Tablet data roaming costs up to 1,000 times higher than in UKiPad 2 and tablet 3G web costs abroad uncovered

21 April 2011

Woman using tablet by pool

Tablet data roaming overseas could cost you more than you paid for the tablet itself

Data roaming on your iPad or tablet PC can be up to 1,000 times more expensive than equivalent 3G internet use in the UK, Which? has discovered - particularly outside of Europe.

Don't get caught out if you're thinking of using your iPad 2 or other tablet PC abroad. In an analysis of tablet data-roaming fees charged by the UK's mobile networks, Which? has found that accessing 3G internet on your tablet when you're abroad could cost you thousands of pounds for the same usage that would typically cost £15 or less in the UK.

We've also found that some operators could do more to make their data roaming charges clearer on their websites, as details of tablet roaming charges are often hard to find.

UK vs overseas tablet data costs

Tablet PCs like the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab bring ultra-portability to personal computing, offering the ultimate access to the internet on-the-move. And charges for 3G web access within the UK are reasonable -  starting at as little as £7.50 a month for 1GB of data with mobile network 3's Sim-only iPad plan according to Which? Mobile

But if you're tempted to pop your tablet into carry-on luggage so you can get online abroad, Which? advises that you contact your operator first. Some don't even allow data roaming on their tablet plans, and those that do charge a pretty penny for this flexibility. 

The cost of 1GB of data roaming

Many operators that allow data roaming on their tablet plans charge at least £1 per MB of data used overseas. Multiplied up, this would equate to a cost for just 1GB (1,024MB) of thousands of pounds. 

For example, tablet data roaming in the USA with 3 costs £3 per MB. This would equate to more than £3,000 for the same GB of data that could cost as little as £7.50 within the UK. 

And pop over the US border to Canada and 3 charges £10 per MB - equivalent to more than £10,000 per GB. 

Fortunately for its customers, who could otherwise be in for a nasty bill shock, 3 sets a default credit limit of £50 on its customers' accounts. So, when roaming abroad they will be automatically cut off when they reach that point. 

But 3's not alone in having very high per-MB rates in some countries and not all networks have a default bill cut-off in place. T-Mobile, for example, charges £7.50 per MB outside of Europe, equivalent to more than £7,500 per GB. T-Mobile's iPad 2 micro-SIM plan costs £15 per month for 1GB within the UK. 

Even if your operator allows free use of 3G internet abroad, general web browsing and emailing over a fortnight's holiday is unlikely to get you anywhere near hitting 1GB of use. But it could reach hundreds of pounds with regular daily use. And some online activities - such as online TV - are very data hungry. Streaming an hour or two of online TV, for example, could potentially eat up half a GB or more. 

Tablet data roaming costs by network

We've summarised the cost of 3G data roaming on your iPad or other tablet PC in two popular holiday destinations with the UK's five mobile networks. 

Data roaming
NetworkPer MB - FrancePer GB - FrancePer MB - USAPer GB - USANotes
3£1.28£1,311£3£3,072Charges apply to all tablets. 3 breaks countries worldwide into four data-roaming charge bands, costing £1.28, £3, £6 or £10 per MB.
O2N/AN/AN/AN/AO2's tablet plans do not allow overseas use
Orange£3.07£3,144£8£8,192Data roaming not permitted on Orange's iPad plans. Charges are for Samsung Galaxy Tab plans. Orange has two data-roaming charge bands - £3.07 per MB in the EU and EEA, £8 per MB elsewhere.
T-MobileSee noteSee note£7.50£7,680In EU countries, T-Mobile customers must buy boosters. These each last 24 hours and cost £1 for 3MB, £5 for 20MB, £10 for 50 MB. Outside of EU countries costs are £7.50 per MB.
Vodafone£9.99 per 50MB per day£200£29.99 per 50MB per day£600Fixed daily fee applies even if you use less than 50MB. Per GB cost assumes you use no more than 50MB of mobile internet each day for 20 days. Vodafone has two data-roaming charge bands - £9.99 per 50MB per day in most of Europe, £29.99 per 50MB per day elsewhere.

Table notes

Data charges are capped at 50 Euros per month in EU countries unless you opt out or choose another cap

Operator safeguards against bill shock

Our per GB costs in the table above for 3, Orange and T-Mobile are the per MB costs multiplied by 1,024. Regulatory or voluntary bill-cut offs imposed by operators may prevent you actually spending this much. 

In EU countries, mobile operators must send you a notification to advise you of costs when you arrive in a foreign country. But out of the EU, this is down to individual providers. 

We asked each of the four UK networks that allows tablet data-roaming what safeguards they have in place to prevent bill-shock to the tune of thousands of pounds. 

  • T-Mobile says it sends a text message advising tablet users of data-roaming costs when they arrive in any country where it has a roaming agreement, not just the EU. It recommends that customers planning to use their devices abroad familiarise themselves with the potential cost of using the internet abroad.   
  • Vodafone's charges are more reasonable than other providers providing you use more than a few MB each day. Vodafone says it sends users a text when they approach their daily 50MB limit. If users go over the limit, they start a new 50MB block at the same rates outlined above, and would receive another text when they neared each block's limit.
  • Orange does not currently allow data roaming on the iPad, only on its Samsung Galaxy Tab plans. It told us that tablet data roaming is deactivated by default. Customers must call Orange customer services to activate their tablet for roaming, and Orange says the customer service assistant would outline charges at this point. Based on what it told us, it does not send a cost notification message in non-EU countries.  
  • 3 says it doesn't send any notification of charges when you arrive in a non-EU country. However, all 3's mobile broadband and tablet customers are set up with a credit limit of £50 by default. When roaming abroad they will be automatically cut off when they reach that point. 3 told us this safeguard has been put in place specifically to prevent bill shock.

Operator website information on tablet roaming costs

One of the first places you might look to find out the data costs for using your tablet abroad would be the operators' websites. When we took a look in late March, we found it wasn't always as simple or clear as you might hope to find the information.

In some cases no data roaming cost information was given on the iPad or tablet tariff pages, with international charges covered only in a general price guide located elsewhere on the site. It was often left to the user to take a guess at whether the general international roaming charges for mobile phones listed also applied to tablets.

We found the best sites offered links from the main iPad tariff pages, either in footnotes, links directing you to another part of the site or pop-ups covering the roaming cost information. Orange and Vodafone both gave data roaming cost information in this way. When we looked we found the other operators to not be quite so clear.

Data roaming costs should be more transparent

Which? mobile services expert Ceri Stanaway says: 'With tablet data roaming costs often so astoundingly expensive, we'd like to see all operators do all they can to keep their customers informed of costs. 

'Ideally, this would be - as a bare minimum - both by sending a notification to your tablet advising of costs, no matter where in the world you are, and by making tablet roaming costs explicitly obvious on operator websites.'

The wide variation in prices and protections between operators also goes to show that data-roaming costs are something frequent travellers should bear in mind when choosing a tablet service provider. 

Ceri adds: 'T-Mobile told us that its lowest level EU booster - £1 for 3MB - would only give you around 15 minutes of emailing and general web browsing. 

'Until costs come down, my advice to anyone considering using their tablet for more data-heavy web tasks - such as watching online TV or video calls back home - is to steer clear of 3G data roaming and use free wi-fi access where available instead.'

Is data roaming too expensive?

While it makes sense that mobile operators' own costs are somewhat higher for mobile internet access abroad than within the UK because they're having to access foreign operators' networks, the high costs to consumers with some networks are astonishingly high. 

Tech news and analysis site ZDNet is currently gathering consumer support to leverage mobile operators to bring costs down for mobile internet roaming on all devices - including smartphones and laptops as well as tablets. 

If you think data roaming is too expensive, sign the ZDNet petition campaigning for fairer data roaming

And share your views on data roaming costs at Which? Conversation.

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