how does Mobile data roaming work exactly?
What are roaming charges?
The term ‘roaming’ refers to using your phone while you’re overseas. You’re deemed to be roaming the moment your phone is detected on an overseas network.
In the past, consumers have been charged a significantly higher rate for using the internet, making calls and sending texts abroad.
But things have got a bit better for consumers since the days when bill shocks totalling thousands of pounds regularly made headlines in finance news pages.
Thanks to the current new roaming regulations, you can use your monthly allowances of calls, data and texts while you’re in 28 destinations in the EU for no extra charge.
So, if you want to check your work emails or give all your followers holiday envy by posting sunny selfies on Facebook, you won’t have to pay any more than you would at home.
That’s good news, right? It is. But despite these EU roaming laws, there’s still a chance the unwary can get caught out.
For one thing, not everyone knows which countries are in the EU. Some countries that you might assume are in the EU aren’t. If you aren’t sure yourself, we’ve got a handy list further down the page.
And even if you’re holidaying in the EU, there are still ways to build up a massive phone bill, irrespective of whether you’re within your monthly allowance.
That’s because higher EU roaming charges still apply if you go beyond your monthly usage allowance. At which point you could be charged up to €8 (about £7) per extra GB of data you use.
And that’s not all. Amid all the fanfare about ‘free EU roaming’, less attention has been focussed on the fact that networks apply so-called ‘fair usage’ limits for customers who are roaming.
The result is that networks can cap your data allowance below what you’d get at home. So once again, you could be in a nasty bill shock if you’re not aware of the cap and exceed the lower limit.
How does fair usage work in relation to roaming allowances?
Fair usage means networks can cap your roaming data allowance below what you’d get at home. The upshot is that you could still rack up high data charges if you exceed the lower limit.
Confusingly each network applies a different fair usage policy, depending on your data allowance and the plan you’re signed up to.
Take, for example, O2’s pay as you go Big Bundle at £30 per month.
In the UK you get a monthly allowance 20GB. But under the terms of the ‘fair use’ policy, this is actually capped at 10GB when you’re using your phone in the EU.
By the same token, with giffgaff’s Always On tariff you’ll have to pay over the odds if you exceed 6GB of usage.
Are you a Three pay as you go customer? You’ll be charged extra if you go over 12GB. And EE’s fair use cap for all customers is 15GB.
The only way to be sure whether your data usage is capped and by how much is to ring your network.
Where can I use my allowances for no extra charge?
By law all networks let you use your monthly allowances in 28 EU locations. These 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, Sweden and the UK.
However, some networks allow you to use your monthly allowances for no extra charge in non-EU European locations too, as well as select locations further afield.
To see what your carrier offers and which locations they cover, head to our network-by-network breakdown:
- BT Mobile
- ID Mobile
- Sky Mobile
- Tesco Mobile
- Virgin Media
What does Brexit mean for roaming charges?
While we’re still in the European Union, consumers can still use their UK allowances in EU locations for no extra charge.
However, in the wake of the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU, the future of roaming charges is now a lot less certain. Here we’ll walk you through the different scenarios and the likely outcomes for EU roaming.
How much will EU roaming cost if we get a Brexit deal?
If we leave with a deal, you’ll still get free EU roaming during what’s called the ‘Implementation Period’. This is basically when all the factors of the Brexit deal get thrashed out and finalised.
As things stand, this will last until December 2020 at the least, and with all the ongoing delays it could be even longer. So for the immediate future, free EU roaming won’t change.
After this, it’ll depend on whatever deal the UK government have got for us, but fingers crossed that we’ll leave with a satisfactory roaming agreement.
Will I have to pay for EU roaming if there’s a no-deal Brexit?
If we leave the UK without a deal, then EU roaming will no longer be regulated, so mobile providers will be able to charge (or not charge) whatever they like.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean all networks will instantly bring back roaming costs. Some providers, including EE and O2, have already stated that that thay have no plans to bring back roaming costs. You may find that roaming becomes a benefit with some providers or tariffs, whilst others charge. As with all things Brexit, we just don’t know yet. But as soon as we find out more, we’ll let you know.
Roaming outside the EU
Using your phone further afield can come with costs, especially after the Government added 20% VAT to roaming charges outside the EU. So you’ll have to pay a bit extra to call, text and surf the web on your phone. In some cases, you can even rack up bills well over £100 if you’re not careful.
Costs differ from country to country, but some popular destinations such as UAE and Morocco are known to be particularly pricey.
Thankfully, most networks offer add-ons and allowances, so find your provider below and see how their roaming plans match up to your holiday destination.
How to avoid roaming charges
Keep roaming charges to a minimum by following our traveller’s tips.
1. Use free Wi-Fi whenever you can
Many hotels and café chains now offer wireless internet free of charge.
It’s worth noting, however, that some only offer the service free for a limited period, after which time charges apply.
You should also be aware that Wi-Fi coverage usually only extends to certain areas of a hotel, such as the lobby or a bar.
So if you’ve got roaming switched on, you could automatically be transferred to a local mobile phone network without warning.
2. Check if your network offers a roaming add-on
Most carriers now offer the chance to pay a little bit extra and get an add-on that will provide you an allowance of data, texts and minutes to use abroad. If you pay for these, you’ll only pay the price of the add-on and won’t be liable for charges outside that.
If you’re not sure what your network offers for roaming add-ons, ring them and they’ll be able to advise you.
3. Don’t opt out of your networks’ usage caps
After years of reports of bill shocks in newspapers, all UK networks except EE now enforce an automatic cap on data usage worldwide. This typically comes in at between £40 and £49.
It’s easy to opt out. You just have to make a phone call. But we heartily recommend you don’t, or risk losing track of your spending and usage.
4. Consider buying a local SIM
To keep the cost of calls and texts messages down, it’s a good idea to buy a local SIM card and top up with pay-as-you-go credit.
To use a local SIM, though, you’ll need an unlocked handset.
5. Check whether your destination is bound by EU regulations
It might surprise you which countries aren’t bound to abide by EU usage caps. Turkey, Northern Cyprus and Egypt are all popular destinations that are outside the EU.
Charges in Switzerland also vary on a network to network basis.
6. Take a look at Swytch
Swytch is an internet phone service that lets you rent a secondary UK number for your phone for a small fee.
This means that when you’re overseas you can receive calls and texts sent to this number on your smartphone and you won’t pay for incoming calls.
You’ll also benefit from cheap outgoing calls and texts, which are charged at local rates.
What roaming schemes and bolt-ons does my network offer?
Not all roaming schemes are created equal. For a quick overview of some of the best inclusive roaming schemes, take a glance at the table below.
Want a closer look at what each network offers? Scroll down a bit further and we’ll outline all the major UK networks’ roaming schemes in a bit more detail.
|Network roaming scheme||Who does it apply to?||Cost||Destinations covered||Fair usage (applies if data tariff is above amount mentioned)|
|Go Roam||All Advanced plans||None||71 destinations||19GB in Go Roam Europe destinations, 12GB in Go Roam Around The World destinations. Can spend up to 2 months in roaming zone over 12 month rolling contract period|
|Vodafone Roam Free||All customers on new monthly plans (except Basics)||None||48 destinations||None. Can spend up to 2 months in roaming zone over 4 month period|
|Vodafone Roam Further||All customers on new pay monthly plans||£6 per day to use your UK plan||104 destinations||None. Can spend up to 2 months in roaming zone over 4 month period|
|EE Max Plan roaming||All 4GEE Max Plan||None||53 destinations||15GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period|
|O2 Europe Zone Usage||All customers on new pay monthly plans (not PAYG)||None||47 Europe Zone destinations||10GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period|
|O2 Full Travel Bolt-On||Select phone-and-tariff plans on 4GB or 15GB or above||None||75 destinations worldwide||10GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period|
|Tesco Mobile Home from Home||All customers on pay monthly or PAYG plans||None||48 Europe Zone destinations||12GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming over 120-day period|
|Plusnet Mobile Roam Like Home||All customers on pay monthly or PAYG plans||None||52 Europe Zone destinations||15GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming over 120-day period|
|Sky Roaming Passport||All customers on pay monthly plans||None||36 Europe Zone destinations||None|
|BT Roam Like at Home||All customers on pay monthly plans||None||47 destinations||15GB. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period|
|iD Mobile Roam Like at Home||All customers on pay monthly plans||None||52 destinations||Only applies to some SIM only customers. Can spend up to 60 days in roaming zone over 120-day period|
|SMARTY roaming||All customers||None||35 destinations||Not specified|
What does Three offer?
Three‘s Go Roam scheme offers inclusive roaming in 71 locations.
Among them are Australia, USA, Switzerland, Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Go Roam is included on all Three plans including pay monthly, SIM-only, mobile broadband and Pay As You Go plans, with only older Essential plans excluded.
If you’re on a Three Essential Plan, you’ll still be able to use your allowance for no extra charge in the EU. But you won’t qualify for inclusive roaming in locations further afield.
What does EE offer?
All existing EE pay monthly and pay as you go customers benefit from inclusive roaming to 47 European destinations as part of their mobile, mobile broadband or tablet allowance.
If you’re on a 4GEE Max plan you’ll benefit from EE’s Roam at Home incentive, which gets you free roaming in 52 locations worldwide.
These include EU countries as well as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. This covers over 80% of time EE customers spend overseas.
What does O2 offer?
All existing O2 pay monthly and business customers get inclusive roaming in 47 European destinations in O2’s Europe Zone.
A caveat, though: while pay as you go customers get inclusive roaming in most of those locations too, for them the Europe Zone does not include Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Monaco and Switzerland.
However, they can extend the area covered by the scheme to include these locations by signing up for a Travel Bolt On.
Add an O2 Travel add-on to your bundle and you get 100GB data to use within the EU for a daily outlay of £1.99.
This also allows customers to make and receive calls within Europe for 50p per call and talk for up to 60 minutes for no extra charge. Text messages with an O2 Travel add-on are free to receive and 5p to send.
There are also O2 Travel roaming add-ons for Turkey and outside Europe, which is priced £3.99 per day and £4.99 per day respectively.
What does Vodafone offer?
Vodafone customers on its Essentials and Red Extra plans qualify for inclusive roaming in 48 locations, under its Roam Free scheme.
For £6 per day, you can sign up to its Roam Further scheme. This lets you use your UK allowances in 104 extra locations, which are generally further afield. You’ll only pay the £6 on the days you use your phone.
Customers who signed up to one of Vodafone’s Red Entertainment plans after 15th August 2018 qualify for roaming in 77 locations worldwide for no extra charge. However, if you signed up before this point, you come under the Roam Free scheme, which is limited to 50 locations in Europe.
Vodafone’s low-cost Basics plans don’t offer inclusive roaming at all. So if you’re signed up to one and want to use your phone overseas and not rack up large bills, you’ll need to upgrade to another plan.
What does Virgin Media offer?
Virgin Media customers get inclusive roaming in 43 destinations with its Roam Like Home scheme.
As well as the 28 EU locations, this includes non-EU territories, such as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar, and extend to overseas territories including Canary Islands, French Caribbean, Martinique and Reunion.
Virgin Media pledges that customers who exceed their allowances will be charged no more than they would at home.
What does Sky Mobile offer?
All Sky customers on Sky Mobile plans can use their mobile data, calls and texts in 36 European locations for no extra cost.
For customers with Unlimited Calls and Texts as part of their plan, all calls to landlines and mobiles and all texts sent within the EU are included.
If you’re on Pay As You Use calls and texts, you’ll pay the same rate as you do in the UK.
The other big ‘sell’ with Sky Mobile as far as roaming goes is that if you’ve already stored a trove of unused data your Sky Piggybank, you can use the data when you’re in Europe too.
Ultimately, it’s all about being aware and having the right info before you head off on your holidays.
Our resident mobile expert Ru Bhikha says: “The best tip for British holidaymakers is to do a little bit of research and preparation. Most networks now offer specific tariffs or add-ons to help prevent customers from losing out. So before travelling overseas, it is worth checking whether your destination is covered by your existing deal, or if an add-on is available.
“In many cases, you will then be able to use your phone exactly as you would at home, but if you are in any doubt, ensure your data roaming is turned off on your handset. Data is where the real costs are often incurred, and quickly – though most networks do now operate caps to prevent bills spiralling out of control.
“If you have to roam while away, try to keep your phone usage to a minimum and, wherever possible, connect to the Wi-Fi at your hotel or any location you are at. Alternatively, if you must use your phone a lot when abroad, the most cost effective option is usually to buy a local SIM.”