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 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 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 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.
I’ve bought cards from both EE and O2 on various trips, as well as various resellers 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 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 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.
Given 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.
Prepaid SIM Costs
The EE and O2 outlets I went into were both offering packages with a useful number of calls and texts and 2GB of data for £10, or 5GB for £15. Vodafone and Three’s packs were the same price, but included more data. I was tempted, but the greater coverage with EE and O2 swayed me in the end.
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 5GB of data, 500 minutes, and unlimited SMS for £15. As it turned out, I didn’t use anything like that during my month in the country.
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, it’s worth considering Lycamobile instead. The company often offers discounts on larger data packs: a recent special gave unlimited calls and texts and 20GB of data for £12, valid for a month.
You’ll typically get extra bundled data if you buy your Lycamobile SIM online and get it sent out to a UK address, but that obviously comes with its own difficulties for many travelers.
There may be a small charge for the SIM card if you buy in person, which can be done at any convenience store or supermarket showing a Lycamobile logo. In most towns and cities, you won’t have to walk far to find one. Coverage and speeds won’t be as good as the EE network, however.
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.
Lycamobile lets you top up online using Paypal or a (UK) debit or credit card, or anywhere you see the logo.
Coverage and Data Speeds
As in many parts of the world, data speeds varied more in large cities than elsewhere. In Brixton, south London, for example, EE upload and download speeds fluctuated a lot, and data 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 a local cell tower rather than a more widespread issue, but it’s worth nothing either way.
The UK officially left the European Union in January 2020, but a transition period runs through until the end of the year. As a result, EU roaming regulations currently still apply, but unless they are included in any future trade deal, will be at the operator’s discretion from 2021 onward.
The “roam like at home” rules ended roaming charges across much of Europe in 2017, letting you use a SIM card from any EU country across all the others at no extra charge.
There are some exceptions and limits, however, especially with large data packages. Double-check the exact details at time of purchase.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.