House of Commons Library publications on the rising cost of living in the UK, including causes of inflation, the effect on households, and Government support.
Since the end of the Brexit transition period (1 January 2021), there has been no obligation on UK mobile operators to guarantee surcharge-free roaming across the European Economic Area (EEA). Other protections, including the daily limit on roaming costs, expired on 30 June 2022. Consumers travelling to the EU will need to check the roaming policies of their mobile operator before they go abroad.
What is mobile roaming?
Mobile roaming occurs when a mobile customer travels abroad and continues to use their home mobile service. Their phone will need to connect to another network in order to make and receive calls and texts and to access the internet. For this to be possible, the customer’s home network operator must conclude commercial agreements with foreign operators to use their networks (known as wholesale roaming). Until 2017 most mobile operators charged customers higher prices for using their service abroad to help cover the cost of wholesale roaming agreements.
In the EU, roaming surcharges for retail customers were abolished for an initial period of 5 years from June 2017 (Regulation (EU) 2012/531). For surcharge-free roaming to be commercially viable for operators, EU regulations also set limits on the wholesale roaming prices mobile operators can charge each other.
In practice, the EU Roaming Regulation meant that UK mobile customers could use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data throughout the European Economic Area (EEA) without incurring additional charges, subject to limits such as a fair use policy. This continued through the transition period, due to the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU regulation was renewed in 2022, extending the right to surcharge-free roaming until 2032 (Regulation (EU) 2022/612). This was not retained in UK law as it was enacted after the end of the transition period.
Surcharge-free roaming after the end of the transition period.
The Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 came into force at the end of the transition period and removed the legal requirement for UK mobile operators to provide surcharge-free roaming in the EEA.
There had been calls for the Government to seek legally binding commitments from mobile operators to continue to offer surcharge-free roaming. The Government argued that a legal requirement would be “inoperable” post-Brexit because operators would no longer benefit from the EU’s limits on wholesale roaming charges. Offering surcharge-free roaming would become “unaffordable for many operators,” resulting either in the service being removed from some retail packages or prices rising for all mobile services.
The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (24 December 2020) includes a commitment that the Parties shall “cooperate on promoting transparent and reasonable rates” for international roaming services. The provision is similar to that put forward by the UK Government in draft trade agreement text in May 2020. The UK’s draft text also proposed a commitment to review the need for roaming regulations within three years, which was not included in the final agreement.
Mobile operators may offer free roaming voluntarily
Mobile operators may choose to continue to offer surcharge-free roaming after the end of the transition period despite not being under a legal obligation to do so. This would be a commercial decision for each mobile operator.
Initially, the four major UK mobile network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) stated that they had no plans to change their mobile roaming policies. As of August 2022, however, only O2 still offer surcharge-free roaming in the EU. Some other operators, including giffgaff, BT Mobile, and Plusnet, have also not reintroduced EU roaming charges.
Other protections for roaming customers have also expired
Consumer protections in the EU Roaming Regulation that were not contingent on EU membership and harmonisation were retained in UK law. This included a financial limit on data usage abroad of £45+VAT per day (unless the customer expressly agrees to continue) and a requirement on operators to inform customers when they have reached 80% and 100% of their data allowance. Operators also had an obligation to inform customer how to avoid inadvertent roaming costs.
These protections expired on 30 June 2022 in accordance with the ‘sunset clause’ in the 2012 EU Roaming Regulation.
Consumer website MoneySavingExpert has called on the Government and Ofcom to re-introduce the customer protections that expired in June. In an August 2022 report, The Roaming Risk, it raised the possibility that roaming customers could “rack up hugely expensive data charges” if they mistakenly believe that they will receive a warning before they reach their data limit.
Ofcom has said that it is looking into the options for roaming protections for customers. It cautioned that future measures would not address prices, as Ofcom does not have powers to prevent mobile operators from charging for roaming.
What should mobile customers travelling to the EU do?
Customers travelling to the EU will need to check the roaming policies of their mobile operator before they go abroad. Customers will need to ensure they are aware of what charges may be incurred and understand strategies for avoiding charges (such as turning off roaming services or setting bill limits).
Ofcom’s webpage, Using your mobile abroad, provides further guidance.
What about calls from the UK to the EU?
Phone calls from the UK to the EU are not technically ‘roaming’ because the customer is at home, not abroad. International calls within the EU are capped at no more than €0.19+VAT per minute under Regulation (EU) 2015/2120.
Since the end of the transition period, UK telecoms companies have not been legally required to maintain the capped charges for calls to the EU. The relevant EU provisions were revoked by the Electronic Communications (Amendment etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The Government said that it would not be appropriate to maintain the price regulation given that calls from the EU to the UK would not be included.
Consumer group Which? reported that, as of January 2022, calling a Spanish mobile from a UK mobile costs 18-19p per minute with most providers.
Ofcom, Using your mobile abroad
Money Supermarket, Roaming charges explained: a guide to mobile networks’ roaming rules, May 2022
Which?, Mobile roaming costs and international calls explained, 8 August 2022
The House of Commons Library briefing paper, The abolition of mobile roaming charges and Brexit (6 July 2017), provides background information about the EU legislation on roaming charges.
Further detail on pricing and consumer issues in the telecommunications market can be found in the Library briefing, Mobile and broadband: affordability and consumer protection (28 November 2022)
This briefing addresses frequently asked questions about the switch of landline phones to digital services.
A briefing paper on the history, functions and membership of the Privy Council