Using your mobile abroad

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No one wants to return from a relaxing holiday abroad to find a sky-high mobile phone bill waiting at home.

Using your phone overseas (roaming) can cost considerably more than it does at home, particularly if you want to surf the web a lot, upload photos to social networking sites or check or send lots of emails.

You can even run up a big bill without actively using your phone as smartphones and 3G/4G enabled tablets automatically seek out mobile connections and use them to update apps.

So unless you turn off data roaming before you go, these devices could be downloading data at standard rates throughout your stay without you realising it.

This guide explains more about using your phone abroad – including how to switch off data roaming – so that you can avoid running up a large mobile bill.

We also have a guide for using tablets and smartphones abroad including helpful advice on how to manage your child's usage.

Before you go

Think about how you want to use your phone abroad. Your monthly allowance probably won't cover you for usage abroad so making and receiving calls, sending texts and using the internet or other data abroad could end up costing you more. However some providers do offer products where you can use your domestic allowance abroad so it's worth checking before you go.

Talk to your provider - if you're planning on using your phone a fair amount, particularly to go online or if you're travelling outside Europe where prices are considerably higher, speak to your provider. They may have specific packages for using your phone abroad designed to offer discounted rates, including data roaming bundles.

However, if you buy a data roaming bundle, check what happens when you use it up.

It may be that your data use will be stopped unless you buy another bundle, or you could automatically start using data, but be charged at standard rates. In which case, be wary, as standard rates can be a lot higher than the cost per MB within the bundle.

It's also possible to buy an international SIM card from a specialised provider, which may offer lower prices when travelling in a variety of different countries. Passport and clothes in suitcase ready for holiday

Another option is to buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card when you arrive at your destination. It means you'll be using a different number but will ensure you pay local prices and can be particularly worthwhile for people who frequently visit the same country.

Check with your operator to make sure you can use this with your phone and, if you do buy one, make sure you keep your UK SIM card somewhere safe and secure.

Data roaming

If you don't switch off data roaming before you leave the UK, your smartphone will automatically seek out an internet connection when you reach your destination and you may start using data without realising it.

Remember, even low data usage that you wouldn't notice at home could end up costing you more abroad as it may not be covered by your standard usage allowance.

It's simple to turn off data roaming on your handset.

These video guides show you how to turn off data roaming on some of the most popular smartphones.

If your smartphone isn't featured – or you're having problems – speak to your provider or look on their website for more information.

Smartphones

iPhone

Android (ICS, Samsung Galaxy)

Android (4.2, Jelly Bean)

Windows Phone 8

Blackberry Airport terminal with plane in background

If you are travelling outside of the EU, check with your provider as some charge every time  a voicemail message is left on your phone when you are away.

If they do, contact them- you may be able to switch off voicemail while you are away by keying a code into your handset or your provider may be able to temporarily disable your voicemail.

Remember, you may need to contact them again to reactivate your voicemail on your return. You will in any case be charged to listen to voicemail messages while you are away.

Using the internet on your phone when you arrive

If you want to regularly browse the web on your phone, use local Wi-Fi hotspots instead of your phone's mobile internet connection.

You can usually access Wi-Fi in places like cafes, restaurants and hotels, sometimes for free, or you can pay to access the internet for a set time period. Some phone apps can seek out Wi-Fi networks and prompt you to connect to them so that you don't have to do this manually.

This is particularly useful for downloading maps, checking emails or browsing social networks – all of which will soon rack up data charges abroad. Remember, you don't need ‘data roaming' switched on to access Wi-Fi. Remember to stay within range of the Wi-Fi hotspot to avoid your device finding another network connection. Check to ensure the Wi-Fi icon is visible on your phone. 

I Woman texting on phone in Venicef you're going to use your phone's internet connection rather than Wi-Fi, avoid data-heavy activities such as watching videos, updating social media with photos or downloading music. Also, if you are checking emails, avoid opening large attachments.

All mobile operators have to apply a cut-off limit once you have used €50  (excluding VAT) – around £40 – of data per month, wherever you travel in the world unless you choose another limit.

The provider must send you an alert to your phone when you reach 80% and then 100% of the agreed data roaming limit. Operators must stop charging for data at the 100% point, unless you agree to continue to use data.

How much will it cost to use my phone abroad?

Europe

Calls and texts 

Woman on phone with Eiffel Tower in backgroundThe cost of using your phone within the European Union is capped under EU law, which sets out ‘euro-tariffs'.

These tariffs are available across most European countries but not in Switzerland or Turkey so beware that you could be charged more for using your mobile in these countries.

The tariffs do apply to Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein but the exact rates may differ from those below- check with your provider.

You should automatically benefit from the euro-tariffs, unless you have chosen to opt out (for example by taking out a roaming bundle offered by your provider).

Calls made should cost no more than €0.19 (around 15p) per minute (excluding VAT) Calls received should be charged at no more than €0.05 (around 4p) per minute (excluding VAT). Sending a text should cost no more than €0.06 (around 5p) per text (excluding VAT).

You cannot be charged for receiving texts or voicemail (calls made to listen to messages would be charged).

Data

There is also a price cap on data roaming charges in the European Union.

This cap means that phone companies can charge no more than €0.20 (around 16p) per MB of data, (excluding VAT).

Rest of the world

Calls and texts

Costs tend to be much higher outside Europe so think about how you plan to use your phone in advance.

Talk to your provider about any packages it offers for the place you're travelling to. There are a few specialist products offering discounts or it might be worth considering buying a SIM for the country you are visiting.

If you are thinking about doing this, check whether your handset is ‘locked' to the network of your provider as you may not be able to use another SIM.

Some providers charge you when someone leaves a message on your voicemail (as well as charging for listening to the message).

Check with your provider- if they do charge, consider asking them how to switch off your voicemail before you leave the UK and tell your friends and family to text instead.

Data

The cost of data roaming can be significantly higher outside Europe. Check prices with your provider before you leave.

Woman near Golden Gate Bridge, San FranciscoTalk to your provider about any packages it offers for the place you're visiting as many offer data roaming bundles.

Alternatively, it might be worth considering buying a SIM for the country you are visiting.

What if I am on a ferry or cruise?

Mobile phones used in coastal areas or at sea may not be able to connect to traditional 2, 3 or 4G networks and may instead seek out a satellite connection. The euro-tariffs and world-wide data limits we mention above unfortunately do not apply to these and charges can be high.

Try to use services on land where-ever possible. If you think you will need to use your phone at sea, check with your provider before you travel how much it will cost to use your phone via a satellite connection. You could consider manually selecting a preferred network while you are on the boat/ship to avoid satellite connections but signals can vary and this will mean you wouldn't receive calls or texts when out of range of the selected network.

Lost or stolen phone

Phone partially buried in sand on beachBe extra careful when taking your phone abroad as thieves often target tourists.

You should take  care when using your phone in public, don't let it out of your possession.

Not only are many smartphones worth hundreds of pounds, but thieves can quickly rack up huge bills on stolen phones.  You may be liable for all charges run up on your phone before you have reported it lost or stolen to your provider. This is usually set out in the terms and conditions of your contract. Therefore, if your phone goes missing when you're abroad, it's important you contact your provider as soon as possible to avoid facing high charges as a result of unauthorised use. Even if there's a slim chance you may find your phone, it's worth talking to your provider about whether a temporary bar can be placed on your account.

Once you have reported your phone as lost or stolen, your provider can bar your SIM to stop calls being made on your account. Your provider can also stop anyone else from using your phone by blocking its IMEI, a unique 15-digit serial number. You can get your IMEI number by keying *#06# into your handset or by looking behind your phone battery. Make a record of this number, as well as the make and model of your handset and keep it somewhere safe.

Some mobile insurance policies may provide some cover for unauthorised use so it is worth checking the terms and conditions of your existing policy, or when considering a new policy.

Remember, if you do decide to take out mobile phone insurance, you may be obliged to let your insurer know if your phone is lost or stolen within a certain time frame too.

You should still also let your mobile phone provider know.

Make sure you put a passcode on both your handset and SIM to make it more difficult for thieves to use. These video guides shows you how to do this on some popular handsets.

iPhone

Android (ICS, Samsung Galaxy)

Android (4.2, Jelly Bean)

Windows Phone 8

Blackberry

The National Mobile Phone Crime Unit is also a useful source of advice on how you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of phone crime. To report your phone lost/stolen

ProviderDialling from the UKDialling from Abroad
30843 373 3333+44 7782 333 333
EE07953 966 250+44 7953 966 250
Orange07973 100 150 (pay-monthly) 07973 100 450 (PAYG)+44 7973 100 150 (pay-monthly) +44 7973 100 450 (PAYG)
O20844 8090 2020 (pay-monthly) 0844 8090 222 (PAYG)+44 844 809 0200
T-Mobile0845 412 5000+44 79539 66150
Vodafone08700 700191 (pay-monthly) 08700 776655 (PAYG)+44 7836 191 191 (pay-monthly) +44 7836 191 919 (PAYG)
Tesco Mobile0845 301 4455+44 845 3014455
Virgin Mobile0845 6000 789+44 7953 967 967