When heading off on holiday, the last thing you need is an extra worry - but if you're not careful about data roaming charges, you could be in for a nasty surprise when your phone bill arrives at the end of the month. In this article, we show you how to avoid roaming charges when you take an iPhone abroad.
As well as general phone-use tips, we discuss the EU roaming regulations which came into effect in June 2017, and explain how they affect your phone bill, and the differences between travelling inside and outside the EU. And we talk about Brexit, and how that affects things now and in the future.
Thanks to the latest incarnation of the so-called 'Eurotariff' EU roaming regulations, roaming regulations are a thing of the past - within the EU's borders, at any rate. After years of work to lower roaming charges, the EU finally voted to abolish them entirely back in December 2016, and the regulation changes came into effect on 15 June 2017.
Right now, in other words, you won't and legally cannot be charged any more for data used in (non-UK) EU countries than in the UK itself. You also cannot be charged to receive a call. The new system has been called 'Roam like at home'.
Here's the gist:
"Your communications (phone calls, SMS, data) made from another EU country will be covered in your national bundle: the minutes, SMS and gigabytes of data that you consume abroad in the EU will be charged or deducted from the volumes of your national tariff plan exactly as if you were at home (in the country where you live, work or study)."
Your provider is allowed to impose a 'safeguard limit' on roaming data, beyond which it is then allowed to levy a fee capped at €7.70/GB plus VAT (and decreasing gradually until it reaches €2.50/GB from 2022). So contact your provider, or check its site (we've found explanations from Plusnet, BT, GiffGaff and Virgin) to see the exact details of how it is implementing the new regulations.
There are of course some complications and caveats to bear in mind, and you should check out the European Commission FAQs page on the subject for more information (the paragraph quoted above was lifted from that page), but in essence it is pretty simple.
What about Brexit?
Britain has voted to leave the EU, and Eurotariff regulations won't apply to Britons once the Brexit process has been completed. Of course, it's likely to be some years before that happens, so we can benefit from the lack of roaming charges for now.
It's possible that the Brexit negotiating team will attempt to secure some kind of roaming agreement, but with so many other elements to be covered we doubt this will be a priority. We'll update this article once we know when and under what terms the EU roaming regulations will stop applying to British citizens.
What about countries outside the EU?
Roaming charges continue to apply as before. The advice in the rest of this article, therefore, is likely to be of use to those travelling to non-EU countries.
How to avoid data roaming charges abroad
One of the easiest ways to avoid data roaming charges outside the EU is to connect to Wi-Fi whenever possible. Unless the particular Wi-Fi hotspot charges for access (you will probably have to sign in or register to access Wi-Fi of this kind, so you'll be notified if any charges apply) you won't be charged for downloading data over that connection.
Change your settings
Before you head off abroad, check your network settings. To do this, go to Settings > Mobile Data. Next to Mobile Data Options it will say either Roaming On or Roaming Off. If it says On and you want to make sure you don't spend any extra cash on data while you're abroad, tap this and then set the Data Roaming toggle to off (white).
If you try to use an app that requires internet access while data roaming is turned off, it will prompt you to manually switch data roaming back on unless you're connected to Wi-Fi.
Get a data bundle
Some network operators offer the option to sign up to a flat-rate or capped data package, but you'll need to check that they work in the country you're travelling to before arriving at your destination. Contact your network operator to find out more about these packages.
Get a new SIM card
Another option, if you've got an unlocked iPhone or your carrier has something suitable, is to get a new SIM card, with a data plan set up for affordable use abroad.
O2, for instance, now sells an International SIM which includes data: select the country you'll be visiting and you'll see the pricing for calls and texts, which are sure to be lower than roaming costs. Topping up £10 of phone credit gets you 100MB data into the bargain.
Aside from the main carriers, GiffGaff is worth a try. And Dataroam has a range of pay-as-you-go and 30-day plans for use in a variety of different countries. The company claims you can save more than 90 percent on international roaming charges by using its SIM cards while abroad.
Most UK phone networks lock their iPhones (see How to tell if an iPhone is unlocked) in order to prevent customers from using SIM cards from rival providers, but you can ask the network provider to unlock it. They are not always keen on doing so, as having a locked phone forces the user to pay their high rates, and you will need to wait until you've paid off your contract.
However, there are lots of small, independent mobile phone stores and online unlocking specialists who will be able to unlock your iPhone. For more info, read How to unlock an iPhone.
Use a MiFi
If you don't want to (or can't) unlock your iPhone, you could use a MiFi device. MiFi lets you create your own personal WiFi hotspot, which will allow you to run multiple WiFi-enabled devices from that point: handy for groups or families abroad.
Our top pick would be the TP-Link M7350 4G Mobile Router (around £65 in the UK, and available for around $150 in the US), which is network-unlocked and can create a wireless network for up to 10 devices. A cheaper option would be the O2 4G Pocket Hotspot Plus, which is £11.99.
Read Tech Advisor's roundup of the best mobile Wi-Fi routers for more advice.
Download your maps to save on data
If you're abroad, there's a good chance that you're not as familiar with your surroundings as when you're at home. Therefore, you'll want to whip out your iPhone and use Apple Maps or Google Maps to get around town.
You can cache Apple Maps and Google Maps offline before you head out for the day. If you know where you'll be going, you can search for that area and view it in Apple Maps while you're online, then that data should be stored in the app ready to view when you're offline. You can zoom in and out to see data such as road names too.
Google Maps too has an offline maps feature on iPhone. When you're online, all you need to do is view the area you're planning on visiting, and then, in the search bar type "ok maps", then confirm you wish to download the area.
When you launch the app while you're offline, you'll be able to see the map, as well as data such as road names and attractions, without getting charged to do so.
Alternatively, there are apps you can download such as City Maps 2Go (£9.99/$9.99), which will let you view maps offline.
Turn your phone off
This is the nuclear option, but if you're going on holiday, do you really need to use your iPhone? If you can live without Facebook and Twitter for a week, it might be worth taking a break from your device and turning if off altogether.