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10 USA Roaming Tips

Pay UK rates with a special Sim

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Updated September 2017

While roaming in Europe is relatively cheap, take a trip to the USA and it's easy to rack up bills of £100s. Yet there are simple ways to slash the cost including a special way to use your UK tariff in America at no extra cost.

Here are 10 top tips from MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis after a recent trip he made to the States…

Warning: This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please give us feedback, suggest improvements and share your tips in the US Roaming forum thread.

Do you really need a phone for anything other than emergencies?

If it’s a holiday you may enjoy it more if you go offline, and it’s likely to save on the pocket while ensuring you have a hassle-free break from daily life. To show quite how extreme things can be here are the standard costs from three of the big four UK mobile networks. (I'll discuss Three shortly.)

Costs on pay monthly
Network Call the UK Make a local US call Receive a call Send a text 100MB Data
EE £1/min £1/min £1/min 40p/text N/A (1) 
O2 £1.10/min £1.10/min 90p/min 40p/text £600
Vodafone £1.35/min £1.35/min £1/min 35p/text £300 (2)
Table updated 3 January 2017. All networks comply with a max €50/mth data cap (approx £42 incl VAT) which can be opted out of, incl by buying a bundle. (1) With EE you must buy an add-on to use data. (2) £3/MB for the first 5MB, then £15 per 5MB.
Costs on pay-as-you-go
Network Call the UK Make a local US call Receive a call Send a text 100MB Data
EE £1/min £1/min £1/min 40p/text N/A (1)
O2 £1.49/min mobiles; 99p/min landlines £1.49/min 99p/min 49p/text £600
Vodafone £1.35/min £1.35/min £1/min 49p/text £230 (2)
Table updated 3 January 2017. (1) With EE you must buy an add-on to use data. (2) £5 for the first 25MB, then £3/MB.

Most networks do offer add-on packages, but these too can be astronomical.

Let's say you use 200MB over a week or so, which is quite easy to do picking up emails, surfing a few webpages and checking Google Maps (if you download things – listen to music, and films etc – this is trivial and you'll need a lot more). Here's how much it could cost, for those on pay monthly:

Cost of data bundles with 200MB+ over 7+ days
Network Bundle MB Cost Valid for Rolling add-on Other bundles
EE Zone A Roaming Data* (1) 250MB £20 7 days No Roaming Minutes & Texts* 
O2 O2 Travel* Unlimited £34.93 (2) Across 7 days No Data abroad Bolt On*
Vodafone Data Traveller* (1) 200MB (3) £40 (3) Across 8 days No World Traveller*
Table updated 8 August 2016. Based on add-ons for a pay monthly contract. (1) Also available on PAYG. (2) Costs £4.99/day – total over 7 days. (3) Costs £5/day for 25MB – total for 200MB over 8 days.

If you're not already on Three get one of its cheap pay-as-you-go Sim cards

Three uniquely allows those on its Advanced (but NOT Essential) plans to roam in the USA (and many other countries, see the full 'Feel at Home' list*), at no extra charge – a stunning offer for the States considering how expensive it is with others (You can only roam on 3G, not 'superfast' 4G).

However, I'm not advocating permanently switching to Three just for this, as you can simply just bag one of its pay-as-you-go Sims to use on your travels (the Sim is the little gold chip that goes in the back of a handset, that gives a phone its number, its identity and dictates what you pay).

Here's three steps to do this.

  1. Order a free Three PAYG Sim* – it's free online (or free in store provided you do a £10 credit top up which is also needed to get the add on package).

  2. To get the 'pay the same in the US as you do in the UK' deal you need one of its add-on packages* which cost between £5 and £25. It's likely the most suitable is its All-in-One 20* package, which for £20 gives 300 mins and 3,000 texts to the UK and 12GB of 3G data, to use over 30 days, and it's free to receive calls. Astoundingly cheap compared to the deals above, especially for longer trips.

  3. Make sure you have international roaming activated on your account – you can do this online or by calling customer services, see Three's website for more. Once you arrive in the US or any of the other Feel at Home countries it works automatically.  
If you choose not to buy an add on and rely on Three's Feel At Home PAYG rates while in the USA, it's 3.3p per min to call the UK, 1.3p per text and 3.3p per MB – still much cheaper than other networks.

NB: You have to make a call, send a text or go online in the UK from your Three PAYG Sim first to be able to take advantage of the Feel At Home rates.

Vodafone has a similar system for its contract users called World Traveller* where you can use your UK contract minutes abroad in 60 countries, including the US, but you pay £5 per day you use it. (If you go over your normal allowance you're charged at standard UK rates*.)

Ensure your phone is unlocked at least 10 days in advance

Some modern handsets are locked so they can only be used on one network. If you're going for the Three Sim route and are not a Three customer, you may need to unlock yours to allow it to use the Sim card. This can take a few days – up to 10 on some networks – so don't leave it too late.

You may be able to unlock your phone for free, depending on your network and the type of handset you have. If you can't then the networks may charge you to do it – prices vary but it typically costs between £9 and £20 (see the networks' policies). Then head to the high street and check out prices from businesses which offer unlocking. 

A few older handsets, eg some Nokias and LGs, can be unlocked for free by finding a code online. Giffgaff's Unlockapedia* is a good place to start – you'll need to know your brand, model number, network and IMEI number (type *#06# into your handset to find it).

If you're feeling brave and particularly confident in your technical abilities you may be able to do it yourself if you've an older handset. See our Mobile Unlocking guide for more information.

The Three Sim will have a different phone number – putting your normal Sim into a spare handset should help

If you are using the Three Sim route, remember it will have a different phone number, so it's worth letting friends, family and colleagues who may call and text know your temporary number while away.

However this still leaves the unexpected calls and texts to your normal number that you may miss. (Unless you just tell them to stick to WhatsApp, which works off data and can stay tied to your normal number if you choose.)

If you are worried about those leave your normal Sim in a spare handset. You can then either take this with you to receive messages only, replying back on your Three phone, or leave the spare handset at home and use autoforwarding of calls (or download an Android or iPhone app that does it for you).

If you don't have a spare handset you can just take your normal Sim with you and put it in your phone once a day to check for messages.

Use free Wi-Fi for internet and calls

Free Wi-Fi is commonplace in the USA.  So whether you’re using Three or not, when you want to make contact pop into a McDonalds, Starbucks, or countless other restaurants and stores and use their free Wi-Fi. See the Free Wi-Fi guide for more details.

You can also download apps ahead of time to make the most of free Wi-Fi when you're Stateside.

  • Free web calls. If you've a smartphone, download the Skype or Viber (iPhone) or Viber (Android) apps on your phone and you can then use it to speak to people back home who are also using the same service for free – or use Facetime if you're an Apple user and the person you're contacting is too.

    Or you can make calls to the UK for 0.5p a minute to a landline on using Wi-Fi or data via a calling app like Localphone or about 1.8p/min on Skype (plus a 3.1p connection fee). See our Free Web Calls guide for more info.

  • App for O2 users. O2 customers can also download the O2 Tu app* (do it while in the UK) to then make calls and receive calls using their UK allowance over Wi-Fi. Make sure you switch data roaming off to avoid hefty charges though. If you call a local US number over the app you'll be charged at international rates.   

Text is cheap-ish, talk isn't

If you're not using the Three Sim it's worth noting that while calls have an open-ended cost, the cost of texting is fixed at roughly 40p a go depending on the network.

Therefore if you need to contact people back home, send them a text. Even if you ask them to call you back it is pretty much the same cost to receive a call as make one, so our advice is to keep schtum if you can,

And to help keep texts short so they hopefully fit into just one message – "esy 2do, if u lrn b4 u go".

Switch data roaming off

Again if you’re not on the Three Sim, ensure you switch data roaming off. If not your phone can be using data while you're unaware – many apps are constantly updating. This can easily hoover up all your data or cost you a fortune.

How to switch off data roaming

Here's how to turn off data roaming on some of the most common phones:

  • iPhone. Go into Settings > Cellular, then tap the data roaming slider to off.
  • Samsung. Go into Settings > More Networks > Mobile Networks, then untick the data roaming button.
  • Blackberry. Go into Manage Connections > Mobile Network Options, then change Data Services While Roaming to off.
  • Windows phone. Go into Settings > Mobile Network > Data Roaming Options, then select "do not roam".

Many apps and programs, as well as the operating systems themselves, routinely check for available updates and download them automatically. So be sure to turn these off too. Here's how for iPhones and Android handsets:

Beware – some networks charge £1/min just to RECEIVE a voicemail

On some networks you pay per minute of voicemail others leave while you're in the States, and then pay to listen too. So you may want to switch it off before you go. 

  • Virgin charges you to receive and pick up voicemail. To be safe turn it off by dialling '#002#'. Outside the EU, it's £1 per minute to simply receive a voicemail, and then another £2.50 per minute to listen to it. 

  • EE charges you to receive and pick up voicemail. Outside Europe, you'll pay £1 per minute of voicemail you're left, and a further £1/min to pick it up. To stop any shock bills turn voicemail off*.

  • Three is free (for most). If you're on an Advanced plan and have minutes left in your monthly allowance or add-on it will be free to call voicemail but set up a pin* before you go. If you don't have any allowance left it's 3.3p/min to call voicemail, or £1.40/min if you're on an Essential plan.

  • Vodafone only charges to pick up voicemail. Customers will pay £1.35/min to listen to voicemail but you can turn it off* before you go.

  • O2 only charges to pick up voicemail. It costs £1.10 on pay monthly. You can turn it off by dialling 1760 from your mobile while in the UK, but if you want to use it you need to set up a pin* before you go.

For more info on voicemail charges and how to dodge them see the 60-second Beat the Voicemail Roaming Trap guide.

While it may work, you are breaching Three's terms if you use your phone as a portable hotspot

If you're using the Three Sim technique, it's worth being aware its Feel at Home terms and conditions don't allow tethering – in other words using your phone as a 'portable hotspot' to then connect your (or others') laptop or tablet to.

However we have had people say it does work – we asked Three about this but it refused to be drawn on the consequences, only referring us to the out of allowance call charges if tethering takes you over the 12GB allowed if you have all-you-can-eat data. 

But if there's a group of you, why not consider using the one phone with a Three Feel at Home Sim between you? Normally this wouldn't be ideal but if you're just checking in, using maps and looking up restaurants and places to visit it will be much cheaper than you all forking out for your own data.

Accept the signal won't be great

I’ve used the Three Sim in the centre of Manhattan. The signal was patchy and the data was slow, yet for the price it is still a good deal.  Don't go with the expectation you will get the type of service and speed you're used to on your home network – you may be lucky, and it could be great, as one MSE team member who travelled to California told me, but don't expect it.

Three will automatically connect you to a network, so you can't try a different one to see if you get better signal. 

I was able to make a raft of calls, receive them, text and get data good enough for basic web surfing and Google Maps – though not streaming. For anything more, it's worth finding free Wi-Fi.

It's also worth noting that the US is a very large country. If service was patchy in the centre of New York City, it's likely to be much more intermittent if you're visiting, say, the Grand Canyon.

If you're willing to pay more there are global roaming Sims and 4G Sims that will be faster, but are far costlier (though still cheaper than network add-ons for trips longer thana few days), or find a local Sim when you arrive. For more info see the Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming guide.
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