Worried about using your phone in Europe? Concerned that you'll return to high bills or hidden charges from your UK network? Here's everything you need to know about data roaming charging in the EU and Europe and how best to use your phone abroad.
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Data Roaming Charges- do you get charged?
As I write this, my parents are sunning themselves in France.
It's hard to know- I've not heard from them for 3 days.
You see, my usually tech-savvy parents are TERRIFIED of incurring data roaming or penalty charges for daring to use their mobile phone abroad. Tales of HUGE mobile roaming fees have led to them turning their phones off and refusing to make or accept phone calls, or send text messages and god forbid they should do anything as audacious as send me a picture message…
I joke but, actually, it's not that funny. My Dad is in his 80s. I'd quite like to know they're ok. And, despite my reassurances that it's not as bad as they fear, they don't believe me.
So I thought I'd try to sift out fact from fiction, to try to help any other worried sons and daughters before their parents disappear into a French black hole.
(I'm planning to send them this post in an email- not that they'll receive it until they get home…)
What are Data Roaming Charges and how do they affect you?
On 1st January 2022, (once they were freed from EU legislation!), the UK mobile network providers were once again able to charge data roaming fees in the EU (and further afield).
The result has been, quite simply, chaos and confusion. There are now a bucket-load of options across every network provider and none of them apply the same rules.
To make things even more complicated, the Government now collects 20% VAT on roaming charges outside of the EU.
To help try to make this simpler for you, we're taking a look at what the best network options are, how much data the ‘average' Brit is using, and tips and tricks to avoid getting caught out with hidden or expensive charges.
What is the data roaming fee?
Isn't that the all-important question!?
The below table shows the wide variety of different roaming charges on offer for monthly contracts from the main UK networks. In all cases, the number, and type of destinations vary hugely, as do the ‘fair usage' policies.
On the face of it, many of the charges don’t seem unreasonable for a week-long holiday, although a £6/ day charge is better avoided!
What are the fair usage limits on data roaming?
The most significant area of concern is the monthly fair usage limits, which vary widely from provider to provider.
Fair usage means the amount of data that a network provider deems ‘acceptable' before charging you if you use more than that. As you can see below, it varies widely by network.
When you consider that people touring Europe by motorhome don’t have the use of hotel Wi-Fi and often have family to keep in touch with or many things to organise back home due to longer periods spent away, this usage is likely to be much higher, making the 5GB MONTHLY fair usage limit from giffgaff, or even the 12GB limit from Three, look insufficient.
What is the best UK network for data roaming charges abroad?
Here's a table showing the top UK mobile networks and their data roaming policy, charges and fair usage allowance.
(Note: The passage of time and speciall offers will of course mean the information above isn't always up to date. Please do check current offers for the best package for your needs.)
How much mobile data will you use abroad?
New research commissioned by iD Mobile showed that the average British holidaymaker used about 5.64 GB PER WEEK of data.
The same research showed that on average Brits use more than 32 hours of roaming data a week, most of which is used on streaming video and music. In fact, video and music data streaming use up more than 10x the amount of data otherwise used just browsing the internet or being on social media, and are responsible for the majority of that 5 GB+ a week of data.
But even if you don't stream music or video, you could easily use 7.5MB/ day on:
- using a map for navigating (another reason to get a proper motorhome sat nav!),
- finding recommendations for restaurants and places to visit,
- finding overnight motorhome parking stopovers
- video calls, messages, social media, picture messages and even translation apps for communicating with locals.
With all this, it's probably not a surprise to learn that over one in four UK holiday makers have been hit with mobile charges averaging £262 after their trip!!
For this reason, we would always recommend either going with a network provider that does not have a fair usage limit, or that provides 15 GB, or even 25 GB+ of data per month as their fair usage limit (depending on how long your trip is).
Either way, you should always check your providers’ price per MB for data used over their fair usage limit before you leave the UK. Data roaming policies do change fairly regularly, but once you are in contract it’s good to know that the law says mobile providers must give customers one month notice minimum if they are going to change any element of their contract. That includes their roaming policies and charges.
Tips and tricks to reduce your mobile data usage (and avoid a surprise bill!)
- Check if your phone contract/ package already has an inclusive roaming bundle [the same survey showed that 50% of Brits didn’t have an inclusive roaming option when they travelled].
- If not, many providers have roaming bolt-ons or add-ons that will save you money if you know you are going to use a certain amount of data. You may want to buy one before you head off.
- Set your spending cap – all providers let you do this.
- Check you have not opted out of your providers’ usage cap (the government has specified that a £45 roaming charge limit must be in place unless you have opted out of it). In some cases, buying a data roaming add-on can automatically opt you out.
- If your current provider doesn’t have a good roaming package, consider using a pay-as-you-go SIM card from another provider just for roaming. You can keep it in a spare / old phone and tether your current phone off it when using data so you don’t need to change your number.
- Alternatively, and if you are going to use a lot of data or make a lot of calls, consider buying a local pay-as-you-go SIM card, or for longer cross-border trips a global SIM from TravelSim or WorldSim.
- Get used to monitoring your data usage whilst on holiday – and remember that streaming music and video uses much, much more data than general browsing, checking emails or updating social media.
- Watch out for spending more time abroad than at home (normally measured over a 4-month period) as you may get an alert from your provider that they wish to charge you a surcharge as they consider you to be permanently roaming. If that’s the case, then a global or local SIM is probably best for you.
- Download films, music and books you might want to use before you leave so that you can just play them offline without using the internet.
- Beware of apps which update in the ‘background'. Many of them are set to automatically do this- you'll want to turn them off in settings or set them to only update over Wi-Fi. You can also turn off many apps you won't use while travelling so they only work with Wi-Fi
- Talking of which, you can use free Wi-Fi in restaurants and public areas where offered (McDonalds is great for this while travelling abroad), but remember these are insecure networks so don't do anything private on there (like log into your bank account!)
I hope you found that useful and you have a great trip abroad. Right, I'm off to send a message in a bottle to my parents. Or a bat signal…