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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.