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, it’s still easy to get cell service as a traveler. 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 better rates, but it’ll usually take a bit more effort to get them.
Here’s everything you need to know about buying a UK prepaid SIM card as a tourist.
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. EE has the best network, trailed by O2 and Vodafone. Three has the least coverage.
Some of the larger resellers also have high street stores, 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 cheaper providers like Lebara are available in just about every convenience store, and can also be ordered online and sent out to a UK address. You’ll pay noticeably less with these providers, especially if you plan to use large amounts of domestic data.
You can buy self-branded SIM cards from Asda and Tesco supermarkets, and there are also several online-only providers that will post a card to a UK address if you can provide one.
Because they’re typically using the O2 and Vodafone networks rather than EE, however, rural coverage typically isn’t as good with most of the cheaper providers. Also, don’t expect too much assistance from the seller if you have any problems with setting things up: you’ll need to contact the company itself.
I’ve used cards from both EE and O2 in the past, along with Lebara on the Vodafone network and a few different resellers on the O2 network. There was little difference between them in major cities, so if that’s where you’ll be spending your time, you may as well select based on price.
In villages and rural areas, however, EE has the better network, with greater coverage and faster data speeds.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in the UK
If you’re flying into London and want to get connected before leaving the airport, you easily can. At Heathrow, Gatwick, and other airports, small kiosks and vending machines offer UK SIM cards from all the major operators.
The packs on offer aren’t great value, but they’ll get you up and running in a hurry if necessary. If you’re happy to wait, however, you’ll have more choices and spend less money.
When I was staying in a central part of London, SIM card stores unsurprisingly weren’t hard to find. The process of getting SIMs from either EE and O2 couldn’t have been easier.
In both cases, I went through the prepaid package options with the salesperson (there weren’t many), and they installed and activated the SIM with my chosen plan in about two minutes.
There was no need to show my passport or any other identification, which was a nice change. I received an SMS confirming all was well shortly afterward, and data started working straight away.
Don’t want to wait until you get to the UK to get your local SIM card? Buy one in advance instead.
This Three SIM includes up to 24GB of data, plus unlimited domestic texts and minutes. It’s valid for 30 days across the UK and much of Europe.
Other options are available if you need a portable hotspot or a different mix of calls, texts, and data. You can also get an eSIM if you have a recent iPhone or other supported device. Either way, you’ll be connected with a minimum of fuss before you’ve left the airport.
Prepaid SIM Costs
The EE outlet I went into was offering packages with 100 minutes of calls, unlimited texts, and 4GB of data for £10. Going up to £15 gave unlimited calls and texts and 8GB of data.
Over at O2, you got unlimited calls and texts and 6GB of data for £10, or 15GB for £15. Vodafone and Three’s packs were the same price, but included more data. The SIM cards themselves were free in every case, although some did need a minimum spend.
Free Wi-Fi is everywhere in the cities, from London tube stations to cafes, bars, and phone boxes. Intercity buses (coaches) and trains typically offer it for free as well, so it’s easy to make your data allowance stretch a long way.
If you expect to use a lot of data despite all that free Wi-Fi, or are just on a strict budget, it’s worth considering Lebara instead. The company offers useful plans for as little as £5, and £10 gives unlimited calls and texts along with 10GB of data. Even better, there are often significant discounts for the first month or more, which suits short-term visitors perfectly.
SIM cards are free if you buy them online and get them sent out, assuming you have a UK address to use. There may be a small charge for the card if you buy in person, which can be done at any convenience store or supermarket showing a Lebara logo. In most towns and cities, you won’t have to walk far to find one.
Lebara uses the Vodafone network, which means that coverage and speeds won’t be as good as with EE. In the cities, you’ll barely notice the difference, but it may be a different story if you’re spending a lot of time in the middle of nowhere.
If you’re using EE, you can top up from any store that’s displaying the EE logo, or on the website with a UK-issued debit or credit card. 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.
It’s easier to top up Lebara SIMs online, since you can use overseas cards via Paypal, or a UK debit or credit card. Again, you can also go into any physical store that’s displaying the company logo.
Coverage and Data Speeds
As in many parts of the world, data speeds vary more in large cities than elsewhere. In Brixton, south London, for example, EE upload and download speeds fluctuated a lot, and data sometimes just stopped working for a minute or two.
When I moved elsewhere in London, including both the central city and on the outskirts, speeds improved dramatically and the connection became more reliable. I never had a problem making or receiving calls and texts anywhere else.
The same applied in other major cities, from Bristol in the south to Manchester, Leeds, and Edinburgh in the north. Even on the buses and trains between those cities, it was rare to lose coverage for more than a couple of minutes.
Using a Lebara SIM in inner Bristol, LTE speeds were reasonable both up and down. They weren’t the quickest I’ve seen, but still fast enough for streaming entertainment, making video calls, and pretty much anything else you’re likely to do on your phone.
Coverage levels drop when you get away from civilization, but not always as much as you might think. I’ve had usable call, text, and data service with all providers most of the time while hiking in places like the Cotswolds and the Lake District, as well as remote parts of the Hadrians Wall Path and South Downs Way.
Don’t plan to remain continually connected in places like these, but it’s rare to not have service for long periods, especially if you’re using EE.
The UK officially left the European Union in January 2020, and the transition period finished at the end of that year. As a result, EU roaming regulations no longer apply, and free or discounted roaming outside the UK is now offered at the operator’s discretion.
As a result, many providers are slowly starting to remove free roaming, adding limits and surcharges for using your call, text, and data bundles in European Union countries. Check the fine print carefully if you’re planning to use your UK SIM elsewhere in Europe: if free or discounted roaming isn’t offered, you may be better off replacing your SIM when you get to an EU country.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Europe has cancelled the roaming charges from 15 June 2017 for phone charges between the European countries.
Not many telco’s have amended their pricing and “volunteered” this information. They rather keep the consumers in the dark.
Maybe you could take this up with the telco’s for their reaction.
The telcos are only obligated to provide free roaming to EU residents, so it remains to be seen how, or if, next month’s changes affect non-EU tourists. I got a text last week from my Portuguese telco telling me about the upcoming change – all EU phone companies are legally obliged to tell their customers about it before June 15, so I’d expect to see more on that subject in the coming weeks.
G’day Dave, thanks for an informative site. We’ll be landing 7/9 and leaving 14/10 at LHR. We use an old Blackberry Bold 3G phone and tether our 4th Gen. IPad off it. Works slow in Oz but OK. No virus problems with that phone. The majority of our calls in U.K. will be checking business operating hours, and availability and booking of sites for stops throughout England but mostly Scotland. Some downloading of email receipts, web pages, banking transfers, etc. but not videos, films etc.. We prefer to go pre-paid but are open to suggestions for appropriate options for the time frame concerned.
At home we get by with unlimited calls inc. 1300 & 1800 numbers plus 10G data/month.
Which provider sim would you suggest and are they available to purchase on line or in Australia before leaving? What is a reasonable cost to expect to pay? I could possibly arrange for a UK mailing address but not certain at present.
Thanks again for the site and particularly for any assistance you can offer, Cheers, Gary
No need for a contract of any sort — pre-paid is fine. You’ll just need to top up at the end of your first ~30 days in the UK. As far as I can tell without knowing the exact model number, your Blackberry Bold should support the right frequencies to be able to connect to any of the 3G networks in the UK.
If you want at least 10GB of data, plus plenty of calls and texts, you’re probably best to go with O2. It has good, reasonably fast 3G coverage throughout most of the country, and a £30 package that includes the SIM, 20GB of data, and more texts and calls than you’ll use. If you can get by with 5GB of data, there’s a £25 plan instead, but for the small price difference you may not be all that bothered.
You can probably switch to a cheaper/smaller plan after the first month, since you’ll only be in the country another week or so. Hope that helps!
Great information and feedback!
A family member is planning on attending school as an exchange student. We have a US based phone but….
A) Will a SIM card work for a HTC phone in the UK/EU?
B) Is there a plan we can pay from the US to keep the service paid for (LTE 4G data and voice) while at school?
C) Are there “student” plans available?
Thank you so much in advance!
Generally, as long as the phone was purchased without being locked to a cell company, or has been unlocked since, it’ll work elsewhere in the world for calls, texts, and at least 3G data. Older phones purchased from Sprint or Verizon can be exceptions, but even that is becoming less of an issue over time.
EE requires you to use a UK-issued card for topping up. I’m not sure about other providers,sorry.
Student plans aren’t a thing as far as I know, especially prepaid, but it might be worth asking the school/university if they have something specific they’ve been offered.
We will arrive in London on 13 December and travel on to Spain the next day. If I purchase a SIM card in London, will it work in Spain?
Generally, yes. Take a look at the EU roaming article linked near the top of the post for more details.
Hi Dave. Lately I’ve been traveling to London on business. I got a +44 UK number pre-paid sim card here in the US in September for use in London in my unlocked iPhone6. It did not work on the O2 system. What would you suggest? Purchase in the UK when I go in January? Also, I want to use the same number when I go back in March. What should I do?
Sorry, I don’t quite understand what you mean by “didn’t work on the O2 system”. Who did you buy the card from in the US / which service provider does it use in the UK?
Hi Dave. I bought it from Brightroam in the US. It’s on T-Mobile here and was supposed to use O2 in London. But no one could reach me, And I could not make calls out. Someone said it was because not all sim cards work on iPhone6’s. Don’t know what to do for my trip in January.
Ok. I’m not familiar with that company, or why it wouldn’t work in an unlocked iPhone 6. Regardless, I’d suggest buying a local SIM and call/text/data package in the UK in January as per this article, and enquiring at time of purchase what the best option is for keeping it active through your trip in March. Most packages last about a month, so your SIM will definitely keep working if you just keep renewing whatever package you’ve bought each month. There may also be a particular package that lasts longer than 30 days, that could make more sense for your situation.
When you say “locked to a cell phone company”, I have a iPhone 7 that I am making payments on for another year…..does this mean it is locked. I am travelling to Dublin and London in February and trying to figure out what my options are. I want to be able to text, phone and use the Internet. Would I just buy a prepaid SIM card as you have mentioned above ? I am somewhat techno-challenged and I don’t want to be met with a crazy bill coming home to Canada. Thanks very much.
If you’re paying it off over time then your phone may be locked to your carrier, but you’ll need to contact them to know for sure.
If it is, they may be willing to unlock it for you. If it’s not (or if they unlock it), then you’ll be able to buy a local SIM as suggested.
Coming to the UK form Australia for a month soon. When you buy a prepaid sim, do you get a new phone number with it, or keep your existing one?
You get a new local (in this case, UK) number with the new SIM.
Hi there, I am coming from South Africa for a week, landing in Manchester airport. Do you recommend buying a SIM in airport, if possible or in the actual city. What would be the best option, (value for money wise,) for a weeks worth of data and calls between my travels of Manchester and London.
I don’t know if there are places to buy SIMs at Manchester airport, but if you see one and have the time, there’s unlikely to be a huge price difference vs buying in the city.
In terms of what to buy, it depends on how you’ll be using your phone. Typically 1-2GB of data should be enough for a week, so if you’re not a heavy data user, look on the EE (or other vendors, if you prefer) website for a package that has an appropriate amount of data, texts and calls for your needs.
Hi i would be backpacking with 2 friends to london, edinburgh, amsterdam, brussels and paris.
Whats the best sim to get?
We will use it on an unlocked extra phone, then use this phone as a mobile hotspot/tethering to share between the 3 of us.
So we need a sim that we can use in all 5 countries and data can be shared/tethered/hotspot.
We only care for the data. We dont need calls and sms to be honest but if its free then no complaints either 🙂
Thanks for the help guys
There’s not really a best SIM for your situation, as call/text/data packages from all of the major companies (and most of the resellers) will roam across the EU without restriction. You’ll usually find that EE is a little more expensive than the others, and Three a little cheaper, so if price is a major consideration, maybe start with the latter. You’ll get better coverage in the UK with EE, but it’s unlikely to make much difference outside the country.
As an example, Three currently has 12GB of data for £20, or 30GB for £25, valid for a month, plus 3000 texts and minutes. Note you can only use 12GB overseas, though, regardless of how much you buy.
Since you’ll typically find stores of all of the major phone companies in the UK pretty much alongside each other in malls and on high streets across the country, it won’t take long to do your research. Alternatively, if you decide you want a Three SIM and would prefer to get set up ahead of time, details for doing so are in the article.
Thanks for the info. I’m headed to Norway then U.K. and it looks like 3 would cover both places, but I would have to get before my trip, right? Do I have to use in U.K. first?
If you want to avoid running around buying the card when you arrive, you can pay a little extra to get a Three SIM sent out ahead of time. Otherwise, you’ll find a Three store in shopping malls and on high streets in towns and cities across the UK.
I believe you’ll need to use it in the UK first, before trying to use it elsewhere in the EU.
I travel to London four or five time a year. I’d love to have the same phone number each time.
Is there a way to get a SIM card that I can pay for only when I use it? or pay some nominal fee to have it all the time.
I don’t want to sign up to a year long plan as I feel it will be a waste of money.
All of the network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) have a six month expiry on their SIM cards, so as long as you top up a couple of times a year, you can keep using the same card with the same number. Topping up from outside the country is annoyingly difficult, but if you’re back 4 or 5 times each year, you should be fine to just buy credit instore when you arrive anyway.
is it possible to buy a Sim Card and have it sent to Australia, or is it smarter just to buy it the day I arrive?
It might be possible to find someone on eBay or similar who would ship you a card in advance, but the carriers themselves don’t offer that service. Honestly though, it’s a five-minute process instore, so I’ve always just waited until I arrive and wandered down the high street.
Incredibly helpful post and Q&A section. Thx so much.
Hi Dave, just wanted to add my 2 cents. Before my last visit, I bought a SIM card through Three UK. Both times, easy to setup, no problems. My last visit, I really didn’t want to spend my time in a Three UK store, so I opted to try GiffGaff. I was able to order the SIM card in advance and had it mailed to me here in the United States. As soon as I arrived in London, I slipped the SIM card into my phone, registered, chose a package, and I was on my way. I was also able to use my plan traveling through Ireland, Northern Ireland, & Spain. So, GiffGaff is an option if you don’t want to have to stop somewhere to get it.
Just wanted to share my recent experience. We’re Americans and we traveled to England, Scotland, France, Italy and Norway earlier in the year. We both have iPhones. We thought about roaming with AT&T but it was very poor value and only 2G/EDGE speeds anyway.
We bought a SIM Card before we left from a company here in the USA that got shipped to our home in a few days. It came with 4G LTE data (15GB from memory) and minutes and texts. It was great because it just kept working in all the countries we visited.
Also there is quite a lot of free wi-fi in the UK and Europe, but sometimes it’s awkward asking for the password with language differences. And if you are using public wi-fi (eg in a coffee shop) you should always use a VPN.
Finally, there’s no wi-fi on airplanes, unlike here in the USA.
Thanks for the trip report, Rojer! The only thing I wanted to add was that there definitely is wi-fi on planes in Europe, but it’s dependent on which carrier you’re flying with. Despite being a budget airline, for example, Norwegian Air has free wi-fi on most of its European flights. Some other carriers also offer it on a paid basis, while others don’t have it at all.
Have you heard of this company WeKnow? Seems legit to buy a card from them?
It’s not one I’ve come across before, unfortunately, so I can’t say whether they’re legit or not. The only company that sends UK SIMs overseas that I have any experience with is the one linked in the post, which has similar pricing (and a cheaper option if you don’t need as much data).
this Friday I’m coming to London from Poland for 5 days. I want 1-3GB of data, texting would be nice but it’s not necessary. What would you suggest? I was thinking about some Lebara package deal, but I don’t really understand how these work or where to get them – do I just walk into any corner shop/supermarket or only the phone service companies’?
Best regards and looking forward to your answer
If you’re only going to be London, you’ll have decent coverage with any of the mobile companies, so Lebara’s a good cheap option (Lycamobile is another one). You’ll see signs for either or both of them in the window of pretty much every convenience store you walk past, and should be able to find SIM packs in most supermarkets as well. Sometimes the person at the convenience store might set it up for you if you ask, otherwise there’s instructions in the pack to do it yourself.
It looks like the cheapest option with either of them at the moment costs £5, and gives 3GB of data plus plenty of domestic calls and texts. That’s the price listed online, but I’d be surprised if it was much different in a store.
I have a LG 4g phone through Tracfone. I am going to Rome Italy(10days), Bristol and Bridport in England (10 days), and finally Ireland and Northern Ireland (12 days). Will I need to purchase a different SIM card for each country, or will one card work in all of them? I presently use my phone in the US and Mexico by changing SIM cards, so I know my phone is unlocked. Will the sim card allow me to call US phone numbers of people who will also be travelling with us, or will they also need to get European sim cards?
The first thing to do is make sure your phone model supports the 3G and 4G/LTE bands used in the countries you’re going to — cheaper phones in particular don’t always have good support for frequencies used outside the region (in your case, presumably North America) they were purchased in. You’ll need to contact Tracfone for this information if you can’t find it online or in any documentation you got with the phone.
Assuming it’s going to work, you may be able to use the SIM you buy in Italy in both the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland without extra cost. Many Italian operators still include the UK in their free EU roaming plans, and the Republic of Ireland is obviously in the EU anyway. The minor problem you’d have is that the call/text/data packages last 30 days, and your trip is slightly longer than that — topping up when you’re outside Italy may not be particularly easy, so you’d be left without service either at the start or end of the trip.
The alternative is just to buy an Italian SIM card to use in Italy, then a UK SIM to use in England, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. UK operators aren’t (currently) charging roaming fees for use in the Republic. This is probably what I’d look to do, since having a local number in the UK will likely be more useful than having an Italian one (see below for why this is).
You’ll be able to call US numbers if you want to, but it won’t be free for you or the person you’re calling. I’d suggest calling over data with an app like WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger etc if both of your phones support it, or getting the people you’re traveling with to just buy local SIM cards like you are — domestic calls will be free.