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The best and worst mobile providers for data roaming charges

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Last month I arrived in Cairo late at night expecting a driver to meet me. Nobody was there. Time to make a call. I’d made the arrangement through my guide using WhatsApp messaging so that seemed the easiest way to get answers. I flicked mobile roaming back on and sorted the problem out. The cost of that message exchange was £160.

My provider O2 had already alerted me by text message that data would cost me a whopping £7.20 per megabyte (MB) but I didn’t expect to spend any more than that. Big mistake. It appeared that my phone had used 26MB to update all its apps because I had auto-update switched on.

I felt pretty stupid at making what I thought was a rookie error but a friend just back from New York had a similar shock. His mobile service was provided by EE as part of his BT Business account and within minutes he’d reached his data cap of £120. All because he’d failed to notify EE that he’d like to activate Roam Abroad.

Data roaming charges are complex and vary widely by provider and destination. But one thing’s guaranteed: using 4G on the hoof gobbles up data at an alarming rate. You can use up 1MB of data checking a navigation app and 10MB browsing the web or checking Facebook for a few minutes. Upload and send a photo and you’re also instantly in multi-megabyte territory.

The UK has four main mobile providers: EE, Three, Vodafone and O2. We’ve all enjoyed free roaming in Europe since 2017 but this is about to end. New customers, and those who have renewed their contract or joined the provider since last summer (cut-off dates vary between companies so check their websites), will soon be paying a flat rate of £2 a day for calls, texts and data roaming in Europe up to the limit of their UK allowance. Only customers who have been in contract before the cut-off date can continue to access their allowance in Europe free of charge.

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Vodafone introduced the new charge on January 31; EE will do so on March 3, and Three on May 23. O2 says it currently has no plans to charge its customers.

Instead mobile companies have started including free roaming in Europe, and sometimes further afield, on selected – for which read more expensive – pay-monthly Sim-only and phone contracts or as part of promotional deals to attract new customers.

If your new phone plan doesn’t include roaming or a reasonably priced add-on, the surest way to avoid a big bill is to activate flight mode and use Wi-Fi for calls, web browsing and downloads, and set a low roaming charge cap for use in emergencies.

However, there are times when you really need to fire up roaming: to order a taxi on the street, to use Google Translate’s chat facility, or to find out where you are (though has good offline GPS-enabled mapping).

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