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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 what you need to know.
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.
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 major towns and cities (although there are still black spots), but frequently gets very weak or disappears in small villages and rural areas.
The process of getting both EE and O2 SIM cards 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.
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I spent an hour walking around the phone stores near where I was staying in London. All offered a reasonable number of calls and texts with roughly 2GB of data for £10, and 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.
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.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.