Cheap mobile and data roaming
Use your phone abroad for less, incl roam free trick
Whether you want to be a global jet-setter when we can travel freely again, or just take the odd trip abroad, this guide will show you how to use your phone as cheaply as possible – and how to avoid racking up a huge bill, particularly important as some firms have announced future changes to how roaming works.
Three joins Vodafone & EE in bringing back mobile roaming charges in Europe from 2022
Three has joined Vodafone and EE in committing to charging new and upgrading customers to use their data allowance in Europe. Three will charge £2/day from May 2022 for users who take out new contracts or recontract on or from Friday 1 October.
Vodafone will charge £2/day from January 2022 for those who took out new contracts or recontracted on or after 11 August, but if you're on one of its 'Xtra' plans, you won't be affected and some users can cut costs by buying a multi-day roaming pass.
EE will also charge a £2/day roaming fee from January, but only those who took out new contracts or recontracted after 6 July 2021 are affected.
Mobile phone firms were banned from charging customers extra fees to use their UK allowance of minutes, texts and data (subject to 'fair use' limits) when in the European Union. But since Brexit, that has changed. O2 told us it still has no plans to follow the other big networks and reintroduce roaming fees – though of course, that could always change.
Quick tips to use your mobile abroad for less
The easiest way to avoid charges while abroad is simply to turn roaming off. While all the providers we've spoken to told us you CAN still use your normal allowance within Europe, some will charge you once you've used up a certain amount of data. Plus, if you're outside of your limit or travelling outside of the European Union, costs can be eye-watering.
Our phones will usually try to connect automatically to the nearest signal and this spells danger if you have automatic updates on, for example, leaving you at risk of running up a huge bill without you even realising.
The best bet is to use Wi-Fi wherever possible, which you can usually find for free in most hotels, restaurants and bars. Yet it doesn't just offer a cheap way of browsing the web – you can use it for calls, too.
If you've got a smartphone and free internet access, download an 'internet-to-phone' calling app such as Skype, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger before you go, or use Apple's FaceTime. Providing the person you're calling also has the service, you just need to find a free Wi-Fi spot to call for free.
Although finding free Wi-Fi while away is handy for browsing, you probably won't want to start downloading hefty files such as music or films. Instead, get your phone travel-ready by saving your favourite tunes, movies, must-have apps and boarding passes BEFORE you go.
Download maps on Wi-Fi before you go
Google Maps, available on iOS and Android, allows you to store maps for offline use. Since data isn't required for the GPS function on a smartphone, you can navigate around the place you're visiting without paying roaming charges, as long as you have downloaded the offline maps.
For more information, see how to download Google Maps to use offline. Many travel apps work this way and some, such as Time Out's app, include reviews.
Alternatively, you can also take screenshots or normal photographs of maps to store on your device.
Travelling within Europe? Currently, you can still use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data,without paying any extra charges if you're in one of 30 countries outside the UK, including France, Italy and Spain (though some providers have a limit on the amount of data you can use).
However, that is set to change for some from next year, with EE, Vodafone and Three all making changes – see roaming changes below.
Going further afield? It's much easier to land yourself a large bill when outside Europe as you can be charged just for receiving calls and texts. Currently, a Sim with Three offers more chance that your destination will be covered, though, as customers on its 'Advanced' or pay-as-you-go plans can use their allowance in 71 destinations around the world, including Australia, Singapore and the USA. However, this is changing for people who sign up on from 1 October, so act fast to get in before then.
Plus, there's a trick to make this work even if you're with another network. If you don't want to switch Sims, see our round-up of costs from the big networks below.
Here, quite simply, the same data rules don't apply. Even if you're to set sail in Europe, be extra careful of using your phone while at sea. It's easy to inadvertently connect to a 'maritime' network or a neighbouring country, which may be classed as outside of Europe and so be more costly. We've heard horror stories of travellers running up huge bills by doing this. To be safe, make use of any free Wi-Fi options on board, or just restrict use of your phone to days when you're back on dry land and always check the network your phone connects to.
Mobile roaming for 'free' in European Union countries is no longer guaranteed as the Brexit transition period has now ended. Under the 'Roam Like At Home' rules introduced by the EU, you could use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data without paying any extra charges in one of these 30 countries (those in the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), subject to 'fair usage' rules.
Three has now joined Vodafone & EE in announcing plans to reintroduce roaming charges in Europe in 2022 for new and upgrading customers. When we checked with eight of the other biggest providers in August, including O2, they told us they still had no plans to bring back roaming fees. Although this isn't an indefinite guarantee, and they could always change their approach in future.
EE roaming changes:
- When do the charges kick in? From January 2022
- What are the charges? EE will introduce a new flat fee of £2 a day for customers wishing to roam across 47 European destinations (with the exception of ROI which is included in domestic plans), allowing them to use their plan's data, minutes and texts allowance.
- Who is affected? Anyone who signs up to a new contract or recontracts now (and those who signed up or recontracted on or from 7 July 2021). See EE roaming info for more.
Vodafone roaming changes:
- When do charges kick in? From January 2022.
- What are the charges? £2 a day (or £1 a day if you buy an eight or 15-day pass) to roam across 49 European destinations (with the exception of ROI which is included in domestic plans), allowing customers to use their plan's full data, minutes and texts allowance.
- Who is affected? New customers who sign up to a new deal or renew their contract now (and those who signed up or recontraced on or from Wednesday 11 August). The only exception is those who sign up to an 'Xtra' plan, but these are significantly more expensive. See Vodafone roaming info for more.
Three roaming changes:
- When do charges kick in? From 23 May 2022.
- What are the charges? £2 a day to roam across 48 European destinations (with the exception of ROI, which is included in domestic plans), allowing them to use their plan's full data, minutes and texts allowance.
- Who is affected? All pay-monthly or Sim-only customers who sign up to a new Three deal or renew their contract on or from Friday 1 October. See Three roaming info for more.
- BT Mobile and Plusnet (they're part of the same group) said: "Our customers continue to enjoy inclusive roaming when they travel to the EU and beyond."
- iD Mobile "remains committed to providing our customers with great value plans that they can use at home and in 50 destinations worldwide and currently have no plans to change our roaming services".
- O2: "We're committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel outside the UK. We currently have no plans to change our roaming charges across Europe."
- Sky Mobile: "Customers will not be charged roaming charges in EU countries and will be able to continue to use their data, call and text allowances as they do in the UK."
- Tesco Mobile: "We have no current plans to reintroduce EU roaming charges."
- Virgin Media: "We currently have no plans to change our 'Roam Like Home' offering. Virgin Media mobile customers can continue to enjoy their inclusive data, minutes and texts while abroad in 43 European destinations. Should we need to make any changes to our roaming services, we'll let our customers know in advance."
- Smarty: "With Smarty, customers can continue to enjoy inclusive roaming in Europe, as we currently don’t have any plans to change our EU roaming policy post-Brexit. As travel restrictions have eased, customers can continue to enjoy great connectivity and value on their holidays and travels."
- Voxi "has no plans to reintroduce roaming charges".
Do check with individual networks for the latest information though, as they may reintroduce roaming fees at a later date. Some operators also cover countries outside the 30 included in the 'Roam Like At Home' scheme, so always check destinations with your provider to be sure – and study any terms carefully.
- BT Mobile and Plusnet (they're part of the same group) said: "Our customers continue to enjoy inclusive roaming when they travel to the EU and beyond."
While you won't currently be charged by firms for using your UK allowance in the EU (EE and Vodafone's policy will change in January, Three's from May 2022), some networks have 'fair use' policies, which means they could restrict your full UK allowance – so you could run out of data quicker than at home, and be charged for using more.
In June 2021, Three and O2 announced changes to their fair use limits. Three has reduced the cap from 20GB to 12GB, while O2 has introduced a 25GB limit for all customers.
To protect travellers from huge unexpected mobile bills, the UK Government has created a law that means providers must limit how much data you can use in a month, when you're travelling anywhere in the world – not just within the EU (a feature of EU roaming rules).
It has set the limit on charges for mobile roaming data usage at £45 per monthly billing period. You'll get warnings when you reach 80% and 100% of your data usage, and once you hit the limit your data services will stop, unless you actively choose to continue spending.
While roaming in the EU, the amount of data you can currently use before any extra charges kick in will vary by provider (see table below).
|EE||If you're on a pay-monthly tariff, there's a 50GB/mth cap. For pay-as-you-go (PAYG) users, the cap is 25GB/mth.||0.36p/MB|
|Three||12GB||0.3p/MB. Three has a worldwide data roaming limit that's set to £45|
|Vodafone||If you're on one of its 'unlimited' data tariffs, there is a 25GB/mth cap. No limit on others (3)||You can add more data via its Data Extra plans and costs vary depending on which plan you're on and when you signed up|
|Asda Mobile||All of it – no limit||N/A|
|Giffgaff||20GB if on an 'Always On' package||0.36p/MB|
|iD Mobile||Depends on your package – use its online calc to check||Depends on your package – use its online calc to check|
|Sky Mobile||All of it – no limit||N/A|
|Tesco Mobile||Depends on your usage – see full details||0.35p/MB|
Frequent traveller or going away for an extended period of time?
If you're roaming in Europe for an extended period, networks will usually say in their fair usage policies that they'll "monitor your usage" abroad and if they find you spend more time abroad than you do at home (usually in a period of four months), they'll look to add a surcharge to your account. Though they will send you an alert if that's the case.
If you're roaming outside of Europe for an extended period of time, Three also says it reserves the right to cut off the service if you use your allowance abroad for more than two months continuously.
Outside the EU, some providers charge a gobsmacking £7/MB for data and £3/min to make or receive a call, so if you're not careful your mobile bill could set you back more than your trip.
This includes some surprisingly common holiday hot spots, so here are our top tips to cut costs while travelling further afield.
If you use a UK number while abroad (including a local or global Sim with a UK number), it won't cost friends and family at home any more to call you. They'll be charged the standard domestic rate. You now won't be charged to receive calls from a UK number if in the EU – but you will outside Europe, and it can cost as much as £3/min.
You can avoid this by buying a local Sim card when you arrive at your destination, giving you a foreign phone number – but then those at home will be charged international rates for calling it. If you've Wi-Fi or data access, get them to call you via Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Apple's FaceTime or a similar service, avoiding these costly rates.
However, if you can't get internet access, it's free to receive texts anywhere worldwide, so ask friends to message you, not call. Then, as it can cost as much as £1.20/text to reply outside Europe, condense your reply (lrn 2 spk txt agn) and it's still relatively cheap. Don't go back and forth, though.
Alternatively, use your mobile as a pager – get people to text if they want to chat and then use a cheaper way to call back.
Outrageously, you can be charged simply for someone ELSE leaving YOU an answerphone message – even if you never hear it. It all depends on the network you're on and the country you're in, but in some cases with EE it can cost as much as £1.88/min to receive a voicemail, and a further £1.88/min to listen to it. So picking up a two-minute message could cost you over a fiver.
Ouch... so what can I do about it? First check whether your network charges for the country you're headed to. If it does, your best bet is to simply turn off your voicemail, to stop people being able to leave you a message. Each network has different instructions on how to do this, though you normally have to make a call, so make sure you do it before you travel (and certainly before you leave the UK).
EU regulations stated that even if you were roaming OUTSIDE Europe, providers had to cut you off when you'd used €50 (about £44) of data in a month. Post-Brexit this was written into UK law, with a monthly limit of £45.
You should only get charged more than this if you've agreed you're happy to go over the limit. The cap can be a useful backstop given it's often unexpected data charges that result in massive post-holiday roaming bills – but there's a catch:
If you sign up for a network's roaming add-on, you may also be opted out of the £45 cut-off limit.
So read the T&Cs carefully before taking one of these bundles and keep a close eye on your data usage, otherwise you could arrive home to a big bill.
It's important to note that this cap doesn't cover calls or texts, so you could still run up a considerable bill at up to £3/min.
How to cut roaming costs
There are a lot of factors that make a Sim right for you, for instance, if you can get decent coverage in your area, or extra perks and offers. In most cases, if you're happy with your current deal for UK use it's not worth switching completely for a network that offers cheap roaming. But if being able to use your allowance outside of Europe without breaking the bank is important to you, Three is the only network that really stands out and we've a trick to get its Sim without switching networks in the box below.
Trick to beat the new roaming charges – roam in Europe and 41 other countries for no extra charge, whatever network you're on
Three is currently the standout when it comes to roaming, but from May 2022 extra charges will apply for new contract customers or those recontracting on or after 1 October. If you sign up before then, you can use your standard allowance in 71 destinations – 41 additional locations outside of Europe – including Australia and the USA as part of its ‘Go Roam’ deal.
But the new charges won't apply to its pay-as-you-go customers, which means, even if you're not a Three customer, there's a trick to still grab a Go Roam deal after 1 October. Just order one of its free pay-as-you-go Sims*, then pop it into your handset while you're away. You'll have to use the new number (and have an unlocked phone) and just need to top it up and use it in the UK at least once first. And to be clear, this is about getting an additional Sim just to use for roaming, not replacing your current one.
If you're out of contract and thinking of switching anyway (or just want to know what your provider offers), see how many countries each network allows roaming in below and then check our Cheap Mobile Finder tool for the cheapest way to get your new Sim (and handset if needed).
Note that the table below is correct as of now, but Three, Vodafone and EE have announced changes to their roaming rules from next year (see roaming changes above).
|Network||Plan||No. of destinations you can use your UK allowance in without extra charges|
||Go Roam is available on all pay-monthly (1) or PAYG (2) plans||71 destinations (22 outside of Europe incl USA)|
|Vodafone*||Unlimited Data Xtra||81 destinations (18 outside of Europe incl Australia and Canada)|
|Limited Data Xtra
||51 destinations (none outside of Europe)|
|All standard pay-monthly plans (including PAYG bundles) (3)||
51 destinations (none outside of Europe)
(A charge of at least £1/day will apply from January 2022 if you take out a contract after 11 August 2021)
|'Red Entertainment' plan (4)||81 destinations (18 outside of Europe incl Australia and Canada)|
|EE*||Smart plan (with added Roam Further pass) (5)||53 destinations (5 outside Europe incl USA and Mexico)|
|All other plans (including the 'Essential' plan)||48 destinations (none outside of Europe)|
|iD Mobile||All standard pay-monthly plans||50 destinations (2 outside of Europe)|
|O2*||Selected pay-monthly and O2 Refresh plans||75 destinations (26 outside of Europe incl USA and Argentina)|
|Other pay-monthly plans (including its 'Premium International Big Bundle')||48 destinations (none outside of Europe)|
|PAYG plans (including its standard 'International Big Bundle')||29 destinations (none outside of Europe)|
Check out your provider's roaming rates and charges to add extra countries
If you're a pay-monthly customer, it's worth checking if you can get an overseas data bundle from your network, as these can often work out cheaper than its standard rates. We list the major providers' offerings below – bear in mind though that even buying a bundle can work out expensive (a two-week trip could set you back £80+), so it might just be better to keep your phone off or stick to the free Wi-Fi.
For Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA, you can add the Roam Further pass which lets you use your UK allowance for an extra £10.44/mth on a rolling 30-day contract.
Alternatively, and for 11 other destinations including China, India and South Africa, it offers:
the Travel Data pass – 500MB from an extra £4.80 to £6/day, depending on the destination.
World Select Talk and Text – unltd mins & texts for an extra £6/day in the USA, Australia, Canada, Turkey and the UAE.
|O2*||If a country isn't covered by your plan, O2 offers: O2 Travel* – unltd data, 120 mins & 120 texts for an extra £4.99/day.||£7.20/MB||£2/min||50p|
Three's standard Go Roam includes 71 destinations, including the USA and New Zealand.
Otherwise, you'll be charged its expensive standard roaming rates (see right). Check how much your destination would cost before you travel.
|Vodafone*||If you require an add-on, Vodafone offers: Roam Further* – use your UK allowance in 104 destinations for an extra £6/day.||12p/MB||60p/min||8p|
Many of the fee-paying packages also bill you on a recurring basis, so you'll continue to be charged until you cancel. If you're only going away for a short time, simply cancel once you get home.
Frequent traveller or going to be using your phone a lot abroad? Consider switching to a specialist Sim
If you're a frequent traveller, plan to use your phone a lot or are going away for a bit longer than usual, you may be better off getting a specialist Sim.
If you're not travelling to one of the destinations covered by Three's Go Roam service and can't rely on free Wi-Fi, this may be the most cost-effective way to get online. But it can be a fiddly process, and there's no easy solution to finding the best deal. With most Sims, you'll also need an unlocked mobile (or mobile device).
There are three main options:
The cheapest option is to buy a Sim card when you arrive at your destination.
To get recommendations for PAYG overseas Sim cards, this prepaid data Sim webpage is a good tool, although its accuracy depends on how up to date people have kept the info. There is a list of countries, which'll show the available PAYG data Sim options, where to buy them when you arrive and how to get connected once you get the Sim.
Alternatively, if you're willing to do a little more legwork yourself, Wikipedia lists the mobile networks available in every country, eg:
There's also a useful list of overseas networks on PrepaidGSM.
Once you know which providers operate in the country you're travelling to, it's possible to compare deals on their sites before you go, and buy a PAYG Sim card when you get there.
This is a specific Sim card for the country you are going to, which gives you a new UK number to give out to friends and family, so they can call you while you're away without it costing them. If you travel frequently to a few different countries, it means buying a few Sims and giving out lots of different numbers.
To get recommendations for prepaid overseas Sim cards, PrepaidGSM is a good tool, although it depends upon people updating it regularly to maintain its accuracy. It lists countries by continent – simply click on one and it'll show you available prepaid Sim options, any special rates and useful info such as activation fees and card validity.
Here you use a specialist multi-country Sim card. While not as cheap as a local card, you only need to buy it once, and keep the same UK number wherever you are, making it more convenient.
If you're after a specialist Sim, you'll need to weigh up what's best for you. Think about the calls you'll be making – if they're mainly calls to the country you're in, a local Sim could be best, but then you'll have to pay international rates to phone home. Also bear in mind that it is likely to be easier to top up a global Sim online.
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