Woman Using iPhone
James Stevenson says he only used his phone for a matter of moments at the airport in Cape Town, South Africa.Reuters

A British holidaymaker claims he has been charged £5,000 for using his mobile phone to retrieve a single email while in South Africa. James Stevenson, director of a Hertfordshire recruitment firm, says he had only just stepped off the plane after arriving in Cape Town when he switched on his phone to check the details his hotel booking.

The 44-year-old says he felt his phone buzz after turning on his phone, indicating he had a new text message waiting to be read, but he decided to ignore it for a few seconds while searching for his hotel booking email. Once he'd found it, Stevenson says he looked at the text message, which was an alert from Vodaphone warning him that he'd already racked up a £495 data roaming bill.

Assuming there must be some mistake, Stevenson immediately called the company as was told that the time he'd taken checking the email had increased the bill more than £5,000. He says that sum had been reached despite the fact he, his wife Sarah and their 15-month-old daughter had not yet even left the airport arrivals lounge.

"All I did was to find an email after a 12-hour flight with a one-year-old," he told the Independent on Sunday. "This all took place in the airport and Vodafone has confirmed it was less than an hour of roaming, their minimum time breakdown. Vodafone say there is nothing they can do."

Vodafone offer

Stevenson added that shock and stress of the massive charge completely ruined his holiday in South Africa. "Vodafone were dismissive and I spent the holiday worrying about this bill," he said.

Although mobile data roaming charges will be capped in Europe from April and banned altogether by June 2017, huge fees will still be applicable when travelling outside the EU. Customers have complained that the roaming charge free-for-all outside Europe is confusing, with campaigners calling for companies to simplify the cost structure.

One proposal is to require customers to "opt in" for set amount of spending rather than simply running up massive costs total depending on how much is used. Such a system would also cover those who are unaware that their mobile's data roaming option is turned on and running up a heavy bill while they are enjoying their holiday.

Responding to Stevenson's case, a spokesperson for Vodafone said: "We'll look into this as a high priority and will be in contact with Mr Stevenson to discuss the outstanding amount."