If you're not careful, you can rack up a bill of £100s or even £1,000s using your mobile abroad. Receiving a call can cost as much as £2.50/min, while in some places you'll pay £8/MB to surf the web – yet there are simple ways to slash the cost.
In many countries, there's an easy trick to get free roaming simply by swapping your Sim. Elsewhere, it may be best to keep your phone turned off or stick to free Wi-Fi – but if that's not an option, we'll show you how to use your phone as cheaply as possible.
The European Union is set to ban roaming fees within the region from June 2017, yet when we leave the EU (which won't be for two years at least), we'll be outside of this. It is unclear what will happen then, but we'll update this guide as soon as we know more.
Use your mobile abroad and you'll be "roaming". That's 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. A 10-minute call from your mobile could cost up to £1.60 when travelling in Europe (though EU roaming charges will be scrapped entirely in 2017), or a whopping £25 outside Europe, while data costs are even more inflated.
The cheapest way of using your phone abroad depends on which network you're with and where you're going – options include a trick to get free roaming in 42 countries, roaming add-ons for use within and outside Europe, and for frequent travellers, specialist local and global Sims. First, though, check these quick tips to keep your post-holiday bill to a minimum:
There are two ways to access the internet via your mobile while abroad. You can use your mobile's 3G or 4G signal, in which case you'll pay your mobile provider (a lot) for data usage. Or you can connect via Wi-Fi, wirelessly hitching up to a local broadband connection.
If you can, it's best to switch off data roaming and rely on Wi-Fi when you need it. It's usually faster and much cheaper – in fact, you can often find free Wi-Fi hotspots in bars, hotels and cafes. Remember also that much of your phone's functionality doesn't rely on an internet connection at all – eg, if you want to use it for music, games, photos etc.
Wi-Fi doesn't just offer a cheap way of browsing the web – you can use it for calls too. 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.
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. For other apps and more tips, see our Free Web Calls guide.
How to turn data roaming off on your phone
- iPhone. Go into Settings > Mobile data, then tap the data roaming slider to 'off'.
- Samsung. Go into Settings > More Networks > Mobile Networks, then untick the data roaming button.
- Blackberry. Go into Manage Connections > Mobile Network Options, then change Data Services While Roaming to 'off'.
- Windows phone. Go into Settings > Mobile Network > Data Roaming Options, then select 'do not roam'.
Turn off automatic app updates
Many apps and programs, as well as phones' own operating systems, routinely check for available updates and download them automatically – potentially using massive amounts of data. So be sure to turn these off.
Here's how for iPhones and Android handsets:
iPhone. Go to Settings > iTunes & App Store > Slide Updates To Off. This will stop your handset from scanning for emails and app updates every few minutes. More info on CNET's website.
Android. Go to Settings > Data usage and click the icon on the top right or bottom left of the screen, then tick "Restrict Background Data" in the dropdown. This will prevent your phone from syncing and updating. You should also check the settings for each app, as there's usually the option to turn off auto updates.
Don't download attachments and manually retrieve emails
Downloading attachments will eat into data costs, so don't do it.
Even better, if you currently manage your emails with a program like Outlook or Thunderbird (and you get a lot of unnecessary ones), you may save data by signing up to a web-based service like MSN Live Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail or Gmail.
It's possible to redirect your emails there and view them without downloading, so if a friend decides to send you party pictures when you're away in Spain, you can choose not to download them till you get back (see Martin's blog). Also, select your emails to be "manually retrieved", rather than "pushed" through. This will limit your data use.
Roaming rates are only capped in the EU – watch out for charges of up to £2.50/min further afield
If you're travelling in the European Economic Area (all 28 EU member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – but not Switzerland), the good news is that roaming there is relatively cheap compared with the rest of the world, thanks to EU regulations. The most recent rules came into effect on 30 April 2016.
When you're roaming in this region, what you pay – whether you're a pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go customer – is exactly what you'd pay in the UK, plus a surcharge, up to a certain amount. This means if you have a monthly allowance, as long as you're still within it, you'll only pay the surcharge.
More details on what you'll pay in the EU
There are two parts to what you'll pay:
The surcharge. On top of the cost of your UK allowance, you'll also pay a surcharge of €0.05/min (4.7p incl VAT) for outgoing calls to any EU number, €0.01/min (1p incl VAT) for any incoming calls, €0.02/text (1.8p incl VAT) to any EU number, and €0.05/MB (4.7p incl VAT) for data.
The total cap. The total amount you'll pay, including what you pay domestically, is capped at €0.19/min (17.8p incl VAT) for outgoing calls, €0.05/min (4.7p incl VAT) for incoming, €0.06 (5.6p incl VAT) for texts and €0.20/MB (16.9p incl VAT) for data.
Because the cap applies to the total cost of using your mobile, not just the surcharge, in practice you're only likely to hit the cap if you're on pay-as-you-go or if you've used up your UK allowance (as charges for these are generally more costly within the UK).
Remember, these regulations only apply to calls/texts to EU numbers – you'll pay standard roaming rates if it's a non-EU number.
Yet outside Europe costs can skyrocket to £2.50/min (eg, in Cuba on EE) or an eye-watering £8/MB (eg, in the US on Orange). Given a 30-minute TV programme can be 500MB, that could add up to an astronomical £4,000.
Furthermore, it was announced in the 2017 Budget that the Government plans to introduce UK VAT on roaming services used outside of the EU (it's already applied within it) – further adding to the cost.
See what the major providers charge within and beyond the EU
The table below shows how much the four big networks currently charge contract customers for using their monthly allowance when roaming in Europe.
Network charges for roaming in Europe on contract (incl VAT)
|Making calls||Receiving calls||Sending a text||Using data|
|EU surcharge (1)||4.7p/min||1p/min||1.8p/text||4.7p/MB|
|Table correct as of 15 August 2016. (1) The exchange rate used is that published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 2 May 2016. (2) EE customers can't use the internet on their phone abroad unless they buy a data add-on or 'travel booster'. (3) Charges don't apply in Feel At Home countries. (4) Vodafone customers on 'Red' and 'Red Value plans' who joined after 5 May 2016 pay no charge in 40 European countries.|
To give you an idea of just how much higher costs can be outside the EU, here are O2's charges (though they're high on all networks):
Roaming costs with O2 outside the EU (no VAT due outside EU)
|Making calls||Receiving calls||Sending a text||Using data|
|Table correct as of 15 August 2016. Prices from O2's roaming page.|
You'll pay to receive calls, but not texts – so get friends back home to message you instead
If you use a UK number while abroad (including a local or global Sim with a UK number), it won't cost friends and family at home any more to call you. They'll be charged the standard domestic rate. However, you will pay to receive calls when you're roaming abroad, and although this is capped within Europe, 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've Wi-Fi or data access, get them to call you via Skype or some other VoIP service, avoiding these costly rates.
However it's free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. Then, as it can cost as much as £1/text to reply outside Europe, condense your reply (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.
Beware voicemail – outside the EU you can be charged £2.50/min just to receive them and another £1.50/min to listen
EU regulations mean your provider can't charge you when someone leaves you a voicemail if you're travelling within Europe. However you can be charged if you listen to a voicemail message – within Europe, it'll be capped at the usual call rate but speak to your provider before you go to see how much it'd be.
Outside Europe it can be much more expensive. Outrageously some networks – notably EE and Virgin Mobile – will actually charge you if someone leaves you a voicemail, whether you actually listen to it or not. Furthermore the amount you'll be charged is not capped so you could find yourself in a spot of bother if anyone decides to leave you a message.
If your network charges for this it's safest to disable voicemail for the duration of your trip. You should be able to do this by calling customer services. See our new Beat the Voicemail Roaming Trap guide for more information.
Beware watching TV, films or downloading music
This one's simple – never, ever use your network's 3G signal to download or stream films, TV or music when you're abroad. Doing so can use up huge chunks of data, potentially leaving you with a bill of £100s or even £1,000s when you return.
If you do have a Wi-Fi connection, though, it's a different story – though if you're paying for it still beware of how much data you're downloading as charges can add up fast.
While roaming rates are only capped within Europe, thanks to EU regulations even if you're roaming OUTSIDE Europe, providers now have to cut you off when you've used €50 (around £47 including VAT) of data in a month (see the Data charges slashed MSE News story).
You should only get charged more than this if you've explicity agreed that you're happy to go over the limit. This can be a useful backstop given it's often unexpected data charges that result in massive post-holiday roaming bills – but there's a catch:
If you sign up for a network's roaming add-on, you may also be opted out of the EU €50 cut-off limit.
So read the T&C carefully before taking one of these bundles and keep a close eye on your data usage, otherwise you could arrive home to a big bill.
If you've got an older model of the 3G Kindle Keyboard, don't forget to pack it before you go, as it offers free mobile internet access across most of Europe and other countries around the world (see coverage maps).
The idea is that while overseas you can download books or newspapers at no additional cost, even without a Wi-Fi connection.
In the "experimental" option in the menu, however, there's also a web browser. It's black and white, and pretty basic. You can't watch videos or high-end graphical content, but for scanning info sites it's functional. It's also good for checking web-based email accounts like Gmail.
Get special apps to compress the amount of data you use
The currently free app Onavo says it compresses data downloads for other apps like Facebook, so you can do more with your download limit. It works in 90 countries around the world, which will help minimise expensive roaming rates.
Onavo says it could reduce data usage by 80% and is totally secure as it doesn't store your data. It can't compress downloads for apps that stream content like the BBC iPlayer or YouTube, or VoIP apps like Skype. It's available for iPhones and Android. Onavo says it will start charging a subscription but it's free for now.
All iPhones have a function which allows you to switch off data roaming, which should mean no data 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, so here's what you need to do:
Ensure software is up-to-date. Plug your phone into iTunes and follow the on-screen prompts to download any software updates before you go.
Check data roaming is off. 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 > Mobile, and move the Data Roaming slider to "off".
Google Maps, available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, now allows you to store maps for offline use. Since data isn't required for the GPS function on a smartphone, this means you can navigate around the place you're visiting without paying roaming charges.
When you're connected to Wi-Fi, open the app and search the area you want to save. Once it's on-screen click on the bar that has the place name you search for and then select the menu button in the top right hand corner. To save it select Save Offline Map. For more information see Google help.
Many travel apps work this way and some, such as Time Out's app, include reviews.
Losing your phone or having it stolen is enough to ruin anyone's holiday. You obviously hope it'll never happen – but there are practical steps you can take now to limit the damage to your wallet if it does.
Consider insurance. You should always take out travel insurance if you're going abroad, but many policies don't cover gadgets, or if they do, the cover is often very limited. The alternative is dedicated mobile phone insurance that covers loss/theft – our current top pick for most phones, Insurance2go, includes cover abroad for up to 90 days a year. Always think about whether you really need mobile phone insurance before shelling out for cover.
Lock your handset. Many people instinctively lock their phone – this is especially important to do if you're abroad, where you may be more vulnerable to theft and (thanks to roaming charges) the consequences of the loss may be more catastrophic. Here are screen locking instructions for iOS (the Find My iPhone feature is also useful), Android and Windows Phone.
Lock your Sim. Even if your handset is locked, it's still possible for those with light fingers to remove the Sim and use it in another phone, potentially racking up huge bills on your contract. To prevent this you can lock your Sim with a PIN which will be required whenever it's put into a new device. Follow these steps if you've an iPhone, Android phone or Windows Phone. Also see the MSE News story Mugging victims chased for £1,000s.
If your phone does end up getting stolen, make sure you report it to the police and let your network know as soon as possible. This is important for preventing unauthorised use of your service, and may also be critical for insurance claims (most insurers only give a 12-hour window to report an incident after it occurring).
When it comes to making roaming affordable, Three is leading the charge. Its Feel At Home* feature allows those on 'Advanced' (but not 'Essential') pay monthly plans and pay-as-you-go users to access their allowance of minutes, texts and data abroad in a wide range of countries, exactly as they would in the UK – and if you're not already a Three customer, there's a trick to get this for free.
Having been extended in early September, this now works in 42 countries and territories, including the US, France and Spain. Recent additions also include Greece, Germany and Portugal. See the full list of countries covered.
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey), Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (incl Lanzarote), Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland and the US.
All roaming fees in Europe are being scrapped from next June anyway, but this is great news for those going away before then or to a destination outside the EU which won't be covered by the ban. Here's how it works:
- Any calls or texts to UK numbers and any data used comes from your allowance (though you're charged international rates for dialling non-UK numbers, eg, if you call the restaurant down the street from your hotel). Receiving calls and texts is also free.
- If you have international roaming activated on your account, Feel At Home should work automatically when you arrive in one of the countries covered. You'll get a text confirming there's no extra cost for calls and texts to the UK, and another with international rates.
- You can only use 3G data abroad, even if you get 'superfast' 4G in the UK. Three says there's no need to turn 4G off to get online in a Feel At Home country though, your handset will just connect to 3G only.
- 'All-you-can-eat' customers can use up to 12GB, 3,000 mins and 5,000 texts abroad – so your allowance isn't technically unlimited, though in practice it should be plenty.
Any other restrictions?
Three's terms and conditions say you can't use your phone for tethering (sharing your data connection with other devices). However, we have had people say it does work – we asked Three about this but it refused to be drawn on the consequences, only referring us to the out-of-allowance call charges if tethering takes you over the 12GB allowed if you have all-you-can-eat data.
Three also says it reserves the right to cut off the service if you use your allowance abroad for a total of more than two months within a 12-month period, or for more than one month continuously.
Not on Three? Get a free pay-as-you-go Sim
Even if you're not a Three customer, you can grab its Feel At Home offer. Just order one of its free pay-as-you-go Sims to pop into your handset while you're away. Here's how:
Step 1: Order a free PAYG Sim from the Three* website – it'll work in any unlocked 3G or 4G phone, and using it in the UK costs 3p per minute for calls, 2p per text and 1p per MB. You can also buy one in store – it normally costs £1, but the fee's waived if you top up at the same time. You will need to top up with a minimum of £10.
Step 2: To use Feel At Home, you'll then need to use your credit to buy a Three add-on bundle of calls, texts and data. They cost from £5 to £25 – as an example, £20 will get you 300 minutes, 3,000 texts and 12GB of data. To do this, log in to your 'My 3' account, or call 333 using your new Sim.
Step 3: Your Sim should already be activated for international roaming, so Feel At Home will work automatically when you arrive in any of the countries covered. You'll be able to use the allowance in your add-on in the same way as in the UK.
To do this you might have to unlock your phone though – as some networks can take up to 10 days to do this, make sure you leave plenty of time.
Is it free to unlock my phone?
Some networks will unlock your smartphone for free, though often a certain proportion of the contract length must have elapsed before they will do this. Other networks charge a flat fee, so check the policy of yours.
If your network does charge, this is a good benchmark price to begin with (they usually cost between £9 and £20). Then you can compare prices on the high street.
A few older handsets, such as Nokias and LGs, can be unlocked for free by finding a code online. Giffgaff's Unlockapedia* has lots; you'll need your brand, model number, network and IMEI number (type *#06# into your handset to get it) to see if the webpage has yours.
For more information, see our Mobile Unlocking guide.
Will I have a new number?
Yes, your new Sim will have a different number, so you will need to let people know your new digits for while you're on your holiday if they'll be texting or calling you.
However, most instant messaging services, such as Whatsapp, will ask you when you put a new Sim in whether you want to change the contact number associated with your account. If you choose not to, people will be able to chat with you as normal without changing your contact info.
If you're worried about missing calls and texts you could always pop your normal Sim into a spare handset, and take it with you to receive messages and reply using your Three Sim. You could also leave the spare handset at home and use autoforwarding of calls (or download Android and iPhone apps that do it for you).
Is it worth switching to Three for free roaming?
Three's Advanced tariffs (which allow free roaming) aren't bad, though there are cheaper.
For example, Three's* 600 mins, unlimited texts and 4GB of 4G data 12-month Sim is £16/mth. That's a fair chunk more than its £9/month Essential* plan (which excludes free roaming and tethering) with unlimited mins and texts and 4GB (4G) on a 12-month contract.
Whether it's worth switching for the roaming depends very much on your circumstances though. If you travel often and are free to switch it's worth considering (but do a full comparison) – if not, you might be better getting a pay-as-you-go Sim as above. Bear in mind too that all providers must remove roaming fees in Europe from June anyway.
Add-ons to cut costs within Europe
June 2017 will see an end to roaming charges in Europe, but until then, costs are capped (see above). But that can still add up to a hefty bill, especially if you're used to unlimited allowances in the UK.
First check whether you're going to a Three Feel At Home country within Europe – Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Spain and Sweden are covered currently, and from September another 24 are being added to the list. If so, you may be best off getting a Three Sim if you don't already have one.
If you're going elsewhere in Europe this summer, it may be worth picking up a free Tesco Mobile Sim.
Pay £2/day for unltd texts and calls & from £1/day for 50MB/day
EE customers can choose from three bundles covering calls, texts and/or data for while they are travelling in Europe.
Euro Talk and Text Unlimited* gives you unlimited calls and texts to European numbers while abroad in Europe for a flat rate of £2/day. Once you've opted in, the add-on applies automatically once you start using your phone in one of the available countries*.
Euro Pass* is available to EE customers only. It lets you pay £4/day for unlimited calls and texts, plus 500MB of data per day (data speeds will be slowed down after the first 100MB). Once you've opted in, the add-on applies automatically once you start using your phone.
The £1 Euro Data Pass* is for those who only need a small amount of data (or are on an EE Extra plan and get minutes/texts included in Europe anyway) – it costs £1/day and gives 50MB daily allowance in the EU. Alternatively, there's a £3/day Euro Data Pass* that gives 500MB. This bundles are for pay monthly customers only, and apply in the same way as the Euro Pass.
How do I use it?
- For the Text & Talk package and the Euro Pass, you'll only be charged for the days you make or receive calls or send a text. If you're planning on sending just a couple of texts or a quick call consider paying standard European rates as this may be cheaper.
- The following countries aren't included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (North), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
- You can't use internet abroad without a bundle, so when it runs out you either have the option to buy another or stop using data altogether.
Pay £1.99/day for unltd data, 120 mins & 120 texts
O2 pay-monthly customers roaming in Europe can pay £1.99 a day for O2 Travel* and get unlimited data, 120 minutes to make calls to European numbers and receive calls, and 120 texts to European numbers. This has now been extended to Turkey (£3.99/day), and a host of other non-European destinations.
For pay-as-you-go customers, calls back to the UK and within Europe cost 4p/min, receiving calls costs free and texts cost 1p each. Plus you only get 100MB of data – if it runs out, you have to buy the add-on again to get more.
How do I use it?
- Opt in by texting O2TRAVEL to 23336 (on pay monthly). Pay-as-you-go customers should text TRAVELON to 21300.
- You'll then be charged on any day you make a call, send a text or use data. You can receive up to 120 minutes-worth of calls a day without triggering the charge.
- Data for pay monthly customers is unlimited but O2 says it may slow speeds if you use more than 150MB of data in a day (50MB if video/music streaming). Tethering is not permitted.
- If on pay-as-you-go and you reach the daily limit, the service will stop. If you want to use more you can reset your allowance for another £1.99 by texting MORETRAVEL to 21300 or wait for your allowance to be reset automatically at midnight.
- Not all European countries are included. See a full list on O2's website.
Pay £3/day and use your UK price plan in Europe
Vodafone customers who signed up to one of its 12- or 24-month 'Red' or 'Red Value' plans after 5 May 2016 get inclusive roaming in 40 European countries.
For everyone else, they can pay £3/day can use their UK price plan in Europe with the Vodafone EuroTraveller* add-on. You'll only be charged on the days you use your phone and you can receive calls for free.
If you're on a 4G contract and travelling in one of the eligible countries, you'll also get 4G when roaming if you pay for EuroTraveller.
For pay-as-you-go customers, the add-on's* slightly different – you pay £3/day to take your Big Value Bundle minutes and texts with you, and you get 100MB of data for each day you use your phone while away.
How do I use it?
- To opt in to Vodafone EuroTraveller*, call 5555 or text ADD to 40506 from your Vodafone phone before you go. If on pay-as-you-go, text EURO to 2345, the phone number is the same.
- A day is from is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, local time.
- The following countries aren't included: Belarus, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Ukraine, West Bank.
- EuroTraveller uses your UK price plan's inclusive allowances. If you exceed your inclusive UK allowances, you will be charged as if you are still at home.
- By opting in to Vodafone EuroTraveller*, you'll automatically opt out of the monthly spend limit for internet in its Europe Zone.
Pay £5/day for unlimited EU data
If the country you're visiting is one of Three's Feel At Home destinations (which now includes most of Europe), you can use your UK minutes, texts and data allowance for free without having to buy a pass. If you're on an essential plan or you need more, then the Euro Internet Pass* gives you unlimited access to mobile data for £5/day.
How do I use it?
- Buy the pass before you travel – or Three will send a text prompt to buy when you first turn on your phone in an EU country. To get it, visit the Three mobile site.
- The add-on can't be used in a number of European countries – see the full list.
- Standard EU roaming charges apply if you don't buy a pass every day. Before your Euro Internet Pass expires, you'll receive a text with the option to buy another pass for the following day. You won't be charged after your pass expires until you re-purchase a pass or accept standard EU roaming charges.
- You can't use it for video streaming or tethering, and streamed music may not play as well as in the UK. If you have an active Euro Internet Pass and you travel to a country where the pass isn't valid, you'll be charged for data at standard EU roaming rates.
- Three allows you to have one of each add-on per month, which means you can't use the Euro Internet Pass alongside the International Saver, for example.
Outside the EEA it's a different story altogether. Providers can charge what they like for calls, texts and data, and other than the €50 (roughly £47) monthly limit on data charges, costs aren't capped (and if you take out an add-on, you may be opted out of this cap anyway).
Some providers charge as much as £3/min to make a call and £2.50/min to receive a call, and it's easy to rack up bills running into £100s.
Forumite shockedandstunned really suffered:
Just got my stepson's phone bill and it's over £4,500. He's been to Turkey for 2 weeks and left data roaming on/been on the internet, as it's all data charges. – shockedandstunned
The table below shows just how steep the cost of using data outside Europe can be:
|US||N/A||£6/MB||Free2||£3/MB for up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB after|
|India||N/A||£6/MB||£3/MB||£3/MB for up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB after|
|£6/MB||Free2||£3/MB for up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB after|
|Cuba||N/A||£6/MB||N/A||£3/MB for up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB after|
|Table updated 15 August 2016. 1 EE customers can't use the internet on their phone abroad unless they buy a data add-on. The company says this is to prevent users running up large bills. 2 Comes from your allowance (3.3p/MB if you exceed this); £3/MB if you're on an Essential plan.|
How to cut the cost
The first thing to check is whether the country you're heading to is covered by Three's Feel At Home service.
Outside Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Macau, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the US are covered – if you're going to one of those destinations, you may be best off getting a Three Sim if you don't already have one. (If you're heading to the States, also see our new US Roaming Tips guide).
Otherwise, if you're a monthly contract customer it's worth checking if you can get an overseas data bundle from your network. We list the major providers' offerings below – bear in mind though that even buying a bundle can work out extremely expensive (some cost a gargantuan £120) so you may be better off keeping your phone off or sticking to free Wi-Fi.
Pay from £3/day for 20MB/day & from £6/mth for calls or texts
EE customers can buy varying packages of minutes and texts to make or receive calls anywhere in the world to or from the UK and add a data bundle on top.
Pay monthly and pay-as-you-go EE customers can sign up for a roaming data add-on* when travelling outside of Europe. Bundle costs and lengths depend on the country you're visiting, so check with EE* before you go.
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 do I use it?
- The data add-ons can only be purchased while abroad – turn on data roaming and open your browser to purchase it.
- Once you've used the allowance in the data bundle, you'll be given the option to buy another. If not, the internet will stop working.
- The talk and text 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.
Pay £5/day for 25MB/day or to use your UK allowance
Vodafone customers have the option of paying £5/day to use their normal UK allowance (including data) while abroad or paying the same price to opt for a specific data bundle.
- If you're travelling to one of the 58 selected countries, including Australia and the US, you can also opt for Vodafone's WorldTraveller* add-on. This costs £5 and lets you use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without any additional roaming fees. If your plan at home gives it, you'll also get 4G data if you're travelling in one of 58 eligible countries.
- Vodafone's Data Traveller* add-on can be used outside Europe in any country in its Rest of World Zone 1, and gives 25MB/day for £5/day. If you use more than this in a single day you'll pay standard roaming rates. The cut-off limit is £39.33/month (including VAT) – if you want more data, you'll have to arrange it with Vodafone.
How do I use it?
- To get WorldTraveller, 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.
- A day is from is classified as midnight to 11.59pm, local time.
- Call 191 free from your Vodafone Mobile to opt in to Data Traveller. Then, you'll only pay for the days you go online. Once you've used your allowance you'll pay standard data rates – £3/MB up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB thereafter.
Pay £4.99/day for unltd data, 120 mins & 120 texts
Recently extended to roaming in a number of countries outside Europe for pay monthly customers only, O2 Travel* costs £4.99/day (£3.99 in Turkey) and gives you unlimited data, 120 minutes to make local and UK calls and receive calls with, and 120 texts local/UK texts.
If you don't opt-in, standard charges of £6/MB apply, or you can opt for its Data Abroad Bolt on* (though it costs a whopping £120/month for 200MB, so we wouldn't recommend it).
How do I use it?
- Text O2TRAVEL to 23336 to activate it, or add the bolt-on in your My O2 account. It can take up to 24 hours to be applied.
- You'll then be charged on any day you make a call, send a text or use data. You can receive up to 120 minutes-worth of calls a day without triggering the charge.
- Data is unlimited but O2 says it may slow speeds if you use more than 150MB of data in a day (50MB if video/music streaming). Tethering is not permitted.
- See a list of included countries on O2's website*.
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.
If you have a tablet or mobile broadband dongle, the majority of the above data add-ons cannot be used while roaming. So if you want to roam with your tablet, you will either have to find a local Wi-Fi hotspot, or buy a data Sim deal that is compatible with your device.
It is always best to use tablets over Wi-Fi, if possible. Because tablets tend to view normal web pages, not mobile web pages, you will use your data allowance up faster, meaning you'll have to top-up more.
If you really need internet access on-the-go while abroad, take a look at our top pick Sims to find a deal that suits your usage (and country).
If you're a frequent traveller, plan to use your phone a lot or are going away for a bit longer than usual, you may be better off getting a specialist Sim.
If you're not travelling to one of the countries covered by Three's Feel At Home service and can't rely on free Wi-Fi, this may be the most cost-effective way to get online. But it can be a fiddly process, and there's no easy solution to finding the best deal. With most Sims, you'll also need an unlocked mobile (or mobile device).
There are three main options:
A PAYG local Sim (bought on arrival). If you regularly visit the same country, the cheapest way to get online (if you don't have Wi-Fi) is to buy a local Sim when you arrive at your destination. Though this is the very cheapest way, it is a bit of a faff, and you may prefer to have something set up before you go. More info.
A pre-paid local Sim. For those who regularly visit one country or go for quite a while, the alternative (a lot less hassle) is to buy a local Sim for the country you're visiting before you go, and load it with credit. More info.
A pre-paid global Sim. If you're travelling to multiple countries, a global Sim might be more suitable. More info.
If you're after a specialist Sim, you'll need to weigh up what's best for you. Think about the calls you are making – if they're mainly calls to the country you're in, a local Sim could be best, but then you'll have to pay international rates to phone home. Also bear in mind that it is likely to be easier to top up a global Sim online.
The cheapest option is to buy a Sim card when you arrive at your destination.
To get recommendations of PAYG overseas Sim cards, Wiki Resource is a good tool, although its accuracy depends on how up-to-date people have kept the info. Use the list on the left-hand side to pick a country, and it'll show you available PAYG data Sim options, where to buy them when you arrive and how to get connected once you get the Sim.
Alternatively if you're willing to do a little more legwork yourself, Wikipedia lists the mobile networks available in every country:
There's also a useful list of overseas networks on PrepaidGSM.
Once you know which providers operate in the country you're travelling to, it's possible to compare deals on their sites before you go, and buy a PAYG Sim card when you get there.
Warning! In North and South America, you'll need a 'tri-band' phone in order for it to work there (elsewhere in the world, you only need a dual-band phone). While most modern smartphones are tri-band, always check whether your handset is compatible with local networks before purchasing a foreign Sim. For more info see Carphone Warehouse.
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. If you travel frequently, to a few different countries, it means buying a few Sims and giving out lots of different numbers.
To get recommendations of pre-paid overseas Sim cards, PrePaidGsm is a good tool, although its accuracy depends on how up-to-date people have kept the info. It lists countries by continent – simply click on one and it'll show you available pre-paid Sim options, any special rates and useful info like activation fees and card validity.
With any company in this area of the market, be aware that you have very little protection should things go wrong or it goes bust.
Pre-paid call Sims for use in 20 different countries
One of the cheapest providers on the market, 0044* offers local Sims for 20 different countries, including India and Thailand.
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.
How big is the saving? Make three 10-minute calls back to the UK while in Thailand using a Three Sim card and it'll cost £60. Make the same calls using a 0044 Thailand Sim card and it's just £13.50, excluding the upfront cost for the Sim (£35, incl £6 credit).
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 three months. If you don't you'll lose your remaining credit – to bring the Sim back to life, you'll need to top it up with $30. If you don't use your Sim for six months, it'll be gone forever. 0044 only works in unlocked handsets.
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).
The cost of calls, texts and data is different depending on the country you're in, so always double-check the price first.
See our global Sim top picks
Again, with any company in this area of the market, be aware that you have very little protection should things go wrong or it goes bust.
Warning! Some global roaming Sim cards which advertise themselves as "British Isles-based" and come with +44 numbers are actually based in the Isle of Man, which is not part of the UK. This means if someone calls or texts you from their UK phone, it's unlikely to be included in their allowance so they'll be charged for it. (One of our top pick Sims come with these numbers – we've indicated which). If you opt for one of these, avoid asking others to call you on them; they provide the best value if you use them to make calls and send texts yourself when travelling.
Best for data
These global Sims offer calls, texts and data, but the picks below are best if you're most likely to be using them to surf while abroad.
Cheapest overall rates – 100 countries from 6p/MB equiv
The Dataroam International Pre-Paid Data Sim* offers rates from the equivalent of 6p/MB when you buy a data bundle, and can be used in 100+ countries, including most of Europe and India. Check the country you're visiting is included in the low rates before buying.
Using the 50MB of data that comes preloaded while in India will cost £14.99 (the one-off upfront cost). That same 50MB would cost you £300 using an O2 mobile with no data add-ons (though in reality this is capped at £40 per month).
- The data Sim card will work in unlocked mobile dongles, tablets, smartphones and portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices. The global data Sim will not operate outside the destinations included. The credit will expire after 30 days, as will any data bundles you've bought (including within the UK).
- On top of the 50MB which comes preloaded, you can opt for a 200MB bundle for £30 or – for the cheapest per MB equivalent – 1GB for £60. If you're visiting just one country you can the cheapest rate by buying one of Dataroam's country-specific Sims, but you'll have to pay for each card individually.
If you've used Dataroam, please share your experiences.
Best for calls
Again, these Sims offer calls, texts and data, but are best if making calls is your main reason for buying.
£25 global Sim incl £20 credit
The TravelTalk Sim from Auracall costs £25 and comes with £20 credit. 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 43 countries, including Vietnam, Netherlands, Bermuda and Namibia.
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 £6.90.
It's a good Sim for calls but data isn't available in all countries – for example in Australia and Brazil – so check before you get one if that's what you're after. If you can use data, it costs around 20p/MB on average.
Warning. This Sim comes with an 07452 number, which will be charged as premium by UK mobile providers.
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 mobile industry doesn't have the best customer service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include limited network coverage, slow data speeds, unexpected charges and more. It's always worth trying to call your provider first, but if not then…
Free tool if you're having a problem
This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It's totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.
Important: if your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead just let us know by emailing email@example.com as that's usually quicker.