When in Roam: the return of European mobile roaming charges

When in Roam: the return of European mobile roaming charges
Vodafone, EE and Three are bringing back roaming charges for calls and data on the continent. What does this mean for customers in the UK? And what approach are other countries taking?

Any UK residents daring enough to travel abroad in the coming months will have to navigate a cavalcade of COVID testing procedures, green, amber and red lists, new duty-free rules – and now, the return of mobile roaming charges.

Earlier this week, Vodafone announced that it’s joining EE in reintroducing roaming charges for customers travelling in Europe. From January 2022, new and upgrading customers will be charged £2 per day to use their phone in Europe, or £1 per day if bought in an eight or 15-day bundle.

The UK and EU’s December 2020 trade deal promised “transparent and reasonable rates” for mobile roaming, but did not explicitly ban charges.

Initially, all major UK operators said they had no current plans to reintroduce charges – then, six months later, EE announced a £2 per day charge in Europe (excluding Ireland), also starting in January.

O2 and Three1 maintain that they will not reintroduce roaming charges for customers – for now – though both have brought in new limits to services abroad.

O2 will charge customers who use more than 25GB of data a month when abroad, while Three has reduced its fair-use data limit from 20GB to 12GB per month when in the EU, adding a £3 per day surcharge per extra gigabyte of data used.

Three scrapped roaming charges back in 2013 for 71 countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Israel. Services are, however, subject to a two-month time limit outside of Europe – a policy which led to some customers being cut off from services while stranded abroad during the COVID pandemic.

With revenues from domestic calls and texts plummeting, mobile telcos are seeking ways of increasing revenue to support the development of their 5G networks and reintroducing roaming charges is, unfortunately, a no-brainer for the UK operators – especially given the €75 of monthly wholesale charges they may now be liable for.

Ahmed Essam, Vodafone's UK Chief Executive, argues that it’s better to give customers the choice to opt in to a roaming plan or to pay for roaming only when needed, with fewer than half of customers travelling outside the UK & Ireland in 2019 – a figure that may remain low in the near future. Nevertheless, the lack of inbound roamers over the last year and a half, plus a drop in handset sales, has taken its toll on company finances, with revenues dropping 2.6% in 2020, causing the share price to drop by almost 7%.
 
Regulation on roaming charges in the EU began way back in 2007, forcing providers to lower roaming fees. This was extended to the “Roam Like at Home” regulation that came into effect in June 2017, ending roaming charges within the EU and the EEA, including Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The situation is a moving feast however, as the EU now weighs up reaching international deals to eliminate roaming charges in third-party countries, or instigating a single tariff zone across the continent, offering a flat rate for calls and data to all users.

More than just a people-pleasing policy, the European Commission sees the policy, along with media portability rules and rural broadband modernisation, as foundational to a Digital Single Market, maximising the continent’s digital economy and reducing barriers to accessing goods and services.

Beyond the EU, the Western Balkan states and South America’s Community of Andean Nations have both made arrangements to lower or drop roaming charges between countries.

Australia and New Zealand have no roam like at home agreement, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was granted extra powers in 2014 to enforce low prices.

In contrast, the development of roaming across Africa is constrained by a combination of factors, including the popularity of prepaid contracts and the low uptake of international travel by domestic customers. Nonetheless, Vodafone customers can enjoy rates of 5 Rand (£0.25) per MB of data used when travelling in Vodacom’s Africa Family network, covering Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While the UK may appear to be moving backwards compared with other countries when it comes to roaming charges, travellers still have options, including; purchasing roaming bundles from their provider, such as EE’s 30-day Roam Abroad Pass, investing in a prepaid international SIM card such as Flexiroam or BNESIM, or just factoring in these charges to the cost of their travels.

In the meantime, there’s always the hotel Wi-Fi.

1 Update: 9 September 2021 - Three have since announced the reintroduction of roaming charges on their network, beginning in May 2022.