On a business trip to Cairo, I arrived late at night expecting a driver to meet me. Nobody was there. Time to make a call. I’d made the arrangement through my guide using WhatsApp messaging so that seemed the easiest way to get answers. I flicked mobile roaming back on and sorted the problem out. The cost of that message exchange was £160.
My provider O2 had already alerted me by text message that data would cost me a whopping £7.20 per megabyte (MB) but I didn’t expect to spend any more than that. Big mistake. It appeared that my phone had used 26MB to update all its apps because I had auto-update switched on.
I felt pretty stupid at making what I thought was a rookie error but a friend just back from New York had a similar shock. His mobile service is provided by EE as part of his BT Business account and within minutes he’d reached his data cap of £120. All because he’d failed to notify EE that he’d like to activate Roam Abroad.
Data roaming charges are complex and vary widely by provider and destination. But one thing’s guaranteed: using 4G on the hoof gobbles up data at an alarming rate. You can use up 1MB of data checking a navigation app and 10MB browsing the web or checking Facebook for a few minutes. Upload and send a photo and you’re also instantly in multi-megabyte territory.
The UK has four main mobile networks: EE, Three, Vodafone and O2. Third-party providers use one of these networks for access. With the exception of O2 and a few third-party providers (Virgin, Talk Talk and Tesco) who have resisted reimposed European roaming fees, mobile roaming is no longer free in Europe.
New customers signing up direct with EE, Three and Vodafone – and those who have renewed their contract or joined the provider after the 2021 cut-off date for free EU roaming – now pay a flat daily rate for calls, texts and data roaming in Europe up to the limit of their UK allowance.These range from £2 per day with Three; £2.25 per day (£15 for 15 days) with Vodafone and £2.29 per day (£15 a month) with EE. Only customers who have been ‘in contract’ before the cut-off dates in 2021 can continue to use their allowance in Europe free of charge.
There are ways around the charges if you travel regularly. Mobile companies may include free roaming in Europe, and sometimes further afield, on selected – for which read more expensive – pay-monthly Sim-only and phone contracts or as part of promotional deals to attract new customers.
If your new phone plan doesn’t include roaming or a reasonably priced add-on, the surest way to avoid a big bill is to activate flight mode, make sure you use Wi-Fi for calls, web browsing and downloads, and set a low roaming charge cap for use in emergencies.
Travel SIMs and e-SIMs
There are times when you really need to fire up roaming though: to order a taxi on the street, to use Google Translate’s chat facility, or to find out where you are (though maps.me has good offline GPS-enabled mapping).
If you’re travelling independently it’s a good idea to buy a local SIM card. Newer smartphones usually include a dual SIM facility or, for iPhone 12 and 13, you can convert your UK account into an e-SIM so you can use the SIM slot for a local card or vice-versa.
In countries where the bureaucratic hoops make it difficult to obtain a local SIM, consider buying one before you leave. Several companies now offer travel e-SIMs in the form of Apps to cover data usage. Check the list of destinations as some cover countries that others do not.
Airalo has a variety of country-specific and regional packages. A seven-day 1GB e-SIM covering places like Turkey, India and the US costs from $4.50 (£3.50); region e-SIMs cost from $15 (£11.80). Nomad has similar charges for 1GB. Holafly charges more but has wider coverage and includes unlimited data. These are newish Apps and we would like to hear feedback from readers who have used them.
If your mobile phone only supports a physical SIM card, Dataroam sells an international pay-as-you-go card that can be used in 27 non-EU countries. 1GB of data costs from £29.99 for 30 days in the US rising to £69.99 in Singapore.
Pay-monthly deals from the four main providers
The four main networks offer a variety of roaming packages; some come free as part of more expensive contracts, others involve paying a daily charge. Check the list of countries covered carefully before signing up as there are significant omissions in the coverage of some providers.
In countries where there’s no roaming pass or add-on deal available you will have to pay standard roaming rates, as I did in Egypt: £1-£2 per minute for calls; 50-60p for texts, and £6-£10 per megabyte for data.
To avoid customers running up huge bills for the provider in countries with expensive mobile networks, companies have a Fair Usage Policy as personal accounts are designed for holiday travel and not for travelling on business or spending time at a second home abroad. High usage will be spotted and may trigger extra charges or a reduction in speed from 4G to 3G.
O2 does not charge any customers for roaming in Europe, the only major network not to impose charges. Customers on selected O2 Refresh and and SIM-only tariffs – and associated Virgin Volt customers – are also eligible for free roaming in 27 destinations outside Europe through its Travel Bolt On deal which includes unlimited minutes, texts and data roaming. Other customers can access a paid-for Travel Bolt On for £6 a day which covers 68 countries outside of Europe. For other countries there are data roaming bundles; eg 1GB in India costs £65.
EE customers on more expensive Smart Benefits or Full Works plans can choose a Roam Abroad pass as a benefit to avoid the £2.29 daily charge in Europe. Other customers (who joined after July 7, 2021) can buy a Roam Abroad pass for £15 for 30 days to access their UK plan allowance in Europe, North America, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
There are no deals for using your UK allowance to travel to other destinations. You will need to activate a Travel Data Pass costing £6.26-£7.84 a day for a relatively small amount of data (150-500MB). This makes EE an expensive option for roaming worldwide.
Selected Vodafone Xtra Plans allow you to use your UK allowance in up to 83 destinations worldwide, Cheaper plans bought after August 11, 2021 exclude roaming (apart from Ireland, Iceland and Norway) which costs £2.25 a day in Europe and £6.85 a day in a further 73 worldwide destinations. The list includes expensive destinations such as India, Egypt and Singapore which other providers often exclude from roaming deals.
For Pay Monthly plans with Three starting after October 1, 2021 you can access Go Roam in Europe for £2 a day and Go Roam World for £5 a day including much fo the Caribbean and South America, the US and Australia but oddly not Canada. To access discounted roaming in a further 18 countries including Canada, Turkey and Thailand you will need to buy a Data Passport. This costs £5 a day for unlimited data only.
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