Last updated: 29 August, 2016

The United Kingdom. Home of the Beatles, Buckingham Palace, cozy pubs, great curries and, seemingly, about half a million different mobile providers.

Despite a few takeovers and mergers in recent years, if you’re looking for cell service as a traveller, it’s very easy to find. Everywhere from dedicated shops on every high street to tiny convenience stores will be able to sell you a SIM card and top-up your credit. It’s generally a straightforward process.

There isn’t much difference in prices or value between the major brands. Several resellers offer slightly better rates, but it’s sometimes more effort than it’s worth to get them. Here’s what you need to know.



COMPANIES

  • We recommend EE for most travellers
  • Consider Three if you'll be travelling elsewhere in Europe afterwards, due to the free roaming in several EU countries

Walk down any high street in Britain and you’ll likely pass stores from all four network operators (O2, EE, Three and Vodafone), often within a block or two of each other. This makes it easy to compare pricing and special deals. In reality, though, you’ll likely end up paying a similar amount no matter which one you go with.

You’ll sometimes find stores from the larger resellers as well, and I walked into one from Virgin Mobile. The prices worked out about the same, but required purchasing and activating various packages that wouldn’t take effect immediately. My eyes glazed over within seconds.

SIM cards for Lycamobile and Lebara seemed to be available in every convenience store I walked past. If all you care about is data, either of these are probably a cheaper option — you can get 1GB of data for £7.50.

You can also buy SIM cards from Asda and Tesco supermarkets, as well as online-only providers that will post a card out to a UK address if you can provide one.

I returned to the EE store for no particular reason other than it was the closest. It’s also one of the few that provides 4G/LTE for prepay customers, but as my phone uses North American frequencies, that wasn’t personally a benefit.

Note, though, that if you’re planning to continue travelling through Europe, or to the US, Australia and a few other destinations, it’s worth considering Three instead.

While service areas aren’t quite as good as other operators, the company’s "Feel at Home" plan covers 40+ other countries, letting you use your UK SIM and calls, texts and data at the same rates as within the UK, even with pay-as-you-go plans.

HOW

The process of getting the SIM card couldn’t have been easier. I went through the package options with the salesperson (there weren’t many), and he installed and activated the SIM with my chosen plan in about two minutes.

I didn’t need to show my passport or any other identification, which was a nice change. I received an SMS confirming that all was well shortly afterwards, and 3G data started working straight away.

COSTS

I spent an hour walking around the stores near where I was staying in London. All offered a reasonable number of calls and texts with roughly 500MB of data for £10, and 1GB or more for £15. The SIM cards themselves were free in every case, although some did need a minimum spend.

With EE, I ended up with a 30 day plan that included 2GB of data, 500 minutes and unlimited SMS. As it turned out, I didn’t use anything like that during my month in the country.

London is now a very connected city, and with free Wi-Fi everywhere from tube stations to cafes, bars and phone boxes, I could have made do with the £10/500MB plan instead.

 

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TOPPING UP

You can top up from any store that’s displaying the EE logo, or online. Note, however, that you’ll need a UK-issued credit card to top up online. As you’re unlikely to have one as a tourist, you’ll need to either make a British friend in a hurry or just buy vouchers from physical stores.

COVERAGE AND DATA SPEEDS

I was surprised at just how much my data speeds and reliability varied. In Brixton, where I was based, speeds were often very slow, with both upload and download speeds regularly falling well below 1Mbps. Despite having full signal, data would also sometimes just stop working for a minute or two.

When I moved to places only a few miles away, including the central city, speeds improved dramatically and the connection became more reliable. I never had a problem making or receiving calls and texts anywhere.

Given EE’s marketing material suggests ‘no other network is bigger, faster or more reliable’, I’m inclined to put this down to congestion or problems on my local cell tower rather than a more widespread issue, but it’s worth nothing either way.

EE speeds in Imperial Wharf

Look at that download speed ... if you're in the right part of town.

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.
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5 Responses

  1. Andy @ Andy Wash Here

    Just to throw my tuppence in:

    A couple of years ago, I made really good use of 3 mobile’s prepaid plan. They have a plan for £23 that includes either Unlimited Data/600 minutes, or 4GB Data/unlimited minutes. (It was £15 back then, but I’m not surprised the price has gone up since then).

    I don’t remember what my speeds were exactly, but this was before LTE rolled out in the UK, and I remember the 3G on my iPhone 4S was actually faster than LTE for my friends back home.

    If you’re a huge data user (or don’t want to have to worry about finding public wifi, which can be insecure anyway), I think 3’s plan is a really good option.

    Reply
  2. RenegadePilgrim

    I love that you always have good information right when I need it! I am hoping to get a SIM card on my 4 hour layover in LHR that will work in Dublin and London. Sounds like there are options, so that’s good. I need mostly data and texting. Not planning to call too much.

    Thanks again Dave!

    Reply
  3. Mike

    Just be aware that not every network will allow their SIM card to use data sharing. Flying into Heathrow T2 last month direct from Australia, with my laptop, my Son with his Wi-Fi only iPad, and my Wife who brought her iPhone to check email but did not want a SIM, I needed to be able to use my iPhone+ UK SIM as a data hotspot. Lucky for all of us, I chose the “3” SIM with 30 days unlimited data (inc 4G) – I had nearly gone for the slightly cheaper Vodafone SIM, and it was only after we had paid for and installed the 3 SIM that the sales guy casually mentioned that Vodafone don’t allow their data to be shared…..good to know to ask.

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      Indeed — thanks for mentioning that. Tethering is often not allowed — it’s harder to enforce on Android devices, but if you’re travelling with iPhone/iPad and want to be able to share the connection with your other devices, you should definitely confirm it’s permitted before you hand over your money.

      Reply
  4. Gianfranco

    There is a MVNO on the O2 network in UK called GiffGaff, with the best rates ever. Go check on their website, they beat even O2! No customer care, no resellers, just an Internet website.

    Reply

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