Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming
Use your phone abroad for less, incl roam free trick
Whether you want to be a global jet-setter when we can travel freely again, or just take the odd trip abroad, this guide will show how to use your phone as cheaply as possible – and how to avoid racking up a huge bill.
Providers still won't charge you extra to roam in the EU
Mobile phone firms were banned from charging you extra fees to use your UK allowance of minutes, texts or data (subject to caps) when in the European Union.
These rules no longer apply as the Brexit transition period has ended, but we spoke to 10 of the biggest providers in May 2021 and they told us they've no plans to reintroduce charges. See Travelling within Europe? below for more.
Quick tips to use your mobile abroad for less
The easiest way to avoid charges while abroad is simply to turn roaming off. While all of the providers we spoke to told us you can still use your normal allowance within the European Union (EU), some have caps on the amount of data you can use before being charged. Plus, if you're outside of your limit or travelling outside of the EU, costs can be eye-watering.
Our phones will usually try to connect automatically to the nearest signal and this can be particularly dangerous if you have automatic updates on, for example, leaving you racking up a huge bill without you even realising.
The best bet is to use Wi-Fi wherever possible, which you can usually find for free in most hotels, restaurants and bars. Yet it 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 app such as Skype, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger before you go, or use Apple's FaceTime. Providing the person you're calling also has the service, you'll simply need to find a free Wi-Fi spot to call for free.
Although finding free Wi-Fi while away is handy for browsing, you probably don't want to start downloading hefty files such as music or films. Instead, get your phone travel-ready by saving your favourite tunes, movies, must-have apps and boarding passes BEFORE you go.
Download maps on Wi-Fi before you go
Google Maps, available on iOS and Android, 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, see Google help. Many travel apps work this way and some, such as Time Out's app, include reviews.
Alternatively, you can also take screenshots or normal photographs of maps to store on your device.
Travelling within Europe? From 1 January 2021, free mobile roaming in the EU is no longer guaranteed. However, all the networks we spoke to confirmed you can still use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without paying any extra charges if you are in one of the 30 countries outside the UK, such as France, Italy and Spain (though some providers have a cap on the amount of data you can use). Some operators also cover countries outside this, so it's always best to check with your network for its full list to be sure – and check any terms carefully.
Going further afield? It is much easier to ramp up costs while outside Europe as you can be charged just for receiving calls and texts. A Sim with Three offers more chance that your destination is covered, though, as customers on its 'Advanced' or pay-as-you-go plans can use their allowance in 71 countries around the world, including Australia, Singapore and the United States.
Plus, there's a trick to make this work even if you're with another network. If you don't want to switch Sims, see our round-up of costs from the big networks below.
Quite simply, the same data rules don't apply. Even if you're to set sail in Europe, be extra careful of using your phone while at sea as it's easy to inadvertently connect to a 'maritime' network or a neighbouring country, which is NOT covered by the EU ruling. One MoneySaver was hit with an £8,000 bill for 40 minutes' worth of data. To be safe, make use of any free Wi-Fi options on board, or just restrict use of your phone to days when you're off the ship and always check the network your phone connects to.
Free mobile roaming in European Union countries is no longer guaranteed as the Brexit transition period has now ended. Under the 'Roam Like At Home' rules introduced by the EU, you could use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without paying any extra charges in one of these 30 countries (those in the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), subject to 'fair usage' rules.
However, when we checked with 10 of the biggest providers in May 2021, all, including EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, confirmed they still had no plans to bring back roaming fees. Although this isn't an indefinite guarantee, and they could always change their approach in the future.
- EE: "Our customers continue to enjoy inclusive roaming when they travel to the EU and beyond."
- O2: "We're committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel outside the UK. We currently have no plans to change the 'Roam Like at Home' arrangements."
- Three: "Three is the global leader in international roaming and already offers roaming at no extra cost for its customers in over 70 destinations, including the US, Australia and New Zealand. We will retain this great customer benefit regardless of Brexit negotiations, allowing our customers to continue using their phones when they travel within the EU."
- Vodafone has "no plans to reintroduce roaming charges".
The smaller firms we spoke to also said they don't plan to introduce fees.
- Sky Mobile: "Customers will continue to be able to use their data plans as they do today in over 30 European destinations at no extra cost from 1 January 2021."
- Virgin Media: "We currently have no plans to change our 'Roam Like Home' offering. Virgin Media mobile customers can continue to enjoy their inclusive data, minutes and texts while abroad in 43 European destinations. Should we need to make any changes to our roaming services, we'll let our customers know in advance."
- Tesco Mobile: "We have no current plans to re-introduce EU roaming charges. Tesco Mobile customers can continue to use their data, minutes and texts at no additional cost, in 48 destinations across Europe and beyond."
- iD Mobile "remains committed to providing our customers with great value plans that they can use at home and in 50 destinations worldwide and currently have no plans to change our Roaming services.”
Do check with individual networks for the latest information though, as they may reintroduce roaming fees at a later date. Some operators also cover countries outside the 30 included in the original 'Roam like at Home' scheme, so it's always best to check with your network for its full list to be sure – and check any terms carefully.
While you won't be charged for using your UK allowance in the EU, some networks have a 'fair use' policy, which means it could restrict your full UK allowance – so you could run out of data quicker than at home, and be charged for using more.
To protect travellers from huge unexpected mobile bills, the UK Government has written into UK law a default cap on monthly data usage when you travel anywhere in the world – not just within the EU (a feature of EU roaming rules).
It has set the limit on charges for mobile roaming data usage at £45 per monthly billing period. You'll get warnings when you reach 80% and 100% of your data usage, and once you hit the limit your data services will stop, unless you actively choose to continue spending.
While roaming in the EU, the exact amount of your data allowance you can use before any extra charges kick in will vary by provider (see table below).
|EE||If you're on a pay monthly tariff, there is a 50GB/mth cap. For PAYG users, the cap is 25GB/mth||0.36p/100MB|
|O2||All of it – no limit||N/A|
|Three||20GB for contract, Sim-only and PAYG users||0.3p/MB. Three have a worldwide data roaming limit that's set to £45|
|Vodafone||If you're on one of its 'unlimited' data tariffs, there is a 25GB/mth cap. No limit on others (3)||You can add more data via its Data Extra plans and costs vary depending on which plan you're on and when you signed up|
|Asda Mobile||All of it – no limit||N/A|
|Giffgaff||20GB if on an 'Always On' package||0.36p/MB|
|iD Mobile||Depends on your package – use its online calc to check||Depends on your package – use its online calc to check|
|Sky Mobile||All of it – no limit||N/A|
|Tesco Mobile||Depends on your usage – see full details||0.35p/MB|
Frequent traveller or going away for an extended period of time?
If you're roaming in Europe for an extended period, networks will usually say in their fair usage policies that they'll 'monitor your usage' abroad and if they find you spend more time abroad (usually four months) than you do at home, they'll look to add a surcharge to your account. Though they will send you an alert if that's the case.
If you're roaming outside of Europe for an extended period of time, Three also says it reserves the right to cut off the service if you use your allowance abroad for more than two months continuously.
Best Sims for roaming
The major firms have confirmed they plan to continue to let you use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data in all European Union countries (plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). Some providers also allow you to use your allowance in additional countries. Here's a round-up of the top Sims for roaming.
For roaming abroad – what we'd go for
Three is the standout when it comes to roaming. With any pay monthly or pay-as-you-go Sim you're able to use your standard allowance in 71 destinations – 41 additional countries outside of the EU – including Australia and the USA as part of its 'Go Roam' deal.
Even if you're not a Three customer, there's a trick to grab its Go Roam offer. Just order one of its free pay-as-you-go Sims* to pop into your handset while you're away – though you'll have to use a new number (and have an unlocked phone).
For the most expansive list of roaming countries, Vodafone's top 'Unlimited Max' plan allows you to roam with your allowance in 81 countries, but it'll cost you. The cheapest way to get it is via this Mobiles.co.uk* link. For unlimited data, minutes and texts in the UK and abroad you pay £33/mth, but you get an automatic £120 cashback within three months. Factor that in and it's equivalent to £23/mth over the 12-month contract.
|Network.||Plan name||Number of countries included|
|Vodafone||Unlimited Max||81 countries|
|Three*||Go Roam is available on its pay monthly (1) or PAYG (2) plans||71 countries|
|EE||EE Smart Plan (with added Roam Further pass)||53 countries|
|Vodafone||All standard pay monthly plans (including its PAYG Bundles) (3)||51 countries|
|O2||O2 Pay Monthly plans (including its 'Premium International Big Bundle')||48 countries|
|EE||All other EE plans (including its Essential plan)||48 countries|
|O2||O2 PAYG plans (including its standard 'International Big Bundle')||29 countries|
Outside the EU, some providers charge a gobsmacking £7/MB for data and £3/min to make or receive a call, so if you're not careful your mobile bill could set you back more than your trip.
This includes some surprisingly common holiday hotspots, so here's our top tips to cut costs while travelling further afield.
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. You now won't be charged to receive calls from a UK number if in the EU – but you will outside Europe, and it can cost as much as £3/min.
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, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Apple's Facetime or a similar service, avoiding these costly rates.
However, if you can't get internet access, it's free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. Then, as it can cost as much as £1.20/text to reply outside Europe, condense your reply (lrn 2 spk txt agn) 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.
Outrageously, you can be charged simply for someone ELSE leaving YOU an answerphone message – even if you never hear it. It all depends on the network you're on and the country you're in, but in some cases with EE it can cost as much as £1.88/min to receive a voicemail, and a further £1.88/min to listen to it. So picking up a two-minute message could cost you over a fiver.
Ouch... so what can I do about it? First check whether your network charges for the country you're headed to. If it does, your best bet is to simply turn off your voicemail, to stop people being able to leave you a message. Each network has different instructions on how to do this, though you normally have to make a call, so make sure you do it before you travel (and certainly before you leave the UK).
EU regulations stated that even if you were roaming OUTSIDE Europe, providers had to cut you off when you'd used €50 (around £44) of data in a month. Post-Brexit this was written into UK law, with a monthly limit of £45.
You should only get charged more than this if you've explicitly 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 £45 cut-off limit.
So read the T&Cs 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.
It's important to note that this this cap doesn't cover calls or texts, so you could still run up a considerable bill at £2/min.
Don't want to switch Sim? Check out your provider's roaming rates and add-ons
If you're a pay monthly customer, it's worth checking if you can get an overseas data bundle from your network, as these can often work out cheaper than its standard rates. We list the major providers' offerings below – bear in mind though that even buying a bundle can work out expensive (a two-week trip could set you back £80+), so you may be better keeping your phone off or sticking to free Wi-Fi.
For Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States, you can add the Roam further pass which lets you use your UK allowance for £10.44/mth on a rolling 30-day contract. If you have a 'Smart' or 'Full Works' plan, you could select it as a 'swappable benefit' at no extra charge.
Alternatively, and for 11 other destinations including China, India and South Africa, it offers:
Travel data pass – 500MB from £4.80 to £6/day, depending on the destination
World select talk and text – unltd mins & texts for £6/day in the USA, Australia, Canada, Turkey and the UAE.
If you've an O2 Refresh tariff or have a Sim only plan with more than 20GB data, check if your destination is covered by the included Travel Inclusive zone bolt on, which covers 27 further countries including Australia and the USA.
Otherwise, it offers:
O2 Travel* – unltd data, 120 mins & 120 texts for £4.99/day
Three's standard Go Roam includes 71 countries, including the USA and New Zealand.
It's available on its 'Advanced' (but not the legacy 'Essential') pay-monthly plans and its pay-as-you-go plan.
Otherwise, you'll be charged its expensive standard roaming rates (see right). Check how much your destination would cost before you travel.
If you have a 'Unlimited Max' plan, you can use up to 25GB of your allowance at no extra cost in 81 countries.
If you have a 'Red Entertainment' plan, check if your destination is covered by the included Global Roaming Plus, which covers 77 countries including Mexico and New Zealand.
For all other pay monthly plans, it offers:
Many of the fee-paying packages also bill you on a recurring basis, so 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.
Frequent traveller? Consider switching to a specialist Sim
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 Go Roam 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:
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.
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 prepaid 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 prepaid Sim options, any special rates and useful info like activation fees and card validity.
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.
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.
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