/ Technology

Over £1,000 to use your tablet abroad? You must be joking

Man using a tablet underwater

Just bought yourself an iPad 2? Want to use it abroad this Easter? You might be shocked by how much it could cost. We’ve discovered that data roaming can be 1,000 times more than equivalent internet use in the UK!

I recently got an email from a Which? member, Mark Jones. Mark planned to buy an iPad 2, due for release a few days after he emailed us, but he had questions about using it abroad:

‘I’ve never written to you in such detail before, but I feel compelled to tell you about this in detail. I travel to Turkey regularly so I am interested in the international roaming charges for data on iPad plans. I am disgusted with the findings of my research,’ he said.

When I followed up on Mark’s concerns – which focused mainly around operators’ lack of transparency and misleading information relating to iPad roaming costs – I soon understood why he felt the need to get in touch.

My colleague Catherine West kicked things off by trying to uncover tablet data roaming charges on company websites. In some cases she found that there wasn’t any information about this on tablet tariff pages. International charges were often only covered in a general price guide elsewhere on the site, meaning it’s left to us to guess whether data roaming charges for mobile phones also apply to tablets.

Up to 1,000 times more expensive

But transparency isn’t the only worry for iPad-using globetrotters. Within the UK, on a Sim-only tablet plan, one gigabyte (GB) of data typically costs between £7.50 and £15 a month. We discovered that data roaming can cost hundreds, even up to a thousand times, more than this equivalent UK use.

Tablet operators usually charge for international use on a per megabyte (MB) basis (there are 1,024MB in a GB) so it’s not easy to directly compare costs. And some operators have protections in place to minimise your risk of running up astronomical bills (such as 3’s £50 monthly bill cut-off). But let’s say they didn’t, and left you free to use a GB of data overseas – by watching a few hours of online TV, say.

This is how much I calculated that the UK’s five mobile networks would charge to use a GB of 3G tablet data in the USA. You might want to sit down for this:

  • Orange – £8,192 (it only allows data roaming on Samsung Galaxy Tab plans)
  • T-Mobile – £7,680
  • 3 – £3,072 (but pop over the border to Canada and that’ll be more than £10,000 please)
  • Vodafone – £600 (charged in usage blocks at a rate of £29.99 per 50MB per day)
  • O2’s tablet plans don’t allow data roaming – maybe that’s a good thing?

Up to £10,000 for a GB of web data? I thought I’d got my sums wrong. But careful checks by Catherine confirmed my calculations.

Data roaming charges beggars belief

Mark says he’s a proponent of the ‘caveat emptor’ rule – read the small print before signing up to any contract. If he can see the charges, he says, then it’s his responsibility to use the service within its limits.

That’s a very reasoned and rational approach – assuming that the transparency is there in the first place. But I’m occasionally inclined to be not-quite-so-reasonable about such matters.

And I reckon the sheer scale of these data roaming charges are frankly ridiculous for a device that was designed with ultra-portability in mind. Who’s with me?

Mark Jones says:
21 April 2011

I am staggered by your figures for 1Gb of roaming use. Hopefully Which? can use its influence to slap down those networks that fail to make these charges clear and of course also cut them down to size. Who can possibly argue that these charges are reasonable and proportionate? Clearly they are not and arguably they could not be enforceable as the magnitude of the charges are unfair? Now I can see in black and white the magnitude of this case of ‘Rip-off Britain’ I hope that Which? exposes this scam to the wider media bringing pressure on the networks to get their charges back down to planet Earth.

Kevin Lynch says:
21 April 2011

Unlike iPhones with a network provider subsidy that iPads are NOT locked to a network provider. If you are abroad just buy a local sim. No signficiant issue.

Mark Jones says:
21 April 2011

If I buy an iPad from a network operator shop, eg Orange, Vodafone or a tier 2 provider like Carphonewarehouse or fones4u I will get a locked device and I cannot pay the full price to get an unlocked device. Unlocked devices can be bought from places like John Lewis, Apple and its independent Apple resellers and Tesco.

Of course, buying a local SIM is the way to go and this is what I will be doing with my unlocked iPad. However remember that iPad SIMs are not the normal size. You need a micro SIM and these are comparitively rare in the UK let alone abroad. Although it is possible to cut a regular SIM down to the same size as micro SIM you’ll need a template and a sharp knife to achieve this. Not really my idea of fun on holiday, but I’ll do it to avoid the rip-off costs of my UK network provider.

Also if I’m heading to a beach resort that is away from a major town local pay-as-you-go SIMs good for data are not going to be easy to get hold of so I’ll have to order online and get it posted to the resort for my arrival or have it sent to the UK hoping it will arrive at home before I leave on vacation.


To reply to Mark, NO, that isn’t the way to get yourself a micro-sim! Buy a sim cutter for a few pounds on Amazon or elsewhere. It’s a bit like a stapler. keep both bits of the sim card and use them together when you want to revert to a standard sim card.


I use Vodafone, and have to be honest that it is the only network that I can speak with of knowledge, but if you phone them before you go, speak to the team there, you can get good rates, take the name of the person you have spoke to, and send an email to customer services confirm the day and time of the call, at least 7 days before your trip there can be no arguements.

I got unlimited data (Subject to fair usage) for £21.00 + VAT a day, and used my iPad for 10 days in Toronto, 4 days New York & 7 days Tokyo.

I always phone my network before I go away, so my phone does not a) get blocked and b) I pay £50 off my bill because they keep great logs of financial transactions, so you can prove you did call.

Mark Jones says:
21 April 2011

Great tip – thanks!

Jean Glover says:
21 April 2011

I have just bought a Samsung Galaxy tab and intend to use it in hotels abroad on the free Wi-fi. Many places abroad have this. Are there going to be any problems with this?


Hi Jean,

Absolutely if you’re somewhere that offers free wi-fi, take advantage – there won’t be any charges for you doing this.

One word of caution, sometimes tablets and smartphones can have automatic updates set up, such that the device accesses the internet without you actively doing so (‘push’ emails and the like). To avoid the risk of any data roaming charges, I’d advise changing your tablet’s settings such that data roaming is completely turned off. Your tablet’s instruction manual should outline how to do this if it’s not obvious.

Hope that helps



A couple things wrong with your article (not this conversation but the original Which article, as there is no way to comment on it, I’ll comment here).

T-Mobile EU roaming boosters are not all 24hrs, they are 1, 7 and 30 days of validity (time to use up the data).

You comment -“While it makes sense that mobile operators’ own costs are somewhat higher for mobile internet access abroad than within the UK because they’re having to access foreign operators’ networks, the high costs to consumers with some networks are astonishingly high. ”

Other than access to the home network for user management, I doubt the home network is touched at all for data calls, the data call exits to the internet in the foreign network and only reports usage back to the home network. So the home network actually has less work for foreign usage than for local usage where it is required to carry the data as well. No the telcos are just common con artists yet to be found out by the authorities because of technical incompetence in regulation.

Never buy a locked phone or tablet. Never use your UK SIM abroad if you have another choice. Research free wifi before you travel, use it with your phone or tablet, turn off the telephony radio. Look at the cost of local SIMs and so called international SIMs (which can be much cheaper outside the EU), Look at PAYG for the US, Tracfones cost $20 and allow UK calling, keep the phone and reactivate it the next trip to the US..


Hi MrBeck

Thanks for your comments, some good tips there. To address your concerns, our T-Mobile booster information was based on an email sent directly to me by T-Mobile – which stated that all of its Euro Broadband boosters are only valid for 24 hours. So either they gave us duff information, or they’ve given you duff information (either way, yet more support for the poor transparency of roaming info by providers).

Interesting thoughts on the true cost to providers of offering data roaming services. You may well be right about how low the cost of access is, and this is one I need to follow up with the operators themselves (and will be doing so) – however historically they’ve been remarkably reticent at revealing their actual costs in this area.

I do know, however, that overseas networks often levy a wholesale charge for UK operators to use their network, and these were the likely costs I was referring to. In the EU this wholesale charge is capped at 80 Euro cents by EC regulation (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/roaming/regulation/index_en.htm). Elsewhere there is no regulation on wholesale prices – however I cannot believe they are high enough to justify the astonishing retail prices, and even if they are, my view is that UK and overseas networks should work together to bring these costs down and make overseas 3G data roaming a viable option for consumers.

Jean Glover says:
21 April 2011

Thanks Ceri, in fact I did not get a sim card for the tab as I use it at home as a laptop for E-mails and browsing on Wi-fi. I can use the navigation on GPS. I didn’t want it connecting without me knowing, but have found the switch off if I do decide to get a sim card later.

Frazer Bush says:
25 April 2011

I got caught out last year with my iphone. I actually put a bolt for data to use abroad. I was using my Tom Tom app for driving to the south of France. With my Tom Tom service i have the Traffic service. At home this updates regularly but i was horrified when i had not even reached Reims and received a text that i had already spent over £100 on data usage. I could not beleive it. I had bought European maps and paid for the traffic service. I would have thought the rest would have been free, as it would have been if i had used an actual Tom Tom device. I now do not use the iphone abroad because of it. What a waste of a good system

Ken Rock says:
26 April 2011

Last year I spent a week in Madeira using the hotel wifi to maintain e-mail contact. On two occasions the wifi was not available so I used data roaming to receive and send no more than 10 e-mails. I was horrified to find they had cost me £40 but, fortunately, Tesco Mobile cap their charges at £40. However, they could not tell me how I had managed to run up so large a bill so quickly and their published information does not say how much data you actually get for the £40 (it appears you get 40MB after hitting their limit – or is the limit 40MB?).
Maybe this year I will just accept the £40 and see how how much I can use my mobile for internet services in a week abroad!