Three becomes latest UK phone operator to introduce post-Brexit roaming charges in Germany

Three UK has become the latest in a line of phone companies to reveal that they are planning to bring back roaming fees for customers who travel abroad in EU countries such as Germany.

Three becomes latest UK phone operator to introduce post-Brexit roaming charges in Germany
Brits using their UK numbers after moving to the EU could face higher charges if they're found to be in breach of phone companies' post-Brexit fair usage policies. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

At the start of 2021, the UK’s four largest phone operators – Three, EE, 02 and Vodafone – all said they had no plans to change their roaming policies due to Brexit.

But in a major about-turn, Three has announced that people visiting EU countries will face a £2 daily roaming charge while travelling, which will apply from May 23rd, 2022. 

With its Friday announcement, Three becomes the latest in a string of operators to pivot on the issue of roaming charges.

It follows announcements from EE and Vodafone, who revealed that they would be scrapping free EU roaming earlier this year. Each of the three operators has opted for a £2 daily fee rather than costs for individual calls and texts.

Prices will ‘skyrocket’

With some Brits in Germany still opting to keep their UK phone contracts going after moving abroad due to the EU’s previous free-of-charge roaming agreement, it isn’t only tourists who will be impacted by the move. 

Writing on Facebook, Tom White, who lives in Germany but still uses his Three UK number, lamented the fact that his contract was about to “skyrocket” in price. 

He said he had already received emails and texts from Three informing him that he had breached their fair usage policy as he had been out of the UK for more than two months, and would therefore be subject to roaming charges from September 17th.

READ ALSO: UK introduces a new car sticker requirement for driving in Germany

Since his contract had auto-renewed early this year, he is locked into paying these charges for another seven months.  

“I’ve been out of the UK for over three years,” he wrote. “This is the first I ever heard mention of a time limit on fair usage. Last time I checked my ‘fair usage’ was a data cap of 20GB a month, that last year got dropped to 12GB a month due to exiting the EU… There was no mention of a time limit!”

In addition to Three, other operators have become stricter on their ‘fair use’ policies for roaming. Some state that Brits shouldn’t roam abroad for more than 62 days within a four-month period, while others, such as O2, have introduced caps on data usage abroad. 

For most people living in the UK, however, Three’s new roaming charges will only apply if they take out a new contract or upgrade from October 1st, 2021. 

The Republic of Ireland and Isle of Man are both exempt from the charges.

No ban on roaming charges post-Brexit 

In 2017, the European Union brought in legislation to ban mobile operators from levying roaming charges to customers travelling between member states. 

This effectively ended for UK customers after Britain left the European Union.

A ban on roaming charges was subsequently excluded from the post-Brexit trade deal, although operators are expected to offer “transparent and reasonable rates” if they do introduce new fees.

READ ALSO: How the Brexit deal has changed daily lives of British residents in Europe

“The new charge ensures that customers are clear on what they will pay when using their phone in another country and only those who roam will pay for the service,” a spokesperson for Three UK told The Guardian. “It will also ensure that we can continue investing in our UK network.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier at a summit in 2019. Roaming charges were excluded from the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement. Photo: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

According to Three, the daily £2 roaming fee will also be capped at £45 to avoid customers getting “bill shock” upon their return home from a European Union country. 

But consumer rights advocates have slammed the move. 

“It’s really disappointing that Three is reintroducing roaming charges and that new and upgrading customers will be burdened with extra charges abroad for using mobile data, calls and texts that they have already paid for,” Sue Davies, head of consumer protection policy at Which?, told The Guardian. 

“The UK and EU should urgently strike a deal on roaming charges to stop companies chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to and prevent the return of excessive charges.”

So far, German phone companies have ruled out introducing post-Brexit roaming charges for people visit the UK – at least for the remainder of 2021. 

READ ALSO: German phone companies rule out Brexit roaming charges in 2021

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How roaming charges will hit travellers between the UK and EU in 2022

Trips between Europe and the UK and vice versa may well become more expensive for many travellers in 2022 as UK mobile operators bring back roaming charges. However there is some good news for all EU residents.

People look at their mobile phones.
How travellers between the EU and UK could be hit by roaming charges in 2022 (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

EU ‘roams like at home’ at least until 2032

First the good news. The European Union is set to decide to extend free roaming until 2032, so if you have your phone contract registered in an EU country you don’t have to worry about extra charges.

In addition to waiving the charges, the new regulation aims to ensure that travellers benefit of the same quality of service they have at home when travelling within the EU. If they have a 5G contract, for instance, they should also get 5G through the EU if possible. 

Under new rules, travellers should be given information about access to emergency services, including for people with disabilities.

Consumers should also be protected from prohibitive bills caused by inadvertent roaming on satellite networks when travelling on ferries or aeroplanes.

The final text of the new regulation was provisionally agreed in December. The European Parliament and Council will formally endorse it in the coming weeks.

UK companies reintroducing roaming charges this year

And now the bad news for travellers to the EU from the UK

Customers of UK mobile phone operators face higher fees when travelling in Europe this year, as some companies are bringing back roaming charges for calls, text messages and data downloaded during temporary stays in the EU.

This is one of the many consequences of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s “roam like at home” initiative which was designed to avoid shocking bills after holidays or business trips abroad.

The EU’s roaming regulation allows people travelling in the European Economic Area (EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to make calls, send texts and browse the web using their regular plans at no extra cost. Switzerland is not part of the scheme, although some mobile phone providers offer roaming deals or special prices to cover travel in Switzerland.

Under EU rules, if the plan’s allowance is exceeded, the roaming fee is also capped at €0.032 per minute of voice call, €0.01 per SMS and €2.5 + VAT per gigabyte downloaded in 2022 (it was €3 + VAT in 2021). The wholesale price networks can charge each other is capped too.

The regulation was adopted for an initial period of five years and is due to expire on June 30th 2022. But the EU is preparing to extend it for another ten years. This time, however, the UK will not be covered. 

Which UK companies are reintroducing charges?

Three major UK network operators this year will reintroduce roaming charges for travels in the EU.

As of January 6th 2022, Vodafone UK will charge customers with monthly plans started after August 11th 2021 £2 per day to roam in the EU. The amount can be reduced to £1 per day by purchasing a pass for 8 or 15 days. Free roaming continues for earlier contracts, Data Xtra plans and for travels to Ireland.  

From March 3rd 2022, EE will also charge £2 per day to roam in 47 European locations, Ireland excluded. The new policy will apply to plans started from July 7th 2021. Alternatively, EE offers the Roam Abroad Pass, which allows roaming abroad for a month for £10. 

Another operator that announced a £2 daily fee to roam in the EEA, except for Ireland, is Three UK. The charge will apply from May 23rd 2022 for plans started or upgraded since October 1st 2021. The data allowance in monthly plans that can be used abroad is also capped at 12 gigabytes. 

O2 already introduced in August last year a 25-gigabyte cap (or less if the plan’s allowance is lower) to data that can be downloaded for free while travelling in Europe. Above that, customers are charged £3.50 per gigabyte. 

Other mobile operators said they have no intention to bring back roaming charges in the short term, but if won’t be surprising if they do so in the future. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at UK consumer organisation Which? was disappointed at the changes and urged the UK and EU to “strike a deal on roaming charges” to stop companies “chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to” and “prevent the return of the excessive charges people used to encounter.” 

By law, charges for mobile data used abroad remain capped at £45 per month and consumers can only continue data roaming only if they actively chose to keep spending. 

What about EU residents travelling to the UK?

In the EU, most mobile phone operators seem keen to continue free roaming for travels to the UK, but some have announced changes too.

In Sweden, Telenor aligned UK’s prices to those of non-EEA countries on May 1st 2021 while still allowing free roaming for some plans. 

Another Swedish operator, Telia, ended free roaming with the UK and Gibraltar on September 13th 2021 giving customers the option to access 200 megabytes of data for SEK 99 per day. People travelling to the UK can also buy a weekly pass allowing to make calls, send texts and download 1 GB of data. 

In Germany Telefónica Deutschland and 1 & 1 have extended current conditions for the UK until at least the end of 2022. However companies may keep other options open depending on negotiations with roaming partners. 

A1 Telekom Austria brought roaming charges back for the UK last June. Customers now have to pay €2.49 per minute for outgoing calls and €1.49 per minute for incoming calls if they are in the UK or Gibraltar. An SMS costs 99 cents and each 100 KB of data €1.49. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.