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Buying a SIM Card in the United Kingdom

By Dave Dean Get Connected38 Comments


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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 traveller. 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 everything you need to know about buying a UK prepaid SIM card as a tourist.


Note: At least for now, the United Kingdom remains part of the European Union, which introduced new roaming regulations in June 2017. These “roam like at home” rules effectively ended roaming charges across much of Europe, meaning you’ll usually pay no more for calls, texts, and data in other EU countries than you would in the country of purchase.

There are some exceptions and limits, however. Double-check the details at time of purchase if you’re planning to use your SIM elsewhere in the region.


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Companies


  • We recommend EE for most travellers

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 Lycamobile and Lebara seemed to be available in every convenience store I walked past. With either provider, you’ll pay noticeably less for large amounts of domestic data (10-30GB/month) than other companies.

Because they’re using the O2 and Vodafone networks respectively, however, coverage isn’t as good as EE with either Lycamobile or Lebara. Also, don’t expect too much assistance if you have any problems with setting things up.

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

I’ve bought cards from both EE and O2 on various trips, as well as giffgaff, a reseller on the O2 network. EE definitely has the better network, especially outside major cities, and is typically only slightly more expensive.

Coverage with O2 is usually pretty good in London and other major towns and cities (although there are still black spots), but frequently gets very weak or disappears in small villages and rural areas.

How


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 photo below shows a few of the options available in a vending machine at the main Heathrow bus and coach terminal. The packs on offer aren’t exceptional 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. 

Heathrow vending machine with UK prepaid SIM card packages

Given that I was staying in a central part of London, SIM card stores unsurprisingly weren’t hard to find. The process of getting SIMs from both EE and O2 couldn’t have been easier.

In both cases, I went through the 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 12GB 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. Either way, you’ll be connected with a minimum of fuss before you’ve left the airport.

Costs


All of the various outlets I went into had packages with a useful number of calls and texts, plus roughly 2GB of data for £10, or 5GB or more for £15. Free bonus data was often available via various promotions.

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, 100 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, it’s easy to make your data allowance stretch a long way.

Topping Up


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.

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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. Both upload and download speeds regularly fell well below 1Mbps. Despite having full signal, data would also sometimes just stop 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.

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

EE 3G speeds in Imperial Wharf

EE 3G/HSPA+ speeds in Imperial Wharf, London

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

About the Author
Dave Dean

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    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.

  2. Avatar

    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!

  3. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  4. Avatar

    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.

  5. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  6. Avatar

    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

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Hi 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!

  7. Avatar

    Greetings Dave,

    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!

    Steve

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  8. Avatar

    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?

  9. Avatar

    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?

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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?

  10. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  11. Avatar

    Hi Dave
    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  12. Avatar

    Hi Dave
    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?

  13. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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 much or any 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.

  14. Avatar

    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

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  15. Avatar

    Hi Dave,
    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?
    Thanks
    Cindy

  16. Avatar

    Hi Dave,
    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Hi Judi,

      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.

  17. Avatar

    thanks Dave
    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?

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Hi Judi,

      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.

  18. Avatar

    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.

  19. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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.

  20. Avatar

    Have you heard of this company WeKnow? Seems legit to buy a card from them?

    1. Dave Dean Author

      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).

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