If you are planning a winter holiday elsewhere in Europe this year, get ready to pay more to use your mobile phone while away – as roaming charges are about to make a very unwelcome comeback.
Having repeatedly indicated in the run-up to Brexit that they had no intention of reintroducing roaming charges for UK customers heading to mainland Europe, EE and Vodafone have recently announced that customers will start paying to use their phones in the EU from January onwards.
Meanwhile, the rival operators O2 and Three have also told their UK customers that they face new fair usage data restrictions while elsewhere in Europe.
Collectively, the moves have left experts wondering whether this heralds a return to the hefty roaming bills that ruined more than one holiday in the past.
In 2017, mobile networks in EU countries were banned from charging customers extra to use their phones in other member countries. The right to make calls, send texts and, most importantly, use data allowances anywhere in Europe – as if at home – was one of the most popular pieces of European legislation in the UK.
However, the Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU failed to include continued protection against roaming charges, meaning the legislation that prevented the phone companies from applying them no longer applied here. Eight months on, and the first charges have started reappearing. Ofcom, the regulator, told Guardian Money it has no powers to prevent it happening.
Here’s what we know so far.
From next January, many EE customers heading to any one of the 47 countries that EE deems to be in Europe will face a new £2-a-day flat fee, which will allow them access to their UK bundle of calls, data and texts while away.
The charge will initially only be paid by customers who either joined EE as a new customer, or upgraded to a new contract, on or after 7 July 2021. Customers who signed a new two-year contract before that date will be able to carry on as before – in effect, until their deal expires.
EE says that alternatively, customers will be able to sign up for its Roam Abroad add-on, which includes roaming in the EU, for £10 a month, and then they won’t have to pay the £2 daily charge. But if they fail to opt out once home, they will be charged each month.
None of this applies to visitors to Ireland, who will continue to be able to use their call and data allowances as if at home. The company says it has introduced the charges to “support investment into our UK-based customer service and leading UK network”.
It is a very similar story at Vodafone. From 6 January 2022, new and upgrading customers who signed up after 11 August this year will be subject to a new £2 daily charge to roam as at home in its 49 European destinations.
However, its customers can opt to prebuy an eight-day or 15-day Roaming Pass for £8 and £15 respectively, effectively reducing the cost to £1 a day. Vodafone says the £2 daily charge will apply to about 75% of pay monthly plans, with the rest including roaming as standard.
Vodafone is also keeping free roaming to Ireland, subject to the fair usage cap on data, which is 25GB and applies in all destinations.
“Existing customers will not be impacted by these changes while they remain on their current price plan,” a spokesman for Vodafone says.
O2 and Three
Although both firms have said they currently have no plans to introduce the kind of charges seen above, O2 has said it will impose an extra “fair use” charge if customers use more than 25GB of data in a month while abroad. Meanwhile, Three has cut its fair use data limit from 20GB a month to 12GB a month while in Europe, with a £3 charge per extra gigabyte if customers need to use more data.
While most people won’t notice the restriction, those who spend a lot of time on YouTube or streaming sites could easily fall foul of a 12GB limit, although as per government rules, users will receive a warning text when they reach 80% and 100% of their data allowance.
What about the rest?
Presently, you can expect to carry on using your phone as you did before. BT Mobile, Plusnet, Tesco Mobile, iD Mobile, Sky Mobile, giffgaff and Virgin Media have all said recently that there are no plans to reintroduce EU roaming charges. How long that position lasts is anyone’s guess.
Ray Ali, a mobiles expert at Uswitch.com, says the reintroduction of roaming charges across the board would be a “massive blow” for customers.
“In the aftermath of Brexit, mobile users were led to believe there were no immediate plans to bring back roaming charges. But with both EE and Vodafone announcing the reintroduction of charges for customers travelling in the EU, the house of cards is beginning to fall down.
“It’s unlikely that all providers will make this decision at the same time, though, as some, such as Three, use free roaming as a major selling point for potential customers. Some providers piggyback off other larger networks – so if O2, for example, decides to bring back charges, it could create a domino effect for those operating through their network, such as giffgaff and Tesco Mobile.”
Long-term stays in the EU – you could still be charged
The EU’s “roam like at home” legislation was very much aimed at short stays. To prevent people who live elsewhere in Europe using UK services, most UK providers will only allow customers free roaming for up to six months, and will charge them to make calls and use data if they exceed this limit.
Lots of people who used to regularly return to the UK but have found themselves stuck abroad because of Covid-19 – such as some workers and students – have found roaming charges appearing on their bills this year: up to 25p a minute to make calls and 10p to send texts.
What about the rest of the world?
The charges to make calls and access data in the rest of the world never went away and can be eye-watering – up to £7 for an MB of data, and £3-£5 a minute to make or receive a call. If you are not careful, your mobile bill could set you back more than your flight.
Morocco is a country that often catches out first-time visitors. For example, for Morocco, Virgin Media charges £5 a minute to call the UK, or £1.50 a minute to receive a call. Sending a text is 60p a message, and data is £5 per MB downloaded.