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19 July 2021

EU roaming and international calls explained

EU roaming charges used to be a thing of the past, but you still need to be careful using your phone abroad. We look at the benefits of EU roaming, hidden costs, and charges if you go further afield.
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Hamse Yusuf
Just landed using mobile

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, how Brexit has affected them, and how mobile provider prices still vary dramatically further afield. 

See how your provider fares in our round-up of the best and worst UK mobile networks.

Changes to EU roaming charges

The EU regulation introduced on 15 June 2017 stated 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.

Has Brexit affected free EU roaming?

In June 2021, EE said it would be reintroducing roaming charges from January 2022.

It was the first mobile network to announce that roaming within the EU will no longer be included by default in your monthly bundle. However, over providers have introduced limits on high data use.

It's always worth checking your mobile network's website before travelling to see if EU roaming is included in your bundle, and how much it will cost if you're travelling further afield. 

In most cases, providers have a cap on expenditure to avoid excessive bills, but if you request the cap is removed, you'll need to be extremely careful with the data and minutes you use. 

For more information and some useful tips and advice, read our guide on how to prepare your mobile phone for holidays abroad.

What happens if you use up your bundle?

Even if you are able to use your phone in the EU without additional charges, bear in mind 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. This varies by operator, but could cost upwards of 50p a minute per call, 30p per text message, and 10p per megabyte of data.

It's another good reason to make sure you have a good handle on how much you're using, whether at home or abroad.

Countries included in free EU roaming

The regulation includes all countries in the EU but does not include Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, where prices are no longer capped. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three also included Switzerland, but some smaller providers, including Virgin, didn't.

For now, most providers say they will continue to offer roam like at home, including in locations such as Norway which are currently not covered by an agreement. 

Some providers have added extra countries to the free roaming list to make their offering look more attractive.

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. 

Looking to switch providers? Be sure to read our best and worst UK mobile networks

International roaming charges

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 see how much it could cost per minute to call 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

How do data roaming caps work?

We also looked at the cost per MB of data, and found some rather shocking disparities. For example, using data when roaming in the US varied from £7.50 per MB (Plusnet) to 20p per MB (Giffgaff). 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.

Vodafone, O2, EE, and Three travel bundles

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.

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EE offers a range of add-ons for travellers that you can opt into. 

'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.

Best mobile networks for data roaming

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 The Seychelles.

Misplacing your mobile is another common holiday concern – our Which? Recommended travel insurance can help keep you on the straight and narrow.

Best mobile networks for calling abroad

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 effect, some providers are still charging different prices as the table below shows.

Cost to call Spain from a UK mobile phone

Calls to Spanish mobile on UK pay-monthly contract
Standard cost per minute
GiffGaff
9p
EE
18p
ID Mobile
18p
Sky Mobile
19p
Tesco Mobile
19p
Vodafone
19p
O2
20p
Three
20p
Virgin mobile
58p

Prices correct as of 12 July 2019.

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.

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. 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.