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Buying a SIM Card in the United Kingdom

In Get Connected by Dave Dean31 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 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.

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 major towns and cities (although there are still black spots), but frequently gets very weak or disappears in small villages and rural areas.

How


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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Costs


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.

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

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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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, SIM Easy ships them worldwide for a small surcharge.

  15. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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