Using Your Mobile Phone Abroad: Everything You Need To Know

February 26th, 2013

Everything you need to know before taking your mobile phone abroad – the costs, the pitfalls and the loopholes.

Going Abroad

Every year, an increasing number of us are travelling abroad. Whether you’re travelling for business or for pleasure, your mobile phone can be an essential tool for staying in touch, finding your way around and researching local destinations.

In this article, we present our guide to everything that you need to know about using your phone abroad.

1. Roaming: Cost of Calls & Texts

When you’re abroad with your UK SIM card, you should expect to pay more for making phone calls and for sending text messages than you’d normally pay in the UK. You won’t be able to use your inclusive minutes or texts either: instead you’ll need to pay for each phone call and for each text message that you send. You’ll also need to pay to receive phone calls.

The amount that is charged varies slightly depending on your mobile operator but it’s normally much lower if you’re travelling within the European Union. This is because roaming charges within the EU are capped. A list of EU countries where the lower prices are enforced can be found here. If you’re roaming outside of the EU, expect to pay up to £1.50/minute for phone calls and up to 50p per text message.

Typical roaming charges are as follows:

Activity Roaming within the EU Roaming outside the EU
Making phone calls 25p/minute £1.50/minute
Receiving phone calls 7p/minute £1.00/minute
Sending Text Messages 8p per message 50p per message
Receiving Text Messages Free Free

Costs for people calling you. There are no extra charges for the person who calls you or sends you a text message. Providing that you’re using a UK-based SIM card, your friends and family will continue to pay the standard rate when calling or texting you. All roaming charges are incurred by the person who goes abroad (hence the additional charge for receiving a phone call).

Voicemail. You should also be aware that there are charges for receiving and picking up voicemails whilst abroad. You should disable voicemail before leaving the country to avoid these charges. See point 7 below for more information.

Full Price Guide. Consult the following pages for full details on how much your network charges: Three, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

2. Roaming: Cost of Smartphone Data (3G)

Smartphones StackedThe costs really begin to add up if you use data when roaming abroad. Data is consumed by most applications on a smartphone and is charged on a “per megabyte” basis. Examples of things that use data include reading your e-mails, using instant messaging apps such as BBM and WhatsApp and viewing maps. For an indication of the amount of data consumed by different activities, see our guide to download limits.

The typical rates for data roaming are 69p/MB within the EU and approximately £8/MB outside the EU. The average smartphone user consumes about 10MB per day so this would correspond to £7/day in Europe and £80/day outside the EU. Thankfully, bundles are available to reduce the cost of using your smartphone in Europe and operators are required to notify you if your data roaming bill reaches £50. This can help you to avoid unexpected charges.

Data Roaming within the EU Roaming outside the EU
Using Smartphone Data 46p/MB Approx. £8/MB
Approx. Daily Charge £2/day with EU data bundle Approx. £80
Data Roaming Cap £50 £50

Bundles for Cheap Data in Europe

Main article: Best SIM cards for roaming in Europe

If you’re travelling within the EU, the best thing to do is to grab an EU data roaming bundle. For less than £2/day, a roaming data bundle will allow you to consume up to 25MB of data on your smartphone. This should easily be enough for staying in touch with your friends, researching destinations and using mapping applications.

EU FlagOur top pick is the Vodafone Data Traveller bundle. This is available on Vodafone’s Pay As You Go tariff. For £2 per day, you’ll get 25MB of data to use across Europe.

To get started with Data Traveller, simply order a free Vodafone Pay As You Go SIM card and top-up by £10. This will allow you to use your smartphone in Europe for 5 days. As it isn’t linked to your normal mobile phone contract, you don’t need to worry about a surprise bill when you arrive home.

Order Vodafone Pay As You Go SIM card (Free) »

Other top picks include O2 Travel (£1.99/day for 15MB of data).

For a full review of data offerings in Europe, see our guide to the best SIM cards for data roaming in Europe.

How to Disable Roaming Data

To avoid the high costs of roaming data when travelling outside the EU, we strongly recommend turning off data roaming on your handset. Follow the instructions for your device:

  • iPhone: Navigate to Settings > General > Mobile Data > Data Roaming and select Off.
  • Android: Navigate to Settings > Wireless & networks > Mobile networks and un-tick the ‘Data roaming’ box.
  • BlackBerry: Navigate to Device Options > Mobile Network > Data Services and select ‘Off whilst roaming’. Press the menu button followed by “Save”.
  • Windows Phone: In the Applications list, navigate to Settings > Mobile > Data roaming and select ‘Don’t roam’.

You can access the internet for free using wi-fi hotspots whilst abroad. This won’t appear on your phone bill but the owner of the wi-fi hotspot could levy their own charges. See point 5 for more information.

3. Buying a SIM Card When Abroad

SIM cardDepending on the length of your trip, it can sometimes be substantially cheaper to buy a SIM card in your country of travel. This would be a Pay As You Go SIM card that slots into the back of your handset giving you the same calling rates as local residents of that country. For people who want to use data on their smartphone outside the EU, this is particularly important.

Before you can use a foreign SIM card, you’ll need to make sure that your phone is unlocked for use on other networks. Your handset may already be unlocked, otherwise you may need to pay up to £20 to unlock it. We’ve got a step-by-step guides for unlocking your iPhone, your Galaxy S3, your Galaxy S2 or your BlackBerry smartphone.

The following table shows the savings that could be expected from buying a SIM card in your country of travel. Whilst the cost of calling and texting can vary substantially on SIM cards from different countries, it’s almost guaranteed to be cheaper than using your UK SIM card. This is particularly the case if you plan on using 3G data.

Activity Using Your UK SIM (Roaming, Outside EU) Using Local SIM
Making phone calls £1.50/minute 20p per minute
Receiving phone calls £1.00/minute Free
Sending Text Messages 50p per message 10p per message
Using Smartphone Data £8 per MB (approx £80/day) < £10 per month
Minimum Charge None ~£10 (minimum top-up)

For travel within the EU, roaming costs are substantially lower (see above). Rather than buying a SIM card in the country of travel, we recommend using a specialist SIM card from the UK instead.

In the UK, it’s possible to obtain a SIM card without ID. However, this is not the case in all countries. For security reasons, many countries require proof of identity in order to obtain a SIM card. Your passport will usually suffice for this. We recommend checking local regulations before you leave home and taking your passport to the mobile phone store.

Finally, when obtaining a SIM card abroad, make sure you obtain the right type of SIM card. Mobile phones use one of three SIM card types: Standard SIM, Micro SIM and Nano SIM. You will need to choose the size that is appropriate for your phone. To find out which one you need, see our in-depth guide to SIM card types.

SIM Form Factors
There are three different types of SIM cards. From left to right: Standard SIM, Micro SIM and Nano SIM. You’ll need to get the right one for your device. Figure adapted from Wikipedia (CC-licensed).

4. Network Compatibility

As almost all countries now use GSM-based mobile networks, a handset purchased in the UK should work universally across the world.

There are a couple of countries that have non-GSM based mobile networks. Non-GSM networks include Sprint (USA), Verizon (USA), China Telecom (China), PCCW (Hong Kong) and LG U+ (South Korea). You won’t be able to use a UK handset on these networks but your handset should automatically pick up a GSM-based alternative instead.

A full list of GSM-based mobile networks can be found on the GSMA’s Mobile World Live website.

5. Wi-Fi Networks

WifiWhen travelling abroad, your mobile operator won’t charge you for using a public wi-fi hotspot. You can often get online for free by making use of wi-fi networks in hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, train stations and airports. This can be combined with a voice-over-IP application such as Skype for cheap phone calls to home.

Please note that most public wi-fi hotspots are unencrypted. Any information that is transferred over the network can potentially be intercepted and read by other people. For this reason, you should avoid activities such as online banking on a public wi-fi network. You should also refrain from transmitting personal data or logging in to websites that do not use SSL encryption.

6. Calling Home

If you’re calling home, you can save substantially by asking your friends and family to call you instead. This is because the cost of receiving a phone call whilst abroad is much less than the cost of initiating a phone call. For a 10 minute phone call, you can save £2.10 within the EU and £5 outside the EU simply by asking them to call you back.

Activity Within the EU Outside the EU
Making phone calls 25p/minute £1.50/minute
Receiving phone calls 7p/minute £1.00/minute
Saving from receiving call 18p/minute 50p/minute

Remember, even when you’re abroad, your friends and family will pay the standard rate to call you on your UK number. Any friends with a mobile phone contract can use their inclusive minutes to call you. The only difference is that you’ll pay an extra fee to receive the call.

Saving Money by using Skype over Wi-Fi

SkypeA cheaper way of calling home is to use a voice-over-IP application such as Skype. You’ll need the Skype application installed on your smartphone and you’ll need access to a wi-fi network.

Using Skype, calls to UK landline numbers cost less than 2p per minute. For calls to UK mobile numbers, expect to pay around 18p per minute. BT landline customers can alternatively use the BT SmartTalk application for a similar purpose with the added benefit of being able to use your landline minutes.

Skype Calling Over 3G

If you don’t have access to a wi-fi network, it may be possible to make a Skype call over a 3G connection. A Skype voice call consumes approximately 0.55MB of data per minute. If you were to roam on your UK SIM card, the data charges would be approximately 25p/minute within the EU and £4.40/minute outside the EU. This means that Skype calling on a roaming data connection is more expensive than making a standard phone call. If you have a SIM card purchased locally or if you’ve got a EU data roaming bundle, Skype calling over 3G can be a more realistic option.

Note that some mobile operators block the use of Skype on 3G. Skype calls are not always possible over 3G due to bandwidth limitations.

7. Voicemail

EarthIf you reject a phone call or you don’t answer a call, it’ll normally be diverted to voicemail. This can be problematic when travelling abroad: on some networks the call will be diverted to voicemail at international calling rates. This means you’ll need to pay to receive a voicemail message and you’ll need to pay again to listen to it.

The best way of avoiding voicemail charges whilst roaming is to turn it off. Call the following phone number to disable voicemail for your account:

Network Disabling Voicemail Re-enabling Voicemail
Three 333 333
O2 1760 (automated) 1750 (automated)
Orange 150 150
T-Mobile 150 150
Vodafone 1210 (automated) 1211 (automated)

Rather than your friends and family leaving you a voicemail message, you could advise them to send you a text message instead. They will pay the standard UK text message rate when texting you (normally free on most contracts) and you won’t pay a single penny to receiving the message. You’ll only pay to respond to it.

When you return to the UK, be sure to follow the instructions above to re-enable your voicemail.

8. Instant Messages

3d Maps Las VegasOne way to save money on text messages whilst abroad is to use instant messaging applications such as BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), WhatsApp and ChatOn. These applications require a working data connection and the data costs are usually lower than text message costs. You’ll need to enable data however, and if you’re roaming then other applications could quickly mount up a big bill.

If you choose to use an instant messaging application, you should set it up whilst you’re still at home with your UK-based SIM card. Even if you decide to use a different SIM card abroad, the application will remain registered to your UK-based phone number and you can continue to send messages from that number.

9. Maps

Maps and GPS can be incredibly helpful when your abroad. They’ll help you to get from A-to-B in a new city and to find local restaurants and attractions. Whilst smartphones can be great tools for browsing maps, you’ll normally need a working data connection to use them. One way of avoiding this is to download the maps for the place that you’re visiting before you leave home.

If you’ve got Google Maps for Android, load up the map for the region or the city that you’re visiting. Tap the menu button on your device followed by the ‘Make available offline’ option. This will save a copy of the map on your handset. With an offline version of the map available, a working data connection will no longer be needed. Note that you’ll still need a working data connection for search, navigation and transit directions.

10. Useful Applications

Google TranslateThere are a whole range of applications that can be useful when travelling. Some recommended applications and resources include:

Google Translate. The free Google Translate application for iPhone and Android can help you to break down language barriers. Supporting translations between 65 languages, the application also features voice recognition and optical character recognition. This should help you to converse with local people and to read signs and restaurant menus in another language. Google Translate requires a working data connection.

Touchnote. Touchnote is an application for iPhone and Android that allows you to send custom personal and printed postcards. You can upload a photo that is taken on your smartphone and they’ll print it on a postcard and deliver it for £1.49. A great alternative to the time-consuming task of finding a post office and buying stamps locally.

Tripadvisor. Tripadvisor have a range of free travel guides for Android. The applications feature restaurant reviews, a list of popular tourist attractions and example travel itineraries. The applications do not require a working data connection but you’ll need to download the database to your handset before you leave home.

FCO website. Whilst it isn’t an application, a website that all travellers should utilise is that of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. They host the UK Government’s official travel advice for countries around the world, including information pertaining to health, safety and local laws. It’s always worth checking the FCO website before your travels to ensure that you can have a safe and an enjoyable trip.

After all that, we hope you have a great trip and pleasant travels!

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 27 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Alistair said:

    I ordered a PAYG sim from Three before leaving for Australia, but it arrived as I was leaving for the airport. Attempts to get them to activate it remotely have failed.

    I can buy a new Sim and have it sent to my home so my elderly parents can forward it to me, but they barely know how to switch a phone on.

    Is there a network that will supply a card that I can activate here in Australia where I will be working for a few months? Preferably one that will give me good rates both back home and here. I will only use it for occasional texts home and they might ring me very month, so I want them to only pay local call rates.

    I am a very moderate user, and don’t use my phone for data. Because of small usage I prefer credit that does not expire for 6 months.

  2. Chris said:

    Hi Ken,

    I am traveling to China next year and am taking Windows phone. Will it be better to buy a sim over there, or is there a sim cheap enough in the UK that I could use. My phone is unlocked.

    Regards
    Chris

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Chris,
      It’ll be really expensive to using your UK SIM card in China – expect to pay around £1.50/minute, 50p/text and £8/MB (approx £80/day for using the internet). The best thing to do would be to buy a local SIM card (either from China Mobile or China Unicom) – have a look at this helpful article over at TravelChinaGuide!
      Cheers,
      Ken

  3. Senko said:

    Hi Ken,

    I use a Droid Mini/Motorola and will be traveling to India this summer. Do you have any tips as far as SIM cards go? I believe they use GSM and not CDMA in India. What should I do in order to use my smartphone in India?

    -Thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Senko,

      Thanks for your comment! According to the Motorola website, the Droid Mini works on the following GSM networks:
      EDGE/GSM 850/900/1800/1900
      HSPA/UMTS 850/900/1900/2100
      LTE 700/1700 (Bands 13 & 4)
      Hence, providing your phone is GSM unlocked, you should be able to pick up a local SIM card when travelling in India. I’d recommend checking this guide on Wikipedia for a list of compatible GSM networks.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  4. Alan said:

    Hi Ken,

    I have a uk Orange pay as you go sim and would like to use in Hong Kong, however, when I switch on my iPhone 4 there is no network. I have turned data roaming on and manually serached for different carriers but none of them work.

    Any ideas how I can get my PAYG sim card to work?

    Thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Alan,

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve double checked with Orange and all of their Pay As You Go customers should be automatically set up to use their phone abroad. Hence, there shouldn’t be a problem using your phone in Hong Kong. You’ve also tried manually searching for networks (I presume you’ve also tried the Automatic setting?). My only recommendation would be to check out EE’s website: apart from that I couldn’t give you an answer!

      As an aside, if you have an unlocked iPhone, I’d strongly recommend buying a local SIM card. Pay As You Go SIM cards are great value in Hong Kong: you’ll definitely save a ton of money compared to roaming on Orange.

      Ken

  5. Kenny said:

    Hi Ken

    You are clearly a man in the know! It is great that you are sharing your knowledge. Thank you. May I add to your inbox please?!

    I am about to begin a career where I will be living and travelling between countries (across several continents). It seems all use GSM.

    I need to buy a new handset, but at the moment have no preference. Could you advise please?

    Regarding SIM, I had initially intended to buy a pay-as-you-go SIM. However, I will be in Guatemala and Australia for continuously long periods (1 year +), and so perhaps a contract might be preferable to pay-as-you-go in these countries?

    Any advice would be welcomed!

    With best wishes
    Kenny

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Kenny,
      Thanks for your comment! You’re right: it’s definitely good to go with an unlocked GSM handset. To ensure you can use it around the world, make sure it’s quad-band: it’ll need to support GSM at 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 1900 MHz (900MHz and 1800MHz are used in Europe, 850MHz and 1900MHz in North America). If you know in advance the countries you’ll be visiting then you can check the 2G/3G/4G frequency bands for the country you’re visiting via this link.

      I don’t have any specific phone to recommend: it depends on price, features required, etc. As a good and reasonably priced option, I would suggest the 16GB Moto G: it’s got a 4.5-inch high definition display, works around the world (quad-band GSM & quad-band 3G) and is available for just £160 SIM-free. Probably the best-specced unlocked GSM phone you’ll get for the price.

      And yes: for extended trips in one country you’ll normally be better off getting a SIM Only contract. You’ll need to check local regulations to see whether a contract is available to you: you often need to undergo a credit check which can be difficult if you’re new to the country.

      Hope this helps and safe travels for 2014!

      Ken

  6. Seb said:

    Hi Ken,

    This website is very useful for technophobes like myself. I live in the UK but am going home to New Zealand for a month over christmas. I have an iphone 4s but need to keep in regular contact with the UK for business. Im worried that I may incurr alot of costs. Would I be right in thinking if i switch of my data roaming, and enable wifi at my parents house I will be able to use whatsapp, skype and facetime, completely freely whilst in the region of the wifi? I was thinking of getting an ipad as I was so worried i would incurr alot of charges, but if simply by conecting to my parents wifi I could still keep in good contact, then i wouldnt bother!

    Look forward to hearing form you.
    Seb

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Seb,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right: as long as you turn off data roaming and use only wi-fi connectivity you’ll be able to use WhatsApp, Skype & Facetime for no additional charge. This is because the traffic doesn’t pass through your mobile connection. For extra peace of mind, you can even enable flight mode: wi-fi will still work and you can use WhatsApp, Skype & Facetime.

      If you’re planning to make regular calls or planning to send a SMS, you will of course pay the standard roaming rates. I suggest grabbing a Vodafone SIM card and using the Vodafone Passport offer. There’s only a 75p connection charge when you want to receive phone calls and a flat rate of 8p to send a text message. It works in New Zealand and 41 other countries.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  7. letty said:

    If you face time through a wifi net work will it still cost the same? I have off my cellular and data roaming. And every time my phone connects to the carrier from where I am.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Letty,

      Your carrier won’t charge you for using FaceTime through a wi-fi network. In fact, they won’t even know about it as it bypasses their network fully!

      Ken

  8. chas said:

    When you’ve got a local sim in your phone in Thailand ask about the cheaper numbers to access the international service. For example – instead of the normal 00144…for the UK 00944… was only about 3p. But check current rates.

  9. Jenny Louis said:

    Great tips!! thanks!! I found another solution to stay connected while traveling over seas. Pre paid international SIM card for travelers!! I bought one like this from keepgo for my trip to Europe last moth and last year I used last moth Xcom global, and I very recommend on this option. it is cheap, reliable and works all over the world. try it!!

  10. Suraiya said:

    So if I was to go India with my UK SIM , and I bought a Indian SIM , would my bbm work or would I need a specific SIM?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Suraiya,

      Thanks your comment. Assuming you don't have a BlackBerry Z10, you'll need to pick up a specific BlackBerry SIM whilst you're in India. BlackBerry devices won't work with a SIM thats designed for normal smartphones. For more information see this article.

      Hope this helps,

      Ken

  11. Sara said:

    Just wondering whether if I phone someone from somewhere abroad from my mobile and they are in the UK and I ring their mobile, do they get a charge too?
    Thank you

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Sara,

      Nope – there is no charge for them to receive your phone call. All of the roaming charges are picked up by the person who is travelling abroad.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  12. Lesley said:

    I would like to take customer calls abroad but when they ring they hear the foreign ring tone and hang up as they think I am on holiday but I would still like to take their call. Is there anyway that even though I am abroad if a customer rings they get the UK dial/ring tone.

  13. ket said:

    can you sim to sim call internationally if both sims are Lebara and is it free of charge?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi ket,

      No. The free network-to-network calls are only when you're within the UK. If the SIMs are roaming, both parties will need to pay roaming charges.

      Hope this helps,

      Ken

  14. Kathy Lance said:

    And here I was thinking taking a smart phone abroad would be easy as pie. I never expected it to be that complicated. Thanks for the heads up.

  15. Anne said:

    The tips about using my new smart phone abroad were so useful !Thank you for taking the trouble

  16. michelle said:

    i have a blackberry curve on a £36 a month contract, includes 500mb internet, i am going abroad do i pay extra for internet or does it come in with my plan?? also with the free Ap FACEBOOK do i get charged for notifications and friends writing on my wall etc?

  17. Katie Anderson said:

    The tips are very interesting and useful. Maybe there should be a little more information about the states in particular! (Simply because I will be travelling there for a long time). The website is great though, well written and easy to follow! Thanks!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Thank you Katie!!! I will look into doing something for people travelling to the States!

      Ken

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