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EU roaming and international calls explained

By Martin Pratt

With roaming charges now a thing of the past, we explain what data, minutes and texts are included when you travel overseas, and if there are still some hidden costs. 

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UPDATE: What would happen to EU roaming after a no-deal Brexit?

With Brexit on the horizon, The Government has been issuing guidance on what could happen to mobile roaming.

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.

As of the 5 February, only Three and Smarty (a low-cost Sim-only provider owned by Three) have guaranteed that mobile roaming costs will not return after the 29 March.

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.

Using your mobile phone abroad used to be expensive. Prohibitive charges for using data, sending texts and making calls anywhere other than in the UK meant mobiles were all but useless the second your plane touched down on foreign soil.

On 15 June 2017, roaming was no longer exclusively for anyone with a laissez-faire attitude to the figure at the bottom of their next bill. An EU regulation abolished roaming charges so, if you're travelling to any member countries, you can use the data, minutes and texts included in your bundle as if you were in the UK.

The EU states that from this date 'consumers will be able to use their mobile device 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.'

Travelling further afield? Read our guide to the best mobile provider for holidays.

Which providers offer free roaming in the EU?

Since free roaming is an EU regulation, UK mobile network providers have no choice but to abolish additional charges. The wording of the regulation is clear, but there are differences in what each provider is offering.

The regulation also states that: 'Europeans will pay domestic prices when they call, text or go online from their mobile devices'. The key difference between each operator is their domestic, or out-of-bundle charges. The table below shows how much you'll pay if you exceed your included minutes, data and texts at home or abroad.

Which countries are included?

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

What if you're roaming outside the EU?

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. 

The price can often be very high. The table below shows how much it costs to call a UK mobile from the US.

Most providers have extra packs you can add to your account to make international calls cheaper. The cost of the add-on will go on your monthly bill. Check your provider's options if you frequently make international calls and want to see whether an add-on will be cheaper in the long run.

What about calling abroad?

The cost of making calls from within the EU may have gone, but the same can't be said of calling EU countries from the UK, and providers are free to charge what they like to call abroad.

Our research has found that the four main providers typically charge significantly more to make calls to mobile and landline phones abroad than the smaller operators who use their networks. For example, even though Giffgaff uses O2's network for its signal, it charges 94% less than O2 to call Spain.

You can see in the table below that smaller networks have their larger cousins well and truly beaten on price when it comes to calling foreign phones. 

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 'call abroad' add-on significantly lowers the cost to phone abroad. EE also has two international add-on packs, which allow you to call certain countries using your bundled minutes. However, you are limited to calling five separate numbers, after which EE can remove the add-on pack from your account.

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.

You can see which providers we rate most highly in our list of the best mobile phone providers.

Is it cheaper to call abroad from a landline?

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. Home phone providers follow a similar pattern to mobile providers when it comes to calling the EU and beyond. Again, we're seeing that the biggest and most well-known providers, such as BT and Virgin, are by far the most expensive.

Costs vary by country more frequently here, but BT typically charges around 75p a minute to call an EU mobile, while Virgin charges around 87p. The Post Office and TalkTalk charge around 5p and 2p respectively. Each provider offers various add-on packs to decrease the cost but, even with BT's Friends & Family deal, it can still cost more per minute to call abroad than with TalkTalk.

Sky, Plusnet and EE customers occupy the middle ground. Plusnet charges are around 27p a minute, Sky 22p and EE 14p.

Only TalkTalk can match Giffgaff's low rates, but all the home phone providers we looked at are cheaper than Vodafone and O2.

If you expect to call abroad more frequently, things become more straightforward. Most providers have a range of international packages and add-ons, which lower the cost of international calls, so it's definitely worth checking to see what your provider offers. If you make only the odd call, it's important to know what you're paying, or try an alternative method, to avoid being stung with a hefty bill for even a short call.

Is there a cheaper way to call abroad from the UK?

If you don't fancy paying more than £1 a minute to contact family in the US or Australia, there are cheaper ways to chat.

There are several free-to-use apps that use your data rather than your network signal to make phone calls and send messages. 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 to receive the call, too.

Don't lose connection on a Skype or Whatsapp call, find out how good the 4G connection is in your area.

Shop around for the best deals on roaming and calling abroad

The end of roaming charges in the EU is good for everyone travelling throughout Europe but, despite the EU regulation, each provider isn't offering the exact same deal. Some include more countries, and costs vary significantly if you go outside of your included minutes, data and texts.

Before you sign your next mobile contract, find a provider that covers the places you visit for the least money - and that offers reasonable rates for calling abroad. All providers have different add-ons to make roaming cheaper outside the EU, and others offer cheap international calls, so shop around to find the right deal and avoid any unpleasant surprises.