/ 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.

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.

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.

Liz McShane says:
25 April 2011

My husband is on week’s golf break to Turkey. I called him from my business vodafone. It cost him £11 to receive the call on his O2 PAY & GO PHONE- roughly 5 mins. What a rip off. To send a text from Turkey cost him 49p. O2 has the world divided in to 2 areas.. Europe & Rest of the World.

My wife has just returned from a long holiday abroad. She turned her phone on (for 1 hour) in Dubai to take a photo of the kids and was hit with a data roaming bill for £400.55p This seems a bit on the steep side. T-Mobile says its her own fault. We think the opreator should ask you if you want to roam when you are away and not try to screw every penny from its customers cause its nigh on impossible to know what these phones are doing at home let alone when you are abroad. Any advice anyone may have to appeal this bill is very welcome.
thank you.

Peter Davies says:
20 October 2011

Checked my Internet banking to find a moderate (kidding) Orange mobile phone bill for £837.21p (20/10/11)
My wife telephoned Orange and they reduced it by £500 immediatly, however, still not happy as she only used the phone 6 times. Orange said it was Roaming Charges and I said it was Rip Off charges. I have contacted my bank and had the Direct Debit reversed…Phew!!. However, I have now got to speak to Orange on my good lady’s behalf to try and sort out the £337.21 yet to pay. My gut feeling is to cancel the Orange contract forthwith and cause as much bad publicity as possible (alledged thought!). Orange has said they have to pay the foreign provider, don’t know how much but I am sure it is not £300. Any advise out there would be appreciated.

First thing is to ascertain what the charges relate to (which you should find in detail in your online bill) and then compare them with the Orange tariff for the location you were in.

Secondly, what type of phone is it? If it’s a smartphone (or even worse an iPhone) you could be unwittingly racking up data charges due to apps connecting to the internet on a regular basis to check for updates (Facebook and Twitter are well known for this).

For others reading this, even if you disconnect your data connection and use wifi, some phones will automatically switch back to data if the wifi connection is lost. I have seen charges of £8 per megabyte being incurred (and a megabyte gets you nowhere nowadays).

Best of luck with Orange.

The phenomenon called “bill shock,” where people unexpectedly find out their mobile phone bill is hugely inflated, has infuriated millions of individuals. Federal regulators announced last year that they wished it to not occur to customers. However, cellular providers and the FCC have reached a deal that could control bill shock by supplying people more warning in advance.

[Hello erikablare, we have taken out the link at the end of your comment as it made your comment look like spam. Thanks, mods.]

lauren says:
21 November 2011

well i come back from holiday in tunisia and my bill 1087 pound!! t mobile are usually okay and i only had the internet on my phone for 2 days and then i got cut off ! fuming! i havent got a phone its right before christmas and i havent got a clue how im gona pay it !

Peter Davies says:
22 November 2011


Phone them up and tell them that you cannot afford to pay that amount and that you know that they can refund a majority of roaming charges, my bill with Orange started at £837.00 and Orange immediatly credited £500 I took it even further and got another £207 credit, just keep trying, copy Ofcom in on e-mails/letters and also include your local MP. If you pay by Direct Debit contact your bank and ask them to refund the monies back into your account.

Sheila says:
21 September 2012

Just got a T-mobile bill for £437.07. I am in shock.
I have spoken to two people in customer services on two occasions , they said they would investigate, haven’t heard back from them yet.

Hi Sheila, the advice here should help – https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/ask-which-orange-mobile-bill-unexpectedly-high/ – it might be worth asking to be put straight through to the complaints department if you haven’t already done so. I’d also keep a record of all your contact.

Abby says:
13 October 2012

Before travelling to Turkey I was sold 1000 mins for £20.00 , only to return to a £500.00 bill !!!.

I have tried relentlessly to resolve this problem only to be told “well you have used 400 minutes” constantly promised someone will look into it , never materialized. Then I was cut of until I paid the amount or face being black listed CCJ. i was told pay the bill and we will look into the matter with 24 hours, 4 days have passed and nothing.

It is high time people start looking at the possibility of getting a high court judgment to make them pay for mi-selling products. I have spoken to 2 lawyers and they feel there may be a case here for millions of people entitled to compensation just like the PPI SCANDAL. Orange are doing the same MIS -SELLING PRODUCTS and need to be challenged.

Michael says:
27 October 2012

They sting you incredibly high call costs internationally. We went on holiday to Turkey and they charged £1.50 per minute and a £1.50 connection charge. The same charges on my O2 phone were 25 p per minute. I really do dislike them now and will cancel both our T Mobile phones as soon as the contracts end.

I would warn anyone against using T Mobile and certainly you need to make sure that you disconnect their international roaming. Don’t get caught out. Honestly they are sharp as a razor when it comes to taking huge chunks of money out of your direct debit and lousy on customer service

Gemma hankinson says:
13 May 2013

I recently travelled to Cyprus on holiday. I received 2 texts from O2 on arrival saying don’t worry you are in Europe, calls are 50p to connect and then free for 60 mins. I only called uk landline from my hotel room. When I returned home I had a huge bill, it turns out some calls connected in Cyprus and some via Turkish mast. Turkey is not in the EU so got charged at a higher rate. I was not in Turkey, so how was I supposed to know I was going to be charged via Turkey. O2 originally said they would refund charges but then changed their mind. They are rude and unhelpful and do not care about my 7 years of loyal custom.

I expect you will find that Turks in Turkey pay a few Lira for their calls.
I have an unlocked pay-as-you-go phone and if I go abroad I buy a local Sim card and pay very little for calls. Admittedly, almost all the countries are in the EU, but so is Cyprus. I believe the mobile providers should warn their customers of countries where charges are extortionate. Turkey and Dubai would be top of the list.

Lisa says:
4 July 2013

I recentley travelled to tunisia and was using wifi in the hotel but didn’t realise it automatically jumps on to mobile data when the wifi connection is lost my bill I was only on for half an hour and got 186 pounds bill Vodafone did refund 30 pounds of it back but that’s not good enough

Alex says:
8 July 2013

My phone was stolen whilst on holiday in Barcelona. Unfortunately I did not have a pin lock on the phone at the time so the thieves managed to rack up a huge phone bill before Orange decided to block it, with vat on top I am now faced with a bill of £3900!!!!

I have phoned Orange numerous occassions but they have not been helpful, they are threatening to cut the phone off if it is not paid. All they have done is given me extensions to sort out payment.

What can I do??

11 July 2014

I had my mobile stolen by a black girl in South Africa the day I arrived. She started a phone shop business with it & I had calls & texts every 5 minutes from early in the morning to late at night. In two weeks I was billed £2000.

T Mobile aren’t interested in helping & are threatening to sue me for payment. They say I can’t prove I didn’t make the calls.

I didn’t realise my phone was stolen, as I use a local mobile in South Africa & thought the UK mobile was still in my bag. I only discovered it when I got the bill oniine. I am a 70 year old pensioners & I am very distressed by this & don’t know how I can pay. I already have had to pay £1000 & now have another £ 1000 bill