Using Your Smartphone in the UK: A Guide For Visitors

February 21st, 2011

Our one-stop guide to using your cellphone in the UK. Find out if your handset is compatible with UK networks and discover the best deals for a short-term visit.

If you’re visiting the UK either for business or for leisure, it’s easy and cheap to get online with your smartphone. There’s no need to buy a SIM card before you arrive and it should only cost about £5 ($8 USD, €6 EUR) to get online for a month. In this guide, we outline everything you need to know to get your smartphone online in the UK.

Note that this guide is aimed at visitors to the UK. If you live in the UK but you’re going abroad, you should see our guide to taking your UK phone abroad instead.

Will my cellphone work in the UK?

Most smartphones should work with no problems in the UK providing they use GSM technology. If your home network uses CDMA technology (notably Verizon, Sprint, Virgin Mobile in the USA) then your phone won’t work in the UK (either through roaming or with a UK SIM card).

Globally, there are two main technologies for mobile networks – GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), which is used in 80% of the countries across the world, and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) which is popular in North America and some countries in Asia.

In the UK, all of our mobile networks use GSM technology. GSM can operate on several frequencies. In the UK, we use GSM900 (GSM at a frequency of 900MHz), GSM1800 (GSM at a frequency of 1800MHz) and 3G 2100 (3G at a frequency of 2100MHz). Your phone will need to support at least one of these technologies.

We have five primary networks which support the following technologies:

  • 3 (Three): 3G 2100 (no 2G service!)
  • Orange: GSM 1800, 3G 2100
  • O2: GSM 900/1800, 3G 2100
  • T-Mobile: GSM 1800, 3G 2100
  • Vodafone: GSM 900/1800, 3G 2100

If the network you are considering is not on this list, it is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). This means that it leases network capacity from one of the above networks. For example, Giffgaff is a MVNO on O2. This means it supports the same technologies as O2: GSM 900/1800 and 3G 2100.

How much will it cost to use my smartphone through a roaming service?

Your home network can advise you on the costs associated with using a roaming service in the UK. Whilst we are not experts on mobile phone tariffs outside the UK, chances are you’ll almost definitely find it better value to use a UK SIM card rather than to roam on your home SIM card.

Can I use a UK SIM card in my smartphone?

Yes. Providing that your smartphone is unlocked, you’ll be able to use a UK SIM card in it. Note that UK networks are treated separately for the purposes of locking – for example a phone locked to Orange France would not work on Orange UK. See our detailed guide to locked handsets for more information.

How easy is it to obtain a Pay As You Go SIM card in the UK?

It is incredibly easy to obtain a Pay As You Go SIM card in the UK. There is no need to provide any identification documents or an address and SIM cards are typically freely available from a variety of sources. Expect the SIM card to be provided without charge – although you’ll have to top-up by around £10 ($16 USD, €12 EUR). Look out for outlets displaying the “top-up” logo (pictured right) – you’ll be able to top-up your phone here.

Where can I obtain a Pay As You Go SIM card?

You can typically obtain a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the local mobile phone retailer. Most will provide you with a free SIM card subject to a £10 in-store top-up. This initial £10 top-up will be more than enough to pay for your data bundle.

Look out for the following stores which should have a presence on most high streets in the UK:

You can also have a look around airport arrival lounges and baggage reclaim areas – some airports have vending machines for UK SIM cards.

For a greater choice of tariffs, you can also order a free Pay As You Go SIM card through the internet before you arrive in the UK. Unfortunately you’ll need to provide a UK-based address for the SIM card to be sent to as SIM card providers do not ship abroad.

What are the opening hours of these mobile phone retailers?

The exact opening times will depend on the local store. You can typically rely on the vast majority of stores being open Monday-Saturday between 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4pm. Many stores will have longer opening hours.

How do I activate data services on my SIM card?

Once you’ve topped up, you’ll need to activate the data package on your SIM card. The exact procedure depends on your network operator:

  • 3 (Three): Call 444 from your Three SIM card. Select Option 2 and ask for the 500MB add-on. Your allowance lasts for 30 days.
  • O2: You’ll receive a free 500MB allowance on the O2 Text and Web tariff. Otherwise, text WEB to 21300. This will give you a 500MB allowance for £7.50. Your allowance lasts for 30 days.
  • Orange: Text WEB 5 to 6620. This £5 package will give you an allowance of 250MB which lasts for 1 month.
  • T-Mobile: Text MONTHWEB to 441 for a 500MB allowance which lasts for 30 days.
  • Vodafone: You’ll receive a 500MB allowance for free on the Freebees tariff. Your allowance lasts for 30 days.

For more information on what 500MB actually means in terms of actual usage, see our detailed guide to mobile data limits.

You’ll also need to change the APN (access point) settings on your phone to work with the UK network. These settings will typically be sent to you via text message when you use the SIM card for the first time.

What will my mobile phone number be whilst in the UK?

You’ll get a UK-based phone number with your SIM card. This number will begin with 07 and will be 11 digits in length e.g. 07555 555 555. To determine your international phone number, drop the 0 at the start and replace it with +44.

How do I make an international phone call from the UK?

International direct dial (IDD) is enabled in the UK. You can make a call by entering + on your phone keypad (hold down the 0 button until it appears) followed by the country code and then the local phone number. If you can’t enter + on your cellphone, it is possible to use two zeros instead. Before making an international call, check the cost first: it could be up to £1.50 per minute on some tariffs.

What is Ken’s Tech Tips?

Ken’s Tech Tips is an independent mobile technology website based in the UK. We aim to demystify the mobile offering in the UK. Whilst we don’t typically write articles for readers outside of the UK, we recently experienced huge difficulties in obtaining a Spanish PAYG SIM card for Mobile World Congress. We hope that this guide will help you to get your UK SIM card up and running as quickly as possible and free up time to do and see the things that really matter to you. The VisitBritain website is a great place to start.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 45 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Monica said:

    I travel a lot to the UK in my work (I work offshore) and recently bought a pay-as-you-go sim card at Tesco. It worked fine for the first month but now I wanted to top it up. This proved to be more difficult than I would have thought. I could not top it up online as you need a UK address to do that and not only that, you also need a UK credit card. Nowhere in their “Terms & Conditions” could I see that I could not top it up without a UK address or UK credit card! Not only that, the pay-as-you-go sim also have a Parental control by default, a thing you cannot lift unless you have a UK address and UK credit card. So, I have really wasted £15 which I paid to get a top-up voucher and is stuck with a sim card that have restrictions when it comes to internet, I cannot go to sites that are considered not suitable for children, i.e. I cannot read the newspaper properly or click on links in Facebook etc! And Tesco Mobile want to charge me £1 to lift the Parental Control, and I can do that using a credit card but, yes you guessed, – they don’t accept non-UK credit cards! So it’s really “Catch 22”.

    I will need to get a new sim card with a provider that accepts non-UK credit cards and where you are able to top-up online as well as in a shop somewhere. I am not that concerned about calling, I need the sim card for internet. Any suggestions?

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Monica,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I’ve not looked in to see which mobile networks will allow you to top-up with an international credit card online. I believe international cards are sometimes rejected for online top-ups as there is a high chance of fraud.
      If you’re physically present in the UK, there should be lots of places where you can top-up in person (e.g. at supermarkets, petrol stations, etc). Your international credit card should be accepted here. With regards to removing parental controls, this could probably also be done through in-store document verification (that is, if you’re using one of the major mobile networks who actually have a physical store).
      Another way to side-step this might be to set up a UK-based pre-paid card (if you’re an EU citizen, this shouldn’t be too hard) or cheekily you might be able to borrow someone else’s card for the age verification process (with their permission of course!).
      So unfortunately I have to stop short of giving a concrete recommendation but hopefully this should give you a few pointers in the right direction.
      Ken

  2. John said:

    Hi Ken. Good day! I’ve read your article and very useful. I am currently here in UK and got a sim. May I know if this is possible to reload as I will stay here for 3 months? I read that the sim load will be usable only for a month. Your response is much appreciated. Cheers!

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes: you can reload or top-up your SIM card with additional credit to continue using it after the credit expires 🙂
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

      1. John replied:

        Cheers mate!

  3. Ian Besch said:

    Hey Ken,

    I’ve visited this thread before – I say again, it’s very useful, thanks.

    I travelled to Scotland this past September (2016) and picked up an EE PAYG card at WHSmith’s in the Edinburgh airport. For the second year in a row the SIM cards from EE have not been recognized by my Moto G 1st gen unlocked phone. The folks at the EE store in Edinburgh couldn’t get their test SIM to work either – go figure. I replaced it with a card from O2 which did work in the phone, although I wasn’t impressed with their coverage (other than in and around urban centres). I have an old Orange card which my phone “sees” as well. I guess the claim on the EE package that the SIM card “works in all phones” may need to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to the Moto G 1st gen!

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Ian,
      Very strange! Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure why this didn’t work (in theory, there shouldn’t be any issues with incompatibility). It sounds like it’s possibly a manufacturing issue with the EE SIM card, hence why the O2 & Orange SIM cards work in your phone. However, this doesn’t explain why EE’s tester SIM card also failed, unless the same problem occurred on both SIM card.
      Ken

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