/ Travel & Leisure

Have you been hit by holiday mobile bill shock?

O2, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile may have lost their appeal against mobile price capping in Europe, but we’re left frustrated that there’s still no protection for using your mobile further afield.

A few weeks ago I was asked for advice by a lady who’d just arrived home from an involuntary extended stay in Singapore, courtesy of the ash cloud. A distressing experience in itself, but made worse by receiving an unexpected mobile bill for several hundred pounds for her Singapore mobile phone use.

The rise and fall of calling costs

The cost of mobile calling within the UK is at an all-time low; even the biggest chatterboxes are unlikely to be hit by a mobile bill that will break the bank.

And affordable mobile pricing is starting to extend to using our mobiles overseas. I was delighted to hear the mobile giants lost their bid to overturn price capping in EU countries. This means the European Commission’s rules to ensure mobile operators charge fair prices will remain firmly in place.

The rules are straightforward and reasonable. From 1 July 2010, when you use your mobile in EU countries mobile operators must:

  • Charge no more than €0.39 (about 32p) per minute to make calls, €0.15 per minute to receive calls and €0.11 to send texts (it’s free to receive texts).
  • Apply an automatic cut-off once your bill reaches €50 (about £42), unless you choose another cut-off limit.
  • Keep you well-informed of charges for using your mobile abroad, sending an information text when you arrive at your destination.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – the rules only apply in EU countries. Use your mobile further afield, and operators can charge what they like. You have no protection against running up bills of hundreds – or even thousands – of pounds. Sounds crazy, but it’s been known to happen, as the student who ran up an £8,000 Orange bill in a month from using his mobile’s internet service in Paris discovered.

Mobile call rates outside of EU countries often exceed £1 a minute. If you were lucky (or even unlucky) enough to have tickets to a World Cup match in South Africa, you might have come home to a hefty bill. T-Mobile customers, for example, would have paid £1.50 a minute to make or receive calls. And don’t get me started on the extortionate cost of using the mobile internet…

Take some responsibility, mobile operators

Part of the problem is that there isn’t a worldwide equivalent of the European Commission to regulate the cost mobile operators charge on an international scale. But surely the mobile operators should be able to negotiate with each other and voluntarily apply some of the sensible protections the EC has put in place?

Sure, as mobile users we must take some responsibility for staying informed of the cost of services we subscribe to. But even if lowering costs is a step too far for mobile operators, they should be more proactive about providing cost information rather than relying on us to seek it out. And now the technology’s in place to apply a cut-off limit to mobile spending in Europe, it seems a no-brainer to extend this to worldwide use.

In the meantime, anyone who plans to use their mobile abroad should check the charges in advance – and make use of Which? tips on how to keep costs down.

And my advice to the lady who’d been stranded by the ash cloud? Frustratingly the best suggestion I could make was to throw herself on her mobile provider’s mercy and hope for the best. Surely there must be a better way.

James Conroy says:
5 July 2010

I have been ripped off so much by my network operator in the past for international calls. I remember the worst bill I received was when I was not aware data cost extra – that was a £400 round of applause when I opened that bill! Surely in this technological age data should not be charged at such extortionate rates? Which should investigate those charges.


Fiona Ross says:
10 September 2010

We too are suffering a huge shock. My 21 yr old is just back from Turkey (1 week) and his phone stopped working. He didn’t use his phone on holiday. He received two txts. The phone was suspended by vodaphone by their “spend checker service” as the bill has exceeded all his free minutes etc and is …. wait for it …. £660 BEFORE VAT! It takes time for the information to reach them to enable the spend checker to block the account when the sum reaches £300! as he was in Turkey the information was not received! We feel totally ripped off.


Hefty charges for using mobiles abroad has just come top of a 'holiday rip-offs' list in research by the Post Office. Looks like these new rules are very much needed.

Magster says:
22 August 2010

I have incurred massive charges under so called roaming by TMobile. When I specifically agreed
to have the booster deal which would half the tarrif!! This was while I was visiting the USA at the end of May, and right up to last months bill were operating their creative accountancy policy. I have queried
this twice and managed to obtain a £9.00 refund but that has not resolved over charging me for
Roaming after I had returned to UK and deactivated the service?? But I have not given up the fight yet, and will continue to pursue them to the bitter end. Also if I have to end my Contract with them I will unless they get their excessive charging sorted.

Tina E says:
30 October 2010

I flew to Germany and received an automated text saying with Vodafone passport calls cost £0.75 plus the normal network rate (or nothing if you have free minutes). I then continued my journey to Turkey. No text to inform me of anything. I was convinced that Turkey was one of the passport countries and even the Vodafone shop assistant thought the same. When I came back I discovered that I had been charged £1.65 per minute and I had a bill of over £90!! I called Vodafone and asked why they didn’t text me to inform me of their extortionate charges when I went to Turkey, but they could not answer that. Vodafone is not treating their customers fairly and I feel totally ripped off!


is it true there is a fault on some iphones as after returning home from being stuck in Canada due to the ash cloud my bill was over £1,900, do I have to pay this, I was not using it much at all , mostly to keep checking web site for airline, thanks for any advice.


Hi Sue,

Ouch – sorry to read you’ve been hit with such a hefty bill. This is another prime example of why, as I say above, we think mobile operators should voluntarily apply the EU price capping in other countries.

Have you checked your bill to see exactly when these charges were incurred and if they correspond with when you were using the internet? Unfortunately, the cost of using the mobile internet abroad is incredibly high and even relatively low use can have a high financial impact. You don’t say who your operator is, but as an example O2 charges £6 for a single MB outside of EU countries. If the airline webpages had a large file size, regular checks could have added up.

Another thing to check, did you turn off your ‘push’ updates (eg email) while you were away? If not, your iPhone might have been logging on to the web to check for new emails, Facebook updates and the like without you actively connecting – and this will have incurred charges.

In answer to your question about whether you have to pay the bill, unfortunately, your mobile company is under no legal obligation to waive the bill. However, I do know that mobile operators have been known to be flexible and reduce charges when there have been extenuating circumstances. I’m not sure what conversations you’ve already had with your operator, but it could be worth writing to them explaining your situation and why you needed to access the internet, and asking them to consider reducing or waiving the charge on this occasion.

I’m sorry I can’t be the bearer of better news.


Ah well – yet another reason for having a pay as you go – If I could use it overseas I’d be stopped after £10. I only use land lines abroad.