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Everything you need to know as EU abolishes roaming charges

EU roaming charges may be no more, but pitfalls remain that could cause ‘bill shock’

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 16 June 2017 14:32 BST
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End of EU roaming charges - what you need to know

As the pound languishes against the euro, British travellers are now benefiting from one welcome development: the abolition of roaming charges for using their phones across Europe.

The EU started putting the squeeze on intra-European roaming charges a decade ago, with a series of increasingly stringent price caps. From 15 June 2017, the final step in the European Commission’s clampdown takes effect.

The slogan used is “Roam Like at Home”, and Brussels promises “no bill shock anymore”. But there are still pitfalls that could leave holidaymakers seriously out of pocket.

Have roaming charges been abolished?

Within the 28 countries of the European Union, yes, roaming charges are no more. You do not need to set anything up; wherever you are in the EU, you will be treated as though you are in your home country. The mobile phone operator simply charges you domestic rates, or takes your roaming consumption from the allowances in your domestic mobile tariff.

But there are a couple of fair-use caveats, and, as not all European countries are covered, you could still inadvertently rack up high charges.

What’s the fair-use catch?

Two clauses are intended to ensure “fair use”. The first covers data roaming. While you can make as many voice calls and send as many texts as you like at domestic prices, there are special rules for data use. Beyond “a reasonably high volume” of roaming data at domestic rates, you may have to pay a data roaming surcharge of about £8.30 per gigabyte (€7.70/GB plus VAT). This will fall by 22 per cent next year, and continue to decline thereafter.

The second clause is intended to dissuade people from taking out a contract in a low-cost country (eg Bulgaria or Romania) and using it at home. The principle is: if you spend more time abroad than at home, and you use your mobile phone more abroad than at home, the mobile operator may impose roaming charges – which themselves are capped at roughly the 2016/17 levels.

Each time you cross an internal EU border, you should get a text message from your mobile operator to say that you’re roaming and reminding you of its fair-use policy.

If I’m in Spain and call a Spanish number, is it now treated as a local call?

Yes, even though the European Commission says: “The prices of calls from home to a foreign country, including in the EU, are not regulated.” In fact, the term “Roam Like at Home” is not quite accurate; the correct version should be “Roam More Cheaply than you do at Home”. As Money Saving Expert has pointed out, calls to any EU country are now really cheap – so long as you make them from any EU country that isn’t the UK.

What are the roaming rules for non-EU countries?

This is where it gets tricky. The three non-EU countries in the European Economic Area – Iceland, Norway and plucky Liechtenstein – will introduce Roam Like at Home “shortly after 15 June”, according to Brussels. But there are many other countries and territories that are not automatically covered by the new rules, including Switzerland, Monaco, Andorra and several Eastern European nations, as well as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

There is no consistency among operators about applying the same basic European rules to these destinations. For example, O2’s “Europe Zone” excludes Switzerland, Monaco, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

When travelling anywhere outside the EEA, you should check exactly what your operator plans to charge you. If your operator charges, hook up to free WiFi in a cafe or hotel, and use a free or nearly free calling service such as Skype or WhatsApp. Or you could use a local payphone, if you can find one...

Turkey, where around 1.5 million British holidaymakers are expected to go this summer, is a particular concern: several operators apply charges that are completely disproportionate to the cost of providing the service. For example EE levies a fee of £1.50 per minute to make or receive calls and 50p for each text sent by customers on monthly contracts. Heading for Cyprus? You could inadvertently find you have joined a Turkish network, who provide services north of the “Green Line” on the divided island.

Do roaming fees apply on a ferry or cruise?

Yes, and they can be painfully high. Most European ferries and cruises in the Mediterranean, the Baltic and across the English Channel are between EU ports, but when you are offshore and using a satellite link to the ship, “roam like at home” does not apply. There are no caps on what the operator can charge: £3 a minute to make or receive calls is common, and data may be spectacularly expensive.

To stay in touch, you could use the on-board WiFi – which could still be pricey – for data use and make calls via Skype or WhatsApp. Or switch to manually selected networks to make sure your phone doesn’t select the ship’s high-tariff satellite link. Or just turn the thing off and enjoy the voyage.

What happens after Brexit?

No one knows. As citizens of a non-EU country, the British will have no automatic right to roam free telephonically.

Abta, the travel association, has demanded “we retain this highly valuable and pragmatic EU-level agreement once we leave the EU”.

It is possible that the UK will negotiate equivalent measures, or conversely that mobile-phone operators may reintroduce onerous charges. The eventual settlement is likely to be somewhere between the two.

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