How to set up a local SIM card in the United Kingdom
Buy a local SIM card to reduce your roaming rates.
The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England’s capital city, London, is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and other parts of the British Isles are extremely popular with international travellers. Using your phone there can be expensive, so to keep costs down, why not switch to a local SIM card so you can take advantage of better plans, deals and tariffs? The UK has prepaid SIM cards available for tourists, offering rates as low as £9.90 (AUD$16.78) per GB. So, whether you’re planning a quick break, an extended trip or a country hop, check out the best SIM card offers on Finder.
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Telco providers in the UK
There are four main phone operators in the UK: EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. All four operators have been tried and tested by both locals and international visitors, and all of them can be trusted. According to OpenSignal’s coverage map, the UK has a good signal throughout the British Isles. Some areas can suffer in the Scottish highlands and the Snowdonia mountain range in Wales, but overall the network coverage is one of the best in the world.
About the UK’s operators
All four operators offer prepaid SIM cards, and you can buy them from stores, supermarkets, kiosks, drug stores and official outlets, as well as all international airports. 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services are available on all networks for unlocked GSM phones. You can purchase a SIM card without having to show your passport, and your telephone number is already active when you buy it. To add credit, there are several prepaid card machines in corner stores around most towns and cities, and vouchers are also stocked in stores and supermarkets. UK is also part of the EU roaming pact, which means European data roaming rates can be used while travelling with a UK SIM card.
Below, we have broken down each telco provider and highlighted what they can offer you while travelling around the UK.
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EE is the UK’s largest operator and has the most customers on its 4G platform. It offers customers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services, and Internet speeds are fast. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores and approved resellers, plus SIM card vending machines, corner stores and supermarkets. Credit can also be purchased from those same retailers, or you can upload top-ups by using your credit card online. SIM cards can be picked up for free, but credit or plans must be added in order to use them. The best option is to purchase a credit voucher and upload it onto your phone by texting “ETU” followed by the PIN code to 150. Dial 150 or text BA to 150 to check your balance.
The following combo packs can be added to prepaid SIM cards, and each is valid for 30 days:
|£1 Data Pack (week)||100MB||10 minutes||10 SMS||£1||DP1|
|£10 Everything Pack||500MB||150 minutes||Unlimited||£10||EP10|
|£10 Data Pack||1GB||100 minutes||1,000 SMS||£10||DP10|
|£12.50 Everything Pack||1GB||300 minutes||Unlimited||£12.50||EP12|
|£15 Everything Pack||2GB||500 minutes||Unlimited||£15||EP15|
|£15 Data Pack*||4GB||250 minutes||Unlimited||£15||DP15|
|£20 Everything Pack||3GB||750 minutes||Unlimited||£20||EP20|
|£25 Everything Pack||4GB||1,000 minutes||Unlimited||£25||EP25|
Text the relevant activation code in the right-hand column to 150 to purchase your preferred plan.
The following data bundles can also be added:
EE also offers a data-only SIM card. The following packages are available for tablets, modems and routers:
The following can be added to the data-only SIM card:
- 100MB: £2
- 300MB: £5
- 1GB: £10
- 2GB: £15
- 4GB (on LTE+): £20
- 10GB (on LTE+): £30
EE’s APN: everywhere, and website: http://ee.co.uk/
Vodafone is the UK’s second-largest provider and is probably the best known. It has some great voice and data packages, and is popular with consumers. Vodafone offers customers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services, and both network coverage and Internet speeds are good. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores, approved resellers, SIM card vending machines, corner stores and supermarkets. Credit can also be bought from the same retailers or online by using a credit card or PayPal. Credit can be purchased from £5 upwards in most retailers. SIM cards can be picked up for free, but credit or plans will have to be added in order to use them. SIM cards have to be activated before they can be used, so dial 4354 to activate. Dial *#1345# or 2345 to check your balance.
Vodafone also offers a reward system where you will receive bonus credit for certain amounts of credit uploaded. £10 top-ups will give you the same amount of credit and 500MB of data as a reward. A £20 top-up will give you the same amount of credit plus 1GB of data as a reward.
Vodafone’s APN: internet, and website: http://www.vodafone.co.uk/
O2 is the third-largest operator in the United Kingdom, but in the past, it was one of the most problematic networks in the British Isles. Services at the time of writing in September 2017 are now much better, and O2 offers customers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services. Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased from official stores or approved resellers, and credit can be bought from the same retailers, most corner stores, supermarkets and fuel stations.
Top-ups can be found in the form of Cashcards, which can be purchased from most retailers in the UK. Dial 4444 and enter the Cashcard number to add credit. Top-ups are sold for £10-£50. Dial *#10# to check your balance.
The following combo packages can be added to all prepaid SIM cards, and each is valid for 30 days.
|£10||250 minutes||1,000 SMS||500MB|
|£10||100 minutes||100 SMS||1GB|
|£15||750 minutes||2,000 SMS||2GB|
|£20||1,500 minutes||4,000 SMS||3GB|
|£25||3,000 minutes||4,000 SMS||5GB|
|£30||3,000 minutes||4,000 SMS||20GB|
(10 GB EU roaming)
Dial 2202 and select the relevant plan to activate.
The following data packages can also be added:
In addition, there is a data-only SIM card available:
- 3GB valid for 30 days: £16
- 5GB valid for 90 days: £25
- 12GB valid for 90 days: £48
Data SIM cards can be topped up with the following add-ons:
O2’s APN : payandgo.o2.co.uk, and website: http://www.o2.co.uk/
Three (3) is the smallest provider in the UK, but one that is gaining a lot of ground on the others. It offers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE services and some of the best price plans and packages. Prepaid SIM cards can be picked up for free from official stores or approved resellers, and credit can be purchased from the same retailers, most corner stores, supermarkets and fuel stations. Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) and data-only SIM cards are available.
The following packs are available on PAYG SIM cards:
- Internet daily pass: 120MB for 24 hours, £0.50
- Mobile Internet pass: 500MB for 30 days, £5
- All-in-one-10: 1GB for 30 days, £10 (with 3,000 local minutes and 3,000 local texts)
- All-in-one-15: 5GB for 30 days, £15 (with 3,000 local minutes and 3,000 local texts)
- All-in-one-20: 12GB (9GB in EU roaming) for 30 days, £20 (with 3,000 local minutes and 3,000 local texts)
- All-in-one-25: 30GB (9GB in EU roaming) for 30 days: £25 (with 3,000 local minutes and 3,000 local texts)
- All-in-one-35: All-you-can-use data (1TB cap applies in the UK, 9GB in EU roaming) for 30 days, £35 (with 3,000 local minutes and 3,000 local texts)
Credit can be purchased in the following denominations: £10, £15, £20, £25, £30 and £50. Dial 444 to upload credit.
- 3GB data valid for 3 months: £16
- 12GB data valid for 12 months: £30
In addition, the following data add-ons are available:
Three’s APN: three.co.uk, and website: http://www.three.co.uk/
Some top tips from finder.com.au staff:
- Locals call a SIM card a “chip” or “SIM”.
- English is the main language.
- Ask the retailers to help set up the SIM card for you. They are official sellers and will be very happy to help.
- Get to the stores early to receive the best help.
TripAdvisor reviews can help guide you through what SIM cards have been tried and tested in the United Kingdom.
Here are some top tips from TripAdvisor users:
“Poundland stocks them as well, also potentially 99p stores but have a look in WH Smiths because they are possibly quoting a better value unlimited data and text plan along with good minutes.”
“You can get a Three SIM card online if you are in the UK and have a UK credit card. If you aren't and don't have a UK credit card and want it before you arrive in the UK you can order one on ebay.”
Pros and cons of the United Kingdom’s telco providers
You will need a SIM-unlocked, GSM-compatible international phone. To double check you have this option, or whether it’s possible to unlock your device, contact your provider before you set off on your travels.
- Prepaid credit when required
- No in-store contract needed
- Could be compatible with your current phone
- Can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones
- Shop around for good data deals, because they can be expensive
More questions about finding the best SIM?
Q: What about other providers in the United Kingdom?
A: There are several MVNOs, including GiffGaff, Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile, ASDA Mobile, Lebara mobile and many others that offer good deals. Check all options and the best deal before purchasing your SIM card.
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