If you're not careful, using the web abroad could rack up a bill of £100s or even £1,000s. Surfing the net can cost as much as 46p/MB in EU countries, and up to £8/MB around the rest of the world.
The most sensible plan is to keep your phone turned off. But if this isn't possible, there are ways to cut costs. This guide shows you how to get the cheapest data access wherever you are.
In this guide
If you do nothing else before you go, these quick tips should help to keep costs to a minimum:
If you want to access the web on your mobile while abroad, there are two choices. The first is using your mobile's signal (3G or 4G), known as roaming. The second is wi-fi, where you wirelessly hitch up to a local broadband connection.
If you use data roaming you'll pay your mobile provider for data usage. Doing this can cost large. Wi-fi means your handset accesses a fast local connection, which could be free.
If you turn data roaming off, you'll still be able to use the phone for music, games, photos etc, as these don't require a signal.
If you do need to get online, and your phone has w-fi capabilities, find a free wi-fi hotspot (often bars, hotels and cafes have free wireless access), so you can view emails and surf the web without breaking the bank.
Here's some instructions to help you turn data roaming off on your phone:
- iPhone. Go into Settings > General > Mobile Data, then tap the data roaming slider to off.
- Samsung. Go into Settings > More Settings > Mobile Networks, then untick 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".
Many apps and programs, as well as the operating systems themselves, routinely check for available updates and download them automatically. So be sure to turn these off.
App updates can unwittingly use up hundreds of megabytes of data, racking up colossal charges if you're abroad. So if you plan to keep your 3G on, turn auto app updates off to minimise costs.
Here's how for iPhones and Android handsets:
iPhone. Go to Settings > Fetch New Data and then switch "Push" to off. Then change "Fetch" to "Manually". This will stop your handset from scanning for emails and app updates every few minutes. More info on the Apple website.
Android. Go to Settings > Accounts and Sync then untick "Background Data". This will prevent your phone from syncing and updating. You should also check the settings in each app, as there's usually the option to turn off auto updates.
Don't watch TV, films or download music
Never use your network's 3G signal to download or stream films, TV or music. This will use huge chunks of data, leaving you with a bill of £100s or £1,000s.
Pack your Kindle Keyboard for free web access
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 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. And if you've got webmail like Gmail you can use it for that at absolutely no cost.
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 Androids. 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.
1. 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.
2. 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 > General > Network, and move the Data Roaming slider to "off".
Are you opted into the EU cut-off?
Current EU regulations mean providers have to warn you when you've nearly used €50 (around £51 incl VAT) of data in a month when roaming overseas. When you hit this mark, your mobile provider will cut off your mobile internet service until the next billing month begins, unless you have already pre-arranged a higher limit.
You can opt-out of the cap warning or arrange in advance to have a higher limit if necessary, though this isn't a good idea.
Also be warned that by signing up for data bundles you may be automatically opted out of the cap. Speak to your mobile provider before you go to check you're covered.
Use "offline" tourist guides
If you're using a travel guide app make sure it's one that works offline. This way you should still be able to access maps and reviews without hammering your data allowance.
Time Out's apps offer this for example. Others should tell you before you download them.
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.
Using your mobile to access the internet abroad (data roaming) costs a lot more than it does within the UK. Mobile phone networks charge for internet access by megabyte (MB) of data downloaded.
To give you an idea on how much data you'll use, try the Vodafone data usage calculator. As a rough rule of thumb, 1MB will let you send about 20 emails without attachments.
The amount you'll be charged depends on your mobile phone network and location.
You'll be charged around 46p/MB in the EU, and up to £8/MB further afield. As an example, Three charges a whopping £6/MB in Canada. As a 30min TV programme is 500MB, that could easily add up to £3,000.
Data roaming costs outside the EU compared (incl VAT)
£3/MB for up to 5MB. then £15 for every 5MB after
£3/MB for up to 5MB. then £15 for every 5MB after
£3/MB for up to 5MB. then £15 for every 5MB after
£3/MB for up to 5MB. then £15 for every 5MB after
£3/MB for up to 5MB. then £15 for every 5MB after
|¹ T-Mobile customers can't use the internet on their phone abroad unless they buy a Booster. T-Mobile says this is to prevent you running up a large bill for internet usage. Table correct as of 31 July 2013|
Get it wrong, and it could cost you £1,000s
If you don't take precautions before travelling, you could arrive home to a nasty bill shock.
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 - Aug 2012
If you'll only occasionally need to access the web while travelling, and your laptop, mobile or tablet has built-in wi-fi, using wireless hotspots is the cheapest way to get online.
How to find a free wi-fi hotspot
Be prepared. Set aside a few minutes at home before you go, ask your hotel and check the host of sites that list wireless hotspots around the world.
Try Google Maps. You can also use Google Maps to find places which offer free wireless access. To find them, type in the name of the area you're going to, click on the marker, then "Search nearby" and type in "free wi-fi". The map will show all locations with free wi-fi. Alternatively, type into the search box on the Google Maps home page: Free wi-fi loc: PLACE NAME, eg, Free wi-fi loc: Calas de Mallorca.
Boost wireless potential abroad by sharing your wi-fi at home
One way to seriously boost the number of wireless networks available to you is to sign up to the Fon scheme, which has over a 11 million "Fon spots" available worldwide.
The idea's simple. You buy a special wireless router (£34) which splits your connection in two - one secure part for you, and one open part for other Fon members. In exchange, you can use the open part of other members' wireless networks, wherever they are in the world.
To work out if you'll benefit from joining, check out these Fon maps, which show hotspot locations worldwide. Given the cost of roaming in some places, it may well be worth the one-off £34 spend for continuous access to Fon hotspots. Report your feedback and see what others say in the Fon discussion.
WARNING! Beware cyber hacking and thieves
While the existence of wireless networks accessible to everybody is undoubtedly a great thing, be wary of cyber hacking and thieves.
Don't enter any secure info when using public wi-fi spots, as there's a risk it can be intercepted by others on the network and used for identity theft.
EU regulations mean the price of using the web abroad is falling, but it's possible to cut the costs further. If you're a monthly contract customer and you're only likely to use a few megabytes of data, get an overseas data bundle from your network. Below are the major mobile providers' offerings.
WARNING! Opting out of the €50 EU cut-off limit
Current EU regulations mean providers have to cut you off when you've used €50 (around £51 including VAT) of data in a month when roaming overseas (see MSE News story).
When signing up for one of the mobile provider add-ons listed below, you may be automatically opted out of the EU €50 cut-off limit.
This means you'll have to monitor your data usage carefully, otherwise you could arrive home to a big bill.
Data roaming add-ons for within the EU
- What: 20MB daily allowance
- Cost: £1/day for up to 20MB
- How: Apply the bundle anytime, you're only charged when you use data in an EU country. To get it, text TRAVEL to 1139 for free from your Orange phone.
- Countries not included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (north), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine.
- Out of bundle charges: If you reach the 20MB limit, the £1 charge and allowance is automatically reapplied. This can be done up to 10 times per day. After this you’ll be charged 45.9p/MB.
If you're with Orange*, there’s a range of data bundles. For short trips within Europe, the cheapest option is Orange’s daily 20MB for £1. This should be enough for you to browse the web for about hour, or send 20 emails with attachments, in one day.
You’ll only be charged for the add-on each day you use data. Any unused data in a day won’t be carried over. If you need more data or are going away for longer however, Orange does offer other data deals, including 100MB/day for £3 or 150MB data for £50, which can be used over a month. See the Orange website for more information.
- What: O2 Travel
- Cost: £1.99/day for up to 15MB
- How: The add-on is applied automatically unless you opt out.
- Countries not included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
- Out of bundle charges: O2 will tell you if you’re getting close to the daily limit and if you reach it. If you do, the service will stop. If you want to use more you can reset your allowance for another £1.99 by texting MOREDATA to 23336 or wait for your allowance to be reset automatically at midnight.
The O2 Travel* service costs £1.99 a day for 15MB, and is applied automatically - so you don't have to worry about opting in before you go. O2 says 15MB a day is enough "to keep up with friends on Facebook and send some emails on your mobile, but it's not enough to watch YouTube videos or download music".
- What: Vodafone EuroTraveller
- Cost: £3/day to use UK price plan
- How: To opt in to Vodafone EuroTraveller, call 5555 from your Vodafone phone before you go.
- Countries not included: Belarus, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
- Out of bundle charges: 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.
Vodafone's EuroTraveller* 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.
By opting in to Vodafone EuroTraveller, you'll automatically opt out of the monthly spend limit for internet in its Europe zone, because you'll be using your UK price plan.
- What: T-Mobile Internet Travel Booster
- How: Get them from the Euro Internet Booster page when you first access the web abroad; the cost will be added to your bill.
- Cost: Boosters are valid for 30 days (UK time), or until you've used up your allowance. choose from:
• 3MB for £1
• 10MB for £2.50
• 50MB for £10.
- Countries not included: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus (North), Faroe Islands, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Israel, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, West Bank.
- Out of bundle charges: Because you can't use mobile web abroad without a Booster, you will never incur any extra charges that you don't know about. You'll be prompted to buy another Booster when either the time expires or use up your Booster allowance.
Within T-Mobile's Euro travel zone, customers aren't able to access the internet without first purchasing an Internet Travel Booster*. Boosters start from £1/3MB.
Unfortunately these bundles don't work for BlackBerry customers. If you're using a BlackBerry in Europe it will cost £1.50/MB, up to a maximum of £4/day. This is also capped at a maximum amount of £51 in any month.
- What: Unlimited daily allowance
- Cost: £5/day
- How: 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.
- Countries not included: Can't be used in a number of European countries, incl Turkey, Croatia. See full list.
- Out of bundle charges: Standard EU roaming charges of 45.8p/MB 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.
If you're on Three, its Euro Internet Pass* gives you unlimited access to mobile web for just £5/day.
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 use the Euro Internet Pass alongside the International Saver, for example.
Add-ons for outside the EU
Orange Rest Of the World BundlesFrom £6/day for 30MB
- What: Orange Rest Of the World Bundles
- Out of bundle charges: Once you've used your bundle allowance, you'll be charged £8/MB.
- Cost: Bundle costs will depend on the country you're visiting, so check with Orange before travelling. Prices start from £6/day for 30MB.
- How: The bundle activates when you use data abroad, so you'll only be charged the bundle fee each day you use data.
Orange customers travelling outside Europe can sign up for a global mobile data bundle*, starting from £6/day for 30MB. There are also larger bundles that work on a 30-day or monthly recurring basis.
Vodafone's Data Traveller£5/day for 25MB
- What: Vodafone Data Traveller
- Cost: £5/day for 25MB
- How: Contact customer services before you go to opt in.
- Out of bundle charges: Once you've used your allowance you'll pay standard data rates - £3/MB up to 5MB, then £15 for every 5MB thereafter.
Vodafone's Data Traveller* add-on can be used outside Europe. The cut-off limit is £41.47 - if you want to use more data than this, you'll have to arrange it with Vodafone.
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 view normal web pages, not mobile web pages, you will therefore 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, a heavy data user or going away for a bit longer than usual, you may be better off getting a cheap data Sim deal specifically for the country you're travelling to - especially if your mobile provider's data add-on offering isn't that hot.
It's likely to be the most cost-effective way to get online (if you haven't got free wi-fi access). The per-MB savings here can be huge, as you'll sidestep roaming rates entirely and only pay local costs.
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).
Finding the right Sim
There are three types of Sim card you can buy to help cut your roaming costs while abroad:
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.
Pre-paid local and global Sims. The alternative (which is a lot less hassle) for those who regularly visit one country or go for quite a while, is to buy a local Sim for the country you're visiting before you go, and load it with credit so you don't have to worry about topping up while abroad. If you travel to numerous countries, a global Sim would be more suitable. More info.
This growing Wiki Resource has users' recommendations on PAYG overseas data Sim cards, though 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.
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.
There's a whole load of providers offering pre-paid data Sim deals, so if your mobile provider's data add-on deal doesn't meet your needs, consider getting one of these. The best for you will depend on your usage and the country you are visiting. Here are our top picks:
- What: Dataroam International Pre-paid SIM Card
- Upfront cost: £14.99
- Free credit: $10
- Cost/MB: from 19p/MB
The Dataroam International Pre-Paid* Sim offers rates from just 19p/MB, and can be used in 70+ countries, including most of Europe and the US. Check the country you're visiting is included in the low rates before buying. More...
How big is the saving? As an example, using 50MB of data while in Spain will cost £12.50 (plus the one-off upfront cost), compared to £34.80 using a Three mobile (no data add-ons) to roam while abroad.
Anything else? The data Sim card will work in unlocked mobile dongles, tablets, smartphones, or MiFi devices. The global data Sim will not operate outside the destinations included. The credit will not expire providing you use data services at least once every six months (including within the UK).
Other plans with unlimited data or large data bundles are also available for heavier users.
If you've used Dataroam, please share your experiences.
- What: Roamline SIM Card
- Upfront cost: €9.95 (£8.38)
- Free credit: None
- Cost/MB: from €0.39 (34p)/MB
With Roamline's Global Data Sim you'll pay €9.95 (£8.38) upfront and then get charged €0.39/MB (34p) for data roaming in Europe, the US and Canada. Go outside these areas and you'll pay €0.89/MB (77p).
Unlike the other Sims here, you pay through your credit card at the end of each month, so you don't have to top up before you go. If you use more than €50 on mobile data you will be charged and informed by email in between. More...
How big is the saving? As an example, using 50MB of data while in Spain will cost about £17 (not including the upfront cost of the Sim), compared to £34.80 using a Three mobile (no data add-ons) to roam while abroad.
Anything else? Roamline Sim cards can be put in any unlocked 3G enabled device, including iPads, mobile dongles, MiFi devices and smartphones. The Roamline Sim is data-only, with no calls or texts. You'll only be charged on the data you use, and if you don't use it for an extended period, it doesn't expire.
If you've used Roamline, please share your experiences.
Depending on where you're going and what you'll be doing when you're abroad, it may be worth getting a Sim card deal - especially if your mobile provider's data add-on doesn't offer any real savings.
In the table below, total costs have been calculated including any initial upfront costs and subtracting any free call time offered. As you only have to pay the upfront cost of the Sim once, this could be a better investment if you plan to use it frequently.
|Sim card and data add-on deals compared|
|Upfront cost||Free call time (included)||Cost - £/MB||Total cost|
|Roamline||€9.95 (£8.38)||None||€0.39 (33p)/MB||£24.88||£41.38||£173.38|
|Orange Daily Travel Bundle||None||None||£1/day for 20MB||£7||£7||£25|
|T-Mobile Travel Booster||None||None||£10 for 50MB ¹||£10||£20||£100|
|Three Euro Internet Pass||None||None||£5/day for unlimited data||£35||£35||£35|
|Vodafone EuroTraveller||None||None||£3/day for UK data allowance||£21³||£21³||£21³|
|O2 Travel||None||None||£1.99/day for 15MB||£13.93||£13.93||£67.66|
Based on data usage in Spain, over 7 days. Euro prices converted using XE's currency converter. ¹ T-Mobile allowance to be used over 30 days. ² Assuming your UK allowance includes this amount of data. Table correct as of 4 July 2013.
If you arrive home from holiday to a mammoth mobile bill and you've been charged incorrectly, you should be able to get some money back.
Step 1: Complain to your provider
Contact your provider straight away. Send it a copy of your bill, highlighting the relevant charges and the reasons why you are disputing them.
Below are the contact details of some of the main mobile providers:
|Online contact||Customer services number|
|Three||Call 333 from your Three phone|
|O2||Call 202 from your O2 phone|
|Orange||Call 150 from your Orange phone|
|T-Mobile||Call 150 from your T-Mobile phone|
|Vodafone||Call 191 from your Vodafone phone|
Step 2: After eight weeks, complain to the Ombudsman
If after eight weeks you've not resolved the problem or are unhappy with your supplier's decision, you can submit your complaint to one of the two independent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) schemes. The schemes are impartial and free.