Using your smartphone abroad

30 April 2016

Tablets and smartphones are now as much a holiday essential as suncream and swimwear.

But if you don’t take care when using your smartphone or tablet abroad, you could be left paying off a bill long after your tan has faded.

Using your mobile internet, or ‘data’, connection overseas can cost much more than it does at home – particularly if you are outside Europe.

The following tips will help you get the most from your smartphone or tablet without returning home to an unexpectedly high bill.

Think carefully about how you’re going to use your smartphone or tablet when you’re away.

Think ahead - make sure you download what you need before you leave home, including any apps, books, films or music.

Downloading or streaming films, TV or music consumes large amounts of data and you could run up a very high bill if you wait until you’re abroad. Use your home Wi-Fi connection to get everything on your device before you go and make sure all downloads are fully completed before you leave the UK.  Partially downloaded items may be ‘stored’ and resume downloading once you arrive at your destination.

Also, don’t wait until you arrive to read up on your destination. Do your research beforehand and download any maps, guides or restaurant and bar reviews.

If you are planning to go online while out and about abroad, speak to your provider before you go. Some offer products where you can use your domestic allowance abroad or buy some roaming allowance at a discounted rate. Check how these work and that they apply to the country you are visiting. Also confirm when they will be activated on your account.

If you buy some data roaming allowance (for example in a bolt-on), check what happens when you use it up. It may be that your data use will be stopped unless you buy another bit of allowance, or you could automatically continue using data, but be charged at standard rates. In which case, be wary, as standard rates can be a lot higher.

It’s also possible to buy a global SIM card from a specialised provider which may offer lower prices when travelling in a variety of different countries.

Smartphones and 3G/4G enabled tablet computers automatically seek out mobile connections and use them to update apps even when you are not actively using them.

So, to be safe, turn off data roaming before you go, as otherwise these devices could be downloading data at standard rates throughout your stay, and you could be running up a high bill without realising it.

Remember, even low data usage that you wouldn’t notice at home could end up costing you more abroad as it may not be covered by your standard usage allowance.

It’s simple to turn off data roaming.

These video guides show you how to turn off data roaming on some of the most popular smartphones.

If your smartphone isn’t featured – or you’re having problems – speak to your provider or look on their website for more information.


Android (ICS, Samsung Galaxy)

Android (4.2, Jelly Bean)

Windows Phone 8


We also have information on how to turn off data roaming on the most popular tablets.

If you want to regularly browse the web on your device overseas, use local Wi-Fi hotspots instead of your device’s mobile internet connection.

You can usually access Wi-Fi in places like cafes, restaurants and hotels, sometimes for free, or you can pay to access the internet for a set time period. Some apps can seek out Wi-Fi networks and prompt you to connect to them so that you don’t have to do this manually.

This is particularly useful for checking emails or browsing social networks - all of which would otherwise soon rack up data charges if a mobile internet connection was used. Remember, you don't need 'data roaming' switched on to access Wi-Fi. But this does mean you will need to stay within range of the Wi-Fi to avoid losing your connection. If you haven't turned data roaming off while using Wi-Fi, if the signal drops your device may automatically seek out a mobile network to keep you connected and you may therefore incur data charges.

Another option is to buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card when you arrive at your destination.

It means you’ll have a different phone number while you are there but will ensure you pay local prices and can be particularly worthwhile for people who frequently visit the same country.

If you are considering doing this, check with your UK provider to make sure you can use another SIM with your phone.

If you do buy a local SIM, remember to keep your 'home' SIM card safe and secure.

Mobile phones used in coastal areas or at sea may not be able to connect to traditional 2, 3 or 4G networks and may instead seek out a satellite connection. The euro-tariffs and world-wide data limits we mention above unfortunately do not apply to these and charges can be high.

Try to use services on land wherever possible. If you think you will need to use your phone at sea, check with your provider before you travel how much it will cost to use your phone via a satellite connection. You could consider manually selecting a preferred network while you are on the boat/ship to avoid satellite connections but signals can vary and this will mean you wouldn't receive calls or texts when out of range of the selected network.

There is a price cap on data roaming charges in the European Union.

From 30 April 2016, the maximum surcharge that an operator can impose (on its domestic data prices) is €0.05 (around 4p) per MB of data, excluding VAT.

Outside Europe, the cost of data roaming can be much higher  – as much as £6 - £8 per MB of data.

To put that into context, the BBC estimates that watching a 60-minute iPlayer video over 3G networks can consume between 50MB and 350MB of data. At £8 per MB that would work out at between £400 and £2800.

So, its a good idea to double check whether you will be travelling within, our outside the EU, for your trip.

There is a safety net - all mobile operators have to apply a cut-off limit once you have used €50 (excluding VAT) – around £36 – of data per month, wherever you travel in the world, unless you choose another limit.

The provider must send you an alert when you reach 80% and then 100% of the agreed data roaming limit. Operators must stop charging for data at the 100% point, unless you agree to continue to use data.

Smartphones and tablets are a great way to keep your kids entertained, particularly on long journeys.

Download everything you need onto the device before you go – it will work out much cheaper than if you wait until you are abroad.

If you’re going to let them play with your device and it is 3G/4G enabled, turn off data roaming so you don’t incur data roaming charges.

And if your children have their own smartphone or 3G/4G tablet, explain about the risks of using it abroad or turn off data roaming on their device before you leave.

If you are happy for your child to use data via a mobile connection while abroad but wish to restrict their usage to within the €50 limit, make sure they know to look out for the 'You have reached your limit' alert (which is sent to the device directly) and understand what it means. If they receive this alert and agree to using more data, they could run up a very high bill very quickly.

Remember, even if your child is just using a Wi-Fi connection, they will still be able to make 'in-app' purchases. You should set up a password on the device which must be keyed before it allows any user to make an in-app purchase. Always keep this password private.

Some devices allow you to turn in-app purchases off altogether. The following video guides offer step-by-step instructions for turning off or password-protecting the in-app purchase function on some popular handsets.


Android (ICS, Samsung Galaxy)

Android (4.2, Jelly Bean)

Windows Phone 8


You may be liable for all charges run up on your phone when it goes missing up until you report it as lost or stolen to your provider. Therefore, it's important you contact your provider as soon as possible to avoid facing high charges as a result of unauthorised use.

If your phone goes missing and you are with Three, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone, EE or O2 for mobile services, you should only be responsible for paying up to a maximum of £100 for any unauthorised usage outside of your allowance- if you report your phone as missing within 24 hours.

If you are with Vodafone and you miss the 24 hours but report your phone as missing within five days, you should only be responsible for paying up to £500 for unauthorised usage outside of your allowance. See the Government's announcement.

Make sure you put a passcode on both your handset and SIM to make it more difficult for thieves to use. Ofcom’s video guides show you how to do this on some popular smartphones.

Some mobile insurance policies may provide some cover for unauthorised use so it is worth checking the terms and conditions of your existing policy, or when considering a new policy.

For more detailed information on using your mobile device abroad, including voice and text usage, read our comprehensive mobile roaming guide.

For those families staying closer to home this summer, Ofcom also has a guide to help avoid running up sky-high bills when in the UK.