Find out how to use your cellphone if you’re visiting or moving to the UK (the United Kingdom).
Whether you’re visiting the UK on a short-term trip, or moving there longer-term for study or for work, it’s easy to use your cell phone on the mobile networks in the United Kingdom.
In this article, we’ll discuss cell phone compatibility with UK cellular mobile networks. We’ll then compare the two different ways of using your cell phone in the UK: either using your normal domestic SIM card and international roaming, or using a local SIM card that’s been purchased in the UK. Finally, we’ll compare the best value prepaid SIM cards that are available for tourists, visitors and new residents to the UK.
Cell Phone & Network Compatibility
Network Frequencies & Bands
In the UK, there are four companies providing cellular mobile coverage: EE, O2, Three & Vodafone. Each of them offers about 99% population coverage across the UK using 2G (GSM), 3G (WCDMA & HSPA) and 4G (LTE) technology. In addition, 5G coverage (NR) is now available in a number of major UK towns and cities.
The four cellular coverage providers utilise the following bands and frequencies in the UK:
|Coverage Provider||5G Bands||4G Bands||3G Frequencies||2G Frequencies|
|EE||5G NR Band n78||LTE bands 3, 7, 20, 1, 38||2100MHz||1800MHz|
|O2||5G NR Band n78||LTE bands 20, 1, 3, 8, 40||2100MHz, 900MHz||900MHz|
|Three||5G NR Band n78||LTE bands 3, 20, 1, 32||2100MHz||–|
|Vodafone||5G NR Band n78||LTE bands 7, 20, 1, 3, 8, 32, 38||2100MHz, 900MHz||900MHz|
The most important “core bands” are shown in bold, whereas “additional bands and frequencies” are shown in italics. For your cellphone to work on UK networks, we’d recommend that it supports at least the core bands and frequencies for the type of coverage you’d like to use.
In addition to the four cellular coverage providers, there are a number of mobile virtual network operators (or MVNOs). These MVNOs “piggyback” on signal from one of four cellular coverage providers. Major examples include giffgaff (which uses coverage from O2) and VOXI (which uses coverage from Vodafone). On MVNOs, you’ll get the same coverage as on the underlying provider, but often at a lower price or with additional features.
If you’re not sure about the bands and frequencies supported on your cellphone, you should consult your handset manufacturer’s documentation or product specifications.
Roaming VS Using A UK SIM Card
There are two ways to use your cellphone in the UK: either roaming on your normal domestic SIM card or using a locally-obtained SIM card from one of the UK networks.
If you’re only visiting the UK for a short amount of time, roaming on your normal SIM card can often be the simplest solution. In advance of your travel to the UK, you should check with your cellular provider on the costs of using your phone in the UK. You should also ensure that international roaming is enabled on your account.
If you’re planning to stay in the UK for a little bit longer, or if you’re likely to use your phone fairly regularly whilst you’re there, it might be worthwhile getting a local UK SIM card. This will probably be more convenient and is usually cheaper than roaming on your normal domestic SIM card. In the UK, prices start from about £10 for one month’s usage on a local SIM card. This will also cover your cellphone usage in other European countries. You’ll get a UK-based phone number on your UK SIM card (starting with +44).
Getting a UK SIM Card
In the UK, it’s a straightforward process getting a prepaid SIM card. There’s no need for you to be a UK resident, and you won’t need to provide any identification documents. You do, however, need to ensure your cellphone is unlocked from your carrier before your arrival in the UK.
Where possible, we’d strongly recommend ordering your UK SIM card in advance. This will give you a wider choice of options and you’ll normally also save money by ordering the SIM card in advance. It also means there’ll be one less thing to do upon your arrival in the UK as you’ll have a SIM card that’s already charged and ready-to-use.
At present, giffgaff is our recommended SIM card for anyone who is visiting or moving to the UK. Unlike most other networks, they offer international delivery for free on all of their SIM cards. On giffgaff, it’s also possible to top-up your SIM card using a credit card or debit card that’s registered outside the UK. This differs from many other networks, which require you to use a UK-based bank card when topping up.
giffgaff is our recommended prepaid network for anyone who is visiting or moving to the UK.
As one of the UK’s most popular cellular network brands, giffgaff is unique in offering free international SIM card delivery. This means you can have a SIM card packed and ready to go before you even leave for the airport. giffgaff will also allow you to top-up online using an international credit card or debit card (whereas most other networks will only accept payment cards from the UK).
On giffgaff, a £10 top-up will give you 6GB of data along with unlimited UK minutes and unlimited UK texts. You’ll be able to use the SIM card in Europe at no extra cost, with international phone calls (from the UK to other countries) being available at a small additional cost. You can tether or use personal hotspot to share your data allowance with other devices.
For customers wanting a larger allowance of data, giffgaff offers 10GB of data for £12, 15GB of data for £15 or 40GB of data for £20. For £25, you can get Always-On data for one month (unlimited downloads with the first 40GB per month at full 4G download speeds).
giffgaff uses O2 as their cellular network coverage provider. This means you can use a giffgaff SIM card in any handset supporting GSM 900, WCDMA 2100 or LTE band 20.
If you’re not able to order a SIM card from giffgaff in advance, it’s also possible to get a SIM card in person after your arrival in the UK.
If possible, it’s best to avoid getting your SIM card at the airport (e.g. at Heathrow or Gatwick). This is because SIM cards at the airport are normally grossly overpriced. Instead, wait until you arrive in the city and make a visit to the nearest cell phone store, grocery store or gas station (also known as a mobile phone shop, supermarket or petrol station in the local lingo). You should expect to pay a couple of pounds to get your SIM card in-person, and then £10 or £15 for your initial top-up or charge. Our full guide to prepaid SIM cards in the UK will give you a full overview of all the available options.
As a word of warning, it’s worth noting that most UK networks will not allow you to top-up online or by phone when using a payment card that’s registered outside the UK. Therefore, unless you’re on giffgaff or on another network that supports international top-ups, the only way for you to recharge your account will be making an in-person visit to locations showing the green “top-up” logo.
At the end of your trip to the UK, it’s worth holding on to your SIM card. Typically, your prepaid SIM card will remain active for another 6 months after the last chargeable usage on your SIM card. Therefore, if you’re planning to visit the UK again on a future trip (as we hope you will), it might be possible to re-use your SIM card.
Note on Pay Monthly deals: If you’re moving to the UK on a longer-term basis, you may be tempted to get a Pay Monthly SIM card on contract. Before you can do this, you’ll need to be a UK resident and you’ll need to be able to pass a UK credit check. You’ll also need a UK bank account from which your monthly Direct Debit payments can be taken. For this reason, unless you’ve already lived in the UK for a significant amount of time, we’d always recommend getting a prepaid deal such as giffgaff which doesn’t require you to pass a UK credit check.
Using Your Phone In Europe
If you’re combining a trip to the UK with a trip to mainland Europe, you can continue using your prepaid SIM card whilst you’re there at no extra cost. This is because the EU’s Roam Like At Home policy allows you to use your UK allowances at no extra charge.
Your prepaid UK SIM card can be used at no additional cost in the following European countries:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy (includes Sardinia and Sicily), Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal (includes Azores and Madeira), the Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (includes Canary Islands and Balearic Islands) and Sweden
Likewise, if you have a SIM card from another European country, you can use it in the UK at no additional charge.
If you’re travelling to Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Monaco or Switzerland, you should check whether your usage there will be covered by European roaming.
Some UK networks go beyond inclusive roaming in Europe. For instance, a prepaid SIM card from Three can be used at no extra cost in 71 destinations. This includes the USA, Australia, Brazil, Singapore and more.
Other Useful Information
In the UK and Europe, the cellular industry tends to use different terminology to North American countries. Namely:
- Cellphones are normally referred to as mobile phones in day-to-day usage.
- Carriers or cellular networks are more commonly referred to as mobile networks.
- Prepaid SIM cards are normally advertised as Pay As You Go SIM cards.
- Instead of re-filling or re-charging your prepaid plan, people normally talk about topping up their Pay As You Go account.
When shopping or comparing price plans, it’s also worth knowing that taxes are already included in the price. In the UK, this primarily refers to value added tax (VAT), which is similar to sales tax in other countries.
If you’re using a UK SIM card, you’ll be assigned a new UK-based phone number on the SIM card. The phone number will be 11-digits long and will always start with 07 (e.g. 07123 456 789).
If your friends or family members would like to call you from outside the UK, you’ll need to replace the zero at the start of your phone number with +44. This will give you your international phone number (so, for instance, 07123 456 789 becomes +44 7123 456 789).
Similarly, if you’re calling abroad from a UK SIM card, you’ll need to add the relevant international calling prefix before dialling out to that number.
In the UK, the emergency services phone number is 999. This is a single phone number for all emergency services including the police, ambulance and fire services. The pan-European emergency phone number (112) will also work when you’re in the UK.
If you’re making phone calls on a UK SIM card, your inclusive allowance of minutes will normally allow you to call other UK landline and mobile numbers (most phone numbers beginning with 01, 02, 03 and 07). If you’re calling a different phone number that isn’t included in this range, find out how much the phone call will cost.
If you’re looking to get connected to the internet without using a cellular data connection, many locations now offer a free wi-fi connection (including many coffee shops, grocery stores, train stations and more). The main providers of public wi-fi in the UK are BT Wi-Fi, O2 Wi-Fi and Sky Wi-Fi (The Cloud).
For getting around, it’s worth using the Transport for London (TfL) and National Rail Enquiries websites. They’re both invaluable for providing you with information on how to get around the UK (TfL covers public transport services in London whereas National Rail Enquiries covers rail travel across the rest of the UK). You can also use Google Maps for transit directions, as well as CityMapper in major urban areas.
We hope you have a fantastic time in the UK and a very enjoyable trip!