our Free Web Calls guide if calling from their mobile, to make sure they're getting the best rate. For an even cheaper rate, get them to call your hotel room rather than your mobile.
Receiving a text is free
It's free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. As it can cost as much as £1/text to reply outside Europe, condense the message (lrn 2 spk txt) and it's still relatively cheap. Don't go back and forth, though.
Alternatively, use your mobile as a pager; get people to text if they want to chat and then use a cheaper way to call back.
Using mobile internet costs a fortune
'Data roaming', or using the web overseas, can cost large, so switch it off before you go. Though the cost per MB is capped in the Europe at €0.20/MB (about 19p/MB incl VAT), elsewhere providers are free to charge what they like, with some charging as much as £8/MB.
If you have to access the web then use free wi-fi hotspots, and if checking emails, don't download attachments. The most dangerous move is to watch or download TV and films while abroad; do this and you could rack up a bill of £100s or even £1,000s.
If you must use data roaming while away, make sure you go down the cheapest route. Read our Cheap Data Roaming guide for more info.
More on slashing data roaming costs
Using the internet on your mobile overseas can cost massively. Switching off data roaming altogether is the best way to avoid massive bills. But if you really can't cope without it, here are a few tips:
Use free wi-fi.
Watch out for emails.
Checking emails shouldn't use up much data but beware of downloading attachments. Set your phone to manually retrieve emails so you decide what to download.
Check add-on bundles.
As with traditional roaming, most providers offer data add-on bundles. These can limit steep costs.
iPhone users beware
All iPhones have a function which allows you to switch off data roaming which should mean no charges when away. However, complaints have flooded in from MoneySavers saying they have taken the necessary steps to disable roaming, and have still been charged.
Here are things to do before you leave the UK. If this problem is not rectified or you've downloaded unauthorised software, you could still be charged. If you're wrongly charged, ask your provider for a refund.
Ensure software is up-to-date.
When you plug your phone into a PC with iTunes you will be alerted to any new software updates. Then follow the on-screen prompts.
Switch off data roaming BEFORE you leave the UK (and keep it off).
While it is on, some apps trigger data downloading even when you're not browsing the web. You may also be downloading emails inadvertently.
When you buy an iPhone, data roaming should be "off" by default. You can check by going to Settings > General > Network, and move the Data Roaming slider to "off".
Tell your provider you're going abroad and get a roaming add-on
Many providers have special add-ons to use when abroad, but unless you ring up and ask, you'll not get offered one. These add-ons slash the cost of calls, and provide the easiest option, with no fuss. But these are only really best for those making a few calls.
Some add-ons are free, others require a daily or monthly fee. But remember to cancel when you're back. See full details of providers' add-ons.
Voicemail can cost big
EU regulations mean if you're travelling either within the EEA or outside it, your provider can't charge you when someone leaves you a voicemail.
However you can be charged if you listen to a voicemail message. This will be the equivalent cost of making a call to the UK, capped at about 19p/min. Speak to your provider before you go to see how much it charges.
Outside Europe it's a whole different story. Some networks - notably EE and Virgin Mobile - will actually charge you if someone leaves you a voicemail, whether you listen to it or not. Furthermore the amount you'll be charged is not capped, and can cost up to £5/min in some cases.
If your network charges for this it's safest to disable voicemail diverts before going away. You should be able to do this by calling customer services.
Heavy callers should switch Sim cards
Using a special Sim card is the best way to slash call costs. You can either get a Sim which will work in a host of countries for less than you'd pay your provider, or pick up a local Sim for a specific country - by far the cheapest way to use your mobile abroad.
See below for the cheapest roaming Sim cards.
Call for free or very little using wi-fi
If you've got a smartphone and free internet access, download an "internet-to-phone" calling system like Skype* before you go. If the person you're calling also has Skype, you'll simply need to find a free wi-fi spot to call for free.
For other mobile apps to make free web calls or low-rate international calls with, see our Free Web Calls.
DON'T CALL USING YOUR MOBILE'S 3G CONNECTION.
Alternatively, Rebtel* allows anyone with web access to make cheap or even free calls via normal landlines or mobiles, meaning you can use a hotel room phone.
The cost of using your mobile abroad
If you're only likely to make a few calls, or are sticking within the Europe, the easiest way is to sign up for a "don't ask, don't get" discounted roaming add-on from your network. Many of the network providers offer add-ons which reduce the cost of roaming abroad.
Some of these are free, others require a monthly fee. This isn't necessarily the cheapest way to save when abroad (see switch Sim for the biggest savings), but can help costs considerably.
Free roaming in 16 countries
Three's Feel At Home*
Three's Feel At Home* feature allows those on contract (plus pay-as-you-go users who've bought an add-on package) to use their UK allowances in 16 countries at no extra charge.
Destinations include the US, Australia, Hong Kong and a whole host of European countries, plus others (see the full list here). Any calls, texts and data used will come from your UK allowance, although you'll be charged international rates for contacting foreign numbers.
Sim-only contract customers must be with Three for 30 days before they can use Feel at Home. However if you're not already a customer and are planning on travelling soon, there's a neat trick: you can pick up a pay-as-you-go Sim, buy an add-on with an allowance and then access free roaming abroad immediately.
Every year since 2007 the EU has lowered the maximum rate for using a mobile to call and text any European Economic Area (EEA) number while roaming within the borders of the zone, which covers all 28 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (The cap also applies to data). On 1 July this year a new cap again came into force, further reducing the cost of roaming in Europe.
Over the same period, the cost of calling and texting within the UK has risen. This means that bizarrely, for someone with a pay-as-you-go contract or out of their monthly contract allowance, it now often costs more to call or text when you're in the UK than when you're roaming in Europe. See our Mobile Roaming Report for full details.
The table below shows how much providers currently charge contract customers as standard. Use this as a benchmark to see how much you could save with a roaming add-on:
|Making calls||Receiving calls||Sending a text|
|EU max charge*||19p/min||5p/min||6p/text|
|0044 (prepaid Spanish Sim card)||from 3p/min||FREE||9p/text|
|*Incl VAT, rounded to the nearest pence; based on exchange rates published by the European Central Bank. Table correct as of 26 November 2014.|
Outside the EEA it's a different story altogether. Providers can charge what they like for calls, texts and data, and other than the monthly limit on data charges (£49 incl VAT), costs aren't capped.
Some providers charge as much as £3/min to make a call and £2.50/min to receive a call.
The table below shows the difference in charges when outside the EEA with the EE network. Costs vary between providers, but we've used EE as an example because it tends to be more expensive than other networks.
Roaming costs with EE when outside the EU (incl VAT)
|Making calls||Receiving calls||Sending a text|
|Table correct as of 26 November 2014. Prices found using EE's roaming page.|
Use your mobile abroad for less
Here's a round up of the best roaming add-ons for those travelling in Europe and those travelling further afield.
Remember, European countries outside the EEA - like Switzerland and Turkey - aren't covered by the same laws and so the price caps in the European roaming costs table above don't apply.
Pay £2/day for unlimited texts and calls
EE, Orange and T-Mobile customers can make unlimited calls and texts to European numbers while abroad in Europe for a flat rate of £2/day with Euro Talk and Text Unlimited*
Once you've opted in, the add-on will apply automatically when you start using your phone in one of the available countries, which can be found on the EE website*
How does it work?
- Opt in for the add-on and you'll get unlimited texts and calls for £2.
- If you're planning on sending just a couple of texts or a quick call consider paying EE's standard European rates as this may be cheaper.
- Mobile internet is not included. EE and T-Mobile customers need a separate add-on. Orange customers will pay the standard EU roaming rate of 19.8p/MB without an add-on. See EE's roaming page* for info on data bundles.
Pay £1.99/day for unlimited data
O2 customers can get unlimited mobile data for £1.99 with the O2 Travel* bolt-on but there are extra costs for calls and texts.
For making and receiving calls, you'll be charged 50p/call connection fee. You can then talk for up to 60 mins per call. Texts cost 5p each. Pay-as-you-go customers don't qualify for these calling rates, and they only get 50MB of data for the same price.
How does it work?
- Before travelling check you have O2 Travel* on your account by calling customer services. If you don't, text O2TRAVEL to 23336 (21300 for pay-as-you-go customers) to opt in.
- Once activated, you'll only be charged on the days you use your phone. There's no charge for receiving texts.
- A day is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, UK time
- Try and make all your calls on one day, and talk for as long as you can each time (so you don't rack up lots of 50p charges for 30 second calls).
- If you know you'll only make a few short calls, it may be better to pay the O2 standard European roaming rates. If you want to do this, text NOTRAVEL to 23336.
Pay £3/day and use your UK price plan
Customers of Vodafone can pay £3/day and use their minutes, texts and mobile internet with the same freedom as in the UK with EuroTraveller*.
You'll only be charged on the days you use your phone, and there's no charge for receiving calls or texts. Your allowance can be used to call any standard-rate number in Vodafone's Europe Zone - international rates apply for other numbers.
How does it work?
- To opt in call 5555 free from your Vodafone mobile or text ADD to 40506.
- A day is from is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, local time.
- You'll be charged £3/day every time you use your phone, so it's a good idea to do all your calls/texts/web surfing on one day, or limit it to just a few days of your trip so you're not charged every day.
£7.66 travel allowance for customers on older contracts
T-Mobile customers who joined or moved to a new contract before February 2012 get to choose one free "Booster" as part of their plan. They can also access older Boosters no longer available, such as the Euro Talk & Text Booster* which gives a travel allowance of £7.66 to use when travelling in Europe.
Unlike some other networks' bundles, this one does not include data. See the Cheap Data Roaming guide for T-Mobile data bundles.
How does it work?
- You can choose how you want to use the allowance but it could be spent on 20 minutes of call time, receiving up to 65 minutes of calls or sending up to 74 texts.
- For shorter trips or when you think you'll be using your mobile more, the unlimited calls and texts bundle for £2/day detailed above is a better option, which incidentally is also the only available travel bundle for newer T-Mobile customers.
While roaming prices within Europe have tumbled, using your phone in the rest of the world is still pricey, as there is no cap on what the network providers can charge. However, you can cut the price of roaming using your usual network by adding a subscription package.
For internet-only bundles on the various networks, take a look at the Cheap Data Roaming guide. For calls and texts or combined bundles, here are the top picks:
Pay £5/day and use your UK price plan worldwide
Customers of Vodafone can pay £5/day and use their minutes, texts and mobile internet with the same freedom as in the UK in countries outside Europe with WorldTraveller*.
As part of the add-on, UK Vodafone customers can use their allowance of minutes, texts and data, in countries including Australia and New Zealand, without paying roaming rates.
How does it work?
- Text ADD to 40508 from your mobile to opt in. See Vodafone* for more details.
- You'll be charged £5/day every time you use your phone, it's a good idea to do all your calls/texts/web surfing on one day, or limit it to just a few days of your trip, so you're not charged every day.
Worldwide roaming call and text bundles from £6/month
EE customers can buy varying packages of minutes and texts to make or receive calls anywhere in the world to or from the UK.
The cheapest text bundle starts at £6/month for 100 texts, or you can opt for 30 minutes for the same price. There are also more expensive bundles available, which can be found on the EE website*.
How does it work?
- The add-ons run on a monthly rolling contract, but if you activate it part way through your billing cycle you'll receive an adjusted add-on charge and allowance until your next cycle begins.
- Mobile internet isn't included and you can't pay for data by the minute with EE. See the Cheap Data Roaming guide for info on EE data bundles.
Pay £5/month to cut calls costs by 30% in certain countries
Orange customers can pay £5.10/mth and cut the cost of worldwide calls, depending on the country they are visiting, by 30% with Orange World Traveller*.
For example, get the World Traveller* add-on when you're in Australia and it costs £5.10/mth. The standard charge to make or receive a call in Australia is £1.20/min, but with World Traveller you'll pay 84p/min.
As the packages cost from £5/mth, you'll have to make or receive at least 15 mins of calls per month to justify paying for the package. Any less than this and you'll be better off paying the standard rate.
How does it work?
- This bundle is reoccurring, meaning it rolls on every month until you remove it.
- World Traveller isn't available in every country so check before you go. See Orange* for more information and call costs.
- Unlike some other networks' bundles, this one doesn't include data. See the Cheap Data Roaming guide for data bundles.
REMEMBER! Call up and cancel your package when you get home
Many of the fee-paying packages bill you on a recurring basis, so if you sign up, you'll continue to be charged until you cancel. If you're only going away for a short time, simply cancel once you get home.
Switch your Sim to slash call costs
You can get much cheaper calls and receive them for free by switching Sim card. As you usually need to pay a hefty upfront cost though, it's only suitable for those who make a lot of calls. Check your provider's own options first.
Which type of Sim to buy?
There are two main options:
Buy a local Sim card (the cheaper route)
This is a specific Sim card for the country you are going to, which gives you a new UK number to give out to friends and family, so they can call you while you're away, without it costing them.
Generally, this is the cheapest route for making calls overseas, however, if you travel frequently, to a few different countries, it means buying a few Sims and giving out lots of different numbers. See Cheap Local Sims for full info.
In some places, especially the US, it may make more sense to grab a super-basic PAYG handset which comes pre-loaded with minutes. Some of these handsets are very cheap and there's no added cost to unlock them.
Get an international roaming Sim card (the easier route)
Here you use a specialist multi-country Sim card. While not as cheap as a local card, you only need to buy it once, and keep the same UK number wherever you are, making it more convenient (see Cheap International Sims).
Switching your Sim
To use another network's Sim, your mobile must be unlocked. This can be done for free on many handsets (read the Unlock Your Mobile Phone article). To switch Sim, take out the existing card and insert the new one.
You will have a new phone number, so either ensure everyone knows it before you leave, or give it to them when they call and quickly switch Sim. One way to make this easier is to put the special Sim in an old mobile and take it with you along with your normal phone.
The cheapest option is to buy a Sim card when you arrive at your destination. But for ease, you can get a local Sim in advance for between £15-£30 (and most come with preloaded call credit).
This means you know the number and have it all set up before you go. Ensure you pick the right network though, as prices vary. There's a useful list of overseas networks on PrepaidGSM.
Pre-paid Sims for use in 20 different countries
One of the cheapest deals on the market, 0044* offers local Sims for 20 different countries, including the US and Australia
The initial outlay can be quite steep (up to £35 depending on the country you need the Sim for, but this comes with some free credit). Of the providers included here, it offers one of the best rates for many European countries and Australia.
How big is the saving? Make five 10-minute calls back to the UK while in the US using a Vodafone Sim card (without any roaming bundles) and it'll cost £67.50. Make the same calls using a 0044 USA Sim card and it's just £6, excluding the upfront cost for the Sim (£20, with £6 credit included).
Anything else? There is also a global Sim option for those travelling to more than one country. You must make at least one call or send one text every six months. If you do not, your remaining credit will be lost. 0044 only works in unlocked handsets. Micro and nano Sims are also available.
US travel Sim for £24.99 including unltd local calls/texts, 100 intl texts and 500MB data
If you're travelling to the US, UK2Abroad* offers a local Sim which is the cheapest we've seen.
The USA Calls & Data Value Sim costs £24.99, but this gives you unlimited local calls and texts, 100 international texts, and 500MB of data to use over 30 days.
To make calls to the UK you'll need to buy additional credit in sterling on top.
How big is the saving? Make five 10-minute calls back to the UK while in the US using a Vodafone Sim card, and it'll cost £67.50. Make the same calls using this UK2Abroad Sim card and it's just £5 if calling a landline and £9 to a mobile, excluding the upfront cost of the Sim.
Anything else? There is also a global Sim option for those travelling to more than one country. UK2Abroad only works in unlocked handsets. Micro and nano Sims are also available, just contact the company by reply email when you receive your automated order confirmation.
Further ways to cut costs
Rebtel* allows you to make roaming calls for the price of a local call. It does this by routing calls from mobiles through local landlines. This is useful for those with local Sims, as calling abroad can still be costly, but local calls can be dirt cheap. Full info in the Free Web Calls guide.
A global Sim allows you to have the same number every time you go away. They usually cost around £15 - £30 to buy. The cost of calls, texts and data is different depending on the country you're in, so always double check the price first.
We looked at the price in five countries (Spain, Australia, USA, Italy and Brazil) to calculate average costs when comparing the following top picks.
Global Sim for £19.99 and £10 call credit
The Sim from Truphone* (previously Sim4travel) costs £19.99 and gives £10 call credit.
How big is the saving? Make three 10-minute calls back to the UK while travelling in China using a Three Sim card, and it'll cost £60. Make the same calls using a Tru global Sim card and it's just £21.
It's one of the cheapest Sims around. The average price for contacting five countries was 22p/min for calls (8p/min when we excluded Brazil) and £1.27/MB for data (8p/min excluding Brazil).
Anything else? If you don't use the Sim for a period of 90 days or more you'll have add more credit in order to reactivate it. This is a big disadvantage, but can be avoided by calling the automated top-up line from your Tru handset for free on 404 every month.
'Free' global Sim when you buy £25 credit
The TravelTalk Sim* from Auracall is 'free' when you buy £25 of credit. Delivery is £3.99. It can be used in over 170 countries to get cut-price calling rates, although data is expensive. It's also free to receive calls in 90+ countries, including Australia, Netherlands, Venezuela and Djibouti.
You can also use your TravelTalk credit to make international calls from landlines in a number of countries at a much lower rate. See the TravelTalk website* for details.
How big is the saving? Make three 10-minute calls back to the UK while travelling in Chile using a Three Sim card, and it'll cost £60. Make the same calls using a TravelTalk global Sim card and it's just £4.80.
It's a good Sim for calls but data costs are expensive. Across the five countries we checked it cost an average of 22p/min for calls and a pricey £6/MB for data.
Anything else? The TravelTalk Sim will only work in unlocked handsets. The credit and Sim does not expire. You'll get a UK number, so anyone calling you from the UK will be charged the same rate to call you as if you were still in the UK.
£15 global Sim with $10 credit
GoSim* has one of the cheapest international Sims on the market. It offers 3G data coverage in 90 different countries and phone coverage in 195 countries, including the USA and Australia.
It costs £15 for the International Sim but this includes $10 (£6) in airtime credit. GoSim has competitive rates for using data, starting from $0.35/MB (22p/MB), but it charges different rates for different countries so check first.
How big is the saving? Make three 10-minute calls back to the UK while in the US using a Vodafone Sim card (without any roaming bundles), and it'll cost £40.50. Make the same calls using a GoSim International Sim and it's $13.50 (around £8.50), excluding the upfront cost of the Sim.
GoSim's rates are slightly higher than our other two picks for calls but it's the cheapest for data. Across the five countries we checked it cost an average of 31p/min for calls and 36p/MB for data.Anything else? GoSim also offer three other types of international Sim:
- The Europe Sim*, although we wouldn't recommend this one as the rates for making calls and using data are on par with what your operator will charge in Europe, but sending texts and receiving calls are more expensive.
- The Data Sim* card for £38 which comes with 200MB 'free' data plus a wi-fi hotspot device for an additional fee.
- The USA 4G Sim* for £15 which includes 50MB of 'free' data and charges from $0.09/min (5p/min) for local calls.