It’s the latest Brexit u-turn: in January 2021, the UK’s four major mobile phone networks – O2, Vodafone, Three and EE – all promised customers they wouldn’t be reintroducing roaming charges in Europe post-Brexit. Less than six months later, some of them are.
Roaming charges – commonplace in the 2000s and 2010s – were outlawed by the European Union in 2017. Some fair use limits were applied, but businesses operating in EU countries were prevented from charging customers extra to use their phones outside their home country.
Then along came Brexit. A pre-Christmas 2020 Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU seemed to enshrine “transparent and reasonable rates for international mobile roaming services” – which the networks initially took as a reason to not reintroduce charges. Now, however, that’s changed. “It’s not something I foresaw coming,” says Kester Mann, mobile analyst at CCS Insight. “It’s a bold move, given the negative association consumers have with roaming. It’s always been a very poisonous subject.”
What networks are charging what?
EE was first to announce a change, introducing a flat fee of £2 a day for customers travelling in 47 different European countries. Ireland is exempt. The roaming fee, which is for new or upgrading customers who sign up or start a new contract after July 7, 2021, will begin to be levied from January 2022. Paying £2 (or £10 for a month) lets you access your plan’s full data, minutes and text allowance. Enders Analysis estimates that by next summer, half of EE customers will be subject to roaming charges, and practically all of them by summer 2023.
BT Mobile has a partnership with EE, but an EE spokesperson says the changes only apply to EE. BT Mobile did not respond to a request for comment.
O2 says it is not reintroducing roaming charges, but it is instigating a fair use cap on roaming data across Europe of 25GB, effective August 2, 2021. “This means they can use up to 25GB of their allowance at no extra cost – we’ll text them if they get close to the limit, and again if they reach it,” an O2 spokesperson says. Any data beyond that 25GB limit will be charged at £3.50 per GB. O2 says the change will affect less than one per cent of its pay monthly customers.
A Three spokesperson says that the company is reducing its fair use limit for data in the EU from 20GB to 12GB from July 1. “The new fair use limit is still more than enough for holidaymakers to use their phone like they would if they were in the UK,” a spokesperson says.
Vodafone, Virgin Mobile and TalkTalk did not respond to requests for comment. Vodafone told the BBC it isn’t introducing roaming charges, but does have a fair use cap of 25GB, beyond which it charges customers £3.13 per GB.
Sky Mobile says it isn’t charging customers to roam in the EU. Customers “will be able to continue to use their data, call and text allowances as they do in the UK,” a spokesperson adds. Likewise, Tesco Mobile confirmed it has “no current plans to reintroduce EU roaming charges.” Giffgaff also has no plans to change things. “If this changes we will let our members know in due course,” a spokesperson says.
Why are roaming charges coming back?
In short, because roaming costs operators money. “You would never on a commercial basis have decided not to charge consumers for something that costs you money to provide,” says Karen Egan of Enders Analysis. “It was a political initiative to provide cohesion in the EU. But we’re now not in the EU.” A customer using between 20GB and 25GB of roaming data in the EU costs a carrier €75 (£65) in wholesale charges, according to Enders Analysis. “It made no economic sense whatsoever to provide roaming in the EU for free,” says Egan.