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20 Jul 2019

Which? reveals the sky-high roaming costs holiday-goers face this summer

Even taking a single photo could result in a bill for more than £50

Roaming costs in popular holiday destinations could see travellers reaching their £40 usage cap in minutes, a snapshot investigation by Which? has found.

A Virgin Mobile customer in Dubai could be hit with a bill for £52.70 - the provider's monthly data cap - for taking a single photo if a phone is set to automatically upload new snaps to the cloud.

Similarly, uploading a single 5MB photo with Plusnet could mean instantly hitting the data cap of £40 in all 10 of the popular destinations featured in the survey - including the Australia, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey and the US. BT Mobile customers could be similarly at risk of hitting their cap of £35 with a single photo.

With school holidays in full swing, it's important if you're going on holiday this summer that you're aware of the costs you can face.

Read our guide to thebest and worst mobile network providers to see how real customers rated them.

How much could roaming cost you on holiday?

Our investigation looked at the 10 of the most popular destinations this summer (based on data from Kayak and the Office for National Statistics) and the data roaming costs per megabyte (MB).

We then used reliable data estimates of popular holiday activities to work out the most expensive examples customers can face when roaming. It revealed some shocking examples of expensive data roaming costs.

Our guide to EU roaming and international calls has plenty of information for popular destinations around the world.

Confusing rules around data roaming

Each of the 'big four' networks offers some kind of package designed to reduce your roaming costs. This is often the best way to avoid hidden charges, especially if you expect to use your phone a lot. Read the T&Cs carefully, as some exceptions might take you by surprise.

  • EE and O2 offer inclusive data to certain countries like the USA and Australia, but only for customers who are on high data Sim-only plans and selected contract tariffs.
  • Three's Go Roam offering is one of the standout packages, offering up to 12GB of your data allowance, depending on the package you have. However, outside of the EU, Three's Go Roam only allows you to call the UK numbers and not numbers in the country you are roaming in, which can cost up to £3 per minute.
  • If you are not on one of the required packages, many of the mobile networks offer 'day-pass' roaming add-ons that allow you to pay a daily charge to access data. However, many of these passports run from midnight to midnight UK time and not in the local time. This could mean you might end up being charged twice a day for roaming.

With such strict criteria it is easy to see how many people can be caught out, even when being cautious.

How much data are you using?

If you do need to use your phone on holiday and it costs you to roam, it's important to know roughly how much data you're using. The table below shows approximate data use for typical roaming activities.

Sources: Spotify/Apple Music/BBC iPlayer Radio/Netflix/Three/O2/Vodafone/EE

For more tips and advice on managing your monthly bundle, read our guide on how to keep track of your mobile data and minutes.

The hidden cost of background data

Even if you're careful when using your phone abroad, an all-too-easy way to rack up an unexpectedly high bill is background data.

Your phone is constantly using data in the background to update apps, refresh social media, deliver notifications and synchronise your emails. And depending on how your phone is set up, it might well do this at the first available opportunity.

Arrive in a foreign country with data roaming turned on and you could get hit by a big charge almost straight away. Similarly, don't think you can just switch your data on for a very quick Google search without other activities costing you money in the background.

With many providers having a daily charge which can be triggered by any data usage, usually 1MB as a minimum, a lot of us can be stung by expensive charges without even taking our phone out of our pockets.

How to avoid roaming charges

  • Turn on Airplane Mode Airplane Mode turns off all wireless connections, including your mobile data. It may turn off when you turn on a wireless connection (eg wi-fi or Bluetooth).
  • Ensure that data roaming is turned off Some iPhone and Android devices have a specific setting where you can turn off data.
  • Turn off 'auto sync' Search the settings menu for a 'sync' page, and ensure auto sync is turned off to prevent apps from updating in the background. Some devices also allow you to turn off background data.
  • Ask the network to block data roaming Most networks will allow you to put a block on data roaming.

All these tips and more can be found in our guide on how to prepare your mobile phone for holidays abroad.