International roaming: send high mobile call costs packing

Updated: Quarterly (latest update: May 2008)

If you travel abroad on a regular or even occasional basis, keeping in touch with friends, family and potentially business colleagues at an office base can be extremely important. Yet despite this, charges for using a mobile phone abroad (also known as international roaming) have always been high.

Recently there has been a lot of news in the roaming industry with the European Union warning mobile phone companies that they must reduce their prices for texts and downloads made while travelling overseas by July 01, 2008, or face tough new legislature. The EU has already proven it is willing to act on roaming charges having introduced substantial reductions in the costs of making and receiving voice calls in June 2007.

This money-saving guide to international roaming will inform you of the current charges for voice calls to and from both mobile phone networks and SIM cards to help you find the right roaming deal for you.

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Be aware before you travel

Before you read on and become an international roaming expert it's vital to ensure that your mobile phone is capable of making any journey with you. Most UK phones will work anywhere in Europe, but in North America and South America generally you will need a tri-band phone as a minimum requirement. Many mobile phone handsets now offer quad-band coverage. If you don't know if your phone can handle the jetlag, call your mobile phone provider and check.

We already know that in the UK we have a high cost of living and unsurprisingly, despite European legislation, the charges we face for roaming are no different. For example, some networks charge in excess of £100 just to receive 100mins worth of phone calls if you're travelling in the USA - that's more than £1 a minute just for someone from home to call you.

Despite the fact that some charges remain high however, they have fallen significantly from their standings one year ago. For example, in May 2007, before the EU legislation was introduced, the cheapest mobile phone network deal for 10mins of calls from France would have set you back £7 through O2's MyEurope tariff. Today you could make and receive 10mins of calls for exactly half the price - £3.50 - through 3 Mobile.

Despite the progress that's been made over the last 12months there are still significant savings to be made depending on the type of user you are.

What type of user are you?

The solution to your international roaming woes is largely dependent on your circumstances. So which category do you fall into?

  • Frequent flyers  - Perhaps a business traveller who regularly travels abroad, someone who works overseas or someone who is going away for a long-time such as to backpack or for gap-year travel? In this case, you should take advantage of the SIM-PLE way to save.

  • Leisure travellers  - Are you a leisure traveller who only travels abroad for perhaps a week at a time once or twice a year? Do you want to be able to use your own mobile phone number so you can be contacted with ease? If this is the case, you should take advantage of the networks.

Frequent flyers - the SIM-PLE way to save

Previously, if you were a regular traveller the way to secure big savings when abroad was to switch the phone's SIM card so that calls go through a different (local) provider. Though it would cost you money initially to buy the SIM cards, if you were to make more than one hour's worth of calls they would almost always save you money.

Now however, since the EU demanded a reduction on roaming charges, that's not necessarily the case - some of the most competitive mobile phone tariffs are almost as competitive as the leading SIM deals if you are travelling within Europe, albeit the leading SIM cards generally offer slightly cheaper deals.

Where SIM cards come into their own however, is for travelling outside Europe - such as to the USA or Australia. They are also useful if you have a deal with a mobile phone provider that offers some of the more expensive roaming rates, but you don't want to break your contract and move to a different network.

In this case there are two broad options available to you. Firstly there are local SIM cards, which are ideal for people who consistently visit one country - perhaps if you have a favourite holiday destination or have regular meetings in an overseas office. Another option is to buy a global SIM. These allow you to roam almost anywhere in the world with a single SIM card and are ideal for backpackers and gap-year travellers who are moving across countries, or even business travellers if your corporate work takes you around the world. One thing to note though is that most of these cards have automatic top-up systems, so if you want to avoid adding more credit than necessary, opt out of this system.

Let's take a look at some tables to illustrate the savings that can be made. The following table shows how a frequent flyer (making and receiving 100mins of calls) would fair on call costs in France:

Frequent User: France

Local / GLOBAL Sim Cards

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Free Starter Credit Cost of 100 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 100 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
GLOBAL £30.00 £25.00 £0.00 £16.00 £21.00
Simply-Fone* GLOBAL £29.99 £15.00 £0.00 £15.00 £29.99
GLOBAL £15.99 £10.00 £0.00 £25.00 £30.99
GLOBAL £12.99 £3.95 £0.00 £25.00 £34.04
0044 Ltd GLOBAL £19.99 £6.70 £0.00 £30.00 £43.29
Go-SIM GLOBAL £29.99 £5.00 £0.00 £30.00 £54.99
Go-SIM LOCAL £29.99 £5.00 £0.00 £30.00 £54.99
UK2Abroad LOCAL £54.99 £25.00 £20.00 £22.00 £71.99
0044 Ltd LOCAL £39.99 £4.00 £0.00 £30.00 £65.99

* Provider does not offer a LOCAL SIM Card

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

UK PAY MONTHLY and PAY as You Go Tariffs

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Monthly Fee Cost of 100 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 100 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
O2 My Europe Extra PAYG £0.00 £10.00 £0.00 £25.00 £35.00
O2 My Europe Extra PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £10.00 £0.00 £25.00 £35.00
3 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £10.00 £25.00 £35.00
3 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £10.00 £25.00 £35.00
O2 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £18.00 £35.00 £53.00
O2 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £18.00 £35.00 £53.00
O2 ITS* PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £2.99 £18.00 £35.00 £55.99
Orange PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00
T-Mobile PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00
T-Mobile PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00
Orange PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00
Vodafone PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00
Vodafone PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £19.00 £38.00 £57.00

* International Traveller Service (ITS) option is free on monthly contracts with 600 minutes or more. ITS costs £2.99 per month for all other customers.

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

As the tables illustrate the savings that can be made are significant for a frequent user. One hundred minutes of making and receiving calls using the cheapest SIM card will effectively cost you nothing as you receive £25 of free starter credit as soon as you take out the SIM - all you have to pay is the initial £30 for the SIM package - you’d still have £9 in credit after making and receiving 100mins of calls, so effectively you will have spent £21 overall. By contrast, the cheapest networks will charge you £35 for 100mins of making and receiving calls. The O2 My Europe Extra and 3 Mobile tariffs are fairly competitive - but what if you’re with one of the other networks? In that case the advantage of taking out a SIM becomes even more substantial, as the most expensive tariff could cost you £57 for the same number of calls.

Of course the savings you can make in EU countries such as France pale by comparison to the cash to be saved by making calls on a SIM card from a country outside the EU. For example, for a backpacker in the USA (making and receiving 100mins of calls) the savings can be massive as the table below indicates.

Frequent User: USA

Local / GLOBAL Sim Cards

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Free Starter Credit Cost of 100 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 100 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
UK2Abroad LOCAL £49.99 £25.00 £10.00 £12.00 £46.99
0044 Ltd LOCAL £29.99 £6.70 £17.00 £27.00 £67.29
0044 Ltd GLOBAL £19.99 £6.70 £142.00 £155.00 £310.59
GLOBAL £15.99 £10.00 £89.00 £119.00 £213.99
Go-SIM LOCAL £14.99 £2.56 £124.00 £148.00 £284.43
Go-SIM GLOBAL £29.99 £5.00 £124.00 £148.00 £296.99
GLOBAL £30.00 £25.00 £164.00 £179.00 £348.00
GLOBAL £12.99 £3.95 £209.00 £178.00 £396.04
Simply-Fone* GLOBAL £29.99 £15.00 £140.00 £392.00 £546.99

* Provider does not offer a LOCAL SIM Card

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

UK PAY MONTHLY and PAY as You Go Tariffs

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Monthly Fee Cost of 100 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 100 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
T-Mobile PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £55.00 £55.00 £110.00
T-Mobile PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £55.00 £55.00 £110.00
O2 ITS* PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £2.99 £45.00 £90.00 £137.99
Orange PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £70.00 £110.00 £180.00
O2 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £99.00 £99.00 £198.00
3 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £80.00 £120.00 £200.00
Orange PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £70.00 £130.00 £200.00
3 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £80.00 £120.00 £200.00
Vodafone PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £99.00 £125.00 £224.00
Vodafone PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £99.00 £125.00 £224.00
O2 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £120.00 £137.00 £257.00

* International Traveller Service (ITS) option is free on monthly contracts with 600 minutes or more. ITS costs £2.99 per month for all other customers.

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

Again the tables clearly emphasise the importance of choosing a SIM card if you are a frequent flyer. One hundred minutes of incoming and outgoing calls costs £46.99 with the cheapest SIM card provider, compared to £110 from the cheapest network, in this case T Mobile - that’s less half the price. Even more shocking is the gap to the most expensive network with O2's regular pay monthly service charging £257 for the same call time. Choosing the wrong SIM card can be expensive too - so make sure you shop around for the cheapest deal for the country you’re travelling to.

Read on for frequent flyer tables featuring call charges in Spain, Germany and Australia across SIM card companies and all UK networks.

Leisure travellers - take advantage of the networks

If you're a leisure traveller the savings that can be made with SIM cards are unlikely to be of significant benefit once you have factored in the costs of buying the SIM, top-ups and the inconvenience of changing your regular mobile phone number and having your phone unlocked. Consequently, if you only travel for a week or two at a time, once or twice a year, it's probably best to stick with a mobile phone network. However, which network offers the best rates for overseas roaming?

The following table illustrates the savings that can be made for a leisure traveller who makes and receives no more than 10mins of calls while on holiday in Spain:

Infrequent User: Spain

Local / GLOBAL Sim Cards

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Free Starter Credit Cost of 10 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 10 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
GLOBAL £30.00 £25.00 £0.00 £19.00 £24.00
GLOBAL £15.99 £10.00 £0.00 £25.00 £30.99
0044 Ltd LOCAL £19.99 £4.50 £0.00 £00.80 £16.29
GLOBAL £12.99 £3.95 £0.00 £25.00 £34.04
Simply-Fone* GLOBAL £29.99 £15.00 £1.00 £19.00 £34.99
0044 Ltd GLOBAL £19.99 £6.70 £0.00 £3.00 £16.29
UK2abroad LOCAL £44.99 £25.00 £22.00 £61.99 £24.19
Go-SIM LOCAL £29.99 £5.00 £0.00 £30.00 £54.99
Go-SIM GLOBAL £29.99 £5.00 £0.00 £30.00 £54.99

* Provider does not offer a LOCAL SIM Card

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

UK PAY MONTHLY and PAY as You Go Tariffs

Provider SIM Type Cost of Sim Package Monthly Fee Cost of 10 minutes of Incoming Calls Cost of 10 minutes of Outgoing Calls Total Cost Apply
3 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £1.00 £2.50 £3.50
3 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £1.00 £2.50 £3.50
O2 PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £1.80 £3.50 £5.30
O2 PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £1.80 £3.50 £5.30
Orange PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
T-Mobile PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
T-Mobile PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
Orange PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
Vodafone PAYG £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
Vodafone PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £0.00 £1.90 £3.80 £5.70
O2 Chosen Country* PAYG £0.00 £5.00 £0.00 £2.50 £7.50
O2 Chosen Country* PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £5.00 £0.00 £2.50 £7.50
O2 ITS* PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £2.99 £1.80 £3.50 £8.29
O2 My Europe Extra PAYG £0.00 £10.00 £0.00 £2.50 £12.50
O2 My Europe Extra PAY MONTHLY £0.00 £10.00 £0.00 £2.50 £12.50

* Available for Spain only at present date.

** International Traveller Service (ITS) option is free on monthly contracts with 600 minutes or more. ITS costs £2.99 per month for all other customers.

All data compiled by moneysupermarket.com and correct to May, 13, 2008.

The tables show that you’re much better off sticking with your mobile phone network rather than using a SIM card in these circumstances. The cheapest mobile phone tariff for travelling to Spain is the 3 pay monthly tariff which charges just £3.50 for 10mins of incoming and outgoing calls. By contrast, the cheapest SIM card would cost £30 to buy initially, albeit with £25 of starter credit, leaving you with an overall expense of £6.90 after call charges. In fact all of the major UK networks - 3 Mobile, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone - offer tariffs for Spanish travel which are cheaper than buying a SIM card.

How the networks compare

3 Mobile...

3 Mobile is arguably the most consistently cheap network for overseas calls. It tops our leisure traveller tables with its pay monthly rate in France, Germany and Spain and also leads the way in Australia thanks to its 3 Like Home deal. It is also one of the most consistently competitive networks for frequent flyers too and the 3 Like Home deal is actually cheaper than even the leading SIM card for frequent flyers in Australia.

O2...

Since the European Commission’s intervention in 2007, O2 has become one of the more competitive providers across the board - it consistently appears in the top two networks on our frequent flyer tables. The key with O2 is to ensure you’re on the right tariff for the destination you wish to travel to - its Chosen Country tariff is its cheapest in Spain, its My Europe Extra tariff is its leading offer in France and Germany, but for travel further abroad you’re better off using the O2 International Traveller Service. Call the provider directly to enquire about the rates for the country you wish to travel to and be wary of its PAYG and pay monthly deals in the USA and Australia.

Orange...

Orange's current roaming rates exemplify that you should look for SIM cards as an alternative if you plan on making a lot of calls when abroad – but that you should stick with your network for just occasional calls overseas. According to our frequent flyer tables (100mins making and receiving calls) Orange is consistently expensive. However, in our leisure traveller tables both its PAYG and pay monthly charges are competitive. You may also be interested in the company’s frequent traveller bundle which costs £2 a month and includes discounts of up to 50% on calls and texts.

T-Mobile...

T-Mobile slashed its costs last year with the price of receiving a call from the UK when in Europe falling from £1/minute to 55p/minute and now to just 19p/minute for pay-as-you-go and pay monthly customers. It is the leading network for calls to and from the USA thanks to the stakes it holds in several North American networks. Its call costs over a 10minute period are significantly lower than the cheapest SIM card's costs from the USA - currently, it costs 55p/minute to call home from the USA with T-Mobile. These prices are the same whether you are on a pay monthly or pay-as-you-go deal.

Vodafone...

Despite price reductions, Vodafone remains one of the most expensive networks for roaming charges in the UK. Both its pay monthly and PAYG tariffs offer the same rates and are low enough to make acquiring a SIM card unnecessary for most occasional travellers. However, for frequent flyers the charges will quickly build up. Vodafone does offer a Passport service - this costs nothing to join except a one-off 75p fee to connect you to your home network and you are then charged the same tariff as in the UK whether you are making or receiving calls. For each call you receive that lasts more than 60 minutes, a 20p per minute charge applies from the 60th minute onwards.

Read on for leisure traveller tables featuring call charges in Germany, France, Australia and the USA across SIM card companies and all UK networks.

Or for the complete picture...

Europe's Information Society includes a page that lists all typical roaming tariffs charged by UK operators when users travel to a number of destinations. Visit this site for the latest call cost information. GSM World also offers independent mobile phone roaming information.

Making the most of new technologies

Emerging technology could change the way we phone home from abroad. Holidaymakers could even now call home for free if they route their calls over the internet by using a process called 'voice over internet protocol' (VoIP).

VoIP is established thanks to many consumers using the process at home to make cheap phone calls through broadband. Now, VoIP manufacturers are moving into the mobile phone market by launching handsets that can send and receive both calls and texts over the internet. The key however, is whether the phone is in range of a VoIP 'hotspot'. The disadvantage of VoIP is that it will only work within the range of a signal, but the massive advantage is that charges will remain the same wherever you are in the world because the internet does not recognise geographical boundaries.

Further alternatives are emerging such as combining this technology with the networks allowing you to switch between VoIP and network usage - which removes the inconvenience and still allows large savings to be made. However, this does create problems, as you might not be aware when you move out of VoIP range and consequently you could be paying more than you realise at the time.

Moneysupermarket.com recommends...

VoIP technology has the potential to be the future for international roaming, however, for now, with VoIP services still developing, it's best to look at alternatives.

Following the EU Commission's legislation that forced roaming prices down, the gap between the rates offered by the leading mobile phone networks and the SIM cards has reduced. However, despite the initial outlay and the inconvenience of having a phone unlocked, if you are a regular traveller overseas you can make large savings with a SIM card - a global SIM if you travel to many destinations and a local SIM if you favour one or two areas. Our frequent flyer tables illustrate these savings.

However, for leisure travellers who go abroad only once or twice a year and make very few calls, it's best to scout around for the best network deal as indicated by our leisure traveller tables. This will give you the convenience of retaining your phone number and if you get a good network deal, costs will generally work out cheaper than paying out for a local SIM card each time you travel.

So think about what type of user you are before you leave home. Then you can go overseas with peace of mind, knowing you can always call home and ask about the weather!

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