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

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 17 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Yoseph said:

    Hi Ken ,
    I will be coming to Scotland (edinburugh ) and Ireland (Dublin) in August for 15 days .
    I need SimCard for surfing (Google Maps , WhatsApp , Viber ) using my Huawei E589u-12 mobile WiFi router .
    What package/s will be ideal for my needs .
    Thanks
    Yoseph

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Yoseph,

      Thanks for your comment. As you’re using a mobile wi-fi router, you’ll need to use a mobile broadband tariff rather than the normal tariff designed for smartphones. As you’re travelling to both the UK and Ireland, my recommendation is go to with Three (they have networks in both countries and offer a deal where you can use your mobile broadband in both of the countries).

      On Pay As You Go, £10.49 gets you 1GB of data (or £20.49 gets you 3GB of data). It’s Pay As You Go so there’s no contracts to be signed (nor any need to pass a credit check in the UK). When travelling to Ireland, you can take advantage of the Feel at Home offer (continue using your mobile broadband in Ireland at no extra cost).

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  2. Tunde said:

    I will be coming to the UK from Nigeria in July for a 7 day stay, I will need a mobile line to call home regularly and data for my browsing, google map and whatsapp. I have an unlocked I phone 5 which I will bring into the UK.
    What package and which carrier will be ideal for my needs?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Tunde,
      Thanks for your comment and hope you’re looking forward to your trip to the UK! The best deal for you would probably be Lycamobile. For calling Nigeria, it’s 1p/minute to landlines and 3p/minute to mobiles. For data, you can either buy the £5 bundle which gives you 500MB of data or the £7.50 bundle which gives you 1GB of data. The SIM card is free if you order it online (you can also pick one up in-person in the UK, though a small charge may apply for the SIM).
      Hope this helps!
      Ken

  3. Michelle said:

    Hi Ken great info on ur pge. Could you help me please as I’m so confused with which is the best sim for my iPhone 4, I’m traveling from Australia in Aug 2014 to the UK spending 5wks in the UK including 1wk of that spent in France.
    I’d like a prepaid sim that I can use in the UK & France for little voice calls & lots of texting within UK & within France and texts back home to Australia. I also have my iPad 3 3G/wifi which I’ll require a data sim service for within UK & France. Or do u think I’m best to use the data on the iPhone SIM card via wifi hotspot on my iPad rather then purchasing a separate data only SIM card? What do you recommend my best options / provider would be?

    I really look forward to your reply & advice.. Many thanks in advanced :)

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Michelle,
      Thanks – and hope you’re looking forward to your trip to the UK! The good news is that EU roaming charges will be cut from July (so you can use any UK SIM card when travelling in France… it’ll cost you a maximum of 18p/minute, 5p/text and 19p/MB of data).
      For someone visiting the UK and France, my recommendation would be to order Three’s 321 SIM card. Once you get the SIM card, either buy the ‘All in One 10′ or the ‘All in One 15′ bundle. For £10/month, you get 100 UK minutes, 3000 texts and 500MB of data. Starting from July, France is also part of Three’s “Feel At Home” offer. Hence, with an “All in One” add-on, you can carry on using your SIM in France at no extra charge. The £15 bundle gives you unlimited UK data and up to 25GB of data in France.
      The main downside is it’s 56p/minute for calling Australia (you can of course use Skype or another app to avoid these charges).
      Hope this helps!
      Ken

  4. Linda in Toronto Canada said:

    Hi Ken – great site! We are visiting from Canada for about 2 weeks and I’d like NOT to roam on Rogers (my carrier). I have a “locked” iphone 5 on the Rogers network and a laptop I’ll bring with me. I’d sure like to have a mobile internet connection as we’ll be camping/RVing. Can I “get” a phone with data plan there and “tether” it to my laptop? Just trying to get my head around the best options and thought you could help.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Linda,
      Thanks for getting in touch! I’m really delighted you’ll have the chance to visit the UK and hope you’ll enjoy a really lovely time here!
      Unfortunately, as your iPhone 5 is currently locked to Rogers you won’t currently be able to use it on any UK networks. My recommendation is to first try unlocking your iPhone from Rogers. After unlocking, your iPhone should work on any of the UK networks (in this case, you simply pick up a local UK SIM card and enable the tethering function on your phone). Choose a nano-SIM when asked by your network. £10 of credit (18CAD) should easily last your 2 week trip.
      With regards to phone rentals, I don’t think this is a service commonly offered in the UK (though it may be possible at larger airports such as Heathrow). Rather, it’s more likely you’ll be asked to buy a new device on arrival (something like a Mobile Wi-Fi router will cost you around £50/91CAD on Pay As You Go). It’s rather expensive for a two week trip (though you do of course have the router for future trips abroad) so I would still recommend unlocking your iPhone!
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  5. Anthony Luna said:

    Hi Ken,

    Its our first time to go to London and we will be there this middle of June. We will be traveling around tourist spots of interest up to Edinburg for 14 days . I am using a Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Most of our travels are on our own and its important for us to use my smart phone in obtaining maps,train & bus routes, GPS and to be able to call back home (Philippines) via Skype / Viber /Tango.

    From what I get from your previous replies we need to purchase a local SIM in London.
    Can you please explain what is the best thing for us to do?

    Thanks.

    Anthony

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for getting in touch and hope you’re looking forward to your trip to the UK! First of all, I’d double check your Galaxy Note 2 is unlocked for other networks. If it’s still locked to a network in your home country, you should unlock the handset before leaving home (it’ll be much harder to unlock from the UK).

      After arriving, there are many options as to which SIM card to pick up. If you’re doing a home stay, try ordering a SIM card from giffgaff. A £10 top-up will give you 500 local minutes and 1GB of internet. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to find a phone shop near to your hotel. For a full comparison of the latest deals, please take a look at my article here. My recommended deal for a short-term visit to the UK would be Three’s 321 Pay As You Go SIM card. For £10, you’ll get 1GB of data (plus 150MB free with the top-up). You can use the 3G data for calling over Skype (it’s substantially cheaper than making an international phone call). A more expensive option is to get your SIM card from the airport (in addition to the £10 top-up, you’ll normally need to pay around £5 to £10 to get the SIM card).

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  6. Simon said:

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the above comment. Can you also advise what is the cost for data as I am going to UK for 10 nights and will use the data extensively such as Whatsapp, Google map, etc. Also, which provider would you recommended as I would spent time mostly in North of England and few nights in London.

    Thanks very much in advance.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Simon,

      Thanks for your comment! As a short term visitor to the UK, I’d suggest getting a Pay As You Go SIM card. The SIM card is free but you’d need to make a minimum top-up of £10 to activate it. For 10 days of usage, I’d say the best deal is giffgaff’s £10 goodybag. You’ll get 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB of internet. The downside is that giffgaff SIM cards aren’t available from retail stores: you’ll need to order it before you arrive (delivery by post to a UK address only). Coverage is provided by O2 (good for the North of England and London). If you wish to get your SIM card from a shop, I’d recommend going to a Three store upon your arrival. With their Pay As You Go SIM card, you can take advantage of Three’s 321 Plan. Data is just 1p/MB and you’ll get 150MB free with your top-up (£10 top-up = 1.15GB of data).

      For more information, see the table here for a comparison of PAYG rates. Also, you can see my full comparison of PAYG bundles.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  7. Hannah said:

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the tips! Thought I’d just mention that it might be useful for people travelling to the UK to know that whilst most SIM providers don’t post sims abroad, if visitors do wish for a sim before their departure, many giffgaff members are happy to send sims abroad (e.g. http://giffgaffgsimabroad.wufoo.com/forms/get-a-free-giffgaff-sim-abroad/ )

    Hope this helps!
    Hannah

  8. Demi said:

    I want to buy an unlocked HTC One from America to use in the UK as I am on holiday in the States soon, I would like to know if it will work? I am currently on Virgin UK.

    Thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Demi,

      Thanks for leaving us a comment! If you’re buying a handset from America, be very careful to check the specifications.

      For 2G access, you’ll need GSM/GPRS/EDGE support at 900MHz (O2 & Vodafone) or 1800MHz (EE).
      For 3G access, you’ll need HSPA/WCDMA support at 2100MHz (EE, O2, Three & Vodafone).
      For 4G access, you’ll need LTE support at 800MHz, 1800MHz or 2600MHz (800MHz is best as it will work on all four networks – see the table here).

      In your case, you’re on Virgin Mobile UK which runs on top of the EE network. Hence, your imported phone will need to support the following frequencies:
      GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 1800MHz
      HSPA/WCDMA: 2100MHz

      I’ve looked up the unlocked HTC One for the US – it costs $600 and the full specs can be found on this page. Based on the specs provided, the handset will work on Virgin UK for 2G and 3G. However, you won’t be able to use 4G in the future.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  9. josh said:

    i uave an italian 3 sim card but im in the uk… can i top up using a uk three top up………………….:-)

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Josh,

      Unfortunately Three UK and Three Italia are two separate companies – sorry! You will not be able to use a Three UK top-up card with a Three Italy SIM card.

      Ken

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