One big disadvantage of Brexit from the traveller’s point of view is the loss of automatic rights to free mobile roaming and calls to, from and between EU countries. By “free” I mean included in your normal monthly contract and allowance.
When this issue was raised soon after the 2016 referendum vote, mobile operators said at first that they had “no plans” to start charging. But since last summer, all but one of the four main providers – O2 is the outlier – have introduced fees for new customers and, crucially, for those who change or upgrade their contracts.
These contracts now mean you have to pay £2 a day to use your UK allowance to make calls, texts and use data in Europe. It may not sound much when put like that, but for a couple, each with a phone, on a 15-day holiday, the bill comes to £60. Add children to the equation and your monthly bill could take a £120 to £150 hit. (Note that with Vodafone you can buy cheaper weekly passes in advance.)
As Back Market – which specialises in selling refurbished phones and computers, so has a particular interest in this – has pointed out, only customers under an old contract which allowed free roaming in the EU can continue to access their UK allowance free of charge in Europe. To be valid, these contracts must have been in place before specific cut-off dates. These vary by company. Three began charging from May 23 for customers who had signed up or upgraded since October 2021. With Vodafone the cut off is August 11, 2021 (with charges starting from January 6 this year), for EE July 7, 2021 (charges began on March 3, 2022).
The launch of the iPhone 14 – released on Friday – is relevant because it will tempt large numbers of people to get a new phone by upgrading their contract. And it is questionable how many will realise the costly effect this may have on their roaming charges. So double check where you stand before making any changes to your contract.
The problem of roaming charges is now more of a minefield than ever, for travellers both inside and beyond the EU. But there are some decent deals. Much depends on which destinations you are likely to travel to, for how long and how much you will use your phone. Our consumer champion, Gill Charlton, offers an excellent guide to your options.
The introduction of 4 and now 5G has made it more important than ever to get things right. As Gill points out in her article, these high-speed mobile connections mean you can use data at an alarming rate. In a country like, for example, Egypt, where you might have to pay £6 for each MB of data that can quickly become extremely expensive.
You can eat up 1MB of data checking a navigation app and 10 times that browsing the web or using Instagram for a few minutes. Uploading and sending a single photo can easily use up 3MB and if you have apps that are set to update automatically using mobile data you – or your children – could unwittingly run up a huge bill (check this on your settings before travelling). In fact, if you have older teenagers who travel independently and you still pay for their contracts, be especially wary.
There are of course ways you can get round roaming charges – other than using only Wi-Fi. You can, for example, buy a local SIM on arrival in a foreign country and use that instead. If you have an iPhone 12, 13, or 14 you can even have both SIMs on your phone simultaneously, by converting your existing SIM into a virtual one, leaving the slot free to take the local one.
And – if you are tempted by the new iPhone 14, or any other new phone – there are also ways of upgrading without triggering a new contract. You could, for example, just buy one direct from Apple, or another supplier, and use your current SIM in it – though this solution may only be effective if you are already contracted on a SIM only deal. Alternatively, you could consider switching to O2, though note that it caps the free allowance at a monthly limit of 25GB for those who have a UK limit which is higher than that.
If you have had a problem with your holiday or travel arrangements, contact our troubleshooter, Gill Charlton, or our consumer expert, Nick Trend, at the email address below. We also have more than 150 destination experts all over the world who can help with suggestions for great places to stay, to eat and to visit.
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