Just moved to the United Kingdom? Get connected with your new friends and colleagues with this guide to getting a mobile phone and SIM card in the UK.
If you’ve just arrived in the United Kingdom, one of the first things you’ll probably want to cross off your checklist is getting a local SIM card and setting up your UK mobile phone number. You’ll be pleased to know that the UK boasts decent 4G coverage and a whole host of mobile phone operators to choose from.
But with so much choice, it can be challenging for expats and visitors alike to know which mobile operator to choose. To help make sure you get the right SIM card, read on to learn more about the following:
- The mobile network in the UK
- Can I use my mobile phone in the UK?
- Mobile phone operators in the UK
- Prepaid vs mobile contracts
- Mobile phone plans in the UK
- Prepaid SIM cards in the UK
- UK mobile phone numbers
- Repairing a mobile phone in the UK
- Useful resources
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The mobile network in the UK
The UK is home to a fairly decent mobile network that uses the GSM mobile network, as opposed to the CDMA network. This means that generally speaking, foreign arrivals to the UK should be able to connect to local networks without too much problem. Even if you come from a country that uses the CDMA network, your smartphone should still work in the UK.
When it comes to networks, most of the country has 4G or 4G+ connectivity, particularly in towns and cities. Some cities also have 5G connectivity, although this is currently restricted to the largest cities. In more rural areas, particularly in the Scottish highlands and islands, central Wales, and more isolated parts of England and Northern Ireland, you may only have access to 2G or 3G.
Wi-Fi connectivity in the UK
Looking for public Wi-Fi? Unfortunately, Wi-Fi in public spaces is not widely available in the United Kingdom. However, some public areas will have Wi-Fi connectivity, including stations, libraries, and airports. Furthermore, many cafes and restaurants also have Wi-Fi, although this will likely only be available for customers.
Can I use my mobile phone in the UK?
Most visitors and expats arriving in the United Kingdom will be able to connect to the country’s mobile networks. The only exception may be those arriving from a country that uses the CDMA network. This includes Japan, parts of the US, and Canada. However, many smartphones will still connect on arrival, although you should check the costs beforehand with your operator.
Should your phone not be able to connect to the UK network, you can purchase a pre-paid mobile on arrival. Basic models are generally fairly cheap and can usually be picked up easily at international airports and stations. Alternatively, you can pick up a world phone in your own country before traveling.
Roaming charges within the EU were abolished in 2017. Although the UK technically left the EU in January 2020, these charges will continue to be waived during the transition period. However, this period is scheduled to finish at the end of 2020, at which point roaming charges may be applied to EU visitors in the UK. Check if your operator before travel to avoid any unexpected costs.
If you’re moving to the UK – or planning a longer-term stay – you may want to buy a local SIM card or even a brand-new phone. There are plenty of UK operators to choose from. Many offer a range of deals depending on usage and budget. Some, including Sky and Virgin, also offer discounts should you choose to take out another service, such as home internet or TV.
Mobile phone operators in the UK
There are a whole host of mobile operators in the UK, which makes competition fierce. Fortunately, this also means that mobile package deals typically offer good value for money, particularly if you pair it with home broadband. As such, it pays to shop around and compare your options.
Mobile operators in the UK include:
Former state-owned telecoms provider BT (previously British Telecom) is currently the largest mobile operator in the UK. It owns both the smaller BT Mobile service as well as EE and accounted for 28% of the mobile phone market back in 2018. O2 is the second-biggest provider with a 26% share, followed by Vodafone (21%) and Three (12%).
Comparing UK mobile phone operators
Still not sure which mobile operator to choose? Thankfully, there are plenty of options when it comes to comparing mobile phone plans and tariffs. Some comparison sites like Compare the Market can give you a better idea of what type of plans you can choose from. Others, such as Mobiles.co.uk, allow you to compare and buy in one simple visit.
Mobile phone coverage in the UK
As many UK residents will tell you, mobile phone coverage in the UK can be surprisingly patchy, especially in rural areas. Even the biggest operators struggle to provide dependable coverage across the country, so expect to lose some connection if you explore the country.
Generally speaking, in rural areas, the largest operators are your best bet when it comes to getting reliable coverage. They are especially useful if you happen to be near the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland; as they prevent your phone from switching to an Irish operator. However, should you move to a large town or city, you may find that a smaller operator offers a similar service at a cheaper rate.
You should also be sure to check coverage before you choose your mobile phone operator. This will help you avoid signing up with a company that doesn’t have coverage where you live. If you want to check coverage before moving in, visit www.nperf.com and find your local area.
Prepaid vs mobile contracts
Expats arriving in the United Kingdom have a choice when it comes to phones. They can choose either a prepaid SIM card or a mobile phone contract. If your phone is unlocked and compatible with the local network, you have the freedom to choose an operator. However, if your previous operator has a presence in the UK, it may be preferable to stick with them.
For many expats, prepaid SIMs are an easier option. With these SIM cards, you’ll be able to make calls, send text messages, and use mobile data. This is particularly popular for expats who already own a phone and simply want to quickly have a UK number. It also offers users more freedom if they don’t plan to stay for long as it doesn’t involve signing up for a lengthy contract.
However, some expats prefer to have the security and savings of a mobile contract. Generally speaking, calls, texts, and data will work out cheaper on a contract if you use your phone a lot. This can be a good option if you’re planning on staying in the UK longer term.
Mobile phone plans in the UK
A contract will usually offer cheaper rates than pre-paid SIM cards and typically include cheaper calls, texts, and internet use. These deals can be even better if you opt for a mobile package that includes TV, home phone, and internet connection. These are available from the UK’s bigger providers, including Sky, BT, and Virgin.
UK mobile contracts are either SIM-only or include a handset and are available for one, two, or even three years. Monthly charges will depend on usage and contract. These payments are usually collected from your bank account monthly via direct debit. You can also purchase additional minutes or data should you use up your monthly allowance.
How to get a mobile phone contract in the UK
Decided on the right operator for you? Now all you need to do is sign up for a UK mobile phone contract. Thankfully, signing up is relatively straightforward and can be done either online or in-store. If you order online, your SIM card and/or handset should be delivered to your UK address within a week.
Requirements for signing up differ between operators, but generally speaking, you’ll likely need the following:
- proof of identity
- proof of address in the UK (e.g., a utility bill)
- UK bank account for payment
Be aware that some mobile operators may even choose to run a credit check before accepting you for a mobile phone contract. If you don’t already have a UK bank account, you can sign up for one in minutes with a mobile banking app such as Starling or Monzo. If you’re moving to the UK, you will find it easier to have a UK bank account.
Prepaid SIM cards in the UK
Prepaid SIM cards give you more freedom, but charges tend to be more expensive in the UK than a phone contract. However, if you don’t expect to use your mobile phone much, then pre-paid SIMs can be a cheaper and easier option.
Getting a SIM card is quick and painless. You can buy one online or in a mobile phone shop. Bear in mind, however, that you’ll need a UK address to receive the SIM card should you order it online. You can also pick up a prepaid SIM in some supermarkets and most convenience stores. These stores will often display the name of a phone operator outside. In these shops, you’ll be able to buy a SIM card and have a working phone connection in minutes.
Once you have a prepaid SIM card in your phone, topping up is simple. You can either top-up in a mobile phone shop or at most convenience stores and supermarkets. Alternatively, you can top-up online or using your phone. Most SIM cards will come with credit already loaded onto it; this is usually £10, £25, or more.
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 begins 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: 07777 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 looks like this: 0044 7777 123456.
If you run into any emergencies while in the UK, you can also call the country’s designated emergency numbers from your mobile (or landline) for help. Read our guide to emergency numbers in the UK for more information.
Repairing a mobile phone in the UK
Have you dropped your phone on one of London‘s famous red buses? Or perhaps it’s taken a tumble during a ramble through the Lake District? Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get your smartphone repaired in the UK. Some operators will be able to provide repair services if you take your phone into one of their stores. Furthermore, manufacturers such as Apple will offer an in-store service.
However, you’ll also be able to find mobile phone repair shops in most major towns and cities. Look online for your nearest phone shop that can provide repairs.
- Ofcom – UK regulatory body for communications services