Millions of Vodafone customers could be charged £5 to send a single text message while abroad, thanks to a change in the firm's roaming policy which forces those using their phones in 60 countries including the US, India and China to pay a flat daily fee.
Under the 'Roam-further' price plan, which has applied to all Vodafone pay-monthly customers visiting the 60 countries since 31 August, you're charged a £5 fee to use minutes, texts and data from your UK allowance. The fee is levied every day you use your phone, even if it's only to send a single text.
Many mobile providers offer similar 'add-on' packages for those travelling outside Europe, and they can prove good value if you use your phone a lot while overseas. But some Vodafone users are furious the firm has made Roam-further mandatory for all pay-monthly customers visiting the affected countries with no way to opt out and instead pay only for what you use.
For more on how to use your phone abroad for less, see our Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming guide.
'Just texting to say 'I've landed' is going to cost me £5 a time'
A number of MoneySavers have contacted us since the change in Vodafone's policy with many unhappy it's been forced through.
- Liz Davies, from Reading in Berkshire, said: "I received a text on 15 August from Vodafone stating if I go abroad I can use my minutes, texts and data for just £5 a day and I don't need to do anything to get it. Previously you had to opt in.
"I have family and friends in the US, New Zealand and Australia, so to just text them to say 'I've landed and I'm on my way, come pick me up' is going to cost me £5 a time."
- Kathryn Green, who works as a flight attendant, said: "I'm in their chargeable countries for anything up to 10 days a month, and so are my several thousand colleagues who also work as cabin crew.
"In the past where I sent one text to a standard-rate phone it would cost less than 35p whilst in their chargeable countries. Now that one text costs £5 regardless of usage. The problem is that there is absolutely no possibility to opt out it's mandatory. So to send just one text a day whilst I'm at work could up my bill by potentially £50 a month."
Kathryn says she has now left Vodafone after 16 years as a customer, having argued she would not have agreed to the Roam-further policy if she'd been given a choice but says she was only released from her contract after threatening to take her case to Ombudsman Services.
- Frank, who asked not to give his second name but is 32 and lives in London, said: "The issue with this new service is that it is mandatory. This means if I am in the USA and send one text, I will be charged £5 for that day. There is no option to be charged at the standard rate... As a customer, I should always be able to opt out of a service like this."
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Who's affected by Vodafone's £5 roaming charge?
The Roam-further plan was launched on 12 April this year for new or upgrading Vodafone pay-monthly customers, and replaced the similar opt-in 'WorldTraveller' add-on. The roll-out to existing customers began on 15 June, and was completed last week (31 August). Pay-as-you-go customers aren't affected.
The £5/day charge kicks in if you use your phone in any of 60 countries outside Europe, including Australia, China, Egypt, Israel, India, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, Canada, most of South and Central America and large parts of the Caribbean (see a full list here). Roam-further allows you to use your UK allowance as normal, and there's no charge to receive calls.
Vodafone won't say how many pay-monthly customers it has but its total number of mobile customers, including pay-as-you-go users, who aren't affected, is 19 million.
It's worth stressing that while occasional users may pay more as a result of Roam-further, it's likely to cut heavy users' bills. For example, EE customers visiting India are usually charged 50p to send a single text. That's much less than the £5 it would cost you to send that single text on Vodafone but if you were to send 20 texts in a day, that would be £10 on EE and still £5 on Vodafone.
If you're a Vodafone customer travelling within 50 European territories including many countries covered by 'free' EU roaming but also some which aren't, such as Turkey you won't be charged £5/day, and Vodafone's 'Roam-free' policy applies instead. This allows you to use your UK allowance at no extra cost.
'Real risk some will see their bills rocket'
Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "To unilaterally impose this kind of pricing plan on customers when it means some will have to pay a fiver to send a single text is frankly outrageous.
"There's a very real risk that customers who are careful to only use their phone sparingly abroad to keep costs down will see their bills rocket. And sadly all Vodafone seems to say in response is that as long as they're a customer they can like it or lump it.
"Using your mobile phone outside Europe can often be a pricey business, and if you use it a lot, the 'add-on' bundles offered by mobile providers can be a cost-effective option. But what grates here is that customers have simply had the choice taken away not only have they been opted in to Roam-further by default, they can't even choose to opt out."
If you'll pay more you may be able to leave Vodafone penalty-free
Vodafone says all customers were given 30 days' notice of the change in roaming policy and a further confirmation after it was applied to them and insists most are likely to save money as a result.
A spokesperson told us: "Roam-further constitutes a revision of our pricing and is the only option available for customers roaming outside of our Roam-free destinations.
"We believe Roam-further gives our customers peace of mind when using their device and helps to reduce further customers' worries over bill shock, ensuring they will not get any surprise bills. The average amount spent by our customers whilst roaming is more than £5 a day, therefore making Roam-further very competitive."
However, if you believe you'll end up paying more as a result of the change, you may be able to leave penalty-free. Under rules from regulator Ofcom, mobile providers must give customers one month's notice of contractual changes "likely to be of material detriment", and must then allow them to withdraw from their contract penalty-free. To try this:
- Contact Vodafone and ask to leave. You can do this via its customer service line or using its web chat. Vodafone said: "We looked at the usage pattern for our customers who had roamed in the relevant countries in the past three months and anyone who would be subject to higher charges in the future than they had previously would be entitled to leave us without penalty."
- If Vodafone says no and you're still unhappy, request a 'deadlock' letter. This applies to any complaint against a mobile firm which you haven't been able to resolve. Vodafone will have to set out in this letter why it's handled your case the way it has.
You can then give this letter to Ombudsman Services, which will rule on who is in the right and which has the power to enforce a range of solutions. See more on this in 30+ Cheap Mobile Tips in Kathryn's case (see above), her asking for a deadlock letter prompted Vodafone to release her from her contract.
What do other providers do?
Mobile users have long been warned about the risk of racking up hefty bills when abroad and while there's now 'free' EU roaming, outside Europe prices can be eye-watering.
To combat this, as well as setting a rate for using minutes, texts and data in each country, most providers also allow customers to purchase 'add-ons' which can slash your bills if you use your phone regularly.
O2 pay-monthly customers visiting the USA, for instance, are typically charged £1.10/min, 40p/text and £6/MB of data yet for £4.99/day they can purchase an add-on offering 120 minutes, 120 texts and unlimited data.
However, unlike Vodafone's Roam-further plan, all the add-ons offered by the three other major firms (EE, O2 and Three) are opt-in and not mandatory.
Additional reporting by Callum Mason.