Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming

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 you how to use your phone as cheaply as possible – and how to avoid racking up a huge bill, particularly important as some firms have announced future changes to how roaming works.

EE to bring back mobile roaming charges in Europe 

EE is to start charging customers a flat £2/day mobile roaming fee to use their monthly allowances in Europe from January 2022, but only those who take out new contracts or recontracted recently are affected. If you took out a contract or recontracted on or before 6 July 2021, you won't be affected by these changes.

Mobile phone firms were banned from charging customers extra fees to use their UK allowance of minutes, texts and data (subject to 'fair use' limits) when in the European Union. But EE's move makes it the first mobile firm to scrap free EU roaming since Brexit. Three and O2 are making changes to their 'fair use' limits, but they and all the other big mobile firms we spoke to in June 2021 told us they still have no plans to reintroduce roaming fees – though of course, that could always change.

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 the providers we've spoken to told us you CAN still use your normal allowance within Europe, some will charge you once you've used up a certain amount of data. Plus, if you're outside of your limit or travelling outside of the European Union, costs can be eye-watering.

    Our phones will usually try to connect automatically to the nearest signal and this spells danger if you have automatic updates on, for example, leaving you at risk of running 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 just 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 won'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, you can navigate around the place you're visiting without paying roaming charges, as long as you have downloaded the offline maps.

    For more information, see how to download Google Maps to use offline. 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've spoken to confirmed you can still use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data for now (EE will make changes in January for some) without paying any extra charges if you're in one of 30 countries outside the UK, including France, Italy and Spain (though some providers have a limit 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's much easier to land yourself a large bill when outside Europe as you can be charged just for receiving calls and texts. A Sim with Three offers more chance that your destination will be covered, though, as customers on its 'Advanced' or pay-as-you-go plans can use their allowance in 71 destinations around the world, including Australia, Singapore and the USA.

    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.

  • Here, 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. It's easy to inadvertently connect to a 'maritime' network or a neighbouring country, which may be classed as outside of Europe and so be more costly. We've heard horror stories of travellers running up huge bills by doing this. 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 back on dry land and always check the network your phone connects to.

Travelling within Europe? You can still roam for 'free' in 30 countries, for now...

Mobile roaming for 'free' 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.

At the end of June, EE announced plans to reintroduce roaming charges in Europe from January 2022, but only for those who sign up or renew their contract from 7 July 2021. When we checked with nine of the other biggest providers at the end of June, they told us 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 future.

    • EE: "From January next year, EE will introduce a new flat fee of £2 a day for customers wishing to roam across 47 European destinations (with the exception of ROI which is included in domestic plans), allowing them to use their plan's full data, minutes and texts allowance. This will apply only to new and upgrading customers signing up to EE from 7 July 2021 and will support investment into our UK-based customer service and leading UK network."
    • 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 our roaming charges across Europe."
    • Three: "We will look to retain this customer benefit in the EU post-Brexit, allowing our customers to continue using their usual allowances when they travel."
    • Vodafone has "no plans to reintroduce roaming charges".

    The smaller firms we've spoken to also said they don't have plans to introduce fees.

    • BT Mobile and Plusnet (they're part of the same group) said: "Our customers continue to enjoy inclusive roaming when they travel to the EU 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".

    • Sky Mobile: "Customers will not be charged roaming charges in EU countries and will be able to continue to use their data, call and text allowances as they do in the UK."

    • Tesco Mobile: "We have no current plans to reintroduce EU roaming charges."

    • 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."

    • Voxi "has no plans to reintroduce roaming charges".

    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 'Roam Like At Home' scheme, so always check destinations with your provider to be sure – and study any terms carefully.

Beware – you could still face roaming charges if you exceed data limits

While you won't currently be charged by firms for using your UK allowance in the EU (EE's policy will change in January), some networks have 'fair use' policies, which means they could restrict your full UK allowance – so you could run out of data quicker than at home, and be charged for using more.

On 24 June 2021, Three and O2 announced changes to their fair use limits. Three is reducing the cap from 20GB to 12GB, while O2 is introducing a 25GB limit for all customers.

To protect travellers from huge unexpected mobile bills, the UK Government has created a law that means providers must limit how much data you can use in a month, when you're travelling 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 amount of data you can use before any extra charges kick in will vary by provider (see table below).

How the main UK mobile providers limit 'free' EU roaming (1)

TABLE_CELL_STYLE How much of your UK data can you use with no extra charges? How much would you pay to exceed this limit? (2)
EE If you're on a pay-monthly tariff, there's a 50GB/mth cap. For pay-as-you-go (PAYG) users, the cap is 25GB/mth 0.36p/MB
O2 25GB for those on 'unlimited' plans (25GB for all from 2 August) N/A
Three 12GB 0.3p/MB. Three has 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
BT Mobile 15GB 0.36p/MB
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

Note: If you exceed your UK allowance, you will be charged. Table correct as of May 2021. (1) Assumes occasional travel (holidays or short breaks) and not long stays abroad. (2) Usually referred to as a 'surcharge' by your provider. (3) Excludes Vodafone Basics tariff, which doesn't allow roaming. 

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  than you do at home (usually in a period of four months), 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.

Travelling outside Europe? You'll usually pay MUCH more

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 hot spots, so here are our top tips to cut costs while travelling further afield.

Watch out for some not-so-obvious restrictions

  • 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 (about £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 agreed you're happy to go over the limit. The cap 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 cap doesn't cover calls or texts, so you could still run up a considerable bill at up to £3/min.

How to cut roaming costs outside of Europe

There are a lot of factors that make a Sim right for you, for instance, if you can get decent coverage in your area, or extra perks and offers. In most cases, if you're happy with your current deal for UK use it's not worth switching completely for a network that offers cheap roaming. But if being able to use your allowance outside of Europe without breaking the bank is important to you, Three is the only network that really stands out and we've a trick to get its Sim without switching networks in the box below.

Trick to roam in 41 countries outside of Europe for no extra charge – whatever network you're on

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 locations outside of Europe – 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*, then pop it into your handset while you're away. You'll have to use the new number (and have an unlocked phone) and just need to top it up and use it in the UK at least once first. And to be clear, this is about getting an additional Sim just to use for roaming, not replacing your current one.

If you're out of contract and thinking of switching anyway (or just want to know what your provider offers), see how many countries each network allows roaming in below and then check our Cheap Mobile Finder tool for the cheapest way to get your new Sim (and handset if needed).

How using your UK allowance abroad varies per network

Network Plan No. of destinations you can use your UK allowance in without extra charges
Three*
Go Roam is available on all pay-monthly (1) or PAYG (2) plans 71 destinations (22 outside of Europe incl USA)
Vodafone* Unlimited Max Xtra 81 destinations (18 outside of Europe incl Australia and Canada)
Unlimited Max
51 destinations (none outside of Europe)
All standard pay-monthly plans (including PAYG bundles) (3) 51 destinations (none outside of Europe)
'Red Entertainment' plan (4) 81 destinations (18 outside of Europe incl Australia and Canada)
EE* Smart plan (with added Roam Further pass) (5)  53 destinations (5 outside Europe incl USA and Mexico)
All other plans (including the 'Essential' plan)  48 destinations (none outside of Europe)
iD Mobile All standard pay-monthly plans  50 destinations (2 outside of Europe)
O2* Selected pay-monthly and O2 Refresh plans  75 destinations (26 outside of Europe incl USA and Argentina)
Other pay-monthly plans (including its 'Premium International Big Bundle') 48 destinations (none outside of Europe)
PAYG plans (including its standard 'International Big Bundle')  29 destinations (none outside of Europe)

(1) Excludes those on legacy 'Essential' plans. (2) To use Go Roam on its PAYG Sim, you have to use the Sim in the UK at least once first. (3) Excludes Vodafone Basics tariff, which doesn't allow roaming. (4) Red Entertainment plans bought between 4 Sep '18 and 9 July '19. (5) If you sign up to one of EE's Smart plans, you can add the Roam Further pass as one of its 'Smart Benefits' at the checkout and it will be available for the duration of your contract.  

Check out your provider's roaming rates and charges to add extra countries

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 it might just be better to keep your phone off or stick to the free Wi-Fi.

travel roaming
TABLE_CELL_STYLEProvider Roaming add-ons Standard rates (1)
    Data Calls  Texts
EE

For Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA, you can add the Roam Further pass which lets you use your UK allowance for an extra £10.44/mth on a rolling 30-day contract.

 

Alternatively, and for 11 other destinations including China, India and South Africa, it offers:

the Travel Data pass – 500MB from an extra £4.80 to £6/day, depending on the destination.

World Select Talk and Text – unltd mins & texts for an extra £6/day in the USA, Australia, Canada, Turkey and the UAE. 

N/A (2) £1.88/min 62p
O2* If a country isn't covered by your plan, O2 offers: O2 Travel* – unltd data, 120 mins & 120 texts for an extra £4.99/day. £7.20/MB £2/min 50p
Three*

Three's standard Go Roam includes 71 destinations, including the USA and New Zealand.

 

Otherwise, you'll be charged its expensive standard roaming rates (see right). Check how much your destination would cost before you travel.

£6/MB £3/min 35p
Vodafone* If you require an add-on, Vodafone offers: Roam Further* – use your UK allowance in 104 destinations for an extra £6/day. 12p/MB 60p/min 8p

Table correct as of May 2021. (1) Based on standard roaming rates for Morocco, chosen as an example destination. (2) EE customers can't use the internet on their phone abroad unless they buy a data add-on. 

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 or going to be using your phone a lot abroad? 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 destinations 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 for PAYG overseas Sim cards, this prepaid data Sim webpage is a good tool, although its accuracy depends on how up to date people have kept the info. There is a list of countries, which'll show the 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, eg:

    Australia | France | Germany | Greece | Poland | Spain | USA

    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 for prepaid overseas Sim cards, PrepaidGSM is a good tool, although it depends upon people updating it regularly to maintain its accuracy. It lists countries by continent – simply click on one and it'll show you available prepaid Sim options, any special rates and useful info such as 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.

    The cost of calls, texts and data is different depending on the country you're in, so always double-check the price first. Sites to check include Dataroam* and TravelTalk.

If you're after a specialist Sim, you'll need to weigh up what's best for you. Think about the calls you'll be 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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