Smartphone roaming: Your guide to using your phone abroad

Using a smartphone abroad is often called 'roaming'. While you should be able to use your handset abroad, it could set you back a pretty penny - the calls, texts and data you use will not count towards your normal monthly allowance and will be charged at a much higher rate. 

You may need to speak to your mobile network so that it will allow you to use your handset abroad, so make sure it's set up before you go (just call customer services). Also, make sure your smartphone will actually work in the country you're heading off to - you may need a triband or quadband handset in certain places (see our connectivity guide for details).

Which is the best network for using a smartphone abroad? It's hard to say which is most suited to your particular needs because costs can vary wildly from country to country. To get started you should check the costs with each network in the table below, and if you have a particular country in mind be sure to confirm prices for that exact location.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you are 100 per cent sure of all the charges you may incur in the countries you are travelling to, especially for data - we can't stress this enough. And make sure everyone is aware of them too - you may know the potential costs, but do the rest of the family? 

Charges and caps: The EU vs The Rest of the World

Generally you will find using your smartphone is cheaper in the EU than elsewhere. The European Commission introduced its latest laws in July 2013, ensuring mobile calls within the EU can cost no more than around 24c per minute to place and 8.3c per minute to receive. A text within the EU is capped at 9.5c, while data can cost no more than 53.3c per MB.

Also included was a measure to ensure 'bill shock' would be a thing of the past within the EU. All mobile broadband providers must cap your monthly roaming bills at 50 euros (which usually equates to between £44-50, each network quotes a slightly different figure) - essentially, when you hit this mark, you will be cut off. As a minimum standard, you should also receive a warning from your mobile broadband provider when you hit 80 per cent of your limit.

However, you can arrange with your supplier in advance to have a higher limit, or no cap at all. The 50 euro cap only applies if you have not set a cap of your own, agreed with your network.

Unfortunately, the different UK networks have decided to implement these rules slightly differently: 

  • O2: Applying the cap to ALL roaming, both inside Europe and elsewhere. 
  • Vodafone: Applying the cap to the whole of Europe, not just the EU. £100 cap elsewhere.
  • Three, BT, EE, T-Mobile, Orange and Virgin: Applying the cap to EU countries only.

Be very careful to check which country you're going to before you decide, as not every European country may be in the Europe 'zone' for all providers, or covered by EU law. Also, some providers will have better deals for countries where they have special partnerships with a local provider.

Additional measures have been announced to further reduce costs in 2014, and ultimately scrap roaming charges by 2016.

So which is the best network when I'm heading off to the continent?

It's a commonly asked question here, but unfortunately a hard one to keep on top of - in fact, it's practically impossible to answer. The networks tend to be global beasts now, with all kinds of partnerships with other networks across the globe. This means one may have a brilliant rate in Spain, while another might be half the price in the US. 

If you want to check out details of roaming rates for a particular network to a particular country, click on its logo below to be taken to the roaming rates section of its official website (opens in a new window). We've put a few little pointers in the boxes next to the logo too, highlighting some little extras each network offers. Prices change all the time, so please be sure to check before you travel: 

EU and selected: Calls 28.8p/min, 7.9p to receive – text 8.4p send, free to receive. Data is 45.8p/MB.

Outside EU: £1.40 to £3 p/m, texts 35-50p, data 38.2p-£6/MB (check individual country's zone for details).

 

EU and selected: Calls 24.5p/min, 7.1p to receive – text 8.1p send, free to receive. Data is 45.9p/MB.

Outside EU: Calls £1.30 to £1.75 p/m, texts to 50p, data to £8/MB (check individual country's zone for details).

You can get discounts by adding either the Europe or World Traveller (25 or 30 per cent discount to call charges respectively) from around £5. There are also lower cost data bundles available for some countries.

EU and selected: Calls 24p/min, 6p to receive – text 7p send, free to receive. Data is 46p/MB.

Outside EU: 60p to £1.79/min – text 25-40p (check individual country's zone for details) – PAYG 99p to £1.49/min, text 10-49p. Data up to £6/MB (also £120 bundle option).

EU and selected: Calls 24.5p/min, 7.1p to receive – text 8.1p send, free to receive. Data bundles at £1/3MB (one day), £5/20MB (one week), £10/50MB (one month). Out of bundle charge is 45.9p.

Outside EU: Calls up to £1.50 p/m, texts up to 50p (check individual country's zone for details). Data varies widely, from £1/20MB to £25/3MB, check each country for exact pricing.

EU and selected: Calls 24p/min, 7p to receive – text 8p send, free to receive. Data passes from £3/10MB.

Outside EU: 95p to £1.70/m, 11-80p to receive (check individual country's zone for details) – text 35p, data £5/MB.

EU and selected: Calls 24.5p/min, 7.1p to receive – text 8.1p send, free to receive. Data is 45.9p/MB.

Outside EU: Calls up to (check individual country's zone for details) £1.65p/m, £1.30 to receive – texts up to 35p. Data £5 per day for 25MB with Data Traveller.

Check the Vodafone web site for full details of the countries covered by the Data Traveller add-on, which offers a significant saving on mobile data roaming.

You can also get cheap rates with the Vodafone Passport add-on: In 35 countries (most of EU, plus Australia, New Zealand and others, free to opt in) calls cost a 75p connection fee, then you are only charged your standard UK call rate p/m.

EU and selected: Call 24.5p/min, 7.1p to receive - text 8.1p, free to receive. 

Outside EU: Calls 28.8p-£2.50/min, 7.9p-£2.50/min to receive - text 8.9p-£1 send, free to receive. 

Data varies, to use EE abroad you must sign up for a roaming package, which start at 50p/2MB. Note that 4G does not work outside the UK.

 

What to avoid when you go online with your smartphone: the differences in data

Just checking your email, looking up the football results or checking the weather via apps isn't going to break the bank too badly, but some things you may not even think about doing at home and online can be your downfall. Remember the 'bill shock' laws may not protect you outside of the EU.

While you may not want to miss your favourite shows, streaming a TV show to your touchscreen while on your hols is going to be a costly mistake. Even a 30-minute programme could equate to a roaming bill amounting to thousands of pounds. You're much better off taking the time to line up some things to watch before you go.

* While we do our best to stay on top of price changes regarding roaming, they are rarely advertised or flagged up to us by the companies themselves: please use this as a guide and be sure to check before you commit.