The government is advising travellers heading for European Union countries to check their mobile phone provider's roaming charges.
That's because the UK's trade deal with the EU does not rule out additional costs for UK customers using their mobile phones in EU countries.
The biggest UK operators have said they do not plan to reintroduce roaming charges, but it may not be as simple as that in the coming years.
Can I use my mobile in the EU?
Since 2017, UK consumers have, within reason, been able to use the minutes, texts and data included on their mobile phone tariffs when travelling in the EU.
The same is true for people from EU countries visiting the UK.
There are fair use limits, which meant you could use your mobile phone while travelling in an EU country, but you could not, for example, get a mobile phone contract from Greece and then use it all year round in the UK.
UK customers have been told that their operators will be charging extra if they spend more than half their time overseas, generally measured by being in another country for more than 62 days in a four-month period. That could have happened while the UK was still part of the EU, but some operators have only just started enforcing it.
Before the roaming rules changed, using a mobile phone in Europe was expensive, with cases of people returning from trips to find bills for hundreds or even thousands of pounds waiting for them.
Will roaming charges return?
The UK's trade deal with the EU, which has now come into force, does not say that the ban on additional roaming charges will continue.
It says that both sides will encourage operators to have "transparent and reasonable rates" for roaming.
That means that mobile operators will be able to implement roaming charges if they want to.
The government's guidance says: "Check with your phone operator to find out about any roaming charges you might get from 1 January 2021."
It has already passed legislation that will provide some safeguards for consumers:
- A £45-a-month limit on the amount that customers could be charged for using mobile data abroad before having to opt into further use
- Requirements for customers to be informed when they have reached 80% and 100% of their data allowance
- Operators would have to take "reasonable steps" to avoid customers being charged for accidental roaming in Northern Ireland, which would happen if a phone in Northern Ireland locked onto the mobile signal coming from the Republic of Ireland.
What are mobile companies planning?
Of course, just because the operators will be allowed to reintroduce roaming charges, it does not necessarily mean that they will do so.
The problem is that without the EU rules in place, the charges would depend on agreements between UK operators and their counterparts in EU countries.
While they may have such deals in place to prevent charges increasing straight away at the start of 2021, there is no guarantee that they will be able to maintain them indefinitely.
There are three factors that mean there is a reasonable chance of UK operators being able to continue to offer inclusive roaming:
- Bilateral deals - so a UK operator would make an agreement with a French operator, for example, to allow inclusive roaming for UK customers visiting France and for French customers visiting the UK
- Each EU country has more than one operator, so UK operators will have a choice of companies to deal with
- Some of the UK operators are parts of groups that also operate in EU countries.
The four main operators in the UK declined to comment on the specifics of the commercial deals they have done with other operators, but said they did not plan to reintroduce roaming charges.
Three said it "already offers roaming at no extra cost for its customers in over 70 destinations including the US, Australia and New Zealand. We will retain this great customer benefit regardless of Brexit negotiations."
Vodafone said it had no plans to reintroduce roaming charges.
EE said: "Our customers enjoy inclusive roaming in Europe and beyond, and we don't have any plans to change this based on the Brexit outcome. So our customers going on holiday and travelling in the EU will continue to enjoy inclusive roaming."
And O2 said: "We're committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel outside the UK. We currently have no plans to change our roaming services across Europe."