A right roaming rip-off

We reveal the costs and pitfalls of using mobile phones abroad and provide some top tips to stop holiday-makers coming home to a nasty shock in their mobile phone bill.

New data roaming rules that came into force across the EU this month cap charges at 68p (inc VAT) per MB of data used. This will fall to 20p by July 2014. Some mobile phone companies* operate their own world-wide data caps to protect their customers, however there are still some pitfalls consumers should be aware of to avoid ‘bill shock’ on their return from holiday.

New research from Which? reveals that holiday-makers could rack up charges even if their mobile never leaves their suitcase. We found a mobile left idle with data roaming turned on, outside of the EU, could run up charges of £336** as applications and downloads automatically run in the background, leaving people unaware they are using up data.

Our research looked at the cheapest and most expensive mobile networks for activities like watching YouTube videos, checking email and Facebook and normal web-browsing while overseas.

The cost of using one MB of data outside the EU ranges across mobile phone networks from £3 on TalkTalk to £10 on Three in some countries. While Three operates a world-wide data cap of £49, consumers should be aware that removing this cap would mean that, at this high rate, watching a three hour film would set you back more than £3,600***.

Some network operators also offer ‘bolt-ons’ to help cut the cost of data usage abroad but you may be paying for far more than you need. O2 for example, offer 25MB of data for £1.99 a day. While this makes data cheaper this is enough to send around 750 emails, much more than most people would need.

There are however ways consumers can minimise costs while using mobile phones abroad. Our five top tips can help ensure people aren’t caught out by expensive charges overseas:

1) Turn off data-roaming found under your phone settings.
2) Get a local pay-as-you-go Sim card. This means you will be charged local rates for data downloads and local calls and texts.
3) Use wi-fi hotspots – Wi-fi is often available for free in hotels, restaurants or cafes. This will also enable you to use free messaging services.
4) Know your tariff – Sending a picture message on some networks is cheaper than sending a standard text message.
5) Query charges – It is always worth querying an unexpected charge from your mobile phone provider upon your return, as it could be a genuine mistake. If you do return to a disastrous phone bill and want to complain to your mobile operator, go to www.which.co.uk/billshock and download a template letter.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said:

“Using your mobile overseas can be hugely expensive but there are things consumers can do to keep costs down, like using wi-fi where available and turning off data-roaming. But we also want to see phone companies doing everything they can to make consumers aware of exactly how much data they’re using and the costs.”

Notes to editors:

* At the time of publication, Vodafone and O2 have an international cap of £40 and Three a cap of £49.

** This calculation is based on a smartphone using around 0.1MB per hour when left idle, therefore 2.4 MB a day, or 33.6MB a fortnight, assuming a cap has been deselected. Three charges £10 per MB in its most expensive band (band 4), so £10 x 33.6MB = £336.

***This calculation is based on watching a three hour film (equalling 180 minutes) being downloaded at 2MB per minute which equals 360MB. In Three’s most expensive band 4 (for: Thailand, Canada, Croatia, Kenya, Malaysia, Oman or Korea (Republic of)) and assuming that a cap has been deselected, Three charges £10 per MB, so £10 x 360Mb = £3,600.

We monitored the data use of three smartphones – a Samsung Galaxy S2, Apple iPhone 4S and Blackberry Curve 9380 – when performing the following tasks:

YouTube – Streaming a four-minute 13-second music video.
BBC & Which? – Visiting the BBC news homepage and reading three articles, visiting the BBC weather page and searching for weather forecasts for three UK postcodes, visiting www.which.co.uk and visiting the ‘contact us’ page.
Facebook – Logging in, posting three written replies of the same length, viewing 10 photos, ‘poking’ three people, logging out.
Email – Logging in, reading three emails (1,596 characters with spaces) and sending three emails (of the same length)
When idle – Data use when the phone is untouched, but running in the background.

For further information on any of the data within this release please contact the Which? press office.

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