EU roaming and international calls explained
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.
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?
Not yet, but it's too soon to say whether roaming charges could make an unwelcome return.
While it's true that UK mobile networks will no longer be barred for charging you extra to use your minutes, texts and data in EU countries, as yet, providers have not said that charges will be reintroduced. This means you can still use your bundled minutes, messages and data in countries that were previously included.
It's always worth checking your mobile network's website before travelling, where most offer calculators that inform you of costs in countries you're travelling to.
Excess costs must be capped at £45 a month, at which point services will be cut off unless you choose to remove the cap. This could end up being very expensive, so exercise caution.
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 EU regulation included the European Economic Area (EEA). This means all providers included the Channel Islands, Iceland, the Isle of Man and Liechtenstein in their list of countries with free roaming. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three also included Switzerland, but some smaller providers, including Virgin, didn'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.
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 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.
Usage caps - avoiding a huge bill
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.
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 United Arab Emirates.
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 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.
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.