When in roam: Which? reveals the sky-high roaming costs holiday-goers face this summer

Which? is warning holidaymakers to avoid being hit by sky-high roaming costs this summer, as new research from the consumer champion shows even taking a single photo could result in a bill of more than £50.

Which? looked at the cost of using data in 10 non-EU destinations and analysed how quickly common tasks can rack up charges abroad with 13 mobile phone networks.

The research found a Virgin Mobile customer in Dubai could be hit with a bill for £52.70 – the provider’s monthly data cap – for taking a single photo.

Anyone who has their phone set to automatically upload new snaps to the cloud could find that the simple act of taking a photo can result in a hefty charge.

Similarly, Plusnet customers uploading a single 5MB photo could instantly hit their data cap of £40 in all 10 of the popular destinations featured in the survey – including the US, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand and Australia.

BT Mobile customers would also be at risk of hitting their cap of £35 by taking a single photo in most of these countries, although this was the lowest cap of the networks Which? looked at.

Streaming a single song by Glastonbury headliner Stormzy in Dubai could set Virgin Mobile customers back by more than £30 – enough to buy three albums worth of music from the Google Play Music store. The same song could cost more than £20 with Plusnet in Turkey and almost £19 with Asda Mobile in the US.

Even a few quick glances at Google Maps for a tourist trying to navigate their way around a new city or resort can prove surprisingly expensive – with Asda Mobile customers charged £3.75 for five minutes in the US and Plusnet users hit with a £4 for the same length of time in Turkey.

Which? is also warning about hidden background data use, which can lead to charges as apps use mobile data to update, deliver notifications, synchronise emails and refresh social media, even when not in direct use.

The research uncovered huge variations in the data roaming costs between different providers. For example, downloading 50 emails with Plusnet in Australia could instantly take a user to their £40 cap, whereas doing the same with Three would be free for customers with plans eligible for its Go Roam offering or could cost 10p otherwise.

Downloading a PDF of a plane ticket in UAE with Virgin Mobile could cost £31.25, but with GiffGaff the same task could cost 50p.

For those who want to use data roaming, many networks offer some kind of package designed to reduce roaming costs. This is often the best way to avoid hidden charges, especially for people expecting to use their phone a lot – although consumers should look out for exceptions in the terms and conditions.

Since 2017, British holidaymakers have benefitted from the EU’s “roam like at home” rules – which means they can use their phone data without incurring any extra charges in all EU countries.

It is currently unclear as to whether this agreement would remain after Brexit – meaning tourists in France, Spain and other holiday hotspots could face a return to huge mobile phone bills.

Which? research has shown that consumers value free roaming, so the government should work to ensure consumers do not lose this benefit long-term following withdrawal from the EU.

Ministers should also make it a priority to ensure rip-off roaming charges are scrapped around the world as part of negotiations for any future trade deals after the UK leaves the EU.

Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:

“Tourists face being hit by unexpected roaming charges this summer – with even a simple photo having the potential to knock a carefully-planned holiday budget off course.

“Holidaymakers should look at roaming packages offered by their providers before they travel to guard against spiralling costs – or for absolute peace of mind, consider turning off data on their phone altogether.”

How to avoid roaming charges

In order to avoid roaming charges, there are a few tips you can follow:

  • Turn on Airplane Mode – Airplane Mode turns off all wireless connections, including your mobile data. It may turn off when you turn on a wireless connection (e.g. wifi or Bluetooth)

  • Ensure that data roaming is turned off – some iPhone and Android devices have a specific setting where you can turn off data roaming

  • Turn off ‘auto sync’ – Search the settings menu for a ‘sync’ page, and ensure auto sync is turned off, to prevent apps from updating in the background. Some devices also allow you to turn off background data.

  • Ask the network to block data roaming – most networks will allow you to put a block on data roaming.

All these tips and more can be found in Which?’s guide on how to prepare your mobile phone for holidays abroad

Notes to editor

  • Which?’s investigation looked at 10 of the most popular destinations this summer (based on data from Kayak and the Office for National Statistics) and looked at the data roaming costs per megabyte (MB) unless specified.

  • Which? then used reliable data estimates of popular holiday activities to work out the most expensive examples customers can face when roaming and found some shocking examples of expensive data roaming costs.

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