Using data roaming on your smartphone in a foreign country can be a bad idea. At worst it may leave you with a bill totalling hundreds of pounds as, whether you're travelling for work or just on holiday, Wi-Fi hotspots alone will rarely do the trick.
There are plans to get rid of specific roaming charges altogether in the EU within the next 18 months, but for now, it pays to know about the various data roaming bolt-ons for monthly contracts offered by the main UK carriers. Every major UK network offers options beyond per-megabyte, per-minute roaming rates.
We're going to break down exactly what the contract deals are from O2, Vodafone, EE and Three, to find out which is the best value when you're travelling with your smartphone in an EU country.
|Row 0 - Cell 0||EE||Three||O2||Vodafone|
|Cost for calls||4.4p||3.9p||3.6p||4.6p|
|Cost for text||1.8p||1.6p||1.2p||1.8p|
|Data per MB||N/A - bolt-on only||3.9p||4.3p||4.6p|
|Bolt-on cost||4 (3 for EXTRA customers)||Free or 5||1.99||3|
|Included calls||Unlimited||As per UK allowance||120 minutes||As per UK allowance|
|Included texts||Unlimited||As per UK allowance||120 texts||As per UK allowance|
|Included data||500MB||As per UK allowance ('All You Can Eat' limited to 12GB/month)||Unlimited||As per UK allowance|
|Additional data cost||1/20MB 3/100MB||17.4p/MB||N/A (1.99 for 100MB on PAYG)||6.50 per 250MB|
|Data speed||4G (first 100MB only)||3G||3G "speeds may vary"||4G in 80 countries|
To use data abroad at all as an EE monthly contract customer, you need an add-on. The Euro Pass is 4 a day and includes unlimited calls and texts plus 500MB data. At the moment only 100MB of that is it 4G speed, with the rest of the allowance limited to slower 3G.
After this data allowance is used up, additional add-ons include 20MB of data for 1 and 100MB for 3. However, these are opt-in extras. Once the original allowance has run out, the data is cut off until an add-on is bought this is designed to avoid unexpected charges.
How to activate: Text ROAMING to 150 to activate roaming, then text EURODATA to 150 to buy a daily data deal
|Cost for calls||4.4p|
|Cost for text||1.8p|
|Data per MB||N/A - bolt-on only|
|Bolt-on cost||4 (3 for EXTRA customers)|
|Additional data cost||1/20MB 3/100MB|
|Data speed||4G (first 100MB only)|
Euro Pass works throughout the EU, some non-EU European countries and some overseas EU member state territories (e.g. French Guiana)
4-a-day deal includes unlimited calls and texts
Very limited data allowance
Tiered data speeds
One of the more expensive daily bolt-ons here
The Three network easily has the most interesting take on roaming, but it also has the greatest highs and lows of all the main UK networks.
Feel at Home is one of the major draws of the Three network. This feature lets you use your usual UK calls, texts and data allowances while abroad. The only major difference is that those still on All You Can Eat data plans are limited to 12GB a month.
That's not really All You Can Eat anymore with this fair use' policy in place, but it is still very generous when you consider how much 12GB of data would cost from the other networks.
Feel at Home is only available in a handful of EU countries most notably Italy, France and Spain (as well as some non-EU members such as the US), but it is oddly not available in Germany a major omission.
While Three offers the best roaming deal in many parts of Europe, it provides the worst deal in others.
In Germany and other non-Feel at Home EU countries, Three's Euro Internet Pass costs a 5-a-day charge for roaming using your standard allowance.
There are some important restrictions too, whether you're using Feel at Home or the Euro Internet Pass. Three's roaming is limited to 3G speeds and data from/to streaming services like YouTube are severely throttled. Using your phone as a personal WiFi hotspot for your other devices, otherwise known as tethering, isn't allowed either. You can feel at home, but there are still house rules.
How to activate Feel at Home: Automatic
|Cost for calls||3.9p|
|Cost for text||1.6p|
|Data per MB||3.9p|
|Bolt-on cost||Free or 5|
|Included calls||As per UK allowance|
|Included texts||As per UK allowance|
|Included data||As per UK allowance ('All You Can Eat' limited to 12GB/month)|
|Additional data cost||3.9p/MB|
Feel at Home is a revelation for frequent travellers to applicable countries
Feel at Home also works in the US and some other non-EU countries
Feel at Home is not available in Germany and the country selection as a whole is small
Streaming services like Netflix are throttled
Roaming limited to 3G speeds
O2 has one of the cheapest bolt-on deals here with a flat charge of 1.99 a day as part of its O2 Travel scheme. This provides 120 minutes of calls and 120 texts outside of standard allowances, making it a cheap option as long as you don't need to hold long business meetings over the phone.
O2 Travel also includes unlimited data, but O2 makes no promises about its speed. O2 doesn't make any specific claims regarding throttling, but it's worth assuming that your data speeds won't be fast enough for video streaming.
One benefit is that, after a one-time activation, O2 Travel will automatically click in when necessary as long as O2 Travel is enabled on your account.
How to activate O2 Travel: Text O2TRAVEL to 23336 to activate O2 Travel on your account, after this activation is automatic
|Cost for calls||3.6p|
|Cost for text||1.2p|
|Data per MB||4.3p|
|Included calls||120 minutes|
|Included texts||120 texts|
|Additional data cost||N/A (1.99 for 100MB on PAYG)|
|Data speed||3G "speeds may vary"|
Low daily fee
Includes unlimited data
Data speeds likely to be slow
No unlimited calls/texts
For 3 a day, Vodafone lets you use your standard UK allowance of texts. data and calls with a EuroTraveller bolt-on. Using the phone to either make a call or send a text automatically opts into this service, although calls can be taken without activating the charge.
Unlike some of the other Euro deals here, data and calls don't cut out if you exceed your allowance. Pleasingly, extra usage above your allowance is charged at standard UK rates for your plan, rather than an overpriced special overseas rate.
There are also no major restrictions. Data from streaming services isn't blocked or severely limited, and tethering of data is allowed. Vodafone claims it offers 4G roaming in more countries than any other UK network too, including Germany, Italy, Spain and France.
Vodafone offers a similar bolt-on outside of Europe. The WorldTraveller costs 5 a day for the same deal, letting you use your UK allowance in a number of countries including the US.
How to activate: call 5555 free from a Vodafone mobile or text ADD to 40506
|Cost for calls||4.6p|
|Cost for text||1.8p|
|Data per MB||4.6p|
|Included calls||As per UK allowance|
|Included texts||As per UK allowance|
|Included data||As per UK allowance|
|Additional data cost||6.50 per 250MB|
|Data speed||4G in 80 countries|
4G roaming in most European countries
Sensible charges out of allowance
Can result in extra (but standard) charges
Which is the best network for roaming?
There is no single best choice for UK roaming that will suit every single customer. If you want to spend as little as possible, then the one that gets closest is Three. Its Feel at Home feature covers some of the most popular EU destinations with worry-free, cost-free roaming.
However, Feel at Home does not currently cover Germany which is a serious omission that's hard to ignore. It's also limited to 3G speeds and real-world performance can be slow.
All this makes Vodafone a very worthy alternative as long as you're willing to spend a little more cash. Similar to Three, it lets you use your standard UK data allowance in Europe. This comes with a 3-a-day charge, but does not suffer from any giant geographic holes. It is also faster than most roaming plans, with 4G speeds in many countries, including the most popular European destinations.
How things are changing
The situation isn't going to stay the same for long, though. EU plans are going to see roaming charges drop, and then be scrapped altogether.
This will happen in two waves. From 30 April 2016, roaming charges can only be 0.05 Euro cents, or around 3-4p, more than what you'd pay for data outside of your usual allowance in the UK. Extra monthly charges for roaming will be capped at 50 Euro/40 too.
From June 2017, roaming charges within the EU will effectively be eliminated mobile charges when you're travelling throughout the EU will have to be the same as they are at home.
Brexit referendum problems
The elephant in the room that might see these promising plans upturned is the so-called Brexit, the UK's possible departure from the European Union.
The initial assumption is that European roaming fees will continue into 2017 and beyond for British mobile users if Britain secedes from the EU (which won't be for another two years, if ever), but the UK government says that this won't be the case.
Ed Vaizey, (who at the time was Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy), said the plans will continue regardless, as the UK would be part of the EEA/EFTA, even if it isn't a member of the EU, and thus would still benefit from the elimination of roaming fees. There's precedent for this. EEA member Norway isn't part of the EU (and never has been), but is part of these roaming plans.
We won't know for sure until the dust is long settled on the outcome of the EU membership referendum, though.
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