Guide to mobile data roaming

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You will hear the term ‘mobile data roaming’ used a lot in discussions around phone contracts. But what exactly is data roaming and why should you care? This guide written by Jamie Kavanagh, a contributor at Broadband Genie will explain everything you need to know.

What is data roaming?

The term data roaming refers to the ability to travel to different parts of the world while using the data part of your phone contract. That will include surfing the internet, checking emails, using WhatsApp or Instagram, playing online games, watching YouTube, and all those other things we take for granted while at home.

When you’re at home, your mobile phone contract will provide an amount of data per month you can use without charge. When you’re travelling, the picture gets a little more complicated depending on where in the world you’re going.

Current EU legislation means you can use whatever allowances that are contained within your mobile contract within the EU at no extra cost. For example, if your contract allows unlimited minutes, unlimited texts and 20GB of data per month, you will be able to use all that within the 47 European destinations plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

Travelling elsewhere can mean extra costs. These costs are controlled by your network so you will need to check with them before travelling. Most networks will have a page dedicated to roaming on their website.

Potential costs of data roaming

If you are travelling within the EU there should be no extra costs as long as you stay within your contracted allowance. Exceed that allowance and you can expect to pay for whatever you use.

While within the EU, extra care should be taken when travelling to Greece or Cyprus as your phone can automatically connect to Turkish networks that are not included within the EU free roaming agreement.

Using your phone outside the EU can mean also paying 20% VAT on all calls, texts and data outside your contract or roaming bundle.

Network availability

Most phones will switch networks automatically depending on where you travel. If your carrier has networks in your destination you will stay within that network. If the carrier doesn’t have a network but has a preferred carrier at your destination, you should automatically switch to that network.

It pays to know in advance what network you should switch to in order to avoid any potential charges.

Does my network offer free roaming?

The term ‘free roaming’ means that there is no additional cost for the ability to use your data abroad. This does not mean there is no cost at all. There are two potential costs for using your phone abroad that you should aware of.

The same data usage cap you may have on your mobile phone contract at home will apply abroad so there may be extra costs if you exceed it.

Mobile providers have divided the world up into zones. Not all zones will be included in the free roaming feature and may require setup before you leave to avoid incurring costs if you use them.

While Britain is still in the EU or within the transition period, the current rules regarding free roaming apply. After Brexit, much depends on whether there is a deal or not. Roaming may be part of a future trade deal with the EU or it may not. In a no deal scenario, networks will be able to make up their own minds.

Mobile phone network Three has committed to maintaining free roaming whatever happens with Brexit. Other networks have yet to announce their intentions.

Free roaming outside Europe

Some mobile contracts also include free roaming in destinations outside of Europe. For example:

Vodafone’s Global Roaming is available with certain plans and offers free roaming to 77 countries, some outside the EU.

Three offers the Feel At Home plan that offers free roaming in over 60 destinations.

EE 4GEE Max plans offer free roaming to some countries outside Europe.

O2 offers free roaming on some plans.

Other networks offer paid roaming bolt-ons for travelling abroad.

How much data am I using?

Knowing how much data you use is key to ensuring you stay within your free roaming allowance and preventing bill shock. You can use data-tracking apps available from your network or use Android or Apple’s iOS to tell you.

In Android:

Select Settings, Data and Data Usage. You should see a graph showing all data used.

On iOS:

Select Settings, Cellular and Cellular Data Usage. This will show you how much data you have used since your iPhone was last rebooted.

Keep an eye on your data usage as you travel and you can adjust as appropriate to avoid having to pay extra.

Network roaming data caps

Most mobile networks will cap data to prevent you from exceeding your free allowance while travelling. This can help avoid bill shock and stop you running up a high bill while you’re away. You will need to request this in advance from your network but could be a lifesaver if you’re a heavy data user!

Data requirements of popular apps

If you’re planning to use your phone abroad, it pays to know how much data your favourite apps use so you can adjust your usage if necessary. Below is a rough guide to the data usage of typical activities, though it is a guide only and you should still carefully monitor usage to prevent a surprise bill.

Web browsing – 50-70Mb per hour.

Email with and without image – 25kb and up to 2Mb each for images.

Facetime – around 90Mb per hour.

Facebook – 80Mb per hour for general use or up to 200Mb for video.

Snapchat – Up to 175Mb per hour.

Instagram – Up to 750Mb per hour.

YouTube – Between 300Mb to 750Mb per hour.

Netflix – Between 250Mb to 800Mb per hour.

Spotify – Around 150Mb per hour.

All this may seem a lot to take in but is straightforward in practice. If you stay within your contract limits and are travelling within the EU, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re travelling outside the EU, just check on your provider’s website for any extra costs and consider a bolt-on for that country and setting a roaming cap. That’s all there is to it!

Posted by Jamie Kavanagh

Jamie Kavanagh

Jamie is passionate about making technical subjects understandable to all and spends his time writing technical articles, training courses and blog posts. He has written for PC Gamer, Tom’s Hardware, TechJunkie, Hilton Hotels, DHL, Dyson and others. He lives in Cornwall with his family and runs Coastal Content, a small business content marketing provider.

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