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

Mobile network abroad

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 decreed that mobile networks must let you use your usual allowance when you're abroad in member states - Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. That came into effect on 15 June 2017.

It's not the case in the rest of the world though, and if you aren't careful it can 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.

The best mobile plans for roaming

Taking out a brand new mobile plan, and want to make sure you can use it abroad without it costing a bomb? Here's a selection of deals we recommend that are excellent for roaming.

Best for the USA: Three

Three deals on Advanced Plans include Feel At Home, Three's special roaming service that lets you use your usual allowance abroad in select countries. That includes the USA - making it the cheapest way to roam in the States.

Best for lots of data: EE

Want to use lots of data while you're abroad? Most networks cap your data use on larger plans - fair enough, some of them go pretty high, after all - but EE is rather generous here. On a 4GEE Max plan, the fair usage cap on big data plans is a rather nice 15GB in covered countries.

Best for infrequent travellers: O2

Only planning on going abroad for a few days this year? Instead of splashing out on a plan that has a bunch of inclusive roaming, you're better off on a network that has cheap roaming add-ons - like O2.

O2 Travel can cost as little as £1.99 a day, and gives you 120 minutes, 120 texts… and unlimited data. It'll slow down after you've used 150MB, but nonetheless you've got more than enough allowance to play with here.

Three roaming

Three logo

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

If you have an Advanced plan, Three allows you to use your phone abroad at no extra cost. This is available when travelling to 60 locations, which Three calls 'Feel At Home' locations because mobile networks like to give things unwieldy names.

Here they are - in alphabetical order no less - as of 15 June 2017: Aaland Islands, Australia, Austria, Azores, Balearic Islands, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Channel Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Giuana, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Isle of Man, Israel, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madeira, Malta, Martinique, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Reunion, Romania, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, US Virgin Islands, USA, and Vatican City.

If you're in one of those countries, you can 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 12GB at no extra cost, but after that you'll have to buy a romaing add-on or pay Three's roaming rates - and they ain't cheap. However, even most heavy data users would struggle to use 12GB of data in a month, so its unlikely you will go over your allowance anyway.

Tethering also isn't allowed, and you can't use more than 5,000 texts or 3,000 minutes without getting additional charges either.

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.

Elsewhere in the world, or if you have an Essential plan, Three's roaming rates apply.

Why not try a 30 day Three SIM-only plan for your existing phone? You can order these easily online and they come with fast and free delivery. If you find you like it, then you can switch to a 12 month plan for a cheaper monthly cost.

EE roaming

EE logo

If you're with the UK's biggest 4G mobile internet network, EE, your roaming options vary depending on when you took your plan out, and what kind of plan you have.

For brand new EE plans...

If you're taking out a new plan with EE, or started your current one on or after 9 May 2017, you'll have some Europe roaming options already included in your tariff. The good news

  • 4GEE Essential Plans: You can roam in the EU at no extra cost.
  • 4GEE Plans: You can roam in the EU at no extra cost.
  • 4GEE Max Plans: You can roam in the EU, Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the USA at no extra cost. You can also use your usual monthly data allowance, though if you're on a 25GB or 40GB plan there's a fair usage cap of 15GB.

For any other countries, you'll need to buy a bolt-on or pay roaming rates.

If you signed up before 17 August 2016...

For an older plan from EE, or one of its defunct brands Orange or T-Mobile (sniff - bye guys, we miss you), you may 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 most European countries, islands, regions and city states. Alternatively, if you're on a standard 4GEE plan, you can get a travel add-on.

There's the Travel Data Pass, for instance, which gives you a bundle of data. For £3-£5 (depending where you are) per day, this add-on will give you 500MB of data and 24 hours to use it. While that doesn't seem like much data, it's more than sufficient for sending a few emails and posting that all important 'hey suckers, I'm on holiday' selfie on Facebook.

You can check what add-ons are available right here.

O2 roaming

O2 logo

If you're an O2 pay-monthly customer you have some options when you travel abroad (outside of Europe, that is). With O2 Travel, you can pay from £3.99 per day and get 120 calling minutes, 120 texts, and unlimited data for the day. O2 will slow your speed down once you've hit 150MB (or used 50MB on streaming) - but downloads are still unlimited.

Bear in mind it may take 24 hours to kick in, so unlike your packing, you probably don't want to leave it until the last minute.

The locations you can use O2 Travel in are:

  • £3.99 a day - Turkey
  • £4.99 a day - Albania, Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UAE, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela

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 a lot of countries, for instance.

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

Vodafone roaming

Vodafone logo

Vodafone has some excellent roaming plans. Although it tends to be more expensive than most networks, with Vodafone you definitely get more bang for your buck.

Take out a Vodafone plan, and you'll get Global Roaming, which lets you use your allowance abroad in 50 'Roam-free' destinations.

They are: Albania, Austria, Azores, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Channel Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Guiana, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Martinique, Mayotte, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal (including Madeira), Reunion, Romania, San Marino, Saint Martin, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (including Balearic and Canary islands), Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Vatican City.

60 more destinations are 'Roam-further', in which you can use your allowance abroad for £5 per day. This covers countries like the USA, China, Australia, Japan, India, and so on.

Anywhere else, you'll need to pay usual roaming rates. Same goes if you signed up to your plan before 11 April 2017 - you'll need to buy roaming add-ons when you go abroad, at least outside of the EU.

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

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, so 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 also need to unlock your mobile.

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