For even the most infrequent travellers, it can be difficult to resist the urge to call home and tell envious friends and family about the glorious weather and life on the beach. Taking our mobile phones has become almost as essential as packing our toothbrush – but a lot more expensive.
The EU has clamped down on the amount providers can charge for mobile calls made abroad but the cap applies only to voice calls made within the EU and it does not currently extend to text messages.
If you are only away for a week or two, you may not worry too much about the odd quick call or text, but for those embarking on an extended trip the mobile tariff you have here in the UK is unlikely to be the best option when you’re abroad. Not only will you be charged a higher rate for making a call, you will also be charged for receiving a call.
For example, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Virgin charge 38p per minute if you make a call from an EU country and you’ll be charged up to 19p per minute just to receive a call. If you are in the United States the cost of receiving a phone call can be even higher – Vodafone charges 99p per minute.
Sending a text when you’re overseas is also more expensive – T-Mobile charges 40p per text, while Orange customers pay 30p.
So what can you do to keep the costs down?
Make sure you’re on the best deal
The easiest way to secure savings is to sign up for one of your network’s discounted packages – all the main networks offer special packages for those going overseas that can offer significantly reduced costs.
The Vodafone passport service is the cream of the crop. It’s available on all Vodafone tariffs and once you’re signed up for it, all you’ll need to pay is a simple 75p connection fee. You will then be charged at normal UK call rates and if you have free minutes for calling UK numbers, they will be incorporated.
O2 customers have several tariffs to choose from. These include the O2 Chosen Country tariff, which is available for trips to Spain only and cuts call charges to just 25p per minute, with no charge for incoming calls, although there is a £5 monthly charge. Typically, O2 charges all customers 35p per minute to make calls and 18 per minute to receive them.
If you are travelling somewhere in Europe other than Spain, O2’s MyEurope Extra service has a £10 monthly fee but cuts call costs to 25 per minute, with no charge to receive calls. If you take out a deal with a monthly fee, remember to cancel when you get home.
There are further savings to be made on tariffs such as Orange Frequent Traveller, 3 Like Home, T-Mobile World Class and the O2 International Traveller Service. It’s well worth contacting your existing provider, informing it of your travel plans and asking to be placed on the cheapest tariff for the country you’re travelling to.
If you’re looking for a network deal specifically for overseas use, then search for the cheapest deal for the country you’re planning to travel to. Travellers in France or Germany would be best off on 3’s Like Home tariff which charges 25p per minute for outgoing calls and 10p per minute for incoming calls. For more on call charges, check out our international roaming section.
The SIMple way to save
While opting for a special deal with a UK mobile provider may be an easy way to cut your mobile costs abroad it is not the cheapest option. You’ll be able to save even more if you buy a local or global SIM card.
For example, if you were travelling to France, the cheapest UK tariff on which to make and receive 100 minutes worth of calls would be the O2 My Europe Extra deal, which has a £10 monthly fee, does not charge for incoming calls and charges 25p per minute for outgoing calls – meaning you’d be spending £35 overall. However, if you take out a Story Telecom global SIM card you would pay £30 for the SIM package but would receive £25 worth of free starter credit. Incoming calls on this service are free, and outgoing calls cost 16 per minute, meaning you’d still have £9 of calling time in-credit after 100 minutes of outgoing calls.
Where SIM card usage really comes into its own however, is if you are travelling further afield. For example, if you are going to the US the cheapest network – in this case T-Mobile – would charge £110 for 100 minutes of incoming and outgoing calls. By contrast, the cheapest local SIM cards, UK2Abroad and 0044, charge just £46.99 and £55.99 for the same call time respectively, and that includes the initial cost of the SIM package. Our international roaming section has details on the cheapest SIM card for France, Spain, Germany, the USA and Australia.
However, some phones are locked which means they will only work with the SIM card given to you by your network provider. If your phone is unlocked, switching to a global SIM is straightforward. If it’s locked you’ll need to go through a more complicated process before the new SIM card will work.
How to unlock your phone
Step one – To find an unlocking code for the handset you’ll need the brand and model number, the network and the international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) – a unique number given to all phones which can usually be retrieved by dialling *#06# into your handset.
Step two - Go to one of a number of websites that are dedicated to phone unlocking. Generally, Nokias are well accounted for on websites such as Trycktill, Unlock Nokiafree or Unlockitfree. Both Trycktill and Unlockitfree do list handsets from other brands. Once you have retrieved the code for your phone from one of these websites, simply take out your existing SIM, insert the new one and input the code correctly – you only usually have five attempts, so be careful.
Alternative methods - If that method doesn’t work for you, perhaps because your handset isn’t listed at the websites above, phone your current network and ask how much it would cost for your phone to be unlocked – typically this could cost between £20 and £120 depending on the network. If the quote is too high, check the high street or scan around online to see if you can get it unlocked somewhere else for less – but always check the validity of the retailer.
Once your phone is ready to go, you can choose a global SIM, which allows you to make calls for less wherever you are. Or, if you travel regularly to only one country, pick up a local SIM that is specific for the country you’re travelling to.
Have your say: If you’ve got any helpful advice on the best ways to minimise mobile costs when you’re abroad, visit our forum and let us know. Or maybe you’ve been caught out by overseas charges and can warn others what not to do.
Disclaimer: Please note that any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.