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Learn what data roaming is and how to avoid unexpected charges when travelling abroad.

If you use a mobile phone, you’ve almost certainly encountered the concept of roaming. It’s what makes calls and texts more expensive when you venture overseas and away from your carrier’s normal coverage area.

What you may not know is that roaming equally applies to your use of data via the cellular network. This includes email and accessing the web.

What is data roaming?

If you access data via the cellular network, rather than using Wi-Fi via your own network or public hotspots, then you are charged for the amount you use. Most mobile contracts include a certain amount of free data in the monthly amount that you pay.

However, if you go overseas, you’ll be subject to international roaming charges and these can prove very expensive. Because it’s hard to monitor how much data you use compared to how many calls you make or how many texts you send, it can be all too easy to run up a sizeable bill without realising it. Many apps, especially those for news and social media, download data in the background even when they’re not in active use, so you can be running up charges without realising it. Similarly, instant messaging apps use data and make it all too easy to run up a bill you weren’t expecting.

Some carriers disable international data roaming by default which means that if you want to use mobile data when travelling you’ll have to contact them to get it enabled. The alternative, if you can live without constant access to data, is to turn off cellular data on your handset and rely on Wi-Fi instead. The problem with this, of course, is that you have to rely on access to Wi-Fi networks or hotspots and this brings its own issues in terms of keeping your information secure, the speed of connection and more.

Roaming around the world

Roaming charges for data, and indeed for calls, vary considerably around the world. Under pressure from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), trading blocs around the world, including the EU, have been standardising or removing roaming charges within their areas.

The agreement on EU data roaming means that you are able to use your contract allowance of data, as well as calls and texts at no extra charge in any of the 28 EU nations including (currently) the UK, with effect from June 2017, although fair usage policies will apply. This ‘Roam Like At Home‘ agreement means that accessing your data will cost you no more than it would at home. This agreement also applies to some non-EU nations including Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

data roaming aeroplaneThere is a sting in the tail, however. Once you exceed the data allowance in your contract you will still pay an EU roaming charge, which is variable depending on your provider. It’s therefore easy for the unwary to get caught out and end up with an unexpected bill. It’s also easy to incur additional charges if you move to a country that you might think is in Europe but in fact isn’t covered by the EU agreement; Switzerland, Turkey and Northern Cyprus, for example, are all outside the EU roaming agreements. Some providers do include these destinations as part of their mobile bundles, but it is definitely something worth checking.

Outside of the Roam Like At Home footprint, mobile operators have to impose a cut-off which prevents users from incurring extra charges above a certain limit. But this too isn’t infallible as buying certain data bundle add-ons may involve you opting out from the cap limit, so be careful to read the small print.

Operators routinely impose a ‘fair use’ limit for roaming customers. This may mean that your monthly data allowance doesn’t go as far when you’re abroad as it does when you’re at home. If you’re not aware of the lower limit, this too can catch you out. Some networks also allow you to use your monthly allowance at no extra charge in other countries too. As all networks have different rules on this, it’s important to check before you travel to avoid unpleasant surprises.

What about Brexit?

Will Brexit affect roaming charges for British users within the EU? With negotiations currently in the early stages, it’s hard to be sure. The current capped prices may simply be absorbed into UK law allowing things to continue as they are now. Even if this doesn’t happen, given that some UK operators currently offer roaming in countries such as Australia and the US at no extra cost, it’s reasonable to assume that EU roaming prices will be unaffected and that charges will be in line with current capped prices.

Roaming charges to countries outside the EU are set to rise from 1 November 2017 as the UK government has announced that it will apply VAT at 20% to these fees. VAT is already applied to roaming charges within the EU.

Roaming for business

Many people get around this problem by turning off data roaming when they venture abroad, ensuring that they use Wi-Fi instead and thus avoiding extra charges. Unfortunately, if you’re using your smartphone or tablet for business this may not be an option as you might need to have access to your emails and other information at all times.

In this case you need to look for a mobile plan that offers you inclusive roaming, either on a permanent basis or for the period that you’re going to be travelling. There are other ways of avoiding roaming charges for your data, so let’s have a look at these in more detail.

Avoiding charges

First of all, you need to think about what apps are essential for you to use on the move and whether they need to use data. Obviously, for things like email, data use is unavoidable, but there are other apps that will work perfectly well offline.

Google Maps, for example, can be saved as offline versions so that they can be used when you don’t have an internet connection. Similarly, currency converter app can cache the exchange rate from the last time it connected, so you can get a rough idea of prices without having to go online.

data roaming mobile chargesUsing a combination of offline apps and free Wi-Fi should considerably reduce your need for roaming data. Only checking email when you have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot is another good example. You can save on your call roaming costs too by using Wi-Fi to make voice calls via apps such as Skype. Just make sure you download and install it before you go.

There are other things that you can do to economise your data allowance. For example, some operators provide a useful tool that allows you to see what the charges are for your current location. Also, check if your service provider offers an add-on package that will give you an additional allowance of data, calls and texts to use when you’re abroad. Another trick is to install a compression app. Tools such as Onavo compress the data used by other apps, allowing you to make better use of your bandwidth.

You should particularly avoid using mobile data for activities that require substantial bandwidth; streaming music or watching TV for example. It may be tempting to catch up with your favourite soap while you’re away but only do so if you access it via free Wi-Fi. Also, certain apps such as BBC, iPlayer and Netflix allow you to download your favourite shows so these could be watched offline.

If you absolutely have to use mobile data then you might consider buying a local pay-as-you-go SIM card once you reach your destination. Many modern smartphones allow dual-SIM use and will let you switch between them for different purposes. This means that you can pay for data as you use it without having to worry about incurring unexpected costs. You will, however, need to have an unlocked handset for this to work.

Mobile roaming is a complicated area, but if you take the time to explore the options and plan ahead for your usage before you travel, you shouldn’t have an issue.