Cut the cost of using your mobile phone abroad

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

Over four nights in New York this June I pretty much only used my phone for maps and researching places to eat and drinks, 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. Yet I didn’t have to pay a penny of this. How?

Well, we all know that thanks to roaming rules, you can use your inclusive data, calls and texts when in Europe. Great! But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get charged more for using your phone abroad.

First not every European country is included (hello Switzerland). And the roaming charge ban doesn’t apply if you going elsewhere in the world. So let’s face it, that’s most places. There might also be a cap on how much data you can use, especially if you have an unlimited plan. And of course, we don’t know what’ll happen to these rules when / if Brexit finally happens.

This all means if you’re not careful it’s still easy to add hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to your bill. 

So how do you avoid a nasty bill when you get home? Just follow my tricks below to help you cut back but stay connected.

Find out what’s included where you are travelling

The basic offering is for all 28 EU countries, though many networks add a couple more popular nearby countries, so go to your network’s website to find out if yours is included.

If you go outside of Europe a lot then I really think it’s worth thinking about switching to a different network.

Switch to a different mobile network

Before we went to New England for our honeymoon a few years ago I switched my mobile to Three to take advantage of their “Go Roam” offer, where my inclusive minutes and texts to the UK and data could all be used not just in Europe, but also in 53 extras, including the USA. It was one of the best decisions we made, helping us navigate with Google Maps and search blogs and Tripadvisor for places to eat. Oh and check the weather! 

A few networks offer this, here are the key ones.

Three – roaming in 71 countries

Though not the very cheapest mobile network, Three still has some very good SIM-only deals. You can get 12, 24 or one-month rolling contracts. I switched away to BT Mobile for a while, but I soon went back to Three because of this extra and it’s why I didn’t also pay for the data use on my New York trip this year.

I’m currently paying £10 a month for my deal (having haggled for a cheaper price). That’s actually only a quid more than what I’d get for the same 8GB package elsewhere. So it’s costing me £12 a year for this feature, but the savings I’ve made on these trips and convenience it affords far outweigh this extra expense.

If you don’t fancy a full switch you can get the Go Roam extra as a top-up on Pay As You Go sims which you could use just for your trip. Though doing this does mean you’ll have a different number while you’re away.

Destinations include Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the USA and Vietnam. You can see the full list here.

A £5 daily data passport will allow you to use data in extra counties such as Canada, Mexico, Russia and Thailand. More on this in a bit.

> See if you can find a good deal at Three

Vodafone – roaming in up to 77 countries

Extra destinations with some Vodafone contracts include the USA, Australia, Canada, Mexico and South Africa. The full list is here.

However, these contracts aren’t as cheap as Three’s, with the cheapest right now costing £30 a month. Cheaper tariffs have roaming in 48 countries, but that’s still largely Europe focused.

On either plan you can a £6 daily cap for countries not in the allowance. 

> Get a Vodafone sim

O2 – roaming in 27 additional countries

Another one where people with premium contracts – generally 20GB or above – can get inclusive use in USA, Australia and New Zealand. All countries listed here. However since not all tariffs are eligible for this, I think it’s probably not worth paying the premium you do with O2 over a cheaper network.

Cap your charges or get a bolt-on

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.

Possibly better is to buy add-on packages which give a pre-agreed amount of minutes, texts or data to use. Here are the costs at the major networks:


For some of the countries not covered by Three’s Go Roam, you can buy a Data Passport for £5 a day. That means you can use mobile internet in places like Canada and Mexico.


Vodafone charges £6 a day for additional countries not in the existing roaming packages.


Pay £4.99 a day with O2 for 120 mins, 120 texts and data at 27 extra counties including Argentina, Columbia, Mexico and the USA.


EE customers can pay £10 a month on a rolling contract to add just five countries – USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. That’s too much in my view but possibly worth it if you pay for just one month and then cancel. Also available is a Travel Data Pass but at around £6 a day for just 500MB of data I think it’s a total rip-off. 

These still work out expensive, but nowhere near as much as just using local rates. Make sure you keep an eye on how much you use, as you might not be cut off automatically.

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.

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 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. iPhone users have Facetime, while WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Viber and Skype are good too. 

If you need to call landlines or mobiles back home, EE, O2, Three and BT have apps that let you use your inclusive minutes.

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!

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