UK mobile phone plans
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What types of mobile phone plan are there?
Trying to find the cheapest way to talk, text, stream and browse on the go? There are 3 main types of mobile plan to choose from. The best one for you will depend on your personal circumstances.
If you’re in the market for a new phone, then you may be interested in buying a phone on contract. These deals usually involve the customer paying an upfront fee, followed by a monthly fee. This fee covers the cost of the handset and your call, text and data plan.
When you buy a phone this way, the mobile network is essentially lending you the money to pay for the handset, so part of each monthly fee is your repayment. This means that the network selling you the handset will carry out a check of your credit record, to find out how likely it is that you’ll be able to make your payments.
These types of contract will typically tie you in for either 12 or 24 months, so make sure you’re prepared for this kind of long-term commitment.
If you’re happy with your current mobile handset but want to find the best deal on minutes, texts and data, then a SIM-only contract can be the best way to go. For a fixed monthly payment you’ll receive a set amount of call minutes, texts and, perhaps most crucially, data allowance.
These contracts are typically sold on the basis of a 12-, 18- or 24-month commitment. It’s worth noting that you may be credit checked for a SIM-only contract.
As the name suggests, a pay-as-you-go deal doesn’t tie you in to a lengthy contract. You simply, er, pay as you go.
Traditionally, PAYG customers would literally pay for their mobile usage per minute, per text and per MB of data used. Top-up credit could be bought from a range of different outlets including supermarkets, newsagents and mobile phone retailers.
While this model still exists and works fine for some people, in practice most mobile providers today sell monthly bundles of minutes, texts and data for a fixed price, which customers buy upfront. These types of PAYG deals work like SIM-only contracts, except that you don’t have to commit to a fixed number of months.
Mobile phone jargon explained
Before you start reading, it might be a good idea to get your head around some of the terminology used when talking about mobile phones.
- SIM stands for subscriber identity module. This is a card with a processor chip that slots into your phone and gives you access to a mobile network. The SIM card contains information about the services you’re able to use, based on your choices as a customer.
- 4G is today’s standard mobile Internet connection. It is the fourth generation of this type of technology and allows users to access Internet connections which can rival fixed-line broadband in speed.
- 5G is the latest standard of mobile Internet. It is currently only available to certain users in limited parts of the country. But as 5G capabilities are rolled out across the country, and the number of smartphone models capable of operating a 5G connection increase, it’s likely that large parts of the UK population will be able to use this “super fast” network in the not too distant future.
- Roaming, or international roaming, is the process of using your phone in another country to make calls, send texts or use your mobile data. The term “roaming” refers to the fact that your mobile will “roam” to find a network to connect with, depending on the country. Your ability to use international roaming will depend on your network and plan. Some providers introduced roaming charges in EU countries in 2022.
How to choose the right phone plan
First of all, think about what you actually need from a mobile plan. Are you absolutely desperate to get your hands on a shiny new handset model? Or are you happy with your current set-up and you’re simply looking for a cheaper way to make calls, send messages and stream videos?
Here are some key things to think about when looking for a new phone plan.
It is important to make sure you’re getting the most for your money in terms of plan inclusions. As a very general rule, those looking for SIM-only plans for everyday use can generally find a decent package for around the £10 a month mark. You’ll need a reason to be spending more than that. For example, you absolutely need a large data allowance (more on that below).
So think very carefully about how much you can afford to pay per month to use your mobile. If you’re absolutely desperate to get your hands on a new handset, but don’t have the money handy to buy it in one go, a handset contract can make sense. But it’s worth understanding that you’ll usually end up paying more over the long-term with a handset plan than you would if you bought the handset outright and paired it with a cheap SIM-only contract.
Different mobile deals come with different levels of data, and as a vast number of phone plans offer “unlimited” calls and texts, the data allowance is a key differentiator. To check how much data you’ll realistically need, take a look at your recent phone bills. They usually break down how much data you used each month.
If you spend a lot of time on social media, streaming video or playing mobile games when you’re out and about, you may want to go for a plan with plenty of data. But also make sure you can easily buy data top-ups if needed.
If you don’t routinely use quite so much data, then you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a cheap monthly SIM deal that meets your needs.
Before clicking “buy” on a mobile plan, it’s always a good idea to check if the network the provider uses has decent coverage where you live and work. Nothing is more irritating than signing up to a new phone plan only to find that you have no signal when you’re sitting in the living room.
A fast, free way to check which networks offer the best coverage in your area is to use telecoms regulator Ofcom’s mobile and broadband checker. Simply type in your postcode and the site will show you mobile network availability in your area.
You can buy your mobile plan from a large number of providers, but many of them are running on the same networks. There are only 4 UK mobile networks: EE, Three, Vodafone and O2.
Most mobile plans will allow you to use your phone overseas, but they’re likely to charge you international roaming fees, which can result in some eye-watering bills if you’re not careful.
Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, from 2022 most mobile network operators, including Three, EE and Vodafone charge a daily fee to use their plan on the continent. O2 hasn’t introduced a fee yet and roaming is free for users. If you travel regularly, check if you can buy international calls, texts and data packs for usage abroad to avoid serious roaming bill shock.
How much could you save?
To illustrate how much it’s possible to save by shopping around for your mobile plan, here is an example of 2 SIM-only contracts, both offering unlimited calls and texts alongside 5GB of data per month.
Most costly SIM-only deal we found in June 2023 (5 GB)
- Monthly cost = £23
- Upfront cost = £0
- Minimum contract = 1 month
- Cost for 12 months = £276
Cheapest SIM-only deal we found in June 2023(5 GB)
- Monthly cost = £6
- Upfront cost = £0
- Minimum contract = 1 month
- Cost for 12 months = £72
How to switch mobile providers
It’s easy to switch mobile plans. Sometimes all it takes is sending one text message. Once you’ve decided to switch and you’ve found a new contract or PAYG option that works for you, you can switch using Ofcom’s “text to switch” process. This is the best option if you want to switch networks while keeping your mobile number. Here’s how it works:
- Text the word “PAC” to 65075 to begin the switching process and keep your existing telephone number. (You will not be charged for using the “text to switch” service.)
- Your current provider will reply by text within a minute. It will send you a 9-digit switching code (or porting authorisation code, if you prefer the jargon). This code is valid for 30 days.
- The text message from your current provider will also contain important information, like any charges you’ll have to pay if leaving a contract early. If you’re a PAYG customer, the message will also include your credit balance.
- You will then need to give your PAC code to your new mobile provider. The new firm will need to arrange for your switch to take place within 1 working day.
You can also request a PAC code from the provider you’re switching away from by logging on to its website. If you want to check if you’ll need to pay any penalty fees for leaving an existing contract early, you can text the word “INFO” to 85075 before deciding whether or not to switch. Texting 85075 will not cost you anything.
If you want to keep the same handset to use with your new provider, you’ll need to check if it’s “locked” to your current network. Ask the provider you wish to leave if your handset is locked, or simply put a different SIM card into your mobile phone. If you get a message suggesting that there is a problem and you can’t make calls, then your handset is probably locked.
Bottom line: It’s never been easier to switch mobile plans
In the UK we have a competitive mobile phone market; with at least 20 companies fighting for your business, it isn’t too hard to find a reasonably priced mobile phone plan. Many of the larger networks and smaller providers regularly run promotions and offer discounts, particularly via comparison websites like Finder.
If you’re in the market for a new handset or phone plan, be clear on exactly what you absolutely need from your new plan to make sure you get the best value for money. Once you decide which provider you want to use, switching is a pretty fast and easy process.
Frequently asked questions
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