A UK sim card is essential for anyone visiting the United Kingdom otherwise you may have to pay expensive roaming charges. A local UK sim card means that you can make phone calls and access mobile data for the same as what someone living in the United Kingdom pays as opposed to the more expensive roaming rates you would be charged if you kept your regular sim card in your phone.
Essentially you have several options:
- You can buy a local sim card after you arrive. This is the cheapest option as it gives you a local number and you’re paying the same for calls and data as someone who lives in the United Kingdom. The drawback is that you have to arrange this after arriving in the United Kingdom and you won’t know your UK number until you buy your sim card.
- You can buy a local sim card before you leave. This means that you get the same rates for calls and data that you would get if you bought your sim card in the UK and you’ll know your UK mobile number before you travel; however, the cost of your sim card may be marked up considerably (sometimes 40 times the cost of buying it in the UK) for the convenience of getting it before you leave home. However, you can get a sim card free of charge if it is being posted to a UK address.
- You can buy a multi-country travel sim that works in the United Kingdom. These can be convenient but are also unreliable and more expensive than using a UK sim card. They often come with a Jersey or Estonia phone number, which can make it expensive for people to call you in comparison to a UK number.
- If you have a phone that supports eSIM (embedded sim) technology, you can roam with your home sim card in your phone and sign up for a data-only eSIM that runs alongside your regular sim card from your home network. This means that you can switch off data roaming (the most expensive of the roaming charges) but are still able to make and receive calls using your regular mobile number. The drawback with this is that you have to either sign up for a roaming package from your mobile provider at home or pay expensive roaming charges to make and receive calls (often around £1 per minute even to receive a call) and you may need to combine this with a VoIP phone service such as Facetime, Rebtel or Skype for outgoing calls.
- You can leave your home sim card in your phone without signing up for a roaming package and pay the roaming charges charged by your home network but, be warned, in some instances these charges can amount to more than what you pay for the rest of your trip.
We’re going to focus on the two main options: buying a local sim card in the United Kingdom and combining a data-only eSIM with roaming package from your home mobile provider but first we’ll give you a brief overview of the UK mobile market to better help you choose which sim card is best for you.
In the United Kingdom, there are four main mobile networks: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone. Each of these networks offers different benefits and drawbacks, making it important for customers to compare them before choosing a provider. We’ll explore the coverage, data speed, customer satisfaction, and pay as you go plans offered by each of these networks. We’ll also cover which networks make it easier for a short-term visitor to the UK to set up a prepaid service.
EE, O2 and Three come out on top when it comes to coverage with around 99% coverage of the UK population, while Vodafone is trailing behind with 97% coverage. While the stats put Three’s coverage up with EE and O2, most people in the UK consider EE and O2 to have much better coverage than Three.
Despite 99% coverage, it is still quite common to find black spots, even with the top three networks, particularly in tunnels or when travelling in rural areas. Additionally, mobile coverage on the London Underground network only really became widespread in 2022 and coverage across the entire Underground network is not planned on being complete until some time in 2024.
In comparison, mobile coverage in Australia is 99.4% with Telstra, 98.5% with Optus and 96% with Vodafone and the three main New Zealand networks all have around 98% coverage.
It is a good idea to check the mobile coverage in the places you’re travelling to prior to buying your sim card to be sure that it will work where you need it to as it’s no point buying a sim card with the best coverage in Peterborough if you’re spending most of your trip in the Lake District.
When it comes to data speed, EE is the clear winner. EE’s data speeds are helped by having the best 5G coverage in the UK.
While data shows that EE’s network is the fastest, in reality it is not that much of a difference as the variation in data speed becomes less noticeable when even the slower networks let you watch streaming video without buffering. It is also important to note that the technology that allows for higher speeds is not so good at handling network congestion so opting for a slightly slower network can lead to an improvement in reliability.
What do we recommend?
We have used all the main networks on various trips to the UK and we have generally found O2 to be the easiest and most reliable and now O2 is our go to whenever we need a UK sim card.
Which is the easiest to get started with?
The easiest network to get started with depends on whether you need a sim for your phone with a bundle of calls and data or whether you need a data-only sim card to use in an iPad.
You also need to consider how long you will be spending in the UK as some networks are easier than others if you want to renew your service for another month.
O2 is the easiest option for your phone. You can buy your sim card already set up on the plan of your choice. Your UK mobile phone number is printed on the sim card package and your service becomes active as soon as you top up enough data to cover the monthly cost of your service.
Your service will renew as long as you have enough credit to cover the cost of your next month.
Ubigi is the easiest option for a data-only service for an iPad. Ubigi requires that you have a device that supports eSIM, if you have an older iPad that doesn’t support eSIM, then your best option is a SIM card from Three. You can set up a data plan with Ubigi prior to travelling but you’ll need to buy a Three sim from a Three shop after arriving in the UK. The Three service is very easy to set up; simply pop it in your device and turn it on and it’s ready to go.
Buying a local sim card in the United Kingdom
We used to sell the O2 UK sim card and charged a very reasonable £3 for the sim card with free international delivery; however, O2 no longer operate the programme that made it relatively easy for a small businesses to become an O2 dealer, which means that it is no longer possible for us to supply these sim cards with international delivery. This means that you now need to buy your own sim card, either on arrival in the UK or by ordering it directly from O2 with delivery to a UK address.
It is easy to buy your sim card from a retailer after arriving in the UK, although many people like to order their sim card online with delivery to the hotel where they’re spending their first night in the UK so their sim card is waiting for them when they arrive.
Buying your sim card after arriving in the UK
There are lots of retailers that sell sim cards but we find it best to go straight to your preferred network’s own branded shop to buy your sim as the people there are familiar with all the different tariffs and can assist in setting your sim card up for you. You simply won’t get this service if you buy your sim card from a corner shop, newsagent or supermarket.
This service is also one of the main reasons why we recommend you to buy a sim card directly from one of the big networks and not a budget brand. While some of these cheaper options work well if you’re a UK resident, if you’re a short-term visitor to the UK and you have a problem with your O2 sim you can simply pop into an O2 shop for assistance, which is something that you simply can’t do if you have a GiffGaff or Lebara sim card.
If you’re not ordering your sim card online with delivery to your hotel, then we recommend that you find the address of a mobile network provider’s own branded shop that’s closest to where you’re spending your first night and go there to buy your sim card as soon as you arrive.
Ordering your sim card online
You can also order your sim card online and have it posted to the hotel where you’re spending your first night. That way you don’t have to go out looking for your sim card and you can pop it into your phone in the comfort of your hotel room.
You may need to top up sufficient credit to cover the cost of your mobile plan prior to using it, although you can buy mobile credit from virtually any corner shop, convenience store, pharmacy, post office or supermarket and you can do this before you get to your hotel.
Unfortunately, the main UK networks only offer eSIMs for their customers on monthly contracts so it is not possible to sign up for an eSIM on a regular prepaid plan suitable for a visitor making a short-term trip to the UK. This means that you need to either order your sim card online or buy after arriving in the United Kingdom.
Prepaid plans with O2
We find that O2 is the best option for most travellers making a short-term trip to the UK and because of this, O2 is our go to sim card whenever we arrive in the country. It’s affordable, it’s easy to use and it includes a generous bundle of calls and data.
O2 offer the following prepaid plans:
|Tariff||Monthly cost||Data allowance||Included calls|
|7GB Big Bundle||£10||7GB||Unlimited UK calls|
|20GB Big Bundle||£15||20GB||Unlimited UK calls plus 50 minutes to 42 countries|
|30GB Big Bundle||£20||30GB||Unlimited UK calls plus 50 minutes to 42 countries|
|100GB Big Bundle||£30||100GB||Unlimited UK calls plus 250 minutes to 42 countries|
It is easiest if you choose one of these Big Bundles and buy a sim card that is already set up on your chosen plan. If you’re not able to buy a sim card set up on the Big Bundle plan of your choice, then you can switch to another plan but you must do this prior to adding any credit as your plan will start as soon as you add enough credit to cover the monthly cost of that plan.
The above Big Bundle plans all include unlimited calls to standard landline and mobile numbers in the United Kingdom, free incoming calls (regardless of where the call originates), unlimited text messages to UK mobile numbers and the data allowance indicated on the above table. The 42 countries included in the 20GB, 30GB and 100GB Big Bundle plans include most countries in the European Union plus Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States of America.
It’s easy to get started with one of these sim cards by simply topping up enough credit to cover the monthly cost of your service, although we recommend adding a little extra to cover you for anything that’s not included in your bundle.
If you’re buying your sim card directly from an O2 shop then you can also buy and top up your credit at the same time but if you have ordered a sim card online to be sent to your hotel then you need to buy a top-up voucher before you can activate your service.
You can buy top-up vouchers from most convenience stores, newsagents, petrol stations, pharmacies, post offices and supermarkets in the UK that display the green top up logo. Simply ask the cashier for an O2 top-up voucher.
Once you have your sim card and a top-up voucher (with enough credit to cover the monthly cost of your service) then you simply pop the sim card in your phone and call 4444 from your phone and follow the prompts. A recorded voice will ask you if you are topping up with a credit card or a voucher (choose voucher) and you will be asked to enter the 16-digit top-up PIN that is printed on the top-up voucher.
Tourists visiting the United Kingdom cannot top up directly with O2 using their credit card because O2’s website and telephone support will not accept credit cards issued outside the UK. However, it is no problem using your non-UK credit card to buy a voucher from a physical retailer.
Note: these plans do not include calls to premium numbers. This includes calls to numbers starting with 084 and 087, which are similar to Australian phone numbers starting with 13 and are used by several hotel chains in the UK including Premier Inn and Travelodge. It is a good idea to top up an extra £5 or so to cover any calls you may need to make to these numbers.
Combining roaming with a data-only eSIM
It has become common for mobile networks to offer more affordable roaming packages where you pay a daily charge to get reduced roaming charges when using your mobile phone abroad. These are the roaming packages offered by the main networks in Australia and New Zealand:
|Mobile network||Charge for roaming pack||Data allowance||Call minutes|
|Amaysim (Australia)||AUD $70/365 days||5GB/365 days||100 call minutes|
|Belong (Australia)||AUD $30/15 days||3GB/15 days||150 call minutes|
|Optus (Australia)||AUD $5/day||5GB/day||Unlimited call minutes|
|Telstra (Australia)||AUD $10/day||1GB/day||Unlimited call minutes|
|Vodafone (Australia)||AUD $5/day||Within your plan's data allowance||Within your plan's call allowance|
|2degrees (New Zealand)||NZD $8/day||1GB/day, then reduced data speed||Within your plan's call allowance|
|One (New Zealand)||NZD $8/day||Within your plan's data allowance||Within your plan's call allowance|
|Spark (New Zealand)||NZD $30/14 days||2GB/14 days||300 minutes|
We advise that you check with your mobile provider at home as not all plans are eligible for the above packages and there are also some restrictions as to what type of calls are included. Generally, incoming calls are always included (this can often be surprisingly expensive if you’re roaming without signing up for a roaming package in advance) but the other inclusive calls can vary depending on your mobile provider. Some networks only include calls to your home country but not the country you are visiting and other networks only include calls to destinations that are covered by your plan at home.
Most people use a lot more data when they are travelling compared to when they are at home and in many cases the data offered by your home mobile provider’s roaming package isn’t enough and exceeding the data limits can lead to either reduced data speeds or higher charges and this means that it is a good idea to combine a roaming package with a data-only eSIM to give you the option for more data when you need it.
Some newer phones and data-only devices work with eSIM technology. This is an embedded sim card that allows you to sign up for a mobile service without needing to install a sim card in your device. This means that you can set everything up prior to travelling without having to wait for anything to be posted to you.
An advantage of using a data-only eSIM is that eSIM technology allows an eSIM to operate alongside the sim card from your home network so you can receive calls and text messages on your home number. However, this does mean that you’re also paying either high roaming charges or paying for a roaming package in order to do this.
While you can’t sign up for a standard pay-as-you-go UK mobile plan that includes both calls and data there are a couple of data-only options available including Ubigi which has very good data-only plans for use in the UK that you can use either on your phone or a data-only device such as an iPad. Although this does have some disadvantages, it can work well for some people; particularly if you combine it with a VoIP phone service like Skype or with a roaming package that lets you receive calls on your home network while also avoiding limitations on data access on the roaming packages provided by your home mobile provider.
Ubigi’s standard data charges are as follows:
Note: Ubigi also operate in other countries and includes Europe-wide and worldwide plans that can sometimes be a better option depending on your travel plans.
Although slightly more expensive than what you get with a local UK sim card, these data-only plans are still very good value and the bonus is that you can have everything set up before you travel. It is an easy and affordable option for data-only devices like iPads or for adding a more substantial data allowance that you can combine with a roaming package from your home network.
Ubigi use the EE network, which is regarded as having the best data speeds in the United Kingdom.
Because of limitations with the included call allowance in many roaming packages, it’s a good idea to use a VoIP calling service wherever possible for your outbound calls. This can include services such as Apple Facetime and the calling features within Microsoft Teams as well as services like Rebtel and Skype that have plans that allow you to call regular phone numbers.