Last year, almost all UK mobile networks brought back international roaming charges for all destinations, including those in the EU.
This was a major disappointment, as free European roaming was unbelievably convenient for frequent travellers.
Anyone on EE, Three or Vodafone will now be charged for EU roaming when they take out a new mobile contract (existing contracts are usually exempt from EU roaming costs, so it may be worth sticking with that you have even if slightly cheaper deals are available).
For example, Three will now charge you £2 a day just to use your normal allowance in Europe. Outside of Europe it can be as much as £5 per day.
For EU roaming, O2 remains the best UK mobile network
O2 is now the only mobile network of the big four to include free roaming in Europe for all pay monthly customers. It’s one of the reasons I swapped from Three once my contract ended last month.
(Vodafone also offers free roaming on some of its 4 Xtra plans, starting at £18/month.)
48 countries/territories/areas are included. The full list is on the O2 website here but basically it covers all of the EU and European Economic Area. Switzerland, for example, is included, as is Norway, despite neither being part of the EU.
Calls and texts to UK numbers are also free or charged at the same rate as they would be if you were in the UK. Calls to international numbers are separate – although O2 offers an paid-for ‘International Bolt On’ that reduces the cost of these too.
If you are on a monthly plan, you can use your data in O2’s Eurozone up to a maximum of 25GB (or less, if your plan includes fewer GBs.) Any data usage beyond this will be subject to throttling.
Finding local eSIMs with Airalo
If you’re travelling beyond the European Union, or you’re with EE, Vodafone, Three or another network, then your best option is purchasing a local SIM card at your destination.
This has been made even easier with the introduction of eSIM across many mobile devices, including from 12th generation iPhones (the 2018 iPhone XR and XS). Samsung was a bit behind the curve and only introduced eSIMs to its 2020 Galaxy S20 phones but too are now standard.
Most handsets from the last 2-5 years come with dual SIM support, either in the form of two SIM card slots or a physical SIM slot and eSIM support.
That means you can now connect to two mobile networks at once – letting you retain your UK number and SIM whilst supplementing it with a local SIM depending on where you’re travelling.
eSIMs make this even easier because you don’t need to wait until you arrive at the airport or faff around with tiny SIM cards. You can simply scan a QR code to add a data plan to your phone.
This has led to a number of third party companies popping up to connect travellers with local SIM cards, including Airalo.
Airalo – website here – bills itself as the world’s first eSIM store that gives you access to 190+ eSIMs globally, including a range of local, regional and global SIM cards.
I have now used Airalo twice – on my trips to Malaysia and Qatar – and have been very impressed. The process is extremely simple, as demonstrated by this infographic:
(In reality, you do not need the app. You can also use the web interface.)
What I particularly like about Airalo and eSIMs is that I can install my international data plan before I even leave the UK, which means I have a seamless data connection once I land at my destination. This is especially useful in case I need to show any documents on my phone but can’t connect to Wi-Fi.
How does Airalo work?
In a few weeks I am heading to the United States to try out Virgin Atlantic’s new Austin route, which is unfortunately outside of my O2 free roaming destinations. Looking at Airalo, I have four options:
- 1GB with 7 days validity for $4.50
- 3GB with 30 days validity for $11
- 5GB for 30 days validity for $16
- 10GB for 30 days validity for $26
In my experience, 1GB is enough data for a few days for basics such as mapping tools, email and browsing online – you’ll need more if you plan on streaming, obviously.
Airalo doesn’t actually manage the eSIM, it just connects you to the mobile network. In this case it’s a provider called ‘Change’ which piggy backs on both T-Mobile and AT&T’s 4G networks – two of the three major US carriers.
Once you purchase an eSIM on Airalo all you have to do is add it to your phone. Apple makes this very easy on iPhones – all you have to do is scan a QR code and enter a few settings and you’ll have local 4G data within 30 seconds or so.
After you fly home it’s just as easy to remove, by going into your settings and removing the data plan.
If you want to try Airalo, then you can use my referral code ‘RHYS4258’ when you sign up or at checkout to get $3 off. I’ll also get $3 off my next plan – thank you. The Airalo site is here.