Using Your Mobile Phone Abroad: Everything You Need To Know
August 12th, 2014
Everything you need to know before taking your mobile phone abroad. Find out how much it costs, what are the pitfalls and how to reduce data roaming charges.
Each year, an increasing number of us are travelling abroad. Whether you’re travelling for business or for pleasure, your mobile phone is an essential tool for staying in touch, finding your way around and also researching local destinations.
In this article, we present our guide to everything you need to know when using your phone abroad.
Roaming: Cost of Calling & Texting
When travelling abroad with your UK SIM card, you should expect to pay more than when you’re in the UK. Normally, within the UK, it’s possible to use the inclusive minutes and texts that are included on your contract. When travelling abroad, this won’t normally be possible. Instead, you’ll need to pay extra for every call and text you make from your phone. You will also need to pay when receiving an incoming phone call (normally free when you’re in the UK).
The amount you’re charged for using your phone abroad will depend very much on the network you’re using. It’ll also depend on the country you’re visiting. In general, it’s much cheaper if you’re using your phone in the European Union (this is because mobile roaming charges are capped in the EU). Outside of Europe, you can expect to pay up to £1.50/minute and 50p per text. Bundles will sometimes be available to reduce these costs.
Typical roaming charges compare as follows:
|Activity||Roaming within the EU||Roaming outside the EU|
|Making phone calls||18.8p/minute||£1.50/minute|
|Receiving phone calls||4.9p/minute||£1.00/minute|
|Sending Text Messages||5.9p per message||50p per message|
|Receiving Text Messages||Free||Free|
The costs for people calling you. There are no extra charges for the person calling you or sending you a text message. Providing you’re still using a UK-based SIM card, family and friends continue to pay the standard rates when calling you or sending you a text. All roaming charges are incurred by the person going abroad (hence why there’s an additional charge for receiving a phone call).
Voicemail. You should be aware of additional charges for receiving and picking up voicemails when travelling abroad. If calls go to answer phone, you may still be charged for receiving a call abroad. To avoid these charges, disable your voicemail before you leave the UK.
Free calling & texting when travelling abroad. If you’re travelling abroad to one of 16 selected countries (includes the USA, Italy, France, Australia and Republic of Ireland), Three’s Feel At Home offer allows you to call and text using UK allowances. You can pick up a free Pay As You Go SIM card: a £10 top-up gives you 500MB of data, 100 minutes & 3000 text messages. Allowances can be used abroad in any Feel At Home country.
Full Price Guide. For full details on how much your network charges for using your phone abroad, it’s worth consulting their official roaming price guide. Please see the EE, O2, Three and Vodafone websites.
Roaming: Cost of Smartphone Data Usage (3G/4G)
Roaming costs really begin adding up if you use data abroad. Data is consumed by most smartphone apps and is normally charged on a “per megabyte” basis. Example activities that consume data include reading your e-mail, sending instant messages (e.g. WhatsApp) and viewing maps on your phone. For an indication of how much data will be consumed by different apps, see our guide to download limits.
The typical rates for data roaming are 19.8p/MB within the EU and approximately £8/MB outside the EU. The average smartphone user consumes about 10MB per day so this corresponds to £2/day in Europe and £80/day outside the EU. Thankfully, bundles are available to reduce the costs of using your smartphone in Europe. Operators are also required to notify you if your data roaming bill reaches €50 (about £40). This can help you to avoid unexpected charges.
|Data||Roaming within the EU||Roaming outside the EU|
|Using Smartphone Data||19.8p/MB||Approx. £8/MB|
|Approx. Daily Charge||£2/day with EU data bundle||Approx. £80|
|Data Roaming Cap||£40||£40|
Bundles for Cheap Data in USA, Italy, France & Others
If you’re visiting one of sixteen selected countries (includes the USA, Italy, France, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and others), it’s worth signing up for a Pay As You Go SIM card from Three.
By getting one of Three’s Pay As You Go SIM cards and inserting it into an existing unlocked smartphone, you can take advantage of the Feel At Home offer. Feel At Home allows you to use your airtime allowances abroad at no extra charge. On Pay As You Go, a £10 top-up gives you 500MB of data, 100 minutes and 3000 texts (all available to be used abroad). A £15 top-up gives you 25GB of data, 300 minutes and 3000 texts (again, also available to be used abroad).
The “All in One” Pay As You Go tariffs can be used with Three’s “Feel At Home” offer. The inclusive minutes, texts and internet can be used in the UK as well as abroad in any “Feel At Home” country. The £15 bundle has a fair usage policy of 25GB/month when in a “Feel At Home” country.
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 £2/day, a roaming data bundle allows 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.
Our 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, simply order a free Vodafone Pay As You Go SIM card and top-up by £10 or more. This will allow you to use your smartphone in Europe for 5 days. As it’s not linked to your normal phone contract, you also don’t need to worry about a surprise bill after you arrive home.
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 appropriate for your handset:
- 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’.
Even after turning off data roaming, you can still access the internet abroad using free wi-fi hotspots (e.g. in your hotel or a cafe). Any data used over wi-fi will not appear on your mobile phone bill.
Buying a SIM Card When Abroad
Depending on the length of your trip, it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a SIM card in your country of travel. This would be a new Pay As You Go SIM card that slots into the back of your existing handset. It’ll give you the same calling rates as local residents of that country (the savings are particularly big when using data on your smartphone outside the EU).
Before you can use a foreign SIM card in your handset, you’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked for use on other mobile networks. Your handset may already be unlocked, otherwise you may need to pay up to £20 to unlock it. We’ve got in-depth guides on unlocking your iPhone, unlocking your Samsung Galaxy and unlocking your BlackBerry smartphone.
The following table shows the savings that can 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 normally cheaper than using a UK SIM card providing you’re travelling outside of Europe.
|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, it’s normally better to instead get a specialist SIM card from within the UK.
In the UK, you can obtain a new SIM card without any ID. However, this is not the case in all countries. For security reasons, many countries require proof of identity before you’re able to obtain a SIM card. Your passport or UK driving license will normally suffice as a form of ID. We recommend checking the local regulations before you go abroad. It’s also worthwhile to bring your passport to the mobile phone store.
Finally, when obtaining a SIM card from abroad, make sure you obtain the right size of SIM card. Mobile phones use one of three types of SIM card: 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 require, see our in-depth guide to SIM card types.
There are three different types of SIM cards. From left to right: Standard SIM, Micro SIM and Nano SIM. You will need to get the right one for your handset. Figure adapted from Wikipedia (CC-licensed).
Your Handset’s Compatibility with Foreign Mobile Networks
In the UK, our mobile phone networks are based on GSM technology. Most other countries now also use GSM-based networks. Hence, a handset purchased in the UK should work almost universally across the whole world. Before using your phone abroad, double-check to make sure it’s unlocked. You should also check the local networks: make sure they’re using a frequency available on your handset.
There are a couple of countries that have non-GSM 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.
A full list of GSM-based mobile networks can be found on the GSMA’s Mobile World Live website.
Using Wi-Fi Networks
When travelling abroad, your mobile operator will never 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 calls home.
Please note: most public wi-fi hotspots are totally unencrypted. Any information transferred over the network can be potentially intercepted and read by other people. For this reason, you should avoid sensitive activities when using public wi-fi (e.g. online banking). You should also refrain from transmitting personal data or logging in to websites that don’t yet use SSL encryption. Ideally, only use websites with https at the start of the address (they’re encrypted and provide much better security).
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 abroad is much less than the cost of initiating the phone call yourself. For a 10 minute phone call, you can save £1.39 within the EU simply by asking the other person to call you back immediately. Outside of Europe, the saving is £5 for a 10 minute call.
|Activity||Within the EU||Outside the EU|
|Making phone calls||18.8p/minute||£1.50/minute|
|Receiving phone calls||4.9p/minute||£1.00/minute|
Remember, even when you’re abroad, your friends and family will always pay the standard rate to call you on a UK number. Your friends can still use their inclusive minutes. The only difference to being in the UK is you’ll pay an extra fee to receive the call abroad.
Saving Money by using Skype over Wi-Fi
A cheaper way of calling home is to use a voice-over-IP application such as Skype. You’ll need to have the Skype application installed on your smartphone and you’ll need access to a wi-fi connection.
With Skype, calls to a UK landline number are 1.7p per minute. For calls to a UK mobile number, expect to pay 5.8p per minute. This represents a substantial saving over what your mobile network charges.
Skype Calling Over 3G/4G
If you don’t have access to a wi-fi network, it may be possible to make a Skype phone call using a 3G/4G connection. A Skype voice call consumes approximately 0.55MB of data every minute. If you were to roam on a UK SIM card, the data charges would be approximately 10.9p/minute within the EU and £4.40/minute outside the EU. This should be added to the per-minute cost of using Skype’s service (the total amount is likely to be more expensive than making a normal phone call). If you were to instead use a SIM card purchased locally, Skype calling over 3G can be a more competitive option.
Please note that some mobile operators block the use of Skype on a 3G connection. Skype calls are not always possible using 3G due to bandwidth limitations.
Voicemail when Abroad
If you miss or reject an incoming phone call, it’ll normally be diverted to your mobile network’s voicemail service. This is problematic when travelling abroad: on some networks the call is diverted at international roaming rates. You’ll be paying the roaming charges even without answering the phone.
The best way of avoiding voicemail charges when travelling abroad is to temporarily disable the voicemail service. Call the following phone number to disable voicemail for your account:
|Network||Disabling Voicemail||Re-enabling Voicemail|
|O2||1760 (automated)||1750 (automated)|
|Vodafone||1210 (automated)||1211 (automated)|
Rather than your friends and family leaving you a voicemail, it’s more cost-efficient for them to send you a text message instead. They’ll pay the standard UK text message rate when sending you a message (normally included on most contracts) and you won’t pay a single penny to receive the message. You’ll only pay if you respond to the message.
After returning to the UK, be sure to follow the instructions above to re-enable the voicemail service.
Instant Messaging Apps
One way to save money on text messages abroad is to use instant messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. They require a working data connection but the amount of data consumed is normally minimal (you can send around 300 text messages in only 1MB). Because of minimal data consumption, the costs of instant messaging will normally be less than sending a standard text message. The downside is you’ll need to enable data (other applications can use data in the background and can hence quickly build up a large bill for roaming).
If you choose to use an instant messaging app, be sure to set it up whilst you’re still at home and whilst the UK SIM card is still in your phone. Even if you decide to use a different SIM card abroad, the application will remain registered to your UK-based phone number. This will make it much easier for your friends to contact you.
Access to Maps and GPS location can be incredibly helpful when you’re travelling abroad. They can help you get from A-to-B in a new city and to find local restaurants, attractions and hotels. Smartphones are a great tool for accessing maps but you’ll normally need a working data connection in order to use the app. One way of avoiding this limitation is to download the maps before you leave home.
On Google Maps for Android, it’s straightforward to make your maps available offline. Start by finding a map of the area you’d like to visit (e.g. type in the name of the city in the search box at the top of the screen). Once it’s loaded, tap the menu button followed by “Your places”. Under “Offline maps”, there’ll be an option to “Save a new offline map”. After downloading the offline map, it’ll remain available without an internet connection. Please note: you’ll still need data for search, navigation and transit directions.
Other Useful Applications
There are a whole range of applications that can also be useful when travelling abroad. 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 80 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 app for iPhone and Android that allows you to create and send your own personalised postcards. You can upload a photo taken on your smartphone and add a personalised message to the back of the card. Touchnote will then print the finished postcard and will deliver it anywhere in the world for £1.49. It’s 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 suggested travel itineraries. The applications don’t require a working data connection (just make sure you download the app and related databases before leaving home).
GOV.UK: Foreign Travel Advice. Whilst it’s not an application, a website that all travellers should utilise is the GOV.UK page with foreign travel advice. GOV.UK hosts the UK Government’s official travel advice for countries around the world. There’s information pertaining to health, safety, local laws and customs. You can also find out on entry requirements and recommended vaccinations.
We hope you have a safe and enjoyable trip!
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+.