Using your smartphone abroad
Tablets and smartphones are now as much a holiday essential as suncream and swimwear.
But if you don’t take care when using your smartphone or tablet abroad, you could be left paying off a bill long after your tan has faded.
Using your mobile internet, or ‘data’, connection to go online overseas can cost considerably more than it does at home – particularly outside Europe.
The following tips will help you get the most from your smartphone or tablet without returning home to an unexpectedly high bill.
Download before you go
Think carefully about how you’re going to use your smartphone or tablet when you’re away.
Think ahead - make sure you download what you need before you leave home, including any apps, books, films or music.
Downloading or streaming films, TV or music consumes large amounts of data and you could run up a very high bill if you wait until you’re abroad. Use your home Wi-Fi connection to get everything on your device before you go and make sure all downloads are fully completed before you leave the UK. Partially downloaded items may be ‘stored’ and resume downloading once you arrive at your destination.
Also, don’t wait until you arrive to read up on your destination. Do your research beforehand and download any maps, guides or restaurant and bar reviews.
Talk to your provider
If you are planning to go online while abroad, speak to your provider. They may have specific packages for using your device abroad designed to offer discounted rates, including data roaming bundles.
However, if you buy a data roaming bundle, check what happens once you have you used up the inclusive allowance.
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 Megabyte (MB) within the bundle.
It’s also possible to buy a global SIM card from a specialised provider which may offer lower prices when travelling in a variety of different countries.
Turn off data roaming
Smartphones and 3G/4G enabled tablet computers automatically seek out mobile connections and use them to update apps even when you are not actively using your phone.
So, to be safe, turn off data roaming before you go, as otherwise these devices could be downloading data at standard rates throughout your stay, and you could be running up a high bill 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. Some providers, however, do offer products where you can use your domestic allowance abroad so it’s worth checking before you go.
It’s simple to turn off data roaming.
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.
We also have information on how to turn off data roaming on the most popular tablets.
Use Wi-Fi to get online
If you want to regularly browse the web overseas, use local Wi-Fi hotspots instead of your device’s 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 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 you are using to avoid your device finding another network connection. Check to ensure the Wi-Fi icon is visible on your device.
Buy a local SIM
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.
If you are considering doing this, however, you will need to check whether your handset is ‘locked’ to the network of your current provider in the UK.
If it is, then you will not be able to make use of a local SIM in the country you are visiting If you are able to make use of a local pay-as-you-go SIM card, remember to keep your ‘home’ SIM card safe and secure while you are away.
Know the cost and beware of choosing to use data beyond the data limit
In the European Union (EU), phone companies are not allowed to charge any more than €0.45 (around 38p) per MB of data, plus VAT.
However, the cost of data roaming can be significantly higher outside Europe – often around £6 - £8 per MB of data.
To put that into context, the BBC estimates that watching a 60 minute iPlayer video over 3G networks can consume between 50MB and 225MB of data. At £8 per MB that would work out at between £400 and £1800.
So, its a good idea to double check whether or not you will be travelling within, our outside the EU, for your trip.
There is a safety net - 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 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.
Keep tabs on your kids
Smartphones and tablets are a great way to keep your kids entertained, particularly on long journeys.
If they’re going to want to watch films or TV programmes on your device, download everything you need before you go – it will work out much cheaper than if you wait until you are abroad.
If you’re going to let them play with your device and it is 3G/4G enabled, turn off data roaming so they don’t incur data roaming charges.
And if your children have their own smartphone or 3G/4G tablet, explain about the risks of using it abroad or turn off data roaming on their device before you leave.
If you are happy for your child to use data while abroad but wish to restrict their usage to within the €50 limit, you need to make sure they know to look out for the 'you have reached your limit' alert (which is sent to the device directly) and understand what it means. Otherwise if they choose to agree to using more data, this will enable them to continue to use data, possibly with no limit on the eventual bill.
Remember, if you allow your child to access the internet via a local Wi-Fi network, they will still be able to make ‘in-app’ purchases. You should set up a password on the device which must be keyed before it allows any user to make an in-app purchase. Always keep this password private.
Some devices allow you to turn in-app purchases off altogether. The following video guides offer step-by-step instructions for turning off or password-protecting the in-app purchase function on some popular handsets.
Inform your provider immediately if your phone is lost or stolen
If you lose your phone or suspect it has been stolen, report it to your provider immediately to avoid facing high charges as a result of unauthorised use.
Make sure you put a passcode on both your handset and SIM to make it more difficult for thieves to use. Ofcom’s video guides show you how to do this on some popular smartphones.
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.
For more detailed information on using your mobile device abroad, including voice and text usage, read our comprehensive mobile roaming guide.
For those families staying closer to home this summer, Ofcom also has a guide to help avoid running up sky-high bills when in the UK.