Using your mobile phone abroad - roam without racking up big bills

ByDuncan Heaney
Man on the phone and using a laptop on the beach

Can’t live without the internet? If you’re travelling abroad, whether for business or holiday, using your mobile can leave you massively out of pocket. Here’s what each network offers when it comes to roaming, and how you can avoid big bills.

Going on holiday can be expensive enough, but if you use your mobile phone abroad - particularly to use mobile internet - the cost can become astronomical.

The EU has set caps on what mobile networks can charge for using your phone abroad, so in member states data roaming's cheaper than it used to be. But cheap-er isn't the same thing as cheap, and if you aren't careful it can still end up being bloomin' expensive.

Fortunately, most networks have plans and add-ons that cut or limit, the cost of using your mobile phone when abroad. Here's what the UK's biggest networks do, as well as some tips to ensure you don't get hit with bill shock after your holiday.

Three

Three logo

Budding Marco Polos could do worse than look at Three (www.three.co.uk) - its approach to data roaming is one of its main selling points, along with its unlimited data plans.

Three allows you to use your phone abroad at no extra cost. This is available when travelling to 16 countries, which Three calls 'Feel At Home' locations because mobile networks like to give things unwieldy names.

Here they are - in alphabetical order no less: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Macau, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland and the good ol' United States.

If you're in one of those countries, you can use make calls, send texts and use mobile internet at no extra cost. However, if you're on one of Three's popular unlimited data plans, you don't have quite the free reign you do in the UK. You can use up to 25GB at no extra cost, but after that you'll have to pay Three's roaming rates - and they ain't cheap.

Alternatively, if you're travelling in the EU, you can pick up a Euro Internet Pass for £5 a day. It's only available to pay-monthly customers, but it lets you use as much data as you like each day until midnight. However, calls, texts and tethering aren't included.

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EE (including Orange and T-Mobile)

If you're with the UK's biggest 4G mobile internet network, EE (www.EE.co.uk) or one of its soon-to-be defunct brands Orange or T-Mobile (sniff - bye guys, we'll miss you), you have to pay roaming rates if you use your phone abroad. They vary from country to country, but you can see them here.

That's unless you have a 4GEE Extra plan, which include calls and minutes - but not data, sadly - in the following European countries, islands, regions and, er, city states:

Austria, Azores, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Guyana, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Guernsey, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Martinique, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Reunion, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and - holy moly! - the Vatican.

Alternatively, if you're on a standard EE 4G plan, or with T-Mobile or Orange, you can get a travel add-on. £2 a day gets you unlimited calls and texts in the above countries, but not any data.

If you want data, you'll can buy an add-on direct from your browser. These vary in price depending on where you are, and last either seven days or 24 hours, depending on the add-on.

Bear in mind though, while a way to save money versus standard roaming costs, they're still fairly pricey. For example, it costs £3 for 50MB a day Europe, and the same for 20MB a day in the US. However, while that doesn't seem like much data, it's just about sufficient for sending a few emails or posting that all important 'hey suckers, I'm on holiday' selfie on Facebook.

You can check what boosters are available right here.

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O2

O2 logo

If you're an O2 (www.O2.co.uk) pay-monthly customer you have some options when you travel abroad. With O2 Travel, you can use as much data as you like in EU countries, but you'll be charged £1.99 a day for  using mobile internet. When you make a call, you'll be charged for the connection - 50p at the time of writing - but can talk for 60 minutes at no extra cost.

O2 Travel's not available with some pay-monthly contracts, and with others you need to contact O2 to activate it. Bear in mind it may take 24 hours to kick in, so unlike your packing, you probably don't want to leave until the last minute.

The countries you can use O2 Travel in are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

If you're travelling elsewhere, you can get one of O2's Data Abroad bolt-ons, which give you up to 200MB a month to use abroad. However, they can cost you - it works out as more than £1 a MB in the US, for example.

A full list of O2's international tariffs and various bolt-ons can be found here.

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Vodafone

Vodafone

Vodafone's (www.vodafone.co.uk) EuroTraveller add-on lets you use your plan's minutes, texts and data for a daily charge, while you're in certain European countries. EuroTraveller's available on most pay-monthly plans, and to get it, you'll need to opt in by texting Vodafone.

The countries that comprise Vodafone's 'Europe Zone' are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France (including Monaco), French territories, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy (including Vatican City), Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal (including Madeira), Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (including Balearic islands) and Sweden.

Outside of the EU, you may be able to sign up for Vodafone World Traveller. This is a more expensive than the European equivalent, but as before it lets you use your plan's minutes, texts and data overseas - so long as you're in Vodafone's World Traveller Zone.

And what countries are in that zone, you ask? Australia, Egypt, Ghana, India, New Zealand, Qatar, South Africa and the USA.

If you only want data, you can use Data Traveller, which means you pay £5 for each 25MB used. The cost can pile up though, so be careful you don't go crazy with it. This is valid in Vodafone's Rest of World Zone - it's a long list of countries, so check it out here.

A full list of Vodafone's roaming rates can be found here.

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Virgin Media Mobile

Virgin Media mobile

If you're on Virgin Mobile travelling within the EU, you can get a Travel Pass, which gives you a set amount of data for a fixed rate. You can choose between 10MB, 50MB and 250MB packs, each of which is valid for 30 days.

Calls and texts will be charged at the specific rate of the country you're in. Check its rates page to see how much it'll run you to be a Chatty Cathy when overseas.

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Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile

If you use Tesco Mobile abroad, you're going to have to pay roaming rates. The specific amounts vary from country to country - you can see a full list of the rates here.

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How to avoid roaming charges

If you want to make sure your handset doesn't start haemorrhaging money when you're on holiday, follow these five tips:

1. Switch off data roaming

If you deactivate data roaming on your phone, it won't connect to 3G and 4G outside of the UK. It's easy to do - simply enter the settings menu and turn it off.

On iPhones, the setting can be found under:

Settings> Mobile >

On Android phones it can typically be found under:

Settings > Wireless and Networks > More > Mobile networks

2. Turn off automatic updates

Many apps regularly check for updates, and - depending on your settings - download them automatically. If you want to minimise the MB abroad, turn them off. Here's how:

On iPhones the setting can be found in:

Settings > iTunes & App Store

On Android phones:

Open Google Play, and touch the three lines in the top left corner. Then, to turn auto-updates on or off choose:

Settings > Auto-update apps

3. Stick to Wi-Fi wherever possible

If you connect to Wi-Fi, you won't use mobile data. As a result, it's always best to use it when it's available.

4. Don't use TV, film or music streaming services

Streaming uses a lot of data. Video in particular is hungrier for data than a hundred Johnny Fives, if you get that horrendously dated reference. The point is, avoid using services like Netflix unless you're on Wi-Fi, or you may find yourself facing a hefty bill when you get home.

5. Get a foreign pay-as-you-go sim

If you think you're going to making a lot of calls when abroad, it may work out cheaper to get a pay-as-you-go sim card on a mobile network in that country, and use that instead of your usual sim. Obviously you'll have to pay for credit upfront, but it will save you money in the long run. You may need to unlock your mobile.

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