The best and worst mobile providers for data roaming charges

Advice

Last month I arrived in Cairo late at night expecting a driver to meet me. Nobody was there. Time to make a call. I’d made the arrangement through my guide using WhatsApp messaging so that seemed the easiest way to get answers. I flicked mobile roaming back on and sorted the problem out. The cost of that message exchange was £160. 

My provider O2 had already alerted me by text message that data would cost me a whopping £7.20 per megabyte (MB) but I didn’t expect to spend any more than that. Big mistake. It appeared that my phone had used 26MB to update all its apps because I had auto-update switched on. 

I felt pretty stupid at making what I thought was a rookie error but a friend just back from New York had a similar shock. His mobile service was provided by EE as part of his BT Business account and within minutes he’d reached his data cap of £120. All because he’d failed to notify EE that he’d like to activate Roam Abroad.

Data roaming charges are complex and vary widely by provider and destination. But one thing’s guaranteed: using 4G on the hoof gobbles up data at an alarming rate. You can use up 1MB of data checking a navigation app and 10MB browsing the web or checking Facebook for a few minutes. Upload and send a photo and you’re also instantly in multi-megabyte territory.

The UK has four main mobile providers: EE, Three, Vodafone and O2. We’ve all enjoyed free roaming in Europe since 2017 but this is about to end. New customers, and those who have renewed their contract or joined the provider since last summer (cut-off dates vary between companies so check their websites), will soon be paying a flat rate of £2 a day for calls, texts and data roaming in Europe up to the limit of their UK allowance. Only customers who have been in contract before the cut-off date can continue to access their allowance in Europe free of charge.

Vodafone introduced the new charge on January 31; EE will do so on March 3, and Three on May 23. O2 says it currently has no plans to charge its customers.

Instead mobile companies have started including free roaming in Europe, and sometimes further afield, on selected – for which read more expensive – pay-monthly Sim-only and phone contracts or as part of promotional deals to attract new customers.

If your new phone plan doesn’t include roaming or a reasonably priced add-on, the surest way to avoid a big bill is to activate flight mode and use Wi-Fi for calls, web browsing and downloads, and set a low roaming charge cap for use in emergencies.

However, there are times when you really need to fire up roaming: to order a taxi on the street, to use Google Translate’s chat facility, or to find out where you are (though maps.me has good offline GPS-enabled mapping). 

If you’re travelling independently it’s a good idea to buy a local Sim card. Newer smartphones usually include a dual Sim facility or, for iPhone 12 and 13, you can convert your UK account into an e-Sim.

In countries where the bureaucratic hoops make it difficult to obtain a local Sim, consider buying an international one before you leave. Dataroam (dataroam.co.uk) sells an international pay-as-you-go Sim that can be used in 27 non-EU countries. You only get 1GB of data (1000MB) for £69.99 but this should be enough to cover your basic needs.

Below we list the deals offered to pay-monthly customers by the four main providers in 20 popular travel destinations outside Europe. To activate them you usually need to call or text your mobile provider before leaving.

In countries where there’s no roaming pass or add-on deal you will have to pay standard roaming rates, as I did in Egypt: £1-£2 per minute for calls; 50-60p for texts, and £6-£10 per megabyte for data. 

To avoid customers running up huge bills for the provider in countries with expensive mobile networks, companies have a Fair Usage Policy as personal accounts are designed for holiday travel and not for travelling on business or spending time at a second home abroad. High usage will be spotted and may trigger extra charges or a reduction in speed from 4G to 3G.

O2

Customers on selected phone and Sim-only plans with 30GB+ data (from £18 per month) are eligible for free roaming in selected countries with its Travel Inclusive Zone deal. Other customers can access a Travel Bolt-on which gives 120 minutes of calls, 120 texts and unlimited data for £4.99 a day in 68 countries outside of Europe (notably in Central and South America and the Caribbean as O2 is part of Spanish-owned Telefonica).

This is an attractive package as O2 offers the lowest daily flat rates which also run midnight-midnight local time and it does not charge any users for roaming in Europe. 

EE

Customers on more expensive ‘Smart Benefits’ or Full Works plans (from £25 per month) can choose a Roam Abroad pass as a benefit to avoid the £2 daily charge in Europe from March 3. Other customers (who joined after 7 July 2021) can buy a Roam Abroad pass for £10, valid for 30 days, to access their UK plan allowance in Europe and five other countries. 

There are no deals for using your UK allowance to travel to other destinations. You will need to activate a Travel Data Pass costing £5-£6.27 a day for a relatively small amount of data (150-500MB). A separate World Select Talk and Text Pass covering calls costs an additional £6.26 a day. This makes EE an expensive option for roaming outside Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. 

Vodafone

Unlimited 4Xtra contracts allow you to use your UK allowance in up to 83 destinations worldwide. These cost £18 a month for a Sim-only contract with European roaming rising to £32 for worldwide access. 

Customers on cheaper plans must pay £6 a day to use their UK call, text and data allowance outside Europe (as must 4Xtra customers in more expensive Zone D countries). However, for frequent travellers, Vodafone’s Roam Further plan has the most extensive country coverage of all providers and it includes expensive destinations such as India and Egypt.

Three

Three’s good-value ‘Advanced’ Sim-only plans start from £6 per month and allow you to use your UK allowance to Go Roam Europe for £2 a day and Go Roam World (24 countries outside Europe) for £5 a day including the US and Australia but oddly not Canada. A further 18 countries including South Africa, Turkey and Thailand are covered by its Data Passport which costs £5 a day for a generous 12GB allowance.

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