EU roaming and international calls explained
By Hamse Yusuf
Using your mobile phone on holiday used to be expensive, but on 15 June 2017, an EU regulation abolished roaming charges so that within the EU you can use the data, minutes and texts included in your bundle as if you were in the UK.
We look at what these changes actually mean, where you could still be caught out, and how mobile provider prices still vary dramatically further afield.
See how your provider fares in our round-up of the best and worst mobile networks in the UK for 2020.
In this article:
- Mobile networks offering free EU roaming
- Countries included in free EU roaming
- International roaming charges
- Usage caps - avoiding a huge bill
- Vodafone, O2, EE, and Three travel bundles
- Best mobile networks for data roaming
- Best mobile networks for calling abroad
- Is it cheaper to call abroad from a landline?
Changes to EU roaming charges
The EU regulation introduced on 15 June 2017 states that:
- 'Consumers will be able to use their mobile devices when travelling in the EU, paying the same prices as at home, ie to "Roam like at Home"'.
- 'Any voice call, SMS and data session made while travelling abroad in the EU will be deducted from the monthly package of minutes, SMS and data in the home country with no extra charges.'
Essentially this means that you can use your mobile phone in the EU as you would in the UK, using your bundled minutes, messages and data at no extra cost.
If there is a deal, The Government says that free roaming would be guaranteed for the Implementation Period, with any future arrangement depending on the details of the deal.
To prepare for a ‘no deal’, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has proposed a statutory instrument to prepare for mobile roaming, which – if approved – will remove the obligation for mobile providers to offer free roaming in the EU. The statutory instrument also retains the current global data cap on mobile roaming of £45 per monthly billing period and would also legislate to ensure the alerts at 80% and 100% data usage continue.
Which? will continue to call for roaming arrangements to be maintained for travelling in the EU and ensure that any developments are reflected in our content to keep you updated.
Free roaming is an EU regulation, and all UK mobile network providers have complied.
However, one thing to bear in mind is that if you run out of bundled minutes, messages or data, you will pay the same ‘out of bundle’ charges as you would at home. As you can see, this can vary quite wildly by operator:
‘Out of bundle’ mobile network costs
Once you hit your limit you will need to buy a bolt on to add more data
²all plans come with unlimited texts
³ extra charges only apply if top-up credit is in your account
The EU regulation includes the European Economic Area (EEA). This means all the providers include the Channel Islands, Iceland, the Isle of Man and Liechtenstein in their list of countries with free roaming. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three also include Switzerland, but some smaller providers, including Virgin, don't.
But some providers have added extra countries to the free roaming list to make their offering look more attractive.
Vodafone is one of the few providers to include Turkey, and Three adds several more countries outside Europe, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Macau, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Israel.
For the most part, the included countries are the same regardless of whether you're a pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customer. But O2 PAYG customers pay roaming charges in the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, Monaco and Switzerland, whereas O2 pay-monthly customers don't.
Looking to switch providers? Be sure to read our best mobile networks overview.
If your jet-setting takes you further afield than Europe, then the EU regulations no longer apply and, unless specifically stated by your provider, you will be charged for your calls, data and texts.
Use the interactive world map below to view the costs of calls per minute for the top 10 most popular destinations by provider, based on data from Kayak and the Office for National Statistics.
Roaming call costs in popular holiday destinations
The most popular overseas destination outside Europe is the United States of America. Prices for calls when roaming here varied from £2 per minute (Virgin Mobile) to 87p per minute (ASDA Mobile). Surprisingly, Canada had the most expensive cost for roaming calls, costing £6 per minute if you’re with ID Mobile.
Data costs per minute in popular holiday destinations
We also looked at the cost per MB of data, and found some rather shocking disparities. Using data when roaming in the US varied from £8 per MB (Plusnet) to 20p per MB (Giffgaff). Virgin Mobile charges a whopping £12.50 per megabyte when roaming in the Unted Arab Emirates, yet Giffgaff still manages to charge just 20p for the same service.
Many providers have caps in place to help consumers avoid sky-high bills. These providers should send you an alert to your phone when you have reached 80% and 100% of your limit, so you do not get any nasty surprises. Although usage caps can help you avoid huge bills, it’s still worth shopping around before you go abroad, as in some cases you could hit this cap with just a few minutes of browsing the internet, or fewer than 10 minutes on the phone.
Check with your provider to see whether you have a safety cap before you go abroad, find out how much it is and how easy it is to remove it if you need to. But beware – if you do opt to remove this safety cap, providers consider they’ve offered you ‘fair warning’ and you could still be facing a hefty bill if you forget to keep an eye on your spending. To avoid these sorts of situations, some providers, such as EE, O2 and Vodafone, have roaming add-ons that can make data and calls significantly cheaper – but there’s a catch.
Each of the ‘big four’ providers – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – offer a different way to help keep your roaming costs manageable. But these may not always represent good value for money, depending on how much you expect to use.
For customers travelling outside Vodafone’s 48 roam-free destinations, Vodafone has a rather bitter-sweet offering called 'Roam-further'. If you use your phone in any of its 104 Roam-further destinations, which include the likes of Australia, Canada and the US, you’re automatically charged £6 per day but can then use your bundled minutes, messages and data, and if you run out you’ll be charged the same as you would in the UK.
This could work out well for medium-to-heavy mobile phone use, but bear in mind that any use of your phone – making a single call, sending one text message, or downloading an email – would cost £6. For those who barely use their phone abroad, or only want it for emergencies, this could prove costly.
However, if you have an Unlimited Max or Red Entertainment Plan, you can benefit from Global Roaming Plus which gives you roaming in 29 of the most popular 'Roam-Further' destinations, including the USA, Canada and Australia.
O2 takes a slightly different approach, with 'O2 Travel', which covers 63 additional destinations outside Europe.
This costs £4.99, and for this you get 120 minutes of calls, 120 texts and unlimited data, though this is slowed after the first 200MB. Similarly, it is triggered if you use your phone to call, text, or use data.
O2 Travel is classed as a 'Bolt On', and you’ll need to activate it before you go away, or be stuck paying standard roaming rates.
For select Sim-only and contract plans, O2's Travel Inclusive Zone allows you to use the same allowance in 27 of O2 Travel's countries without the £4.99 charge..
'Travel Data Pass' offers pay-monthly customers 500MB of data for £4.80 per day in The United States and Canada, and £6 per day in Australia, China, India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and UAE.
You can also buy a 'World Select Talk and Text' add-on for £6 per day, which gives you unlimited calls and texts if you’re roaming in the USA, Canada, Turkey, Australia or the UAE.
There are also additional data add-ons that start at 10MB for both pay-monthly and pay-as-you-go customers – these can only be purchased when abroad, and you should be sent a text when you've arrived showing your options.
Bear in mind that, unlike O2 and Vodafone, you’ll need to purchase multiple travel add-ons with EE to cover calls and data. This could end up costing nearly twice the price.
If you’re on a plan with swappable benefits, you can roam in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA using the Roam Further data pass benefit.
Three has long been pushing the benefits of its enhanced roaming package, known as ‘Go Roam’. It claims to let you roam in 71 destinations around the world at no extra cost – potentially making it the best provider for roaming if your destination is included.
However, Go Roam is only available on Advanced plans, which start at 4GB of data and can have a contract for up to 24 months, depending on the package you select.
Three also has a data passport which allows unlimited data usage for £5 a day in all 71 Go Roam Destinations and 18 further destinations including Canada, United Arab Emirates and Thailand. As with the other daily 'data passport' style add-ons, they run from midnight to midnight UK time, so if you are not careful, you can be charged twice for one day's usage.
Providers manage roaming costs in different ways. If you’re planning on spending at least £6 per day in one of the included destinations, Vodafone’s ‘Roam-further’ service across 104 countries would seem to be the best option, although O2 and Three’s data passport may be tempting for its offer of ‘unlimited’ data. On the other hand, Three is great if you're on the advanced plan and/or have your destination included as a 'Go Roam' destination.
However, occasional users might prefer a network that's generally cheaper across a range of destinations. The cheapest overall provider for call costs was Giffgaff, which charges £1 per minute at each of our most popular destinations. Giffgaff was also cheapest for data, at 20p per MB in most places, though Utility Warehouse wasn’t far behind here either, at 50p.
The worst-value providers are a little easier to pin down. Carphone Warehouse’s ID Mobile costs £6 per minute and £9.60 a MB if you are roaming in Canada, whereas Virgin Mobile costs an eye-watering £12.50 for a single MB of data in places such as United Arab Emirates.
Misplacing your mobile is another common holiday concern – our Which? Recommended travel insurance can help keep you on the straight and narrow.
As of May 2019, EU legislation has meant that calls from the UK to landlines and mobiles within EU destinations cannot exceed 19.9p per minute, with texts costing no more than 6p.
However, with this legislation still coming into affect, some providers are still charging different prices as the table below shows.
Cost to call Spain from a UK mobile phone
While it's important to bear these costs in mind, many providers do offer add-ons and that can help regular travellers reduce costs.
For example, EE's free 'call abroad' add-on significantly lowers the cost of calling abroad in 60 countries. O2 also has an International Bolt-on, although that costs £3 a month.
Three's PAYG customers get a better deal than its pay-monthly ones when it comes to calling other countries from the UK. They can call France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Germany, Portugal, Bulgaria, Latvia, Cyprus, the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China for 3p a minute.
If you need to make the odd call abroad, you might think it's cheaper to call from a landline than a mobile phone - but in practice that's not always the case. Again, we're seeing that the biggest and most well-known providers, such as BT and Virgin, are by far the most expensive.
For example, BT typically charges around 20p a minute to call an EU mobile, while Virgin charges around 59p. The Post Office and TalkTalk charge around 5p and 19p, respectively.
Most providers also offer an international call package, which gives either discounted or inclusive calls.
If you plan to call abroad regularly, make sure to check what the best international call package is for you.
Mobile apps and cheap ways to call abroad from the UK
If you don't fancy paying money to contact family in the US or Australia, there are free ways to chat. Consider apps that use an internet connection to make phone calls and send messages between mobile phones.
Apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype let you make phone and video calls and, if your phone is connected to wi-fi, it won't even use your data. The person you're calling will need a data connection or wi-fi, plus the same app, to receive the call.
If you are looking to find how you can limit mobile costs abroad, read our guide on how to prepare your phone for holidays.