Data roaming charges: how to avoid big costs abroad

A smartphone and tablet on a beach

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You would have a shock if you received a £5,858 phone bill following a trip abroad.

That's what Claude Douglas from Aldershot got because he forgot to turn off the data roaming function on his handset.

Smartphones and tablets automatically seek out mobile connections in order to install updates so it's easy to run up a high bill.

Here are some ways to avoid a nasty surprise when you get home.

1. Before you go

Claude Douglas spoke to Watchdog on BBC One in October 2013. To read the full story and a full company response visit

Check the data roaming prices for the country you are visiting with your network provider before you leave.

Ask them about data bundles and packages which could make your bill cheaper.

When you connect your mobile to a network abroad you are charged for the data you send and receive.

The price for data is usually based on the volume you use, which is measured in kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB).

2. Print and prepare

Laura's £42,200 phone bill

  • In 2011, Laura went on holiday to Turkey. She had been using her phone with data roaming switched on for the first four days of her trip.
  • Laura was shocked to hear that she owed £42,200.
  • She disputed with her provider and got the bill reduced to £700.
  • Now her network only let users use the internet on their phones abroad if they have purchased a data bundle.

BBC One Watchdog, October 2013

Print out anything you need, such as local maps or places to eat and drink before you leave.

Using your phone for mapping can use a lot of data. Download Google Maps for your destination before you leave home or find an app which lets you do the same.

If you only plan to make calls or send texts, switch your data roaming off before you leave home.

You can do this in your device settings.

If you're planning to access the internet reset your device's data usage counter then keep an eye on it.

Try to stay within your allowance.

3. The country makes a difference

What uses most data?

Over a week in Turkey you could end up paying:

  • £57 for uploading 6 photos to Facebook and browsing for 15 minutes a day
  • £133 for an hour of live text sport updates
  • £171 for using Google Maps for an hour each day
  • £190 for downloading a game every day
  • £1,995 for half an hour of video streaming each day

SOURCE: Uswitch.

Mobile operators must send customers a text message or email when they reach 80% and 100% of the agreed limit, according to Uswitch.

There is a price cap on data roaming charges in the European Union (EU).

In the EU, phone companies can charge no more than €0.45 (around 38p) per MB of data. This will then fall to €0.20 in July 2014.

Data roaming costs can be significantly higher outside Europe.

Try to avoid data heavy activities such accessing maps or downloading updates.

4. Wi-fi for free

Take advantage of free wi-fi in airports, cafes or hotels. Turn off data roaming on your device, just in case.

If you have a free wi-fi connection its an especially good time for contacting friends and family through apps such as Google+ Hangouts, Facetime, Skype or Viber.

5. Local prices

Consider buying a local pay-as-you-go SIM card in the country you visit, for local prices. Beware though, it won't work if your phone is locked to a particular network.

If you are a frequent traveller you can buy a global SIM. You can usually purchase these in your local mobile phone shop or supermarket.

6. Unexpected charges

First of all, contact your network provider to look into the unexpected charges.

You can make a formal complaint to them if you can't reach an agreement. Check the guidelines outlined on the back of your bill or on the company website.

You can take your complaint to the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS) or Ombudsman Services: Communications if you still don't resolve it.

These are free services which provide an independent decision in a dispute for customers of communications companies.

Watchdog is broadcast on BBC One, Wednesdays at 20:00.

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