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How to avoid data roaming regret when using your phone abroad

How to avoid data roaming regret when using your phone abroad
Matt Browning
Written By:
Matt Browning

Two-thirds of Brits risk being hit with a data roaming charge shock, as they’re unaware of the costs of using their data abroad, data finds.

A third have already admitted to being stung by surprise roaming fees from their network provider while travelling abroad.

Scrolling social media, using map services and messaging are the most common ways holidaymakers end up draining their data, according to Uswitch’s data.

With the average time spent on each of those activities lasting around an hour per day, Brits heading for warmer climes could come back with red-hot phone bills as well as a healthy dose of vitamin D.

Indeed, around one in six plan to use their phone abroad this Easter, but more than a third (39%) do not check their network’s roaming policy.

That could be an issue for the five million who plan to visit higher-cost roaming destinations in 2024. These include Egypt, South Africa and Mexico.

‘Fair usage’ policies

Whereas most network providers now adopt a £45 data cap – previously an EU-mandated rule – customers can often accidentally opt out of the deal. This can happen through buying add-ons like extra data passes or other ‘condition-linked purchases’.

One customer even landed a £43,000 bill after using 1GB of data per day when visiting China for a week’s getaway.

But, if you are aware of your provider’s ‘fair usage’ policy, you can dodge a hefty bill once you land, which 66% of roaming customers are currently in the dark about.

A fair usage policy is a set of measures that providers can apply to their customers to prevent overuse of their network, particularly while using their data abroad.

When abroad, any data amount used over the decided measures will activate a specific charge rate for you.

One example is with Three’s £25 per month SIM deal, which comes with unlimited data, but only 12GB can be used when travelling in the EU, using its ‘Go Roam’ feature. Any data over what is deemed to be ‘fair usage’ is subject to a different rate.

Data cap and Ofcom’s post-summer plans

As many networks suggest, customers of Three can apply a personal own cap, which means you can control the maximum amount you can be charged.

While there is a lot for holidaymakers from the UK to weigh up, Ofcom plans to address unwanted roaming price disasters, but not until after the summer.

From October, network providers will need to:

  • Send roaming alerts to mobile customers when they’re travelling abroad and provide information about charges that apply.
  • Give customers clear, comprehensible and accurate information about how to avoid inadvertent roaming in and outside of the UK, particularly in border regions, like alerting customers to the likelihood of inadvertent roaming in areas where this often happens.
  • Have measures in place to enable customers to reduce or limit their spend on roaming while in the UK. This could include treating mobile usage in Ireland the same as in the UK.

‘Erosion’ of holidaymakers’ roaming rights

Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at Uswitch.com, believes that consumer protections around mobile roaming while abroad “have been eroded away over time.”

Doku said: “So, those travelling abroad this Easter should make sure they check their provider’s roaming policy, as well as their own personal usage and data allowances before travelling.

“While Uswitch supports Ofcom’s recent announcement of improved protections around clarity, there is still virtually nothing to stop providers from charging enormous sums when you use your phone abroad.”

Doku added: “Even if you and somebody else you know are with the same network, your individual roaming deal or fair usage allowance could be different to theirs. This all depends on what contract you have, so we would always recommend checking your tariff.”

The mobile network comparison site provided some advice on how to dodge hefty holiday charges.

Seven tips to avoid holiday roaming bills

  1. Keep it simple: If you’re with a provider that has roaming charges, it’s worth considering buying a one-month SIM-only or eSIM deal that will cover you for your time away.
  2. Know before you go: Always check the roaming and fair usage policies of your specific deal – remember they can vary even with the same provider.
  3. Check the cap fits: Even if you are paying for a bundle to roam abroad, you may not have the same data allowances as you do in the UK. Check your provider’s fair usage policy, which will govern how much data you can use before you incur extra charges. You can also set up a spending cap with your provider to avoid any surprise bills when you return.
  4. Switch off voicemail: When overseas, you can expect to pay the same per-minute rate for checking your messages as you do for making calls. Yet sometimes even receiving a voicemail on holiday can cost you. If your provider includes this charge, call them before you travel and get it switched off.
  5. WiFi wins: To save your data allowance, use hotel and cafe WiFi connections whenever possible.
  6. Take care with data passes: If you choose to purchase a data, call or text top-up day pass with your provider, remember to check the terms and conditions carefully. These may have an expiration time of midnight UK time, which could leave you caught out, depending on your time zone.
  7. If in doubt, engage flight mode.

Related: Holidaymakers to receive mobile roaming alerts to counter ‘bill shock’