Travelling abroad? Then avoid an unpleasant and expensive souvenir in your next mobile phone bill by following our guide to controlling your international communication costs. From phone calls to data usage, we’ve got the information you need.
Using your phone abroad will expose you to ‘roaming’ costs, where calls are channelled through a local network operator. Depending on where you’re staying, roaming can mean vastly inflated call charges – but that’s just half the story.
If you have a ‘smartphone’, connecting to the internet and inadvertently leaving data-munching apps running can leave you open to hundreds – or even thousands – in unexpected charges. A survey by uSwitch.com revealed that around 15% of Brits have arrived home to charges of around £120 more than their usual mobile phone bill.
Don’t cast your phone into the ocean just yet, though. Following our guide to controlling your communication charges will ensure your overseas trip is memorable for all the right reasons. Here are the facts and tips you’ll need to know before packing your bag and heading to the airport…Don’t forget to pre-book your airport parking with us, or get a stress-free start to your trip with our Gatwick airport hotels and parking bundles.
Phone charges: EU countries
See update at top of this page for new charges in Europe.
Phone charges: Non-EU countries:
Costs will be much higher in non-EU countries. Mobile price comparison site uSwitch.com says that Brits spending seven days in Turkey could run up a bill of £281 for merely making and receiving two five minute calls, listening to a two-minute voicemail, and sending five text messages and two picture messages a day.
Using your mobile phone for voice calls in non-EU countries will routinely cost you anything up to £1.50 per minute. It doesn’t end there – receiving calls can add a further £1.25 per minute to your bill.
How to pay less for mobile voice calls while abroad
Whether you’re travelling in Europe or beyond, follow these tips to keep your mobile phone costs under control.
Read the welcome text:
You know that text message, which arrives as you’re trying to negotiate passport control at your destination airport? Well, we suggest you read it. This will tell you how much the local operator is going to charge you for using its voice and data services. Forewarned is, as they say, forearmed.
Turn off voicemail:
If an incoming call gets diverted to voicemail, you’ll pay the same as if you answered the call. You’ll then pay again to retrieve the message – so you could end up paying a fiver for the privilege of receiving an unsolicited call from a company offering ppi compensation for that loan you haven’t got.
Send a text instead:
It will always be cheaper to send a text message than making a phone call – and you won’t pay anything to receive the answer. Just avoid picture messages, because these will be expensive.
Use a payphone:
If you’re booking a local restaurant or calling a cab, then put away your mobile and use a payphone instead. This will save plenty of cash or Travel money cards – particularly when venturing beyond the EU. For example, a four-minute call to book a restaurant in New York could cost as much as £6 from your mobile (depending on operator), compared with around 15p from one of the city’s payphones.
Buy a local PAYG Sim:
Buying a local pay-as-you-go Sim card can significantly cut your mobile phone bills – and you won’t be charged for incoming calls. You will have to use a different phone number, but international call charges back to the UK will undercut mobile roaming charges. You will need an ‘unlocked’ phone (where your handset recognises third party Sim cards). Don’t worry if your phone is ‘locked’, it’s perfectly legal to get it ‘unlocked’. If you’re a regular traveller this is well worth considering, so visit this advice page to find out how it works with your handset. ‘Unlocking’ will be free for many handsets, but some operators will charge up to £20. Once unlocked, you can either buy a Sim in your destination country, or browse sites such as 0044.co.uk to get it before you travel.
Use Skype or Facetime:
Once abroad, locate a free wi-fi hotspot and use Skype or Facetime to make video or voice calls to the UK. Providing the person you want to contact has Skype or an Apple-based device for Facetime, these calls will be completely free. Just remember – using Skype or Facetime through mobile data roaming will be extremely expensive, so make sure you’re connected to wi-fi.
Cruising to a Titanic bill:
Cruise ship passengers will need to be particularly vigilant when using their mobile phones. Alongside various international roaming charges, stints in the middle of the ocean may result in phones using satellite-based communications. EU and other tariffs don’t apply to these, so you could be charged more than £5 per minute in some areas. Cruisers should either keep their mobile roaming switched off while at sea, or call their operator to discuss their options.
With smartphones becoming the norm, it’s not just call charges that travellers need to worry about. Data roaming presents a much-increased risk of ‘bill shock’, with unexpected charges of hundreds, or even thousands of pounds not uncommon. Get all the details you need here.
Data charges: EU countries
EU countries are subject to a cap on roaming charges, which means companies can charge no more than €0.45 excluding VAT (around 38p) per MB of data, but come July 2014, and this will fall to €0.20 (around 17p) per MB.
Data charges: Non-EU countries
This is where the horror story begins. Leaving the cost-capped confines of the EU can result in huge bills for the careless smartphone owner.
For example, charges can be as much as £8 per MB of data used, and if you apply this to a week in Turkey – which isn’t covered by EU price caps – you could end up paying the following charges:
- £57 for uploading six photos to Facebook and browsing the internet for 15 mins a day
- £133 for an hour watching live text sport updates
- £171 browsing Google maps for one hour a day
- £190 downloading a mobile game each day
- £285 for watching an hour of streamed video
How to pay less for data
Following these money-saving tips will ensure you’re able to stay connected without being hit by the infamous ‘bill shock’.
Turn off data roaming:
This is the most sensible catch-all solution, but if you really need to be connected, just be sure to disable data roaming when you don’t need it. Just because you’re not surfing or sending emails, it doesn’t mean your apps aren’t happily munching your data and running up a hefty bill. For example, an email app will constantly check for new messages – this alone can cost around £2 an hour.
Here’s how to turn off data roaming:
iPhone: Go into Settings > General > Mobile Data, then turn off data roaming option.
Samsung: Go into Settings > More Settings > Mobile Networks, then uncheck data roaming
Blackberry: Go to Manage Connections > Mobile Network Options, then switch Data Services While Roaming to off
Windows phone: Go into Settings > Mobile Network > Data Roaming Options, then select ‘do not roam’
Turn off automatic app updates:
Many apps and phone operating systems will routinely look for updates and then download them – without your knowledge. These updates can amount to hundreds of megabytes, so you could be racking up huge bills without even knowing it. Turn off this function the moment you leave Gatwick or Manchester Airport.
Here’s how turn-off automatic updates for iPhones and Android handsets:
- iPhone 5. Go to Settings > scroll to iTunes & App Store > scroll down to automatic downloads and set all to off. Crucially, make sure the ‘Use mobile data’ option is set to off.
- Android: Go to Settings > Accounts and Sync then uncheck ‘Background Data’. This will stop your phone from syncing and updating. You should also check the settings in each app, because most will have the option to turn off auto updates.
Buy a bundle from your phone operator:
Save cash on data roaming by checking out travel bundles on offer from your phone company. Most operators have deals for EU countries and these can cut the cost of using data to around 5p per MB. Your operator will also offer non-EU data bundles. If you want to work out which bundle is best for you – based on your normal data usage activities – then Vodafone’s data calculator will be a great help.
Opt in to your data cap:
Call your mobile phone company and make sure it operates a data cap. This sends a warning when the cost of your data usage approaches a predetermined level – usually around £50. The message will ask you to either say yes to more data – or opt out to prevent any further charges mounting. The £50 mark might sound high, but one 14-year-old teenager reportedly racked up charges of £3,800 on her mobile phone – posting Facebook updates during a trip to New York.
Please note – companies are not obliged to operate this cap in non-EU countries, so call them now to find out.
Use free wi-fi hotspots abroad:
This is a great way to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues, without incurring any charges. Do your homework before you leave and compile a list of free wi-fi locations by visiting sites such as JiWire, which list hundreds of thousands of free hotspots around the world.
Buy a local pay-as-you-go data Sim card:
If you’re travelling outside of Europe, then this can be a great option. Buying a Sim card on a local network can cut data costs by up to 90%, when compared with roaming charges. You’ll need to have an ‘unlocked’ phone to accept the new Sim, so check out this advice page for more information. You can then investigate cheap, pre-paid data Sims from company’s such as Dataroam.
Download an app to compress data:
Download a free app, such as Onavo, and you can slash the data you use by up to 80%. This app compresses the data required to use apps for sharing photos, browsing the web and more. It will also keep you updated with your data usage and how much you’ve saved. What it won’t do, however, is compress data for apps that stream content, such as BBC iPlayer or YouTube, or VoIP apps like Skype.
Keep a close eye on the kids:
Don’t be tempted to toss your smartphone to the kids in return for a few minutes uninterrupted sunbathing… a quick switch from Angry Birds to watch the latest One Direction video on You Tube could cost anything from £15 in some countries – and that’s just for one video. If you do hand over your phone, make sure that data roaming is switched off – and that your offspring knows exactly how his or her pocket money will be impacted for the following few years should they wish to surreptitiously enable it.
What if it all goes wrong?
If you are unlucky enough to receive a huge bill on your return from overseas, the first thing to do is call your phone operator. If you can’t reach an agreement and feel that you’ve been treated unfairly, then get in contact with Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS) or Ombudsman Services: Communications for more free advice.
Enjoy your trip.