Getting a UK mobile phone and UK SIM card
A complete UK mobile phone guide, including how to get a UK SIM card, UK mobile phone number, UK prepaid SIM card or unlock a phone in the UK.
As an expat, getting a UK mobile phone number is a quicker way to getting connected than setting up British telecommunications services after relocation. This guide explain how expats – and visitors – to the UK can acquire a UK mobile phone, UK SIM card or UK mobile plan and use their exising international mobile phones.
Like most other countries in Europe, UK mobile companies operate using the GSM standard. If your mobile phone is compatible with GSM, all you need to do is exchange your current SIM for a UK SIM or UK prepaid SIM. Not all international mobile phones will work with British mobile phone companies, however, which might mean that you would have to get your phone unlocked before travelling to the UK or simply buy a UK mobile phone when in the country.
The UK also has many WiFi points and a widespread 4G mobile coverage with at least 92 per cent of the country able to access the service so you won't ever be away from internet access whether you're living in the UK or working in the UK as an expat.
Getting a UK SIM card
Switching to a UK mobile phone service provider is simple. All you have to do is visit any of the mobile phone shops (listed below) in the high street or shopping centre and purchase a UK SIM card.
You can either opt for a contract or a Pay-As-You-Go. We will look at the pros and cons of both options in this guide. If you are only visiting short-term – ask your mobile phone provider what their charges are for you to use a sister service in the UK.
If you are not likely to be using your mobile phone a lot while in the UK, it might be more cost-effective to buy a UK prepaid SIM card from a mobile phone shop, where you can purchase 'top-up' vouchers whenever you need more credit. Otherwise shop around for the best deals on mobile phone contracts.
Some UK mobile companies include:
- Carphone Warehouse
- Phones 4 U
- 3 Store
You can load GBP 10 or GBP 20 vouchers on to your UK SIM. Nano SIMs are also available.
Cost per texting will vary from one UK mobile phone company to the next. Furthermore, call charges can vary at different times of the year depending on how the phone companies fix their pricing.
We therefore cannot give you a definitive list here, but advise you to check out the best deals on the links to communication companies below. Alternatively, ask the sales assistants in one of the independent mobile phone shops mentioned above.
How to unlock phones in the UK
Expats looking to stay or live in the UK for the long-term but are from a country that does not operate using GSM standard networks will need to have their current phone unlocked or purchase a new UK mobile phone.
Most UK mobile companies only allow you to unlock your phone if you have had it for more than 12 months. You should ask your mobile phone service provider what they charge to unlock your existing phone. The UK's communications regulator Ofcom explain the process of unlocking an international phone in the UK here.
Who can get a UK mobile plan?
If you prefer a contract, shop around for the best deals on UK mobile plans. Mobile phone service providers in the UK are very competitive and are always offering deals to customers that undercut their rivals. As a consequence, you can often deals on a great contract deal for 12 or 24 months such as unlimited international text and calls. The cost of your UK mobile phone is usually factored into the monthly charges although some deals offer the handset for free.
Call charges on UK mobile plans with a contract are lower than prepaid top-ups, but depending on how much you use your phone, contracts can be more costly in the long-term. Here is a helpful price comparison for deals on UK mobile plans.
Take note that while anybody can purchase a UK mobile phone, not all expats or foreign visitors will be able to sign up for a contract.
When applying for UK mobile plans on a long-term contract you will need to provide the following documentation:
- Proof of identity
- Address in UK
- Enrolment in University/college (or acceptance letter)
- Proof of employment (or acceptance letter)
- Bank details
The largest and most reputable companies run credit checks, and if you do not have credit history in the UK, you may be refused. It is often the case that when expats first arrive in the UK, they purchase pay-as-you-go credits then switch to UK mobile plans under contract deals once they have built up a credit rating.
There are, however, a couple of lesser known firms that offer UK SIM cards without a credit check. They are Giff-Gaff and FreedomPop. Contracts are typically rolling one-month contracts and can be terminated whenever you want. Here are the current deals on UK SIM cards from companies that don't require a credit check.
Topping up a UK prepaid SIM card
For mobile phone owners who do not call or text often, a UK prepaid SIM card is the most cost-effective option. For convenience, you can top-up online if you register with the British mobile phone company you purchased the prepaid UK SIM card with.
Alternatively, you can purchase top-up card vouchers from news agents, most convenience stores, supermarkets and mobile phone shops. To do this, purchase a voucher for GBP 10 or GBP 20 and scratch off the silver foil to unveil the number.
You then have to dial the number on the back of the top-up card into your phone. You would have to phone the British mobile phone company you are using on the number provided on the card your UK SIM was fixed to. So don’t throw the credit card-sized SIM holder away when you purchase your UK SIM.
Some service providers give you a top-up number on the receipt rather than a card. In these instances, the shop you purchase the top-up from will ask for your phone number and dial in the credits for you. You will then receive a text message informing you the credits have been added to your account.
If a UK prepaid SIM card is not compatible with your existing phone and you cannot unlock your international phone, you will need to purchase a UK mobile phone. This involves paying the full price for the phone together with credits to make calls and send text messages.
Credits purchased on a prepaid UK SIM card carry over from one month to the next, even if you do not use them. But if your UK SIM card is inactive for six months, the number is deactivated and you lose any credit on the phone.
SIM card deals in the UK
UK mobile companies are highly competitive and always have several UK SIM card deals on offer at any one time. The best deal for you depends on your budget and how much you are likely to use your phone.
Before purchasing a UK SIM card, check out the current SIM card deals in the UK on a comparison site such as uswitch.com or go into one of the mobile phone shops near you and ask for advice.
SIM card deals in the UK are generally quite broad in their range. For example, you can find deals for as little as GBP 5 a month for 25 minutes of talk time, 500 text messages and 1 GB of data. Heavy users will want unlimited usage which cost from GBP 15 a month.
UK mobile companies
There are five principal UK mobile companies that provide service for UK mobile phone users:
EE has the best nationwide coverage and installed 4G broadband connections across 97 percent of the UK in 2017. It was also reported to have the best coverage in the London Underground.
Understanding UK mobile phone numbers
UK mobile companies are assigned 5-digit numbers and area codes starting with 07*** or 08***. A personal UK mobile phone number will start with 07*** while a UK mobile phone number for a business begin with 08***. You can see a full list of UK area codes here.
Your personal phone number will have six digits that follow your UK mobile service provider's prefix. So for example, your UK mobile phone number will look something like this: 0777 123456.
For somebody to call your UK mobile phone from abroad, they first need to dial the country code for the UK, which is 0044 (+44). They then drop the first 0 from the number of your phone. Those calling a UK mobile phone number from abroad will dial a number that look like this: 0044 7777 123456.
Using International SIM cards in the UK
Short-term visitors to the UK can use their international SIM cards if they'd rather not purchase a UK SIM card for visitors, but calls can be expensive. There will likely be, however, some companies in your home country that offer international SIM cards which significantly reduce roaming charges.
If you have a SIM card from another EU country, as of June 2017 roaming charges will be abolished for temporary use of your phone in another country; providers can sill charge for using your phone permanently in another country. This means calls can be made at the same price as a domestic call. See EU roaming tariffs here.
International SIMs support two phone numbers: one from your native country and the other from the country where you are travelling. UK mobile phone numbers are well supported on international SIM cards.
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