/ 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?

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..

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!

I think you’ll find, with Tesco contract sims, you pay £4/MB in the EU and £8/MB in most other countries (and certainly in the USA). They cut you off when your bill reaches £40 in the EU but not elsewhere – take care!

Rosalind Stewart says:
26 April 2011

While my comment does not address the issue of data roaming directly, I thought I should add that you can now use your iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 for personal hotspots, which gives you 3G coverage wherever you are. I decided not to order an iPad + 3G as I can just use my iPhone when I cannot get WiFi. Of course you are still stuck with the problem of data roaming when overseas, but if you can get an overseas SIM card for your iPhone (and get it unlocked), that is probably the cheapest solution.

My iPad has not arrived yet, so I haven’t tried this myself, but the Apple salesperson told me about it and talked me out of paying more for the iPad WiFi + 3G.

Surely you can only set up a mobile hotspot if your provider allows it, and most do not? I may be wrong – replies awaited!

Nigel Whitfield says:
26 April 2011

If you’re on Orange, it’s worth asking about their Travel Data Daily option, which is £7.00 plus VAT for business customers or £8.68 inc VAT for consumers. It covers data usage in most of Europe.

Once applied to your account, you pay only on the days you use data abroad (midnight to midnight, local time), and get 50MB of data for the daily fee, which should be enough to keep up with emails, social networking, and check a few train times. Obviously, if you only send one email, you’ll still pay the same, but it does provide you with a reasonable safety net, considering that 50MB would otherwise be costing consumers over 150 quid at Orange’s standard roaming rates.

Frankly, Travel Data Daily is about the only reason I’m still with Orange – most of the other networks seem to want you to take out monthly package, or buy add-ons when you want them. With this, you just get it put on your account, and know that when you are travelling in Europe, which I do a few times a year – not enough to make a regular deal worthwhile – you’ll pay a fixed daily fee.

Nassar Hussain says:
23 May 2011

not being an orange business customer. data charges are disgusting! Orange have a data roaming bundle. £10.00 for 10MB or £50 for 50MB- thats it thats all the options you get!!! And outside this it’s something in the region of £8-£10a MB- what a rip off.

Thanks I had a really good belly laugh at this article.

Its a silly toy and the data costs just prove once again that a fool and his money are easily parted.

Marian Kelly says:
21 May 2011

abroadband.com can be used in most countries for 59 cents per mb. you need to buy a sim or a dongle from them.

adoes anyone know how to use an ipad abroad but not get automatic updates when the internet is swithched on?

Colin says:
23 August 2011

Just returned home from a holiday in Cyprus to a Orange bill of 2027 pounds!! The bill is from my ipad on orange. To my understanding and as it says on Which.co.uk, Orange does not permit roaming on ipad plans! I have only had my ipad for 6 months, when I took it abroad I only used it for wi-fi, yet I have received a massive bill! I took my iphone on the same trip and used it the same way and there is no cost more than the normal!

I have done a little research and seen that the EU limit is in place on roaming and that providers must give warning and limits to prevent excessive bills. I recevied nothing! I have even checked my own orange account and it clearly states that EU limit is in place. Also I have been billed at 8 pounds per MB which is Oranges non-EU tarrif. Last time I checked Cyprus was a valid member of the EU as it states on the orange website and the EU website!!!

In serious need of advise on how to proceed… and just to confirm since I got my Ipad I have not set up roaming, removed the EU limit or changed my service plan in anyway!

Kevin Lynch says:
23 August 2011

One possibility is that if you were close to the border with Northern Cyprus then rather than using the Southern Cyprus network you were on the Northern Cyprus network (which would roam back to Turkey outside the EU) hence you then hit the outside EU tariffs.

I am surprised to see how critical the article is about the costs, without explaining to which mobile plan they apply. If you have no data contract and you are using your Ipad to watch TV, my question is – why do you do it ? Most hotels have satelite and English news, and films. But if you need to use your Ipad, check your terms with your network before you leave, so you know how you stand. At the end of the day, people need to take some responsibility for what they do.

Answer is, do not use UK providers. Vodafone Italia for example, charge €5 per day PAYG unlimited traffic and have even added on a €6 per day for the rest of Europe. Last year year they even had a €1 per day with a 512Mb limit. These costs you only pay on the days you use the facility. In addition any balance does not expire although they do want a recharge at least once a year. Vodafone UK say these costs are not possible …have a look at the italian website … in Italian, the English version skips the interesting bits. Most of the italian providers have schemes with similar prices.

Matt says:
1 February 2012

Hi – just got smashed by T-mobile UK at £7.50 per MB of ‘non EU’ data use… Been in India for a month, but got caught out and desperately needed to check a Map, so switched on Data Roaming on my Brand New nokia lumia – because i was lost in downtown Bangalore (India) and needed to find where my Taxi was , i honestly thought it would just be a few quid


The nokia decided to try to download the whole internet and left me with a data charge of just over £51 (I managed to get the info i needed before it went past 7mb on the download)

I complained about the exorbitant charge, but T-Mobile cust servs basically said “Yeah, it’s a shock, but hey, there you go, it’s in the T&C’s so therefore we wont credit you” even though i complained that this was my first smartphone and had no idea how data hungry it would be.

I knew i’d be in for a sting but certainly not such a big one. It’s a megggggga rip-off and there seems to be no recourse for the unlucky punter.

craig says:
20 May 2012

tethering?have consideration!. THEN it IS from a roaming rate abroad also.say:example. i use a iphone and 3mi-fi on standard roaming rates £1.28/min in spain to connect a tv channel. if so would it apply on the account of 15gb size .plus a charge(standard roaming rates)of that size i would use because i could expect from a high bill?”a long use of time” or a lower bill because the rates are not included in my data usage.?

steve says:
29 June 2012

just returned from Greece where Vodaphone sell pre pay sims (ready cut to become a micro sim) 2 gig for €20 which lasts 15 days. I believe they also have 500 meg at £10 for 15 days but none of the shops I went to had any of them in store. I was using it aboard a yacht to collect weather forecasts, AIS, downloading maps for chart programmes, e-mails and even Skyping my daughter in Africa – with video – and only managed to use 500 meg. Because I travel from country to country (this summer we sailed from Greece through Albania (5 days) Montenegro (1 day) and ended in Croatia I’d like an international roaming sim to save having to trek into a town to get set up. There seem to be a number of offers – Abroadband @ €0.59/Mb, Geosim @38p/Mb but £9.99 for the SIM, Dataroam @ 29p/Mb but with £15 SIM cost. Has anyone had experience with any of these (or alternative) providers?

Barbara says:
12 October 2012

Can any one suggest the best micro sim to buy to use my iPad in Madeira please I have looked at Go -Sim but wondered is this the best option I live in the UK

You need to clarify. Do you mean you want to buy a micro-sim in the UK to use in Madeira or you want to buy a local micro-sim when you get there? And what do you mean by ‘best’? Cheapest, or what?

You don’t necessarily need to get a micro-sim, incidentally. Choose a provider and if they can’t supply a micro-sim take a standard one and cut it to size using a cutter (search for ‘sim cutter’ on Amazon). Or cut it yourself instead without a dedicated cutter, if you’re feeling brave – google ‘micro sim template’ for instructions.

Barbara says:
13 October 2012

Thanks for reply What it is I just want to get on line while there I am not to sure about how easily available SIM cards are in Funchal and didn’t know whether better to sort out before I go or as you say buy when I get there I have been reading about cutting a SIM card down
Thank you for help