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.

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 all-round roaming: Three

Three SIM-only

500MB data

200 minutes

Unlimited texts

(Advanced Plan)

£8 a month

12 months

Get deal
Three SIM-only

2GB data

200 minutes

Unlimited texts

(Advanced Plan)

£11 a month

12 months

Get deal
Three SIM-only

Unlimited data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

(Advanced Plan)

£33 a month

12 months

Get deal

These Three deals are all Advanced Plans - which includes Feel At Home, Three's special roaming service that lets you use your usual allowance abroad in select countries. Just a small range of locations are included in Feel At Home, but if you're visiting one of them, it works out at amazing value.

Apart from the All-you-can-eat data plan, there's no cap or usage limit when you're abroad, beside your usual monthly tariff - you can use your mobile just as you would at home. Perfect if you go away a lot.

 

Best for Europe: EE and Vodafone

SIM-only EE

2GB data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

£17.99 a month

12 months

Get deal
iPhone 7 EE

7GB data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

£55.99 a month

£9.99 upfront

24 months

Get deal
SIM-only Vodafone

20GB data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

4GB roaming data

£37.00 a month

12 months

Get deal

Plan on travelling within Europe? EE and Vodafone both make it excellent value thanks to their inclusive roaming.

The SIM-only deal here is a 4GEE Plan, so you can use your minutes and texts all across its Europe Zone when you're abroad on the continent - plus you get 500MB of roaming data a month. The iPhone deal, however, is a super-charged 4GEE Max Plan - meaning you can also use your data abroad in the Europe Zone as well. And it's a decent chunk of data, too.

This Vodafone deal, meanwhile, may be a more expensive and have a heftier allowance, but you also get a whopping 4GB of roaming data included each month that you can use in 40 European destinations. So, needless to say, you're more than covered - especially with this much data at home too.

 

Cheapest for roaming: iD

iD Mobile SIM-only

500MB data

250 minutes

5000 texts

TakeAway plan

£12.50 a month

12 months

Get deal

TakeAway plans from iD Mobile let you 'Roam like home' and use your monthly allowance in 29 countries - see below for more details. We like this plan because it's nice and cheap, while also giving you enough allowance to get through the month. It's good if you're a light user with a few trips planned this year.

 

Best for infrequent travellers: O2

O2 SIM-only

2GB data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

£18.00 a month

12 months

Get deal

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 some of the cheapest roaming add-ons on the market - 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 (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 42 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: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Channel Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Lanzarote, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, and the good ol' United States.

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 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.

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.

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.

Three Average user

1GB data

600 minutes

Unlimited texts

(Three Advanced Plan) 

SIM Only

£16.00 a month

1 month contract

Get deal
Three Heavy internet user

Unlimited data

200 minutes

Unlimited texts

(Three Advanced Plan)

SIM Only

£23.00 a month

1 month contract

Get deal
Three All-round peace of mind

Unlimited data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

(Three Advanced Plan)

SIM Only

£33.00 a month

1 month contract

Get deal 

Compare Three deals

EE roaming (including Orange and T-Mobile)

If you're with the UK's biggest 4G mobile internet network, EE (www.EE.co.uk), 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 17 August 2016, you'll have some Europe roaming options already included in your tariff. The good news

  • 4GEE Essential Plans: No roaming included, but you can buy add-ons like the Euro Pass.
  • 4GEE Plans: You can make and receive calls and texts within the country you're in; to and from home; and to and from other countries in the Europe Zone, at no extra cost. You get 500MB of inclusive Europe Zone roaming data every month. 
  • 4GEE Max Plans: You can make and receive calls and texts within the country you're in; to and from home; and to and from other countries in the Europe Zone, 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.

EE's Europe Zone covers: Austria, Azores, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Guiana, 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 Islands, Romania, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, San Marino, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Vatican City.

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'll 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, or with T-Mobile or Orange, you can get a travel add-on. 

There's the £1 Euro Data Pass, for instance, for when you're travelling in the Europe Zone. For £1 per day, this add-on will give you 50MB of data and 24 hours to use it. There are data add-ons too, which vary in price depending on where you are, and can last either seven days or 24 hours.

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 500MB 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 add-ons are available right here.

Compare EE mobile deals

O2 roaming

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 pay from £1.99 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. Besides, 150MB is plenty to get you through the day. 

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:

  • £1.99 a day - Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Guiana, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Guernsey, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, La Reunion, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Martinique, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Vatican City
  • £3.99 a day - Turkey
  • £4.99 a day - Albania, Antigua and Barbuda, 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.

Compare O2 mobile deals

Vodafone roaming

Vodafone

Vodafone (www.vodafone.co.uk) has some excellent roaming plans, especially if you're travelling within Europe. Although it tends to be more expensive than most networks, with Vodafone you definitely get more bang for your buck.

Take out a Vodafone Red plan, and you'll get up to 4GB of roaming data included every single month - yes, really. You can use it in 40 destinations in Vodafone's Europe Zone. 

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

If you don't pick a Red plan, however - or if you signed up to your plan before 5 May 2016 - you'll need to buy roaming add-ons when you go abroad. For roaming in Europe, you can get the EuroTraveller add-on, which lets you use your plan's usual minutes, texts and data for a daily charge while you're in the above Europe Zone countries. It's available on most pay-monthly plans.

Outside of the EU, you may be able to sign up for Vodafone WorldTraveller. 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 WorldTraveller Zone, which covers a nice 58 countries.

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.

Find Vodafone mobile phone deals

Virgin Mobile roaming

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.

Compare Virgin Media mobile deals

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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