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How much does it cost to use a mobile phone abroad?

By Hamse Yusuf

Roaming charges have ended for holidaymakers in the EU, but what if you're travelling further abroad? Find out how much operators like GiffGaff and BT compare to Vodafone, EE and O2. We reveal the best mobile providers for holidays, as well as those to avoid.

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Now that new roaming regulations have come into place, travelling abroad with your mobile phone has become a lot more straightforward.

The fact that all UK mobile operators must now allow customers to use their mobile device in the EU in the same way they would at home should mean that excessive and unexpected bills are kept to a minimum. But what if you’re travelling further afield? Countries outside the EU are not affected by the new regulations, meaning that in theory, providers can charge what they like.

Our research highlights broad disparity in terms of the countries covered, prices charged for minutes and data, and the presence of roaming ‘add ons’.

Holidaying in the EU? Find out about the new regulations in our guide to EU roaming and international calls

What is data roaming?

The term 'roaming' refers to the use of your mobile phone outside the UK. Since your contract with your mobile provider is only valid for use within the UK, a foreign phone network needs to provide this service when you're abroad. This usually involves an additional charge, which is passed down to the user in the form of higher costs for calls, data or messages. 

These costs vary by operator and can be extremely high, which is why it's so important to do your research before you travel.

Costs to roam in popular holiday destinations

We surveyed more than 3,000 British holidaymakers to discover their favourite destinations for a trip overseas. If you're travelling outside Europe, and are therefore not covered by the new regulations, there’s a massive difference in how much you could end up paying for calls and data, depending on your provider.

Use the interactive world map below to view the costs of calls per minute for the top 10 most popular destinations by provider.

The most popular overseas destination outside Europe was the US. Prices for calls when roaming here varied from £1.80 per minute (Virgin Mobile) to 87p per minute (ASDA Mobile). Canada and Barbados – two other popular destinations from our list, were the most expensive for roaming calls, ranging from £6 per minute if you’re with ID Mobile, down to 87p with ASDA Mobile.

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). The People's Operator charges a whopping £18 per megabyte when roaming in destinations such as United Arab Emirates and New Zealand, yet Giffgaff still manages to charge just 20p for the same service.

How much data you'll need on holiday depends on how much you rely on your phone, but as a device that's helpful in a tight spot - to get navigation from a map, send an email or two or check out some local attractions online, it would be good to know you won't get caught out by high roaming charges.

The difference between the cost of using data in some countries varies massively depending on your provider. Navigating with Google Maps for 30 minutes, for example, costs £81 with The Peoples Operator, but just 90p with GiffGaff.

However, 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.

High roaming charges aren't the only thing you can get burned by on holiday. Check out our Best Buy sun creams to avoid more nasty surprises.

Mobile provider travel bundles

Each of the ‘big four’ providers – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – offers 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.

How much does it cost to use Vodafone abroad?

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’ll automatically be charged £6 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.

How much does it cost to use O2 abroad?

O2 takes a slightly different approach, with 'O2 Travel', which covers 27 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.

How much does it cost to use EE abroad?

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 US, Canada, Turkey, Australia or the UAE.

There are also additional data add-ons that start at £4 for 40MB 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 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 4GEE Max plan, you can roam in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the US using your bundle, as well as in Europe.

How much does it cost to use Three abroad?

Three has long been pushing the benefits of its enhanced roaming package, known as ‘Feel at Home’. 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, what it often doesn’t make clear is that you need to be on one of its ‘Advanced’ plans to do so. This offers access to ‘Feel at Home Around the World’, and additional destinations that include Australia, New Zealand, the US and Indonesia. 

Advanced plans don’t cost a lot more than the basic Essential plan, so it’s well worth making sure you’re on the right tariff before you take a trip abroad to one of these destinations, or you might be in for a nasty surprise.

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

Usage caps - avoiding a huge bill

With such an eclectic mix of prices and pitfalls across providers, you’d be forgiven for planning your next getaway in Gateshead, but thankfully many providers have caps in place to help consumers avoid the sorts of sky-high bills that would hit the headlines. These providers should also 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 when your bill comes in.

The advice here is simple – always 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.

If you are looking to find how you can limit mobile costs abroad, read our guide on how to prepare your phone before travelling abroad.

Who are the best and worst providers for roaming?

Since providers manage roaming costs in different ways, it’s difficult to say comprehensively which ones are best. If you’re planning on spending at least £6 per day on making calls, sending texts and using data in one of the included destinations, Vodafone’s ‘Roam-further’ service across 104 countries would seem to be the best option if your regular bundle will cover your usage, although O2’s 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 "Feel at Home" 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 is particularly uncompetitive on call costs, varying from £6 per minute from Canada and Barbados to £2.40 per minute from Turkey and Thailand. The People's Operator costs an eye-watering £18 for a single megabyte of data in places such as Canada, New Zealand and United Arab Emirates. Either of these could be a terrible choice if you’re planning a trip further abroad, and you’d potentially save a packet by looking for an alternative provider.

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. While you can arrange for the cap to be removed, the risk of sending your bill through the roof is not something you want playing on your mind for the rest of your trip.

Roaming costs aren't the only consideration when choosing a mobile provider. Browse our mobile provider reviews to see who comes top for customer service and satisfaction.

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