Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming

Use your phone abroad for less, incl roam free trick

cheap mobile and data roaming

Whether you're a global jet-setter 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. 

In this guide

Quick tips to use your mobile abroad for less

  • The easiest way to avoid charges while abroad is simply to turn roaming off. We all tend to lead very connected lives – the very fact you're reading this means you're online in some way. And our phones will usually try to feed this habit by connecting automatically to the nearest signal – this can be particularly dangerous if you have automatic updates on, for example.

  • 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 system 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 the odd 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 the EU? You can use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without paying any extra charges if you are in one of the 31 countries included, such as France, Italy and Spain. 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 whilst 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' plans can use their allowance in 71 countries around the world, including Australia, the US and Singapore. Plus, there's still a trick to make this work even if you're with another network – 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.

Travelling within Europe? Roam for free in 31 countries

You can use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without paying any extra charges if you are in one of the 31 EU countries included, such as France, Italy and Spain. 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.

Though beware, you could still face roaming charges if you exceed data limits

While you can'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. 

In practice, the exact amount of your data allowance you can use before these extra charges kick in will vary by provider. Giffgaff customers, for example, who are used to 'Always On' unlimited data, are restricted to 9GB while away – and will be charged £6 for every GB used on top. 

  • How the main UK mobile providers limit 'free' EU mobile roaming

    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?
    EE 15GB 0.6p/100MB
    O2 All of it - no fair use limit N/a
    Three 19GB for contract, data & Sim only. 15GB for PAYG users 1p/MB
    Vodafone All of it - no fair use limit N/a
    ASDA Mobile All of it - no fair use limit N/a
    BT Mobile 15GB 0.47p/MB
    Giffgaff 20GB if on an 'Always On' package 0.47p/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 fair use limit N/a
    Tesco Mobile Depends on your usage - see full details 0.46p/MB

    Table correct as of July 2019.

Since 2017, mobile phone firms have been banned from charging you extra fees to use your UK allowance of minutes, texts or (most) data when in the European Union. But once we leave the EU, this will no longer be the case.

See our Brexit guide and which mobile firms will keep 'free' EU roaming after Brexit for more. 

Travelling outside Europe? You'll pay MUCH more

Outside the EU, some providers charge a gobsmacking £7.20/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 whilst travelling further afield. 

First, watch out for the 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 £1.80/min to receive a voicemail, and a further £1.80/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 state that even if you're roaming OUTSIDE Europe, providers have to cut you off when you've used €50 (around £44) of data in a month.

    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 EU €50 cut-off limit.

    So read the T&C's 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 should also be noted that this cap doesn't cover calls or texts, so you could still run up a considerable bill at £2/minute. 

Next, arm yourself with the best plan BEFORE you travel

Roam free in 71 destinations including the US and Australia

When it comes to making roaming outside the EU affordable, Three's Go Roam* has led the charge for a while now. 

It allows those on 'Advanced' (but not the legacy 'Essential') pay-monthly plans and pay-as-you-go users to access their allowance of minutes, texts and data abroad in 71 countries and territories as standard. Many of these are in the EU (and those on Essential plans can also access these), but the list also includes the US, Australia, Switzerland and more. See the full list of countries covered*. 

Though travel to a country outside of this - including Turkey - and you'll be charged its expensive standard rates, so its not a blanket rule that Three will be the cheapest way to roam. See our round up of the main network charges below to compare.

  • 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. See our Pay-as-you-go guide for full details

    To do this you might have to unlock your phone though – as some networks can take up to 10 days to do this, make sure you leave plenty of time.

    • Any calls or texts to UK numbers and any data used comes from your allowance (though you're charged international rates for dialling non-UK numbers, eg, if you call the restaurant down the street from your hotel). Receiving calls and texts is also free.

    • If you have international roaming activated* on your account, Go Roam should work automatically when you arrive in one of the countries covered. You'll get a text confirming there's no extra cost for calls and texts to the UK, and another with international rates.

    • You can only use 3G data abroad, even if you get 'superfast' 4G in the UK. Three says there's no need to turn 4G off to get online in a Go Roam country though, your handset will just connect to 3G only.

    • There's a 'fair usage' cap of 12GB data, 3,000 mins and 5,000 texts abroad. That's how much of your monthly UK allowance you can use abroad with no roaming charges - so it's not technically unlimited 'free roaming', though for many it will be plenty.
  • Three's terms and conditions say you can't use your phone for tethering (sharing your data connection with other devices).

    Three also says it reserves the right to cut off the service if you use your allowance abroad for more than two months continuously.

Check out your provider's roaming rates and add-ons

If you're a pay monthly contract 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 off keeping your phone off or sticking to free Wi-Fi.

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 £10/mth on a rolling 30-day contract. If you have a 'Smart' plan you could select it as a 'swappable benefit' at no extra charge.

 

Alternatively, and for 50 other destinations 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

N/A (2) £1.80/min 60p
O2*

If you've an O2 Refresh tariff or have a Sim only plan with 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

£7.20/MB £2/min 50p
Three*

Three's standard Go Roam* includes 71 countries, including the US 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 have a 'Red Entertainment' plan, check if your destination is covered by the included Global Roaming Plus, which covers 29 countries including Mexico and New Zealand. 

 

For all other pay monthly plans it offers:

Roam Further* - Use your UK allowance in 104 destinations for £6/day

12p/MB 60p/min 8p

Table correct as of July 2019. (1) Based on standard roaming rates for Morocco. (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? 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:

    France | Spain | Germany | Poland | Greece | Turkey | Australia | 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 of pre-paid 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 pre-paid 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.

    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 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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