Using your mobile phone abroad used to be an expensive habit to have, but thanks to recent EU laws it shouldn't now cost you anymore than it does at home, in Europe at least. However, data roaming charges still apply outside of the continent.
This guide will help you understand data roaming and how it applies to you. We also look into alternatives to using your own data, and ways to avoid data roaming charges altogether.
What is data roaming?
Data roaming is when your mobile phone uses a network that's not yours to send and receive calls, texts, or data. The only time you'll really be data roaming is when you use your phone abroad, as you won't be able to connect to your UK network provider.
Every time you connect to the internet, whether it’s checking your email, updating Facebook or using Google Maps, you’re using data. Using data abroad used to cost a lot of money, but recent changes have made it much more affordable.
What to look out for when using your phone abroad
EU regulations on data roaming introduced in 2017 mean that making a call, sending a text message, and using the internet in most parts of Europe shouldn't cost you more than when you're at home. But if you're travelling further afield then it's a whole different story.
Depending on where you are and what network provider you are with, even receiving calls can cost as much as £3 a minute, while surfing the internet could cost you an eye-watering £7 per megabyte. That could drive your monthly phone bill into the thousands.
After paying for flights, hotels and everything else that makes our holidays memorable, the last thing you want when you return home is to be hit with a massive bill. So, before you make that Instagram post or watch the latest Netflix show while abroad, think carefully about how you're doing it. Follow this guide to make sure you're not paying a crazy amount for using the internet on your mobile and keep the cost of your holiday as low as it can be.
Travelling in Europe
Thanks to the EU's 'roam like at home' policy, data roaming charges while travelling in Europe have largely been abolished. This means that customers on UK networks should now be charged the same amount for using data and making calls and texts abroad than when at home.
Which countries do 'roam like at home' policies apply to?
The EU countries included are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
It also covers: Canary Islands, French Guiana, Gibraltar, Guadeloupe, Guernsey, Iceland, Jersey, Liechtenstein, Martinique, Mayotte, Norway, Reunion, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, San Marino, Switzerland.
When you arrive in another country your mobile network should send you a message telling you about basic pricing on your visit.
What about fair use policies for data roaming?
Some network providers will include a 'fair use' policy in their data plan. This means that you could still actually be charged for data roaming in Europe. However, you should only be charged these fees once you're using over a certain amount of data, so it doesn't work too differently to data charges at home.
To avoid being charged more than you're used to, make sure you know what 'roaming product' your network offers before heading off abroad. You can check this by calling them up and asking if you're not sure.
If you're already abroad but getting close to reaching your data usage limit, your network must send a notification informing you of the additional costs that will be applied if you continue to use data. This should give you the opportunity to purchase more, or you could simply stop using data.
If you are a BT Mobile or EE customer, you will be charged for data roaming once you exceed 15GB. If you are a pay as you go customer with Three, you will be charged for anything over 12GB, or 13GB if you are on a contract. O2 and Vodafone do not use 'fair use' policies, so you will be able to use as much data as you do at home.
Travelling outside of Europe
If you're travelling to another continent, EU laws will no longer apply and the cost of using your mobile will soar.
EE customers could be charged as much as £3 a minute for making calls in some countries. But if you're an O2 customer, you will be charged as much as £7.20 per MB of data used in countries including the USA, Australia and India. This is where you must be extra careful, as using the internet without a set plan, especially if you're streaming videos, could cost you hundreds if not thousands of pounds.
Thankfully, most network providers will offer some sort of plan or an add-on that you can use abroad, so it is worth checking with your provider what they can offer you before you set off. Every major UK network also offers SIM-only deals specifically designed for travellers and international roaming. For more information, head over to our page on the best deals for roaming.
Alternatively, you should consider buying a local SIM card from the country you're in while outside of Europe. This way you will pay local rates for using 3G and 4G data, although you will usually still be charged large amounts for making calls back home. Be warned though: this will only work if you have an unlocked phone, so it's worth checking if you can do this before you get on the plane!
Top tips for using your mobile abroad and avoiding extra charges
Use free Wi-Fi whenever you can
You don't have to rely on 3G or 4G data to use the internet on your phone when you're abroad. In many countries you'll find yourself visiting, most hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants will have Wi-Fi. And the best thing is, it's usually free, although you may be expected to buy a drink if you're not already a customer. Be aware that in rural or remote areas, Wi-Fi networks are less common or will often be less reliable when they are available.
Relying on Wi-Fi will not limit you to just internet browsing. With apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, or FaceTime if you have an iPhone, you can also make calls and texts through a Wi-Fi connection. However, the person you are making a call to must also have the same app. If you are planning on calling certain family members or friends while you're on holiday, make sure they've downloaded the same app that you plan to use before you go.
Even if you're using Wi-Fi to actively use the internet, your phone could still be using data to upgrade apps and download emails automatically. To prevent you getting charged for this, make sure you turn off your data before you get on the plane. You can do this on most phones by going into settings > network settings.
Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Spotify are becoming ever more prominent in today's world but using them abroad can be extremely costly. Streaming videos and music uses huge amounts of data, so avoid this if you're outside the EU and not on a Wi-Fi connection or you'll end up with a huge phone bill. Watching videos on Facebook or YouTube also use a lot of data, so try to avoid both if possible. If you can't live without your favourite TV shows or music, consider downloading them before you leave or only using Wi-Fi once you're abroad.
Download maps to use offline
Now that we have access to maps at the tip of our fingers, we are becoming ever more reliant on them, especially when we're in a foreign, unfamiliar land. Luckily, there are ways we can still use maps on our phone abroad without being connected to the internet.
You can now save maps of certain areas or cities on Google Maps to be used offline. To do this, connect to Wi-Fi, open the app, and search for the place you'll need a map for. At the bottom of the screen there will be a bar with the name of the place you've just searched. Tap on this, and then on the menu icon in the top right-hand corner and tap 'save offline map'. There are also alternative apps you can use to download maps such as Maps.me.
GPS will still work on your phone without using the internet, so you can navigate in real time without eating into your data.
Check if your network offers a roaming add-on
Most carriers now let you pay a little bit extra to get an add-on that gives you an allowance of data, texts and minutes to use abroad. If you pay for this, you'll only pay the price of the add-on and no more. Ring your network to discuss this with them, and really think about what you'll use your data for while away.
Consider buying a local SIM
As stated previously, another option to avoid roaming is a local sim (for instance, if you are going to the Netherlands you could pick up a Dutch sim with a lot of their carriers for ~£6). These keep the cost of calls and texts messages down and can be topped up with pay-as-you-go credit. This really is much cheaper and hassle free than paying for an add-on, or staying within strict confines when using free Wi-Fi. But remember that to use a local SIM you'll need an unlocked handset .
Insure your phone
The last thing you want while on holiday is to lose your phone or have it stolen. But it does happen. Make sure you're covered by taking out insurance. It could be covered in your travel insurance, but you'll have to make sure you have gadget cover included. You could also take out an independent mobile insurance policy that covers your phone for any loss or theft while abroad.
In case your phone is lost or stolen, you don't want to be hit with the added cost of your data being used up by someone else, driving up your bill. You may think other people won't be able to get into your phone if it's locked, but they can still take your SIM out and use it on another phone. To prevent this happening to you, you can lock your SIM with a PIN that anyone will need when using it with another phone. You can usually do this by going to your settings, or logging into your online network account.
Should I use data roaming in the UK?
Yes. You should be able to able to connect to your mobile network provider wherever you are in the UK, so you won't ever need to use another one whilst in the country. Therefore, you should keep data roaming switched on while in the UK, so that you can connect to 4G or 5G whilst out and about, without it costing you an extra penny.