9 min read

5 top tips for travelling with your phone

Hannah Salih
2 July 2018

Heading overseas soon? Here are our top tips on using your phone abroad without breaking the bank.

Your smartphone is probably as essential to your travels as your passport. And that’s no exaggeration. Right?

Think about it.

Your smartphone is like your most useful travel companion. It can be your currency converter, personal translator and navigator. It’s how you stay in touch with family back home and probably the first thing you reach for if you get into trouble. Oh, and chances are, it’s also your source of tourist information and your camera for capturing those shots that will make everyone else jealous.

Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, using your smartphone abroad can be a lot more expensive than you bargained for.

Here are our five top tips to help prevent an expensive phone bill putting a dampener on even the most relaxing holiday.

1. Turn data roaming off if you're outside of the EU

Since 15 June 2017, roaming charges no longer apply in the EU. New rules dubbed ‘Roam Like Home’ now mean mobile network operators have to charge you at UK rates when you’re abroad.

In other words:

  • If you’re on pay-as-you-go, you’ll be charged the same per minute, per text and per megabyte of data rates as in the UK.

  • If you’re on contract or a pay monthly plan, you can keep using your airtime bundle while you’re abroad.

But of you're going further afield, using your 3G or 4G abroad is one of the main culprits of extortionate phone bills. So it’s best to turn it off before you even board the plane. Streaming video and downloading are usually the biggest drains on your data. However, you may also be using your mobile data unwittingly.

Why is roaming so expensive?
When you’re abroad, your connection cannot be run by your network provider. Instead, your connection has to come via a local network provider. Network providers charge each other fees, called inter-operator charges, to cover the cost of handling the traffic from foreign mobile network users. Your provider passes on these charges (plus a markup, of course) to you.

Most smartphones refresh in the background, letting you receive email and social media notifications and notifications from other apps. What’s more, your smartphone will usually try to connect automatically to a mobile data network as soon as it’s on. And that includes when you’re abroad.

The amount of data used up by app refreshes is minimal. But, coupled with any active data usage, you’d be surprised at how much it can add to your bill. Turning data roaming off ensures you stay in control of how much data you’re using while traveling.

Check your credit score and report for free

2. Alternatives to data roaming

Of course, switching off your mobile data sort of defeats the purpose of having your phone with you.

So what can you do instead? Well, here are three alternatives:

  • Buy a roaming bundle

Most UK network providers have roaming bundles you can purchase ahead of time. These bundles work just like monthly plans: they keep your costs down by giving you an allowance of data you can use abroad for a flat fee.

Remember to keep an eye on your usage. Typically, roaming bundles have less generous allowances than domestic monthly plans. And, once you use them up, you’ll be charged the normal roaming rates.

Your network provider should tell you in advance that your bundle is about to expire or run out, which gives you time to buy a new one or disable mobile data.

  • Use local WiFi as much as possible

Depending on the country you’re travelling to, you may have extensive access to free public-access WiFi hotspots or even be able to buy an allowance of local WiFi. If you do this, be sure to keep your mobile data switched off. Your phone will automatically switch to mobile data if the WiFi connection is choppy or drops off.

  • Buy a local SIM

Getting a local SIM is usually the cheapest way to make calls and get access to mobile data whilst abroad. Unfortunately, this method will only work if your phone is unlocked as different SIMs won’t work in a locked phone.

Worldwide data caps
Under EU rules, your network provider cannot charge you more than €50 (about £43) per month in data roaming charges when you travel outside the EU. Your provider must warn you when you’ve used up 80% of this limit and again when you’ve used the full 100%. This cap doesn’t apply if you opt out of it. Some network providers will consider you to have opted out if you buy a roaming add-on, so beware.

3. Use SMS and VoIP instead of making normal calls

It’s not just mobile data that can cost when you’re abroad, calls and texts can also be a lot pricier.

UK network providers charge you even when you receive a phone call if you’re abroad. However, receiving a text is free of charge. Use this to your advantage by asking your family and friends to text, not call. But try not to get into a full-blown text conversation as it can quickly add up.

Alternatively, connect to a WiFi hotspot to make a VoIP, or internet, call. Using FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype or even Facebook Messenger to make a voice or video call, avoids your network provider’s per-minute rates on outgoing calls.

VoIP - internet calls
VoIP calls can use up a lot of data, so avoid using your data roaming allowance to do them. Instead, use your hotel or public access WiFi for anything that requires a lot of data such as streaming, downloads or VoIP calls. Always make sure your mobile data is off beforehand, as you’ll automatically switch to it if the WiFi connection drops.

4. Disable your voicemail

It may come as a shock but some networks charge you a fee to listen to your voicemail messages abroad. Although the per-minute cost is capped by EU rules to not more than €0.05 per minute over and above your normal allowance (or €0.19 per minute overall). EU rules also prohibit network providers from charging you if someone leaves you a voicemail message.

The cost of receiving a voicemail message while you’re outside the EU can be eye-watering. For this reason, it’s a good idea to ask your network provider to disable your voicemail service altogether. This will usually be done free of charge.

Of course, you’ll also need to tell your network provider to re-activate your voicemail service once you’re back in the UK.

Brexit and EU roaming charges
The UK is currently obliged to comply with EU rules on roaming charges and will have to continue doing so even during Brexit negotiations. This means caps on roaming charges - and their possible elimination in June 2017 - will also apply to Brits, at least for the foreseeable future. The situation is much less certain once the UK formally leaves the EU. What happens next will depend on whether the government chooses to keep these rules or replace them with their own laws.

5. Keep your phone secure

Losing your phone or having it stolen abroad is a double whammy. Not only will you lose a prized and expensive possession, but you may also be hit with a huge phone bill racked up by dishonest individuals.

Many UK network providers apply a cap on unauthorised usage, but only if you report your phone lost or stolen to the network and the police within 24 hours. What’s more, it’s only a voluntary cap, so it’s best to check whether your network provider has this policy first.

With that being said, you can minimise the damage of losing your phone or having it stolen by password-protecting your handset and your SIM.

  • Locking your phone

Whether you use a numeric passcode or your fingerprint, setting up a lock on your phone is a good idea. This prevents any unauthorised person from unlocking your phone’s home screen, using your phone and gaining access to your sensitive information.

  • Locking your SIM

While thieves may be unable to use your phone, they may still be able to take out your SIM and use it in another handset, leaving you footing the bill. Which is why you should also lock your SIM.

Follow these guides to password-protect the SIM in your iPhone, Android or Windows phone.

by Hannah Salih

Hannah reads all the finance info on the web so you don't have to. She knows all there is to know about your finances but still spends all her money on brunch. 

ClearScore exists to make your finances simple.
We offer a free service where you can handle everything to do with credit in one place. In your ClearScore account, you can see your credit score and the full details of your credit report. Your credit cards, mortgages, mobile phone contracts, loans, overdrafts and utilities all on the record. Our goal is to make ClearScore as simple, calm and straightforward as possible. Money is stressful enough.