Cut the cost of using your mobile phone abroad

Don’t blow your holiday budget on your mobile bill.

On a holiday to New York a few years ago I used my phone for maps and researching places to eat and drink. So not a huge amount. But on my return, a text message from Three informed me the cost of that data use was £1,734.

Imagine how much more it’d have been if I’d been constantly uploading pics to Instagram or making calls. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pay a penny of this thanks to inclusive roaming.

But that’s now changed on most networks and roaming is now the exception rather the the rule – no matter your destination. It means bills can rocket by hundreds if not thousands of pounds if you’re not careful.

Here’s what you need to know about the changes to roaming rules for the major networks, and a few tricks to help you keep costs down.

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What’s happening to roaming rules?

You probably already know that thanks to EU rules, we were able to use your inclusive data, calls and texts when in Europe. And some mobile companies, such as Three, offered the same deal in countries further afield such as the USA and Australia.

Sadly with Brexit, most major networks are ending free roaming and bringing in new charges this year. Here’s what changes are happening and when for the big networks:

O2 & Virgin Mobile -free roaming continues

The only major networks to retain free roaming are O2 and Virgin Mobile (which merged in June 2021). You’ll be able to call and text UK numbers when abroad, and use your data up to the limits in your monthly allowance.

It’s only for European countries, and you’ll be capped at 25GB of data a month if your normal allowance is above this.

For travel outside of Europe you can buy a O2 Travel Bolt On for £6 a day which covers 27 worldwide destinations (full list here). You’ll get unlimited data each day, plus 120 minutes talk time and texts to UK numbers.

Some more expensive packages include this, usually those with 30GB of data or more. Or if your broadband is with Virgin Media then you can link your accounts to get this Bolt On added to your phone tariff for free.

Vodafone – ended January 2022

Roaming charges now apply to anyone who took out a Vodafone contract after 11 August 2021. There’s no change for contracts taken out before this.

The charge will be £2.25 a day for Europe, and you can reduce this with an eight-day pass for £8 or a 15-day pass for £15.

There’s also a £6.85 a day pass to use your allowance in 107 worldwide destinations (see the full list here).

Once more, some of the top-end contracts will include the EU roaming.

EE – ended March 2022

You’ll need to pay £2.29 a day to use your allowances in Europe if you signed up for a new or renewed contract after 7 July 2021. Existing customers before this date won’t see a change. This came into play in March.

There are some pricier contracts that include this, though you’re likely overpaying if you’re on one of these.

You can also choose Roam Abroad as one of your monthly Smart Benefits or pay £15 a month. This offers roaming in the EU and a handful of worldwide countries (USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand). Be careful if you pay as it’s a rolling contract, so cancel it when you get home.

Three – ended May 2022

This is the one I’m really frustrated about as it was a huge money saver when travelling outside Europe. But on 23 May 2022, this Go Roam benefit ended for anyone who took out a contract or renewed a contract after 1 October 2021.

However, older customers (which included me) may have found they were forced to move off their old tariff, losing the Go Roam benefit. I ditched the network and moved to O2.

If you stick with Three, you can pay £2 a day in Europe, or £5 a day for the rest of the world to use your existing allowances. There’s also a £5 a day Data passport which offers unlimited data abroad.

Alternatively, Three’s Pay-as-you-go Three SIMs will continue to offer Go Roam. So it could be you pick up one of these when you go abroad and switch it over for most usage. Obviously it’ll be a temporary different number, so you won’t be receiving usual calls and texts.

Other networks

Here’s what some of the other networks are doing:

  • BT Mobile – free European roaming remains
  • Giffgaff – free European roaming remains
  • ID Mobile – free European roaming remains
  • Lebara – free European roaming remains
  • Plusnet – free European roaming remains
  • Sky Mobile – free roaming ended in May 2022
  • Smarty – free European roaming remains
  • Tesco Mobile – free European roaming ended for new customers from 16 June 2022
  • Voxi – free roaming ended in May 2022

New rules to cut roaming fees

Mobile network providers must tell you if you’re going to be charged for roaming when you’re abroad under new proposals from Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator).

The plans aim to make sure that you get a heads up about potential fees when using your minutes, texts or data outside of the UK.

According to Ofcom, some mobile networks are charging people around £2 a day while using their phone abroad – which really adds up!

These are just proposals at the moment but we could see a decision in 2024. And mobile network providers will get six months to implement the new rules once they’re announced.

How to reduce your phone charges abroad

Check your destination

Even if you have roaming included or there’s the option for a daily price cap – check that the country you’re going to is part of that deal. If it’s excluded then you’ll need to look at some of these other tips.

Switch to a different mobile network

As well as O2 and Virgin Media, a number of smaller networks are keeping EU roaming – for now at least. And these could well be cheaper than the major networks too.

If you don’t fancy doing this permanently, you could look at Three’s PAYG SIM.

Get an e-Sim

An e-Sim is a handy way to get service while you’re abroad. It’s essentially a digital sim card that you can load onto your phone to use local network providers for making calls, texts and using data.

They work just like a pay-as-you-go sim and you can top them up with credit or a preset plan.

Cap your charges

If you don’t want to switch, you should find out what your network will charge where you are going.

It’s worth seeing if your network has a cap on overseas charges, particularly for data. This will stop your bill getting out of control – but don’t assume you’ll get this. You often have to ask for this to put implemented.

Get a bolt-on

Possibly better is to buy add-on packages which give a pre-agreed amount of minutes, texts or data to use.

Turn off your data and use wi-fi instead

You need to do this before you get on the plane, train or boat.  Go to your settings and turn off data roaming or mobile data – and keep it off until you’re back in the UK.

This also means the apps on your phone won’t automatically access data behind the scenes. It also protects against accidentally opening your email – you’d get charged, even if it was for just a few seconds.

If you’re in a destination where roaming is included check there isn’t a reduction in how much of your allowance you can use.

With data turned off, the only way to connect to the web will be via wi-fi. You might get lucky and get it for free at your hotel. If not, look for coffee shops and public spaces that don’t charge. You can research in advance too, using the wi-fi finder app.

But be careful of unsecured wi-fi when using banking apps or online shopping. Don’t enter log-in or password details.

Write shorter texts

If your text is longer than 160 characters, it’ll count as two texts (or more), so try to watch your words. It’s also worth not sending picture messages via text (at home and abroad) as they’ll be charged extra. Use messaging apps instead (when you’re on Wi-Fi).

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Be careful when making local calls

Unless you’ve got a specific add-on which allows it, any calls you make to numbers at your destination or texts messages to local mobiles aren’t included in roaming. You might be better off getting a local SIM or calling card if you’re going to make a lot of these calls.

Don’t answer calls and turn off voicemail

Outside inclusive roaming counties you’ll often be charged to answer a call, so don’t answer unless you need to. You won’t be charged to get a text message though, so tell mates back home that’s the best way to communicate with you while you’re away.

Some networks – with EE the worst – will also charge you for receiving a voicemail when abroad, even if you don’t access it. I always used to call my provider and turn voicemail off before I left to avoid any unnecessary charges.

Use apps to make calls and send messages

When you’re connected via wi-fi, you’ll also be able to use apps to make free calls to others people using the same app.

These will cut out the costs to make and receive calls overseas. Be warned though that if the wi-fi signal is weak, it can be a very frustrating phone call!

5 thoughts on “Cut the cost of using your mobile phone abroad

  1. Worth mentioning eSIMs. I use those when travelling to countries outside of the EU where Lebara doesn’t include free roaming. Often pay around £5 for 5GB which is usually sufficient for me for a week.

  2. I cancelled my vodafone 6 months ago when my contract run out. I now have lebara. Which is ok cost 4.50 pound 3 months then 9 pound for 15gb and 100 International mins. And free roaming in a lot of countries

  3. is this a slipup –
    02 & virgin mobile – continuing

    ……free roaming are 02 & vodafone

    1. Yep. fixed! Thanks

      1. Another alternative is to buy a local tourist or pay as you go sim in the country you go to. Question the options given to you in airports. They often advertise large more expensive packages. It can also be cheaper to buy them in town – although not always easy or convenient – so do your homework if planning on that.
        I travel a lot so have sim cards for several countries. I also have a dual sim phone – easy if I need to receive a text for a purchase.

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