Everyone in Europe is getting free roaming—except Brits

“I hope you’re not calling on your British SIM card”
“I hope you’re not calling on your British SIM card”
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Europeans will be able to make calls, use data, and send texts without any additional roaming charges anywhere in the European Union once new rules come into force next June, the European Commission announced today.

British mobile users, on the other hand, may not benefit from the end of roaming, which has taken years of wrangling, with Brexit looming on the horizon.

The idea is for Europeans to be able to “roam like at home” when they travel to other countries in the bloc. That means they will pay their home country’s rates for mobile services when they are abroad. A wrinkle introduced in today’s announcement is the “principle of residence,” which defines what counts as a person’s home country. Europeans will be able to claim rates in a country where they have ”stable links,” which includes cross-border work commuters, students, and expatriates in general. That means a person who commutes between, say, Milan and Frankfurt, will be able to pay either Italian or German rates.

The Commission came up with the residence principle to assuage European telecoms’ fears that unlimited roaming would result in users arbitraging the disparity in rates between member states. “Telecoms prices in Latvia, for example, are six-and-a-half times lower than in Ireland,” said Günther Oettinger, the commissioner overseeing the initiative. “A SIM card from Latvia could be operated in Ireland, and an Irish person could telephone Dublin at Latvian prices. So the Latvian telecoms company… would have to pay higher prices than it’s earning from the end-consumer, so in a few days it would become insolvent.”

The EU has been trying to kill off roaming charges inside the bloc since 2007, when it introduced caps on the price of phone calls made or received abroad. Efforts by the Commission have intensified in recent months as the June 2017 deadline—imposed by a European Parliament vote last year—draws closer. That has led to various U-turns and about-faces as officials grapple with operators over the details.

The Commission’s latest proposal replaces its earlier idea, which was to limit the number of days Europeans could roam to 90 days per year, which Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly scrapped at the last minute and demanded an overhaul.

Brits could find themselves with the short end of the stick if and when the UK leaves the European bloc. As the think-tank Bruegel has pointed out, because Switzerland is not part of the EU, the Swiss currently pay one of the highest rates in Europe for data roaming. “It appears that the UK will shortly find itself in the same position,” Bruegel senior fellow J. Scott Marcus wrote in June.

Other analysts are more sanguine about British consumers’ prospects. Matthew Howett, a telecoms analyst at research firm Ovum, thinks the UK government will fight for a deal that keeps roaming provisions intact. In the event that UK trade wrangling fails, operators themselves are already letting consumers roam at local rates, he says.

The owners of more than 90 million mobile subscriptions in the UK will be hoping Howett is right.