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Using your phone abroad - everything you need to know

Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston
Aug 4, 2016

More of us use mobile phones than ever before and we do more things with them.

We use them for email, social media, messaging and shopping, finding our way around - and occasionally for phone calls too.

Obviously you’ll be taking your mobile phone with you on holiday. But how will taking your phone abroad affect the price you pay to use it?


Data Roaming

The first thing you should know about is data roaming. Data roaming just means connecting to the internet through a 3G or 4G mobile service that isn’t yours.

That covers texting, making phone calls and using the internet. That’s almost certain to happen abroad: if you have data roaming enabled on your phone it will connect to the first network it can.


Data Roaming Charges

Data roaming has always attracted additional charges.

The EU used to cap data roaming charges at €0.20 per megabyte; with VAT too that came to around 20p a megabyte. And in April this year, that fell to €0.05/mb. 2017 will see the withdrawal of data roaming charges across the Eurozone altogether.

Outside the EU, there are no data roaming caps and companies can do what they like. Data charges can go as £8/mb or more.


The Future of Data Roaming Charges

So what’s going to happen now that Brits have voted to leave the Eurozone? Will we have to pay high data roaming charges there too?

Not this year.

The current data roaming regulations will remain in force at least until Article 50 is formally invoked and the UK completes a process of withdrawal from the EU that’s expected to take at least 2 years, maybe more.

Kyriakos Fountoukakos, a Brussels-based lawyer, told Bloomberg: ‘This is another area of huge uncertainty brought about by Brexit. If the UK leaves and is outside the EU and the EEA [European Economic Area], the regulation will not be automatically applicable in the UK.’

Future changes depend on what form British withdrawal from the Eurozone takes.

If the country withdraws from the European Union, but not the European Economic Area, data roaming charges will still be capped by EU law. If the UK leaves the EU and the EEA both, the caps could be removed or renegotiated.


How to Save Money Using Your Phone Abroad

Using your phone abroad can leave you with a huge bill you weren’t expecting.

If you check your contract or search your supplier’s website in advance, you should be able to figure out what they’ll want to charge you and prepare accordingly. Some suppliers will offer lower-cost packages on a flat rate or daily deal basis, and they’re always worth investigating.


Use The Wifi

Using WiFi won’t incur data roaming charges. The SMS and phone functionality your phone comes with are just software - you can get calling and messaging free through WiFi, using apps like SnapChat, WhatsApp, Hangouts or Skype.

If you use these on your hotel’s free WiFi you’ll pay nothing, and you can make voice or even video calls for free. Remember using the normal phone function will incur high costs, especially outside the EU.


...or Get Your Own

If you’re travelling to a location where there's no WiFi, you can unlock your phone and get a new SIM, fork out for roaming fees - or get ‘MiFi.’

A home broadband hub that offers WiFi connections to your devices, then links them to 3G or 4G mobile internet, MiFi will usually accommodate up to 5 devices, cost somewhere around £80 to £120 plus data plans, and can allow everyone to continue their internet usage at a much lower cost. Many phone companies offer these, including Orange, as well as independent suppliers.

Make sure you make your intentions clear when you order your hub and SIM: many MiFis are sold for use within the UK, and they won’t save you any money abroad.

You’ll pay for your data just as if you used a phone.

But a SIM specific to your destination will save you money, and you can buy several SIMs for each location if you’re going between several countries. Especially if some or all of them are outside the EU, this is probably the most cost-effective solution.

You can also rent MiFis by the day in many countries with local SIM cards to keep costs down.


Turn Data Roaming Off

If you leave your phone’s data roaming capabilities turned on, the device will connect to the mobile internet every time an app wants to download an update, upload information about your usage or location, or ping its home servers. All that data transfer will be charged to you.

So turn mobile data roaming off when you’re abroad.

Apple switches off data roaming as a default: Android users will find it in the top menu next to Bluetooth and Power information.


Deep Waters

Where are you if you’re in international waters? Ask Miles Brignall: he told the Guardian that on a ferry trip from Hull to Rotterdam, he was charged £21 via a company in Bermuda.

Don’t make phone calls or surf the internet on ferries or aircraft until you know what the charges will be - and don’t assume they’ll have anything to do with where you are.

They’re often agreed between the carrier company and the ferry or airline.


Switch SIMs

If you feel like you can’t be tethered to wifi hotspots and need your phone to work like a mobile, not a wifi-enabled pocket computer, you can get a different SIM card and use that. You might need to unlock your phone from its home network before you can do this, but when you do you can use SIMs bought from some stores abroad or UK based companies like Dataroam which specializes in SIMs for use overseas.

Shop around to find the best deal for you on travel insurance

If you feel that your mobile company has treated you unfairly, remember you can always use A Spokesman Said to publicize your issue and get something done!