Overseas phone use - which mobile network is best?

You can have the world's best contract with any of the UK mobile networks but all of them are going to charge you huge amounts of money the minute you start using your mobile phone abroad.

Sadly, it's not their fault, per se, but the fact that international service providers seem reluctant to strike deals to let others use their networks is a bit of an issue that the consumer seems to be paying for. For now, at least.

Some of the mobile networks have better rates for roaming in different parts of the world and some of them will even try to help out by encouraging users to take up special international packs and offers for those clued up enough to take notice. The question is, who's offering the best deals when travelling abroad and which are the networks to be avoided? Pocket-lint investigates...

The Method

It's not possible to compare all of the providers like for like in a global way as many of them use different price banding to work out the costs. So we've picked three countries to measure calls costs on if you're on pay monthly contracts. Different charges will apply for PAYG.

The first is France which obviously represents an EU country the likes of which many UK holiday makers might go to most often. The second is the US picked for being popular as both a business and pleasure destination from the UK, and the last is Japan which represents a "Rest of World" country where UK providers are unlikely to get favourable rates.

Making Calls

Most of the calls you're making when abroad are going to be calls back home or phoning other numbers of the country you're currently in. These are the charges each network will levy:

However...

While Tesco Mobile offers staggeringly cheap rates, they're not necessarily the best ones to go for. This is because a few of the operators offer packs and deals to help you out.

T-Mobile has a system of Flexible Boosters which are free with most contracts and you can switch them to different boosters at any time. They can offer help such as the first 15 minutes a month of free roaming calls made and received or 60 free texts if you're in the EU or a combination adding up to £7.50 worth of charges.

Orange offers roaming bolt-ons to help lower the cost. For £5/month you get 200 minutes of 28p EU calls instead of 38p. If you want to pay a contract £10/month bolt on, you can have 1,000 of these minutes. For calls from further afield you can pay for the World Traveller £5/month bolt-on which brings calls from the US down to 77p and from Japan to £1.16.

The Vodafone Passport scheme is one of the best roaming packages around. It's free to sign up to and it works in 35 countries in Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand. You pay a 75p connection charge to make a call but every minute after the first just comes out of your normal domestic price plan rather than racking up a bill. So, if you're making a call for more than 2 minutes, it's going to work out better than anything else.

O2's add on is called My Europe Extra which costs a none-too-cheap £10/month. That reduces the cost of all calls to 25p/min within the EU. On the plus side, you can add it as a one off. There's also an international traveller package from O2 known as ITS which is free if your price plan has more than 600 mins/month or £2.99 if not. That would reduce the USA calls to 90p and the Japan ones to £1.20.

So, on balance, you'd probably have Vodafone topping the group for calls from Europe Australia and New Zealand with O2 and Orange right up the rankings with calls from the rest of the world.

Receiving Calls

What some people don't realise is that it actually costs money to receive calls while roaming as well. It's never as much as making a call but it's certainly not cheap. Worse still, some providers, such as T-Mobile, charge money even if you ignore the call and let it go to voicemail for having to route back and forth through the foreign exchange.

While Orange might not be the best in Europe, the charges when receiving calls elsewhere are so much lower than the competition that they simply have to come out top overall.

However...

The £5/month World Traveller bundle on Orange can drop these even lower with the US calls coming down to 49p and the Japan ones to 72p. The £5 European Traveller brings 200 minutes of received calls in for free.

T-Mobile's boosters help out again although the package is not as competitive as Orange.

Vodafone Passport applies the same principals to calls received. So they'll cost you 75p connection but, after that, there's not charge so long as you're taking in Europe, Australia or New Zealand.

O2's ITS scheme brings US calls down to an excellent 39p and Japan ones to 85p. The £10/month My Euro Extra makes calls received while in the EU free.

So, on balance, you'd probably have Orange or O2 as the best to be with while receiving calls abroad and Vodafone more mid-table if you're travelling in Europe, Australia or New Zealand.

Text Messaging

Mercifully, the picture's a lot more cut and dry for SMS and the next piece of good news is that no one will charge you for receiving texts while you're abroad.

It was a bit of a shock to see Virgin Mobile take this one by a clear margin but take it the small network did with great aplomb. If you want to send messages when you're away, get yourself a VM SIM. Orange, Tesco Mobile and T-Mobile came out as total horrors for SMS while abroad.

However...

Orange's £5 World Traveller bundle brings USA texting price down to a healthier 28p and Japan rates to a not so good 40p.

Users on T-Mobile can also get their first 60 texts for nothing at all.

On balance, you'd still want to be with Virgin Media if you're a textaholic but otherwise switching to an international text booster on T-Mobile for a month would probably serve you the best.

Data

Let's get something straight from the start. Just do yourself a favour and don't use data services while you're abroad. Use Wi-Fi when you can but otherwise leave it alone. If you really must though, this is the way the land lies.

There's some interesting rulings coming from the EU and most of the providers have set limits now on how much they'll charge you for roaming data each month. These are usually prices in the region of £40/50. Now that doesn't mean that it lets you go unlimited after that. They'll probably just cut you off.

While Vodafone and 3 are still the stand out leaders here and most defintely the two to be with, if you can't resist checking your e-mails or using GPS, Orange also sells bundles which makes them a little better on the data side than the table would lead you to believe. Largely speaking though, it's pretty much as it reads this time.

Conclusions

Trying to pick out who does best by the consumer when it comes to roaming charges is one of the trickier bits of research we've ever had to do on Pocket-lint, the reason being that all of the providers do things differently in all the different services they provide.

Areas we haven't mentioned include MMS, voicemail retrieval and video calling largely because it's incredibly hard to pick apart exactly how each one operates on these fronts in all the different countries on all the different contracts both PAYG and pay monthly.

For example, some providers state the price of sending an MMS but say they'll charge the data cost of the picture on top. Some don't seem to take that policy and others just don't mention it at all, but that doesn't mean the extra money won't turn up on your bill.

While we would say the thing to do on all these additional fronts is to call your provider before you go and check the lie of the land for whichever deal you're on with them, special mention should be given to T-Mobile for MMS who appear to charge a 25p flat rate when sending them from all over the world. That makes it cheaper to send MMS rather SMS when outside Europe with them.

Overall, though, finding the best network for roaming has got more to do with your call habits while away. Vodafone seems to offer the best calls deal if you're in Europe, Australia and New Zealand for medium to light use. Heavy roamers might want to consider either O2 or Orange instead though with a £5 flat rate coming out less than a series of 75p connection charges.

Texters should be with Virgin Mobile and avoid Orange like the Plague and, as for data, it's Vodafone and 3 by a nose but the general rule of thumb is - don't do it but if you have to do it, do it with one of the big providers and then only in the EU. O2 might also best be avoided.

Let us know in the comments if you've found any particularly good ways around roaming charges - whether it's using a foreign SIM or VoIP - and regale us with your horror stories of networks to avoid.

 

Vodafone UK is the smart choice for customers who want to make the most of smartphones, according to the latest pieces of research from YouGov.

YouGov’s Technology & Telecoms Consulting team’s latest survey, Smartphone, Mobile Internet, eXperience (SMIX), positionsVodafone UK as the top operator for mobile internet, coming top in 8 out of 10 areas and beating its rivals in the most important measure of quality – reliability during the day.