Mobile phone costs 

With the cost of living predicted to rise, it’s no surprise that many families are tightening the purse strings and that mobile phone bills are coming under increased scrutiny.

For children and teenagers in particular, budgeting on their mobiles can be a steep learning curve. Texts, downloads and apps can all add up and, if they’re on a ‘Pay monthly’ contract, they might not even notice the costs mounting until it’s too late.

So, how can parents advise their kids about staying on top of mobile costs? Digital Parenting highlights some of the main considerations and some of the tools and resources that may help.


Did you know
Smartphone ownership among 8 to 11-year-olds in the UK is around 18 per cent compared to 62 per cent for 12-15s.

‘Pay monthly’ vs ‘Pay as you go’ 

Choose how you or your child will pay for the phone – either ‘Pay monthly’ (sometimes called ‘Contract’) or ‘Pay as you go’ (also referred to as PAYG, Pay as you talk, or Pre-pay).

‘Pay monthly’ customers must be over 18 and usually sign up to a contract for 12 months or longer. The monthly fee covers the cost of the handset and the calls, texts and other services, with many providers offering inclusive text and call packages and additional benefits, such as handset upgrades.

By setting up a ‘Pay monthly’ contract on behalf of your child, you can choose to receive an itemised bill (online or paper) on which your son’s or daughter’s calls, texts and premium rate service charges, such as downloads, are listed.

If you choose an inclusive package for them, find out what the call and text limits are and check whether your provider will only allow your child to receive calls or texts once they have reached that limit (as you might be charged at a higher rate if your child exceeds it). Sit down with them and go through the monthly bills together so that everyone knows what the money is being spent on.

Bear in mind that if you set up a ‘Pay monthly’ contract on behalf of your child, you are liable for any charges your child runs up, however inadvertently.

With ‘Pay as you go’, the mobile handset can be bought up-front and you, or your child, have to pay for calls or texts in advance. You, or they, can top up their phone in various ways, including from a bank account, at a cash machine, using vouchers bought in a supermarket or newsagents, with a swipe card, or via the mobile provider.

Some people say that PAYG gives young people more control over their mobile spending. TopUp vouchers or credits can be given in lieu of pocket money, for example, and can help them to budget their phone time. Disadvantages include that your son or daughter might keep asking for money for TopUps or that they might find themselves out of credit when they need to make an important call.

Premium rate services 

According to a survey by PhonepayPlus, 65% of children with mobile phones have used a premium rate service. These services generally fall into two categories: a) premium rate numbers and b) apps, games and other content that involve a charge being made.

Premium rate calls, messages, apps and other content are usually charged outside your mobile price plan and the majority of premium rate services are supplied by third party companies (only a fraction are supplied by mobile providers).

Premium rate numbers are charged for in the same way as a phone call, through your monthly mobile bill or through credit on your mobile.

These services, which include support lines, chat services and competition lines, tend to cost more than a normal phone call (between 10p and £1.53 per minute/call from a BT landline, for example). Mobile providers often charge an additional fee for these services so it’s worth checking the costs first.

For ‘Pay monthly’ mobile users, the charges show up on your monthly bill, while for ‘Pay as you go’, they are taken out of the balance straight away.

Apps, games and other content can also be charged to your mobile bill. It’s therefore important that you talk to your son or daughter about how the costs of apps, games and other content could add up.

While some content is free, other content has to be bought – young sports fans might choose to spend £1.49 to download Flick Kick Football on iTunes or £4.58 for FIFA 12 on Google Play, for example. Other common payment methods for apps include credit/ debit cards, PayPal and cash (via Top-Ups).

To help protect you and your child, promotional materials for apps, games and other content should clearly state what the charges are. Furthermore, transactions may be limited (e.g. to £30 per day per user) although, if you choose to let your child use your credit card or a pre-paid mobile account, the only limit that applies is your own credit limit.

In some cases, your child might download a free app or game but then be asked to pay extra once they have downloaded it (often called a “freemium” product or service).

In-app or in-game purchases, such as for clothes, food or weapons for a character in a games app, are increasingly common and some kids might not understand that they’ll be paying real money even though they’re playing in a virtual world.

In the UK, you can recognise different types of premium rate numbers by the first few digits. 

For example:  

  • Mobile shortcode numbers are typically five to seven-digit numbers beginning with 5, 6, 7 or 8. You can either send texts to these numbers (to donate to charity, enter competitions or download games and ringtones) or you might be asked to ring a shortcode to vote on a TV show. As these shortcodes only apply to mobile callers, the price advertised is the price you pay.
  • 118 is for directory enquiries. Prices range from 60p to £6 per minute depending on the service you require and which mobile provider you use.
  • With 0800 reverse, the person receiving the call pays for it. kk 0843, 0844, 0871, 0872 and 0873 numbers are generally customer helplines, technical support lines, chat lines and sales/booking lines. Prices vary between landline and mobile networks.
  • 090 is mainly used for competitions, TV voting, horoscopes and chat lines. These numbers will either be charged by the minute (on mobiles, prices range from 50p to £2.50 per minute) or per call.

You can check numbers on your phone bill on your mobile provider’s website or on the PhonepayPlus website. Vodafone customers can go to

Mobile payments 

Nowadays, you can pay for many products and services direct from your mobile. Purchases can be a) charged to your monthly mobile bill or ‘Pay as you go’ credit, b) made via an online payment service like PayPal, c) charged as a premium rate text message (as outlined above) or d) made using a ‘digital wallet’ app (where you simply “touch” your smartphone on a terminal to pay).

As smartphones become increasingly central to young people’s lives, it’s important to talk to your son or daughter about mobile payments. Are they using their phone to buy games, ringtones and other content? Have they ever been surprised by a large bill? Do they know what information to look for when making a mobile purchase (e.g. potential hidden costs and customer helpline details)?

To make the process of buying low cost goods from mobiles more transparent, Vodafone and other leading mobile providers in the UK have set up a payments scheme and trust mark called Payforit.

When you purchase content from any company that has signed up to Payforit and you want to charge it to your mobile:

  • You are presented with a standard Payforit screen that includes information about what you are buying, who you are buying from, and how much it will cost you
  • Once you authorise payment by pressing ‘Pay Now’ or ‘Subscribe’, a payment request goes directly to your mobile operator for validation
  • The cost is then applied to your next phone bill or removed from your existing credit
  • You receive a receipt via text message

To prevent overspending, some companies have ‘spend limits’ in place (e.g. a limit on the amount that users

Travelling abroad 

Before your child takes their phone on holiday with them, make sure they understand the costs of making calls, sending texts, and using mobile internet when they’re abroad as these will not fall under their normal price plan. You might even want to suggest they turn off mobile data on their phone while they’re on holiday in order to keep costs down.

If you’re travelling within the EU, there is a maximum charge of €0.45 per MB excluding VAT (around 38p) for using mobile internet, such as accessing maps, videos, photos, social networks and email (as a guide, 25MB is enough to watch a couple of YouTube clips, read up to 90 BBC News stories and read and reply to around 100 emails). The maximum price to make a call within the EU is around 20p per minute and it’s around 6p per minute to receive a call, under 7p to send a text message and 37p to send a picture message.

To help avoid unexpectedly high bills for using mobile internet, if your son or daughter is travelling inside or outside the EU, they will get a warning text message, email or pop-up window when they are nearing €50 of data downloads.

They will then have to confirm they are happy to go over this level in order to continue using mobile internet.

Vodafone’s EuroTraveller service helps ‘Pay monthly’ customers to stay in control of mobile costs when abroad. For just an extra £3 a day, you can use your UK price plan in Vodafone’s Europe Zone (but no extras). The daily charge is only triggered by customers making calls, sending texts and using the mobile internet. There is no charge for receiving calls or texts.

Useful tools for Vodafone customers 

Vodafone in the UK

  • Vodafone ‘Pay monthly’ customers can keep an eye on their bills online and can text 44555 from their handset at any time to receive a free text message showing their usage information – Vodafone does not offer a spend limit on mobile accounts, however
  • Vodafone ‘Pay monthly’ customers can register for itemised online bills for free or pay £1.54 per month for itemised paper bills. Itemised billing is not available on ‘Pay as you go’ accounts
  • All Vodafone customers can use the My Vodafone app to keep track of their account
  • For just an extra £3 a day, Vodafone ‘Pay monthly’ customers can use their UK price plan when travelling in Europe, so they’ll have freedom from unexpected bills – find out more about Vodafone EuroTraveller
  • Customers can request that Vodafone bars premium rate services on a particular mobile and can also take advantage of the Vodafone Guardian app to limit what their child can download onto their mobile
  • Vodafone customers can post questions about their mobile in the company’s eForum

My Vodafone app

If you’re a Vodafone customer in the UK, you can download the My Vodafone app for your Android, iPhone or BlackBerry smartphone to help you keep track of your Vodafone account. With My Vodafone, you can:

  • Check your usage – see the minutes, texts and internet you've used or check your credit and Vodafone Freebee allowance if you're on ‘Pay as you go’
  • Find free Wi-Fi – search for local BT Wi-Fi hotspots and connect to them for free if you have a Wi-Fi allowance as part of your plan
  • See price plan information – check your current price plan, see when you can upgrade and check the cost of your latest bill
  • Check what you've opted in to – if you've got any extras like Vodafone EuroTraveller or Vodafone IOU, you'll be able to see them here
  • See how the Vodafone support section can help you – find out about the services available, get to grips with your phone and have your bill explained
  • Contact Vodafone – find out about all the ways you can get in touch


PhonepayPlus regulates premium rate services in the UK and investigates complaints about them.

Where PhonepayPlus decides that its rules have been broken, it can fine the company responsible, bar access to its services and even bar the individual behind the company from running other services under a different company name.

PhonepayPlus has taken action on behalf of consumers on a wide range of issues, from malicious apps that charge users without their knowledge to misleading advertising.

The PhonepayPlus code of practice is built around six outcomes for consumers. Services must:

  • be upfront about the service they offer and the cost
  • treat consumers fairly
  • comply with the law
  • not invade consumer privacy
  • not cause harm or unreasonable offence to consumers
  • resolve consumer complaints quickly To help you keep in control of your bill when using premium rate services, PhonepayPlus has three top tips:
  • Treat your mobile number like your credit card number – you can be charged to both kk Read the small print
  • Check your bill regularly


Take action 

VISIT the PhoneBrain website together to find out more about premium rate services 

FIND OUT how your child’s mobile provider blocks premium rate services for users under the age of 18 before you get them a mobile phone

CHECK with your mobile provider whether mobile payments are set to ‘on’ on your child’s phone. If you don’t want your child to be able to make mobile payments, contact your provider’s customer service team to request they are turned off 

REMIND your son or daughter to think before they click on any ‘Buy’ buttons and to read the terms and conditions so that they have all the information they need before they make a purchase 

KEEP receipts you receive for digital content and services as they will confirm how much was paid and who to contact for customer support 

EXPLAIN to your child how a PIN/ password on their handset can stop accidental calls, texts or purchases being made from their pocket or bag. This also protects their mobile from other people using it and all phones still allow 999 calls to be made when locked 

PUT A PIN or password on your app store accounts and don’t share it with your children. You can also request that any receipts for apps are sent to your email address so that you can keep an eye on purchases 

MAKE THE MOST OF Parental Controls on your child’s mobile (e.g. Vodafone Guardian) if you would prefer to prevent your child downloading apps and making in-app purchases, for example

SHOW your child how to use the PhonepayPlus Number Checker to check the cost of particular premium rate services 

TALK to them about the costs of using their mobile abroad – you might want to suggest they switch off mobile data on their phone while they’re on holiday 

CHECK whether your mobile provider offers any special price plans when using their mobile abroad 

LEARN more about in-app purchases in this article

TAKE a look at our mobile security checklist