How to use your smartphone abroad

'Passport, tickets, money… Passport, tickets, money...' That’s been the memory-jogging mantra of holidaymakers for generations. Now we have to extend it to include 'mobile' because, for most of us, to head abroad without our phone would be unthinkable.

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We want to keep in touch with friends and family back home. We want to be able to make calls and send texts to the people we go away with, even if they’re just at the other end of the resort. We want to keep up with social networking sites and surf the internet to check out local amenities, weather reports and the news and sport headlines.

But communication convenience comes at a price, and for years British mobile users have been stung with outrageous charges for making and receiving calls, sending texts and using the web while on the continent. Such was the scale of the problem across Europe that the EU has stepped in to impose price caps and enforce reductions in mobile charges.

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Over the next few years we will see costs fall. This summer the maximum price to make a call from Europe will fall from 35 cents (29 pence) a minute to 29 cents (24 pence). To receive a call while abroad will cost a maximum of 8 cents (7 pence), down from 11 cents (9 pence). The cap on the cost of sending a text will edge down from 11 cents to 9 cents (7 pence). Receiving texts is free.

It will cost 70 cents (57 pence) per megabyte (MB) to download data or browse the internet while travelling abroad. The eye-popping bills that many people received on their return from holiday could often be traced to internet usage, and the EU has been highly critical of network providers’ charges for this element of their service.

The popularity of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with increasing use of tablet computers, has been cited as a prime cause for increased internet usage.

The EU took action last year to reduce internet-related “bill shock” by requiring service providers to send customers a text, email or pop-up window to alert them to the fact that they are nearing €50 of data download, or any pre-agreed level they had set. Customers are required to confirm that they are happy to go above this level to continue online roaming.

From July, people travelling outside the EU will also get a warning when they approach the €50 mark.   As the table below shows, there will be further falls in 2013 and 2014. By July 2014, roaming consumers will be paying no more than 19 cents (15 pence) per minute to make a call, a maximum 5 cents (4 pence) per minute to receive a call, a maximum 6 cents (5 pence) to send a text message and a maximum 20 cents (16 pence) per MB to download data or browse the internet.

From July 2014 customers will have the option to shop around and sign up for a separate mobile contract for roaming. This might be from a different firm to their existing domestic mobile provider, but they will be able to keep the same phone number.

Under this arrangement, each time the mobile user crosses a border, his or her phone will switch to the network of the roaming provider they’ve chosen, without any further action on their part. Customers will also have the option to select a local mobile network for data roaming when they get to the country they are visiting.

The current popular tactic for many travellers is to buy a compatible SIM card once they get to their destination – but this means they have a different phone number while there. Some operators such as WorldSIM and Toggle Mobile offer SIMs that operate in various locations.

For example, the Toggle SIM, which comes with a UK mobile number, allows users to add up to nine local numbers for any countries they are planning to visit – this reduces the cost of using the phone in that location. Each number is valid for 30 days, although those staying abroad for longer, or who make regular trips to the same country, can buy the number for permanent use while there.

Services such as Toggle and WorldSIM also offer free incoming calls.

There are several ways to keep in control of your mobile and tablet usage costs while overseas:
  • Contact your network provider before you go abroad to take advantage of any offers they might have.
  • Check the charges levied for a multimedia message (MMS) against a standard text message (SMS).
  • Turn off any ‘data roaming’ button on your device and deactivate your email, otherwise they will run all the time you are away, potentially racking up charges.
  • Try to limit your usage of Facebook and Twitter while you are away as these can rapidly eat through your data allowance.
  • Look for shopping malls, cafes, hotels, bars and other locations that offer free Wi-Fi.

Remember you can check all the latest mobile phone and deals at the dedicated MoneySupermarket channel.

EU roaming price caps

   Current  1 July 2012  1 July 2013  1 July 2014
 Data (per MB)  None  70 cents/
57 pence
 45 cents/
37 pence
 20 cents/
16 pence
 Voice-calls made (per minute)  35 cents/
29 pence
 29 cents/
24 pence
 24 cents/
20 pence
 19 cents/
15 pence
 Voice-calls received (per minute)  11 cents/
9 pence
 8 cents/
7 pence
 7 cents/
6 pence
 5 cents/
4 pence
 SMS (per SMS)  11 cents/
9 pence
 9 cents/
7 pence
 8 cents/
7 pence
 6 cents/
5 pence

Note that the prices quoted do not include VAT (levied at 20% on bills in the UK). The conversion from euros to sterling is correct as at 23 May, 2012. Source: European Commission

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct. 

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