Nowhere to roam – how to avoid ‘bill shock’ while abroad

Heard the one about the man who used his smartphone while in Australia and ended up with an £11,000 bill? Or the woman who was charged over £2,600 for downloading a Neil Diamond album while on holiday in South Africa?

These tales of mobile roaming woe – often dubbed ‘bill shock’ – are becoming common enough to make you petrified to even switch on your phone abroad. After recently receiving a hefty bill filled with overseas charges from O2, I can certainly sympathise.

However, if you know your rights, and your options, big roaming bills can be avoided. Read on to find out how to avoid your own bill shock horror story.

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Using your phone within the EU

The European Union imposes strict limits on how much you can be charged for using your mobile in another EU country.

Currently, the maximum that providers can bill you is 24.5p per minute for a voice call, 8.1p for a text and 46p per MB of data used.

If you get an unusually high bill after travelling in the EU, make sure you’ve not been charged more than this by your provider for what you’ve actually used.

EU roaming charges are set to fall even further in July 2014 when new cuts come into place, but it’s not a perfect system. If you’re a pay monthly customer, for example, you can’t in most cases take your allowances with you.

The high cost of non-EU roaming

Outside the EU the situation gets considerably worse. There’s virtually no protection in place against heavy voice, text and data charges. Billing is essentially down to what agreements your provider has in place with other worldwide networks – or how generous it’s feeling – as to maximum charges and cut-off points.

O2 will charge it customers (including me) £6 for each MB of data that we use in a country outside of the EU. And, as the Neil Diamond-loving Orange customer in our above example found, Orange will charge you even more, at £8 per MB.

If you travel regularly it might be worth buying a data bundle, such as O2 Travel or Vodafone Euro Traveller. These should help you manage the cost of using data, but bear in mind that you need to activate them before they’ll spring into action.

There’s no place like ‘home’

'I’ve been charged a huge mobile phone bill while in Europe – help!'

Last year, Three announced a new ‘Feel at Home’ service for pay-monthly customers, enabling them to use their minutes, texts and data allowances in selected countries where it has sister networks.

This includes the Republic of Ireland, Sri Lanka, Australia, Italy, Indonesia, Austria, Macau, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark and, possibly most crucially, the United States.

It’s not a complete solution, however, and we’ll soon be taking a closer look at all travel deals offered by mobile providers to see who really gives the best value to consumers.

An end to roaming charges in the EU?

The European Parliament has voted to fast-track plans to end roaming charges. Consumers will be able to use their domestic call, text and data allowance while travelling in the EU, subject to fair usage policies. With the right wind behind them, the new regulations could come into force as soon as the latter half of 2015.

A Which? policy expert said: “We want the UK government to support EU regulation to scrap roaming charges within the EU altogether by 2015.”

Have you been hit by excessive roaming charges, or do you have a story of bill shock that you want to share? Please tell us in the comments section below.

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9 replies

  1. I have a very basic, very cheap pay monthly contract with a Best Buy provider which didn’t actually turn on my data roaming until I called the helpline. However I have some comments.
    a) Put a cap on your contract. Mine was actually too low (only £2.50) which meant I couldn’t donate to things like Sport Relief or pay for parking via mobile, I have now increased this to £10.00. If you ae going abroad you can off course increase this to whatever you feel you may need.
    b) Turn off data roaming unless absolutely necessary. Most airports/hotels/restaurants have free wifi so if you want to ‘check-in’, Facebook, check emails or download music or a movie wait until you are in a wifi enabled area where it’s free.
    c) Even 15 years ago we couldn’t search online, so the secret is planning. Get the directions to your next destination/meal/campsite before you leave the wifi area.
    d) Do you really need to go online? My daughter likes to take long travelling holidays. She has just (yesterday) returned from a month long safari in southern Africa. She left her itinerary with us but apart from a quick Facebook update on 1st April we heard nothing from her until she walked out of arrivals at Heathrow.

  2. I’m a T-Mobile customer who does not really want to pay them £1.50 to make or receive a call while in the US. I bought a 3 PAYG SIM, set a forward on my T-M number to the the new 3 SIM (before I left) and paid the princely sum of £20 for three weeks of calls and data while in the US.

  3. There is a 50 Euro cap in place for both the EU and for the rest of the world when it comes to data roaming, so I really can’t see any reason why anyone can run up a data bill in excess of thousands anymore because you have to agree, (physically send a text to your network) to the charges once you hit this limit. Whilst recently in the Caribbean I hit my data cap pretty quickly, as EE charges a ridiculous £8 per MB for data, but I didn’t opt to continue and switched all data roaming off to get on with enjoying my holiday.

    Surely some responsbility has to sit with those who are running up such large bills, they’re told when the arrive in the country their travelling what the costs are going to be.

  4. I travelled to Turkey 4 years ago, before I left the UK, I phoned Vodafone and asked what the charges were for using my smart phone. They told me the calling and text charges but did not mention data roaming. 5 weeks later I received a bill for almost £900, I am still in dispute with Vodafone regarding this. A year later I returned to the same hotel and met a couple who had experienced the same, but he and his wife had visited a Vodafone shop and asked about charges, they were not told about roaming charges.
    Has anyone else experienced this?

  5. I have friends of various nationalities, and only myself, (UK) has any problems with mobile costs. Rip off UK still holds firm. My friends ALL received a PAYG sim for the european country they were visiting, from their own provider. What did I get offered? I was offered a deal . £3 per day and I could use my my own accounts settings. Big of the UK providers isn’t it?

  6. I have a smartphone with dual SIM slots – both cards can work simultaneously, so basically I have two numbers in one phone and can choose which I use for outgoing calls. When I travel I buy a cheap PAYGO card in my destination country and make sure my friends know what number to call. This saves me a fortune.

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