UK mobile users travelling in the European Union could still face hefty additional fees of about £7.80/GB to use their data allowance – despite a much-touted EU 'ban' on roaming charges coming into effect this summer.
New EU rules which apply from Thursday 15 June were supposed to mean "the end of roaming charges", with holidaymakers no longer facing additional charges for making calls, sending texts and using mobile data when roaming in the EU (plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway soon after).
But while the new rules will curb many of the extra costs faced by mobile users, it's emerged in the small print that many who have unlimited or competitively priced data allowances CAN still be charged extra roaming fees above a certain level of usage. And analysis by MoneySavingExpert.com shows it's those on cheaper mobile deals who are most likely to be affected.
For example, a mobile user with our current top-pick Sim from Three – which offers 4GB for £9/month – could find under the new EU rules they can only use 2.31GB of their 4GB allowance for free while roaming, and then be charged around £7.80/GB to use the remainder of their allowance while abroad.
Here's the full lowdown on what the 'ban' on roaming charges will actually mean for users and how much you might have to pay if caught out. For full help on cutting mobile costs, see our 30+ Cheap Mobile Tips.
What's happening with roaming charges from June
The maximum amount mobile firms can charge customers for calls, texts and data when roaming in the European Economic Area has been gradually lowered over the past few years, and plans to ban such roaming charges altogether were approved in October 2015.
European bodies have widely promoted the move as a complete abolition of roaming charges. For example, a Facebook post by the European Commission earlier this month shared by more than 40,000 people promised "15 June 2017 will be the end of roaming charges in the EU". It added: "From that day, you can use [your] phone (including data) when travelling in the EU and pay the same prices as you do at home."
Yet while minute and text allowances WON'T be restricted – so an unlimited allowance at home really will mean an unlimited allowance in the EU – a 'fair use' limit COULD be applied to data.
That means if you have unlimited, or what the European Commission describes as "very cheap", mobile data as part of your UK deal, you could have your free roaming data allowance capped. If you exceed this cap – which will be set according to how much you pay, but for some could be 2GB or even lower – you could be charged extra roaming fees of about £7.80/GB.
It remains to be seen whether mobile firms will actually charge the extra roaming fees for data which the EU rules allow them to. But at least two of the four major providers, EE and Three, have refused to offer an explicit guarantee that customers will be able to use their entire data allowance when roaming in the EU without facing extra charges.
There's one other 'fair use' restriction which also applies when using your phone in the EU. Essentially, if you use roaming services in another EU territory more than you do in the UK – over any given four-month period – your network may begin charging you, for calls and texts as well as data.
How the extra data charges will work
Here's where it gets very, very complicated. However, to see if you could be affected, follow these three steps:
1. Check if the 'fair use' policy applies to your deal – those with unlimited data or 'very cheap' deals could be affected
The definition of 'unlimited' is straightforward – it's, well, unlimited. Though the official definition of "very cheap" is more complicated. Official guidelines of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) define it as costing less than the wholesale rate, which is what operators can charge each other for customers using their networks (€7.70/GB from 15 June – £6.49/GB by today's exchange rate).
To work out if your tariff counts as "very cheap", divide your monthly price, excluding VAT, by your monthly data allowance (your minutes/text allowance is irrelevant).
For example, with our current top-pick Sim with Three, which costs £9 (so £7.50 excluding VAT) every month and gives 4GB, that works out at £1.88/GB – significantly below the wholesale rate. In fact, most half-decent Sim-only contracts will fall into the "very cheap" category – if you pay anything less than the equivalent of around £7.80/GB (including VAT), you could be subject to the limit.
It's not yet clear how contracts which include the cost of a handset could be affected – these are inherently more expensive and so less likely to be considered to offer "very cheap" data by BEREC's formula. We've asked BEREC and will update this story when we know more.
2. If the 'fair use' policy DOES apply, your use of your allowance abroad for free could be capped on a sliding scale
If you've unlimited or "very cheap" data you could be charged for data roaming – but in practice you'd still get a certain allowance free each month, and would only be charged after you hit that cap.
To calculate that data cap, BEREC says you should divide the cost of your monthly tariff excluding VAT by the wholesale rate (€7.70/GB from 15 June – £6.49/GB at today's rate), then multiply by two. So using the same top-pick Three example above, that would be £7.50 (the £9/mth price, excl VAT), divided by £6.49, times two – which works out at a limit of 2.31GB of free roaming, just over half the 4GB allowance you'd have at home.
3. If you go over your cap, you could be charged up to about £7.80/GB
If you have unlimited or "very cheap" data, then exceed your free roaming cap, your operator will be permitted to charge you a maximum of €7.70/GB (the wholesale rate) plus VAT to continue using data – so £7.79/GB by today's exchange rate.
This maximum charge is then scheduled to fall each year – to €6/GB + VAT as of 1 January 2018, €4.5/GB + VAT in 2019, €3.5/GB + VAT in 2020, €3/GB + VAT in 2021 and €2.5/GB + VAT in 2022.
'Door wide open for firms to continue charging'
Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "Of course, any action to curb the extra costs travellers face when using their phone in Europe is welcome, and many will see bills drop when the new rules come into force in June. But our analysis shows it may be premature to declare 'the end of roaming charges'. In fact, the small print leaves the door wide open for firms to continue charging users extra.
"It remains to be seen whether mobile providers take advantage of this loophole. But as the rules stand, it's entirely possible many with competitively priced mobile bills will have to continue paying additional roaming fees to use their full UK data allowance abroad."
Some networks tight-lipped on extra charges
The rules outlined above state the maximum mobile providers can charge, but of course, they could choose to be more generous to their customers.
Currently Three allows those on Advanced plans and pay-as-you-go to use their allowance abroad via its Feel At Home scheme, though this is limited to calls and texts back to the UK and up to 12GB/mth of data use, regardless of whether your allowance exceeds this.
Those who have taken out contracts with Vodafone since 12 April also get free roaming in 40 countries (mostly in Europe) – it doesn't apply a data limit when customers are using their UK allowance in one of those countries.
We asked five networks, including the four major ones, if they could guarantee they would not charge any of their customers for using the data included in their plans when roaming abroad in the EU after 15 June. Here's what they said:
- EE refused to commit. It said only that "customers have a choice of great value roaming products and controls to help avoid unexpected bills" and that it would be announcing new roaming plans in the coming months.
- O2 did appear to rule out extra charges. It said: "In line with the changes set out by the European Commission, making calls, sending texts and using mobile data in any European country will cost our customers the same as it will in the UK."
- Three couldn't guarantee no customers would face extra charges. It said: "We are in the process of updating our plans to be fully compliant with the detail of the latest European Commission regulation to remove roaming fees for customers in June and will communicate any changes to our customers in advance."
- Vodafone did seem to rule out extra charges. It said: "We do not intend to charge... customers for using the data included in their plans when roaming in any our 'Roam Free' destinations after 15 June, as long as they are using it for periodic travel and are not overseas on a semi-permanent or permanent basis."
- Plusnet, which provides one of our top pick Sims, committed to not applying additional charges: "We're pleased to say we won't be charging customers on 20GB plans and under. We don't offer plans above 20GB."
Even where networks have appeared to rule out charges though, the fact remains that the EU rules leave them open to changing their mind.
What does the European Commission say?
The European Commission website has a page of FAQs which includes details of the small print of the roaming changes. It says: "If at home you have unlimited mobile data or very cheap mobile data, your operator may apply a safeguard (fair use) limit on data use while roaming. If this is the case, the operator will have to inform you in advance about such a limit and have to alert you in case you reach it.
"That safeguard limit will be high enough to cover most, if not all, of your roaming needs. Beyond this threshold, you can continue data roaming, subject to a small charge."
The BEREC website said the 'fair usage policy' is designed "to prevent abusive or anomalous usage such as the use of roaming services for purposes other than periodic travel".
Brexit doesn't change things – for now
Until the UK has officially left the EU, European laws will continue to apply, so Brits will benefit from European roaming regulations until then at the very least. Depending on what's agreed between the UK and the EU between now and then, some alternative arrangement may or may not be put place.
If it's not, operators would be free to charge what they want to customers when roaming in the EU, as they can currently for outside the EU (with the exception of the monthly data cost cap, which applies worldwide).