Taking your mobile abroad can turn it into a cash assassin in some places, costing as much as £1.25/min to receive a call. The easiest solution is not to take your phone with you, but sometimes this just isn't possible, so be prepared to pay.
This is a full guide to getting the cheapest mobile roaming (the term for overseas use) rates, either by accessing your network's hidden deals or using specialist international Sim cards.
In this guide
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 though, you could be on the White Cliffs of Dover and connect to an overseas network without realising. Calling from your mobile while in the EU can cost up to £2.40 for a 10-minute call, or £30 for a 10-minute call outside the EU. So it's imperative you use a cheaper way to call when possible.
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.
Receiving a text is free
Even in the EU where costs are capped, it's still around 7p/min to receive calls. However it's free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. As it can cost as much as 50p/text to reply outside the EU, 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. Or get your family to call your room phone - they can use MSE's International CallChecker to find the cheapest way.
Using mobile internet costs a fortune
"Data roaming", using the web overseas, can cost large, so switch it off before you go. 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 soon rack up a bill costing £100s.
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 - up to £6/MB. New EU legislation means that once your roaming usage reaches the EU cap (which is about £51 incl VAT), your service will be cut off.
Accessing the net using your mobile is now a lot cheaper than it used to be though, and capped at 46p/MB.
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. Use sites like Free Hotspot, Hotspot Locations and Jiwire to locate free wi-fi hot spots.
- 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.
Turn off data roaming
If you're not careful, using the web abroad could rack up a bill of £100s or even £1,000s. Though the cost per MB is capped in the EU at €0.45/MB (about 46p/MB incl VAT), outside of the EU providers are free to charge what they like, with some charging as much as £6/MB.
Three Mobile, for example, charges £6/MB for data roaming in Canada, the Bahamas, Cape Verde etc. As a general rule, 1MB lets you look at about 10 "made for mobile" web pages.
The most sensible plan is to turn your phone off all together. But if you can't, there are ways to slash costs. Full info in Cheap Data Roaming.
Switch voicemail off
EU regulations mean if you're travelling either within the EU 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 24p/min. Speak to your provider before you go to see how much it charges.
Outside the EU and it's a whole different story. The amount you'll be charged to make a call is not capped, and can cost up to £3/min. So listening to a voicemail message of a couple of minutes could cost BIG.
Heavy callers should switch Sim cards
Using a special Sim card is the best way to slash call costs. You can either get one 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.
Get friends and family to call your hotel room
If there's a phone in your hotel room, ask people to call you. By using a specialist cheap calls provider they can call for as little as 1p/min, without setting up an account.
Remember, this method can't be used for calling your mobile cheaply. When you take a mobile abroad, it still counts as a UK mobile when someone calls it. While they'll pay the standard UK rate for the call, you'll also have to pay to receive the call.
Call for free 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.
DON'T CALL USING YOUR MOBILE'S 3G CONNECTION.
Alternatively, Jajah* 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.
If you're only likely to make a few calls, or are sticking within the EU, 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.
Update. Three Mobile scraps roaming bills in seven countries. Three has just launched a new plan called Feel At Home, which lets customers use their UK allowances while abroad in seven select countries. Full info in the MSE News story: Roam for free with Three.
How much will it cost to use my phone in the EU?
The table below shows how much providers charge as standard, when roaming in the EU. Use this as a benchmark to see how much you could save with a roaming add-on:
How much will it cost to use my phone outside of the EU?
Outside the EU and it's a different story all together. Providers can charge what they like for calls, texts and data, and costs aren't capped.
Some providers charge as much as £3/min to make a call and £1.25/min to receive a call.
The table below shows the difference in charges when outside the EU with the Three network. Costs vary between providers, but we've used Three as it tends to be more expensive than other networks:
|Roaming costs with Three when outside the EU (incl VAT)|
Sending a text
|Table correct as of 31 July 2013. Prices found using the Three International Charges calculator.|
Here's a round up of the best roaming add-ons for those travelling in Europe and those travelling further afield.
Network add-ons for calls & data within the EU
Remember, European countries outside the EU - like Switzerland and Turkey - aren't covered by the EU law. And Croatia has only recently joined the EU (full info in the Mobile Roaming MSE News story).
Orange Europe travellerAll contract customers, £5/month
For £5.10/month, you get 200 mins at the reduced price of 18.3p/min (instead of 24.5p/min), plus 200 mins of received calls for free. See Orange* for full info.
Unlike other networks' bundles, this one does not include data. See the Cheap Data Roaming guide for Orange data bundles.
Doesn't include: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (North), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
O2 TravelAll contract customers, £1.99/day
The O2 Travel bolt-on costs £1.99/day (midnight to 11.59pm, UK time). This gives you 15MB mobile data.
It will automatically apply when you use your phone abroad, but you'll only be charged on the days you use your phone. There's no charge for receiving texts. For calls, making and receiving, you'll be charged 50p/call connection fee. It's then free to talk for up to 60 mins per call.
With this in mind, it's a good idea to try and ensure you 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 use a small amount of data while you're away (to quickly check the weather forecast or football scores), or will only make a few short calls home, then you may be better off paying the O2 standard European rates. If you want to do this, text NOTRAVEL to 23336.
Once opted out of O2 Travel, you will have to call customer services to opt back in.
Doesn't include: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
Vodafone EuroTravellerAll contract customers, £3/day to use your UK price plan
Vodafone's EuroTraveller* deal costs £3/day (midnight to 11.59pm, local time) and lets you use your minutes, texts and mobile internet with the same freedom as in the UK.
You'll only be charged on the days you use your phone, and there's no charge for receiving calls or texts.
As you'll be charged £3/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.
Doesn't include: Belarus, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
T-Mobile Euro 5 Talk & Text BoosterAll contract customers, £5/month
For £5.10/month, you get a travel allowance of £7.66 (ie, 50% extra free) to use in the EU. You can choose how you want to use it, but it could be used to make up to 31 minutes of calls, or receive up to 107 minutes of calls or send up to 94 texts.
Doesn't include: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (North), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
Network add-ons for calls & data outside the EU
While roaming prices within the EU have tumbled, the rest of the world is still pricey, as there is no cap pn what the network providers can charge. However, you can cut the price of roaming using your usual network by adding a subscription package. Here are the top picks:
Vodafone PassportFREE for pay-as-you-go customers only
If you're travelling outside the EU, some countries are eligible for Vodafone Passport, including New Zealand and Australia.
It's free and calls cost a 75p connection charge plus your standard home rate - so if you have inclusive minutes it's just 75p per call. There's a 75p connection charge for receiving calls, then it's free for the first 60 minutes, 20p/min thereafter.
The plan does not offer discounted data rates. Just call 5555 from your mobile to opt in. See Vodafone* for more details.
Orange World TravellerContract users, £5/month
This reduces the cost of calls by up to 30%, depending on the country you are visiting.
For example, get the World Traveller add-on when you're travelling in Australia and it costs £5.10/mth to get a 30% reduction on your calls. The standard charge for a call in Australia is 85p/min, but with World Traveller you'll pay 60p/min.
As the package costs £5.10/mth, you'll have to make at least 21 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.
T-Mobile World ClassAll contract customers, free
For T-Mobile customers who frequently travel outside the EU, the World Class tariff lets you make calls for 55p/min in 18 countries, including Turkey, Pakistan and South Africa.
This could mean savings of up to 95p/min. For example, calls to the UK while in Turkey would usually cost £1.50/min, but are just 55p/min with the World Class add-on.
Adding it to your account is free for all pay monthly customers (except those with a U-Fix plan). The plan does not offer discounted data rates. See T-Mobile* for more info.
REMEMBER! Call up and cancel your package when you get home
Most of the fee-paying packages bill you by the month, so if you sign up, you'll continue to be charged until you cancel. If you're only going away for a week, simply cancel once you get home.
You can get much cheaper calls and receive them for free by switching Sim card. Though as you usually need to pay a hefty upfront cost, 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 to out to friends and family, so they can call you while you're away, without it costing them.
Generally, this 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.
One of the cheapest deals on the market, 0044* offers local Sims for 20 different countries, including the USA 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 the best rates for most European countries, the US and Australia, so you'll spend less overall.
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 £4.60.
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.
If you're travelling to the US, it's not easy for non-residents to get local Sims (though you sometimes can via eBay), but UK2Abroad* offers a special US local Sim.
It's £24.99, but this gives you $25 credit (about £16).
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 a UK2Abroad Sim card and it's just £5.
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 International Calls guide.
A global Sim offers allows you to have the same number every time you go away. They usually cost around £15 - £40 to buy. All have similar call costs but varying credit, so it's worth checking the costs for countries you visit regularly. Some top picks include:
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. It's also free to receive calls in 50+ countries, including Australia, Netherlands, Poland and Greece.
How big is the saving? Make three 10-minute calls back to the UK while travelling in South America (in Chile, Peru and Argentina) using a Three Sim card, and it'll cost £60. Make the same calls using a TravelTalk global Sim card and it's just £14.50.
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.
The slightly more expensive Tru (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 South America (in Chile, Peru and Argentina) using a Three Sim card, and it'll cost £60. Make the same calls using a Tru global Sim card and it's just £35.70.
Anthing else? Every 90 days of inactivity costs £2 which is a big disadvantage, but you can avoid this by calling the automated top-up line from your Tru handset for free on 404 every month.
Ensure people call you cheaply
When people call you, even though you're abroad, they will effectively be calling a UK mobile number. Done correctly, these calls should only cost pennies, providing your friends/family call via one of the instant access cheap dial providers (see the International CallChecker for the daily-updated cheapest way to call any country).