View from the Shard

Buying a SIM Card in the United Kingdom

In Get Connected by Dave Dean19 Comments

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.

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, so be sure to 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
  • Consider Three if you’re on a global trip, due to free roaming in many EU and non-EU countries

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, or 2GB for £10. Just 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, 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 60+ 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.

How


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.

 

Can't be bothered with the hassle of buying a local SIM in the United Kingdom? KnowRoaming topped our international SIM card comparison.

The company's SIM cards, stickers and hotspots let you use your phone in 200 countries, give you free texts and calls around the world with WhatsApp, save up to 85% on roaming fees, and can be sent out ahead of time so you can hit the ground running. Find out more here.


 

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. 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. 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.

 

Tech getting you down?

Get our free 5000 word guide, plus regular tips, discounts and the best travel tech advice.

No spam, ever.
 

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 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.

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 speeds in Imperial Wharf

Look at that download speed … if you’re in the right part of town.

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

The UK is home to the Beatles, Buckingham Palace, cozy pubs and, seemingly, about half a million different mobile providers. Here's what you need to know.

About the Author

Dave Dean

Facebook Twitter

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.

Leave a Comment