If you’re traveling to the United Kingdom it’s smart to buy a fast and reliable mobile data plan because you’ll be using it all the time—train tickets are digital, restaurant menus are digital, museum/event tickets are electronic, Google Maps need data, calling an UBER/taxi needs data, and many other things require reliable data. That’s why it’s smart to buy a prepaid United Kingdon SIM card with a mobile data plan when you visit.
In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about buying a SIM Card in the UK and how to buy the best prepaid high-speed mobile data plan that won’t cost you a lot of money.
UPDATE: This article is about physical SIM Cards but most new phones are eSIM compatible. These new digital eSIMs are more convenient than physical SIM cards because they don’t require you to install a new physical SIM card. You simply buy the prepaid data plan online, scan a QR code that’s sent to your email to install the digital “card”, and you’re ready to go.
Read The Savvy Backpacker’s Guide To The Best eSIM Data Plans for Europe and my guide to the best prepaid UK eSIM data plans.
How To Buy A Prepaid SIM Card Data Plan For The United Kingdom
There are two main options when it comes to buying a SIM Card for the UK:
- The Easy Way (Buy a SIM Card Before You Travel): Buying a prepaid data plan before you travel is slightly more expensive but it’s much more convenient (and you have mobile data as soon as you arrive in the United Kingdom).
- The Cheaper Way (Buy a SIM Card In The United Kindom): Buying a SIM Card in the United Kindom can be cheaper but it’s more inconvenient because you have to track down a SIM retailer after arrival.
- In general, it’s easier to pre-buy a prepaid data plan if you’re visiting for less than two weeks. But buying a local SIM card will be cheaper for longer trips.
IMPORTANT: Prior to leaving the UK leaving the European Union in 2020, any data plan bought in the EU would work in any EU country without any extra roaming fees (i.e. a UK data plan could be used in Italy, a German plan could be used in the UK, a French plan could be used in Spain, etc.).
However, now many EU-country plans don’t work or charge extra when used in the UK (and vice versa) so you might have to buy two plans if the UK is part of a larger European trip.
That said, there are still a few data plans that work in both the UK and the EU (like the Orange Holiday SIM and Orange Holiday eSIM). I’ll go into more detail later in this article.
How To Buy A Prepaid UK SIM Card Before You Travel (i.e. The Easy Way)
The easiest way to get mobile data for your phone in the United Kingdom is to pre-purchase a SIM card before you depart.
There are a handful of data plans aimed at visitors/non-residents that are a bit more expensive than waiting to buy a SIM card in the UK but there is zero hassle—no tracking down a mobile phone shop, no registering your SIM card, no lapse in internet service, etc.
You simply pop the SIM card into your phone once you’re in the UK and it will automatically connect to a local mobile data provider.
There are a number of different mobile data plans available at SimOptions.com (I’ve used them in the past) and they’ll ship the SIM card to you before your trip.
UPDATE: Most new phones now support eSIM data plans and they’re even more convenient than traditional SIM cards—instant delivery, no shipping charges, you can keep your regular SIM card, etc.
In short, an eSIM is embedded in your phone so you just download software to activate the data plan. Learn more about eSIM data plans and see if your phone accepts eSIMs in my Guide to Prepaid eSIM Data Plans in Europe.
QUICK MATH: You’ll typically spend a total of an extra $10-$20 over the course of a two-week trip if you buy your SIM card ahead at SimOptions.com vs waiting to buy in the United Kingdom—personally, I think the extra cost is worth the convenience.
The Best Tourist-Friendly, Pre-Paid SIM Cards For The United Kingdom
Here are my top SIM cards if you’re wanting a pre-purchase your SIM before arriving in the UK:
Orange Holiday Europe Prepaid SIM Card
The Orange Holiday Europe Prepaid SIM Card is probably the best all-around option for SIM cards that can be purchased abroad because it offers a lot of data for a good price—and it includes a lot of worldwide calls and text.
Additionally, Orange is one of the largest mobile companies in Europe so they have great coverage throughout most of Europe (which isn’t always the case with smaller European carriers).
The Orange Holiday plans work in both the UK and the EU at no extra charge so this makes a great option for multi-country trips.
- PRICE: $50
- DATA: 30GB
- CALLS: Unlimted in Europe and 1200 minutes worldwide
- TEXT: Unlimted in Europe and 1000 worldwide
- USED AS A MOBILE HOTSPOT?: Yes
- CREDIT VALID FOR: 14 Days
The Orange Holiday Europe plan is good because it gives you a lot of mobile data for a decent price but the only possible drawback is the 14-day validity period—which doesn’t matter if your trip is less than two weeks. That said, you can buy an extra 10GB of credit after the two weeks are up for around $25.
If want to save a little money, check out the $30 Orange Holiday Zen plan that gives you 8GB of data for 14 days.
Update: The Orange Holiday data plans are also available as an eSIM—which means you don’t have to wait for delivery or pay for shipping (assuming your phone is eSIM compatible). Check out the eSIM data plans at SimOptions to get the details on both the Orange Holiday Europe eSIM and the Orange Holiday Zen eSIM plans.
Learn more about eSIM data plans and see if your phone accepts eSIM cards in my Guide to eSIM Prepaid Data Plans in Europe.
Three UK PAYG AIO15
Three UK is another large European mobile carrier and their PAYG AIO15 plan is a good value for people who don’t need the 20GB offered by the Orange Holiday Europe plan. I like how the plan has a validity period of 30 days so it’s good for longer trips.
- PRICE: $30
- DATA: 10GB
- CALLS: Unlimted in Europe
- TEXT: Unlimted in Europe
- USED AS A MOBILE HOTSPOT?: No
- CREDIT VALID FOR: 30 Days
Note: SimOptions.com has other cards for sale but the options listed above are the best options/deals.
Where To Buy A Prepaid SIM Card Data Plan in The United Kingdom?
Buying a prepaid SIM card with a data plan in the UK is reasonably straightforward so keep reading to learn the best way to get your mobile data at the best price possible.
The first step is knowing where to go to buy SIM Cards that have prepaid mobile data. In general, there are three main places that sell SIM cards:
Carrier-Specific Mobile Carriers
The major mobile carriers will have brick-and-mortar shops throughout most major cities. Shops are typically clustered around the city center so finding these shops is fairly simple. The largest carriers are:
If you’re not tech-savvy, then going to one of these shops is probably your best bet since the employees should be able to troubleshoot any issues while you’re in the store.
Third-Party Phone Shops
There are many mobile phone shops that sell a range of phone plans from multiple companies. Employees might be able to offer some help getting set up but service probably won’t be as good as carrier-specific shops.
Newsstands, Tobacco Shops, Grocery Stores, Vending Machines, etc
You can find SIM cards being sold in multiple smaller shops at airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, etc), train stations, newsstands, bookshops, and randomly throughout most cities. One note is that most “tourist-heavy” spots (like airports and train stations) might only have more expensive plans.
This is where you’ll find plans sold by smaller companies so prices might be a bit cheaper but your data speeds/coverage might be limited.
Large grocery stores like Asda and Tesco will also have their own data plans you can buy in-store.
Don’t expect any customer service when buying from these kinds of shops.
The Best SIM Card Data Plans in the UK
The United Kingdom is served by a handful of major mobile operators and a few smaller companies. I recommend sticking with the major companies I’ve listed below (especially for visitors) since the major carriers will have the best coverage, speeds, and customer service.
Regarding price and service, most mobile carriers offer very similar pricing and coverage—especially when you’re in major cities.
O2 Prepaid Data Plan
O2 offers a few plans that range from £15 ($19) for 20GB of data to £30 ($37) for 100GB of data. O2 is also the largest carrier in the UK so coverage will be good.
EE Prepaid Data Plan
EE is another very popular mobile provider in the UK (they were formed when Orange and T-Mobile merged) and they have similar plans/prices as O2 with plans that range from £15 ($19) for 20GB of data to £30 ($37).
Three UK Prepaid Data Plan
Three UK is the third of the big four mobile carriers in the UK. Three often runs deals so you might be able to find a slightly better price here than with the other carriers depending on their current offers.
Vodafone Prepaid Data Plan
Vodafone is the world’s second-largest mobile provider and Vodafone UK is the longest-running mobile provider in the UK.
Prepaid Budget Mobile Data Plan
There are a number of budget mobile companies that piggyback off the four main carriers’ networks (i.e. Lebara uses Vodafone, BT Mobile uses EE, Asda uses Vodafone, etc) so you can often get very similar service at a lower price.
UK SIM Card and Prepaid Data Plan Basics
Here is some helpful background info on mobile data plans so you have a better idea of how mobile data service works in the UK.
How Much Mobile Data Do You Need?
As long as you’re not streaming music/videos or uploading a ton of photos, you probably won’t use more than 3GB-6GB of mobile data a week. In fact, the average American smartphone owner uses around 10GB of mobile data each month.
If you’re spending a lot of time on social media (notably Instagram and TikTok) then you might use a bit more but if you’re just doing normal web browsing and using Google Maps then you might only use 1-2GB a week.
UK SIM Cards and EU Roaming Fees
The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union so you may run into some issues using UK data plans in the EU and vice versa. Your plan may either not work at all when you cross borders or you could get charged extra roaming fees. This means you might have to buy two different data plans if you’re visiting multiple European countries.
You can also check out my other prepaid mobile data articles:
- Guide To Buying SIM Cards and Mobile Data Plans in France
- Guide to Buying SIM Cards and Mobile Data Plans in Germany
- Guide To Buying SIM Cards and Mobile Data Plans in Italy
- Guide To Buying SIM Cards and Mobile Data Plans in Spain
Your Phone Must Be Unlocked
Some mobile carriers (mainly in the US, Australia, and New Zealand) “lock” their phones so they’ll only work on that carrier’s network—this typically applies if you have a plan that includes a free phone with a multi-year contract. You’ll need to contact your carrier and have them “unlock” your phone so it will accept a third-party SIM card.
In the US, carriers are required to unlock phones if the customer requests it but it’s rarely unlocked by default. That said, a few carriers still make customers jump through hoops to unlock their phones so don’t put this off until the last minute or you could be out of luck.
A New SIM Card Gives You A New Phone Number
Installing a new SIM card gives you a new phone number so your old number won’t work until you reinstall your original SIM card [Keep your other SIM card in a safe place!]. So, if people need to reach you, you’ll need to tell people your new UK number. NOTE: iMessage will still work like normal even with a new SIM card installed (your iPhone will update when you install the new SIM).
Remember, lots of websites and apps use two-factor authentication that’s connected to your phone number so that will no longer be an option with the new SIM installed. And if you use Uber/Lyft, you’ll need to update your new phone number in the app when you install your new SIM.
More Tips On Using Your Mobile Phone In The United Kingdom
I’ve written extensively about using smartphones and data plans in Europe as well as tips for buying SIM Cards For Visiting Europe but below are some more helpful tips about using your phone in Spain.
Buy A Portable Battery Charger
Traveling with your phone will quickly drain your battery so I highly recommend a portable battery. I use Anker PowerCore 10000 because it’s tiny and affordable but there are multiple options.
Take Steps To Lower Your Mobile Data Usage
Data can be expensive and it’s extremely easy to unknowingly burn through a lot of data because many apps use data in the background. Facebook, email, Instagram, Snapchat… those all constantly use data throughout the day without you knowing it. That’s it’s important to know how to limit your data usage.
Use Airplane Mode And Block Data to Specific Apps
I’ll put my phone in Airplane Mode because that disables all data (but GPS still works in Airplane Mode). You can also go into the settings and disable data access to each individual app. I’ll go in and turn every off except for things like Google Maps or others that I’ll use more frequently — this way when I turn off Airplane Mode only those apps that will use data. Then I’ll turn Airplane Mode back on when I’m done.
Download Offline Maps
Google Maps lets you download entire city maps so they can be used offline. As an added bonus, GPS doesn’t use data so offline Google Maps works fairly well (but not all functionality works). Here is a good YouTube video that explains everything.
Make Calls Over WiFi
WhatsApp is an excellent app for free calling and text messages — I’ve found that many Europeans exclusively use WhatsApp to communicate (including many Airbnb hosts).
More United Kingdom Travel Tips From The Savvy Backpacker
Here are some more helpful articles we’ve written about visiting the UK on a budget:
- London Travel Guide
- How Much It Costs To Visit London
- London On A Budget
- Best Hostels In London
- Backpacking Europe Packing List
- Europe Packing List for Women
- The Best Travel Shoes
- The Best Travel Backpacks and The Best Travel Backpacks For Women
- Aer Travel Pack 3 Review | My Hands-On, Travel-Tested Thoughts - September 23, 2023
- The Best Travel Backpacks | In-Depth Buyer’s Guide & Backpack Reviews - September 10, 2023
- How To Travel Solo In Europe | Your Guide To Solo Travel Planning - September 7, 2023
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Thanks For Reading! — James