Roaming charges explained: a guide to using your phone abroad

roaming charges

Can you still use your phone for free in the EU? What roaming add-ons are there for cutting your roaming charges bill when you’re travelling further afield? Read on as we take a good look.

What are roaming charges?

The term ‘roaming charges’ refers to the higher prices that mobile networks typically charge for using your phone overseas.

You’re deemed to be roaming as soon as you arrive in another country and your phone is detected by a local network.

Depending on the country you’re visiting and your network’s roaming policy, from thereon in you may have to pay more to make calls, send texts and use mobile data.

In the past, the extra cost of roaming often took Britons by surprise.

So much so that it was common to read news reports of people who inadvertently racked up charges running into thousands of pounds.

Awareness of the risks of roaming charges has improved since then, with consumers getting smarter and becoming wary of the extra costs associated with using a phone abroad.

But as we’ll see the advent of Brexit means that’s no longer the case, with some household-name networks opting to change their policies and reintroduce charges or impose lower limits on usage.

To that end, it’s a good idea to get informed before you head off for your break. Luckily, we’re here to arm you with the information you need.

Are EU roaming charges affected by Brexit?

roaming

For a while in the wake of legislation passed in 2017, all major UK networks allowed you to use your UK allowances in the EU for no extra charge.

However, as of June 2021 EE, O2 and Three announced plans to re-introduce roaming charges for Britons holidaying in the EU.

At the time of writing, Vodafone, BT Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, giffgaff, VOXI and iD Mobile have yet to make announcements.

But it seems likely they’ll follow suit soon. Especially because BT Mobile is part of the same BT Group as EE, and giffgaff is a subsidiary of O2.

An at-a-glance guide to networks’ EU roaming charges after Brexit

We’ve outlined each of the major networks’ policies for EU roaming charges below.

EE roaming charges in the EU

Changes announced by EE means that anyone who joins EE on a pay monthly plan or upgrades after July 7th 2021 will be subject to a flat fee of £2 per day to use their UK allowances (for calls, text and data) in 47 European countries.

The charges aren’t due to come into force until January 2022.

So if you join the network or upgrade and you’re planning a holiday in any of the locations covered by EE’s roaming scheme, you’ll still be able to roam for no extra charge this year.

EE customers who have yet to renew their contracts will be able to continue to use their UK roaming allowances in the EU this year. Once again, though, this is set to change as of January 2022.

O2 roaming charges in the EU

O2 customers can currently still use their UK allowances for no extra charge in its 49 ‘Europe Zone’ locations.

However, in the wake of Brexit it has enforced a new ‘fair usage’ cap of 25GB on roaming data, which is due to come into force on August 2nd 2021.

The good news is that the cap, which O2 claims will affect less than one per cent of customers, means any usage up to this point will incur no extra charges.

However, customers that exceed 25GB will face charges of £3.50 for each GB of data they use.

Three roaming charges in the EU

Until further notice, Three customers holidaying in the EU can continue to use their UK allowances in the 71 locations covered by its Go Roam scheme.

But Three has made changes to its policy, with the result that customers are now restricted to a fair usage cap of 12GB, down from 20GB previously.

That means that you’ll be able to use up to 12GB of your UK download limit and won’t be charged anything extra.

Data usage beyond 12GB is charged at just 0.3p per GB. So you’re unlikely to come back with a ruinous bill, even if you do exceed the cap.

There’s no extra charge for sending texts and making calls. Furthermore, Three said it currently has no plans to reintroduce these.

Vodafone roaming charges in the EU

As it stands, Vodafone has not changed its policy for EU roaming. So you can continue to use your UK allowances in 51 locations in Europe for no extra charge.

BT Mobile roaming charges in the EU

Although BT subsidiary EE has announced plans to reintroduce roaming charges as of January 2022, BT Mobile continues to allow customers to use their UK allowances in 47 European destinations for no extra charge.

Sky Mobile roaming charges in the EU

Sky Mobile customers can continue to use their UK allowances in 35 locations in Europe for no extra charge with its Roaming Passport scheme. It has not announced any plans for this to change in the future.

iD Mobile roaming charges in the EU

All iD Mobile customers get inclusive roaming in 50 locations in Europe, with no word of any looming change to its policy.

Plusnet Mobile roaming charges in the EU

Plusnet Mobile customers who are signed up to a plan that includes its Roam Like Home scheme can use their UK allowances in 52 locations throughout Europe. We’ll let you know if anything changes.

Tesco Mobile roaming charges in the EU

Tesco Mobile's roaming policy is at present unchanged. That means you can still use your UK allowances in 48 locations in Europe and beyond and pay no extra.

Virgin Mobile roaming charges in the EU

Virgin Mobile customers can still use UK allowances in the EU for no extra charge, with its Roam Like Home scheme. At the time of writing, there’s no word of a change in policy any time soon.

Which network’s best for roaming?

networks

That largely depends on where you’re planning to holiday.

But all major networks offer roaming add-ons that’ll cut the cost of roaming in locations beyond Europe. We take a look at each network below…

Three

Three’s Go Roam scheme comes as standard on all Advanced Plans and extends well beyond Europe, covering 71 countries worldwide.

These include the USA, Australia and popular locations in South America. No other network offers a scheme that’s as wide-ranging on its plans, without asking you to pay extra for an add-on.

Three also offers a Data Passport add-on. This allows you to use as much data as you like in 89 locations, some of which are not included in Go Roam, for an additional payment of £5 per day.

Vodafone

Vodafone customers on Vodafone Unlimited, Unlimited Lite and Red plan qualify for its Roam Free scheme.

This includes 51 locations, which includes most European cities and a smattering of locations further afield.

Customers who are signed up to these plans and are travelling somewhere not covered by the Roam Free scheme can get inclusive roaming in a further 104 destinations for an extra £6 per day.

Vodafone Unlimited Max customers are covered by the Global Roaming Plus scheme and can use their phone for no extra charge in 81 locations, including the likes of the USA, Australia, Mexico and South Africa.

Unlimited Max customers can also add Roam Further for £6 per day. This allows them to use their UK allowances in a further 74 locations.

O2

o2 logo

Most O2 plans offer inclusive roaming in 49 European locations, with the caveat that there’s a data cap of 25GB (see section on EU roaming for more detail).

Customers on the majority of O2 plans can also get an O2 Travel add-on for £6 per day. This gets you unlimited data and a daily allowance of 120 minutes and 120 texts to use in 63 locations outside Europe.

On O2 contracts with monthly allowances of 10GB or more, though, inclusive roaming in 48 European locations and a further 27 locations outside Europe comes as standard.

Once again, though, you can add O2 Travel for an extra charge of £6 per day, which will give you daily allowances of 120 calls and 120 texts, as well as unlimited data to use in a further 36 locations beyond Europe.

EE

ee logo

For now, EE customers who signed up to their current contract before 7th July 2020 can use their UK allowances in 47 locations in Europe for no extra charge.

If you’re in this group of EE customers and you’re heading beyond Europe, you can currently add a Roam Further pass for an extra fee and you’ll be able use those allowances in more far-flung locales.

However, EE has confirmed it will scrap inclusive roaming for new and upgrading customers holidaying in Europe from January 2022, who will now have to pay a fee of £2 per day to use their UK allowances. For more details, see the section devoted to EU roaming.

After the changes come into effect, however, EE customers on plans that include Smart Benefits will be able to sign up for the Roam Abroad as one of their benefits and pay nothing extra to use their allowances.

This bags you inclusive roaming in Europe, as well as USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

The Roam Abroad add-on is also available if you’re not on a Smart Benefits plan.

Priced £10 per month, it lets you use your UK allowances for a whole month. And it’s a good way of avoiding the £2 per day charge that will apply on EE plans from January.

Heading outside Europe? EE offers Travel Data Passes that let you add more data for a flat daily fee, which typically comes in at between £5-£6 per day depending on the country you’re travelling to.

Virgin Mobile

virgin media logo

Virgin Mobile customers on all pay-monthly plans benefit from inclusive roaming in 43 European destinations, albeit with a fair usage policy for data that typically works out at 80% of your allowance.

Virgin Mobile does not offer any add-ons to reduce the cost of roaming in locations beyond Europe. Which means you’ll pay high rates for making calls, sending texts and using data.

BT Mobile

bt logo

BT’s Roam Like Home scheme is included on all pay monthly contracts and allows you to use your UK allowances in 47, mostly European locations, for no extra charge.

This is subject to a fair usage limit on plans with allowances of 50GB or more.

If you’re heading to the likes of America, Australia or Thailand you can get a Travel Data Pass. Priced £6 per day, these entitle you to 500MB of data per day.

How do fair usage policies affect roaming charges?

Some networks apply a fair usage policy for customers who are roaming. This effectively puts a cap on how much data you can use while you're overseas. There may also be a cap on calls and texts too.

For instance, let’s suppose your UK allowance is 25GB per month. It’s possible that a network could impose a cap of 10GB of data that can be used for no extra charge while you’re in locations covered by its roaming scheme.

In that instance, any data you use beyond the cap will cost you extra.

Furthermore, it also means that if you’re a really heavy data user and don’t closely monitor your usage, you could face an unexpectedly high bill.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Britons only get through about 3.6GB of data per month.

So unless you dramatically change your usage habits on holiday, for most people there’s next to no chance that you’ll get anywhere near the fair usage cap.

Still, it always pays to be certain. So if you are worried about racking up excess charges, we’d suggest you get in touch with your network before you travel to confirm exactly what the fair usage cap is on your plan.

Tips to avoid roaming charges

You can keep your roaming costs down, by sticking to some hard and fast rules. We’ve compiled some useful tips below…

1 Keep an eye out for free WiFi

It’s very common for hotels, hostels, and cafes to offer WiFi free of charge. So if you don’t mind getting off your lounger to head to the lobby, you can use the internet and not use any of your allowance.

However, make sure you take note of the areas of the resort where WiFi is available. It’s unlikely that its range will extend outdoors and may only be available in the lobby or bar.

2 Use calling apps to ring home

Messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and Viber let you make calls over WiFi too.

The upshot is you won’t use any of your calls allowance, as long as you can find somewhere where free WiFi is available.

3 Turn off roaming if you’re really worried

It’s a nuclear option. But if you’re really concerned about high roaming charges, head to settings on your phone and turn off roaming.

That way you know you won’t get charged for app updates that typically happen in the background and will eat into your allowance.

4 Don’t exercise option to opt-out of spending limits

Almost all household-name networks impose a spending cap while you’re overseas, which generally comes in at about £45-50.

However, if you want to opt out, for whatever reason, you can do so by calling your network.

That said, we’d strongly recommend you don’t opt out. It’s all too easy to rack up high charges that could put a real dampener on your break.

5 Look into local SIMs

If your phone is unlocked, you can insert a local network’s SIM in your phone to benefit from cheaper rates for data, calls and texts.

Not sure if it’s unlocked? The best way to find out is to try another UK network’s SIM, belonging to a friend or family member, in your phone before you leave.

If it accepts the SIM and you’ve got a service, your phone is unlocked.

6 Take particular care on cruises

Cruise ships aren’t typically covered by networks’ roaming schemes. Especially when it comes to data usage.

There’s also a risk that you could inadvertently connect to a so-called ‘at-sea network’ or ‘maritime network’.

These are satellite-based services and charge rates that are eye-wateringly high.

We’d recommend you use free WiFi where possible, or consider signing up for a paid-for pass for onboard WiFi.

7 Check your destination abides by EU roaming rules

Many travellers have been caught out by assuming that Turkey and Northern Cyprus are in the EU. And paid the price.

8 Download movies, TV shows and music before you go

Downloading things to watch and listen to will eat through your data allowance very quickly.

So box clever, think ahead and download the shows while you’re still in the UK, so they’re stashed on your phone ready to go.

Frequently asked questions

How will I know if my network is scrapping inclusive EU roaming?

The law stipulates that networks must give customers at least a month’s notice of changes to their contract, which includes roaming policies.

You’ll most likely receive notification of any alterations by text.

How do I get in touch with my network to check roaming charges?

You’ll find contact details for all the major UK mobile phone networks on our one-stop guide.