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Top tips to avoid being burnt by ‘bill shock’ this summer

Ofcom publishes new advice for using your smartphone or tablet abroad.

In time for the  summer holiday exodus, Ofcom has yesterday published a new guide to help travellers protect themselves against ‘bill shock’ when using their smartphones and tablets abroad.1

These devices are now as much a holiday essential as suncream and swimwear, with tech-savvy travellers watching films by the pool, social networking on the beach or keeping the kids entertained with the latest apps.

But using a mobile internet or ‘data’ connection to go online overseas can cost considerably more than it does at home – particularly outside Europe.2

Ofcom’s guide offers top tips to help consumers get the most out of their smartphone or tablet while abroad, while avoiding being left with an unexpectedly high mobile bill.

Claudio Pollack, Consumer Group Director at Ofcom, said: “No one wants to return from a relaxing holiday to be faced with an unexpectedly high data bill. Ofcom’s guide offers essential advice for consumers so they don’t get burnt by bill shock this summer.”

Ofcom’s advice includes:

  • Download before you leave the UK – Downloading or streaming films, TV or music consumes large amounts of data and could leave you seriously out of pocket if you wait until you’re abroad. Use your home Wi-Fi connection to get everything on your device before you go.
  • Talk to your provider – If you are planning to go online while abroad, speak to your provider before you leave. They may have specific packages for using your device abroad designed to offer discounted rates, including data roaming bundles.
  • Turn off data roaming – You can run up a big bill without actively using your phone as smartphones and 3G/4G enabled tablets automatically seek out internet connections and use them to update apps. It’s simple to turn off data roaming and Ofcom’s video guides show you how to do it on some of the most popular smartphones.
  • Use Wi-Fi to get online – If you want to regularly browse the web overseas, use local Wi-Fi hotspots instead of your device’s internet connection. Some apps can seek out Wi-Fi networks and prompt you to connect to them so that you don’t have to do this manually. Remember, you don’t need ‘data roaming’ switched on to access Wi-Fi.
  • Be careful about ‘opting out’ of the data limit – The law3 requires  all mobile operators to apply a cut-off limit once you have used €50 (excluding VAT) – around £40 – of data per month, wherever you travel in the world, unless you choose to opt out. You may be prompted to ‘opt out’ by your provider if, for example, you purchase a large data roaming bundle which would take you over the €50 limit, or if your provider offers an alternative roaming tariff. If you’re confused about whether you have been asked to opt out, worried you may have opted out inadvertently, or want to find out if any alternative roaming tariffs are available that might better meet your needs, speak to your provider.
  • Keep tabs on your children - Smartphones and tablets are a great way to keep kids entertained, particularly on long journeys. If you’re going to let youngsters play with your device and it is 3G/4G enabled, turn off data roaming so they don’t incur data roaming charges. And if your children have their own smartphone or 3G/4G tablet, explain the risks of using it abroad or turn off data roaming on their device before you leave. If you are happy for your child to use data while abroad but wish to restrict their usage to within the €50 limit, you need to keep a close eye out for the opt out message alert (which is sent to the device directly) to avoid them opting to use more data without realising the potential to run up a high bill.4
  • Inform your provider immediately if your phone is lost or stolen – If you lose your phone or suspect it has been stolen you are, in most cases, likely to be held responsible for any unauthorised use up to the point you tell your provider. To avoid facing high charges as a result, it is crucial that you report it to your provider as soon as you are aware. The quicker you do this, the less likely you are to face ‘bill shock’. It is also important to put a passcode on both your handset and SIM to make it more difficult for thieves to use. Ofcom’s video guides show you how to do this on some popular smartphones. Some mobile insurance policies may provide some cover for unauthorised use, but not all will, so it is worth checking the terms and conditions of your existing policy, or when considering a new policy.

Read Ofcom’s guide on using your smartphone or tablet abroad

For those families staying closer to home this summer, Ofcom also has a guide to help avoid running up high bills when in the UK.


  1. An extended guide on avoiding mobile bill shock abroad is also available on the Ofcom website covering voice text and data usage.
  2. As mentioned above, the costs of using data can be much higher outside the EU – often around £6-£8 per MB of data. Similarly, for calls and texts, information on operator websites suggests that the cost of making a call from outside the EU could range from 60p to £1.80 per minute, receiving a call from 30p to £1.50 per minute and sending a text could cost up to 50p, and in some cases more.
  3. New roaming charges came into effect on 1 July 2013 making it cheaper to use a mobile phone when travelling abroad in the European Union. Consumers can be charged no more than €0.24 (around 21p) per minute (excluding VAT) to make a call, no more than 0.07 (around 6p) per minute (excluding VAT) to receive a call, while sending a text must now cost no more than €0.08 (around 7p) per text (excluding VAT). The cost of data has also been reduced – mobile providers must now charge no more than 45 cents (38p) per megabyte of data, plus VAT.
  4. Remember, if you  allow your child to access the internet via a local Wi-Fi network, they will still be able to make ‘in-app’ purchases. You should set up a password on the device which must be keyed before it allows any user to make an in-app purchase.  Always keep this password private. Some devices allow you to turn in-app purchases off altogether. Ofcom’s video guides offer step-by-step instructions for turning off or password-protecting the in-app purchase function on some popular handsets.
  5. Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across TV, radio, telecommunications, wireless communications and postal services.

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