Prepaid mobile plans in the UK are an easy way to keep your mobile data costs under control. You won’t get any nasty surprises and you’re not tied into a long-term contract that stops you switching to a better deal when it comes along.

UK SIM cards heathrow
Photo by Felix Wilson

What’s the difference between prepaid, pay-as-you-go, and regular contracts?

Prepaid plans sit in the middle between pay-as-you-go (PAYG) and regular monthly contracts (sometimes just called post-paid). PAYG and prepaid are similar in that in both cases, you pay for the data before you use it.

With PAYG, you need to buy top-ups once you’ve used up your data or the data has expired. With prepaid, you can cancel at any time, switch to a different plan, or continue with your existing plan but you need a payment method such as credit card or debit card.

Regular monthly contracts are post-paid and have cancellation fees if you want to get out early. They also require a credit check and for you to jump through a few hoops when you sign up.

SIM compatibility

Unless your mobile phone is positively ancient, the correct type of SIM card will be what’s called a “nano SIM”. Even if your phone is a relic from the past, you’ll be fine as the big carriers all sell “trio SIMs”, which means no matter which one you buy, it will fit in your phone. Most modern handsets work on multiple bands, but if you’re unsure, check Will my phone work? to see which providers will work with your handset.

And if you’re set on getting a 5G SIM for your shiny new 5G compatible handset, or just 5G curious, take a look at our guide to what 5G is and where to get a SIM.

A trio SIM from Three. | Photo by Gregory Lane

UK prepaid SIM card options

The UK has plenty of mobile carriers and a healthily competitive market, which means you can get pretty good prepaid deals.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of your prepaid UK SIM card options. For more details, check each carrier’s site.

Note: VOXI and SMARTY are strong contenders for the prime spot, and often have special offers with extra data. iD Mobile also has weekly deals that are worth a look.

VOXI offers a contract-free, rolling monthly deal with “endless social data”, allowing unlimited use of social apps without touching your data. They have a similar “endless video” feature.

Comparing SIM data packages

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
12GB £12.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
15GB £15.00 (with endless video) Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
45GB £20.00 (with endless video) Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
Unlimited £35.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
30GB £10.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
50GB £12.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
Unlimited £20.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
12GB £10.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
40GB £15.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
Unlimited £20.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
4GB £6.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
12GB £8.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
20GB £10.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info

Tesco Mobile
Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
8GB £10.00 5000 / 5000 No More info
50GB £20.00 5000 / 5000 No More info

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
12GB (flexible) £12.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
25GB (requires saved credit/debit card) £15.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
80GB (flexible) £20.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info
Unlimited Always On data (flexible) £25.00 Unlimited / Unlimited No More info

Data Price Talk(min) / Texts 5G ready Link
4GB £16.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
12GB £19.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
30GB £24.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info
Unlimited £26.00 Unlimited / Unlimited Yes More info

Note: 1. Some packages may allow for data rollover. 2. GiffGaff offers two types of prepaid SIMs—really flexi month-to-month deals, which come with 4G-only, less data and higher prices, and slightly less-flexi rolling monthly plans that are 5G-ready and come with more data and lower prices, but require a saved debit or credit card.

Where are the major carriers like O2, EE and Vodafone?

Historically, the big names haven’t offered many 30-day prepaid plans, though this is starting to change. As mentioned above, our list is by no means exhaustive; we’ve just put together a selection of what we reckon are some of the best—and most straightforward—deals. We recommend looking at more providers before making any decisions.

It’s worth noting that some of the virtual network providers above are subsidiaries of the big operators. For example, VOXI is a subsidiary of Vodafone, Lyca Mobile and Plusnet operates on the EE network. SMARTY and iD Mobile run on Three, and GiffGaff uses the O2 network.

Network coverage and data speeds

All UK SIM cards will be at least 4G/LTE and many are also 5G-ready (meaning you need a 5G phone), so the upload/download speeds will generally be very good. However, the main question is network coverage, as you need a decent signal to actually enjoy the full 4G/5G speeds. Fortunately, most towns and cities in the UK have good 4G coverage, plus many major cities now have 5G coverage too.

Mobile coverage in the UK countryside is where the network providers can potentially make a difference. Overall, EE is probably the best network, followed by O2 and Vodafone, with Three coming in last. All the providers have a network coverage map (e.g. Three, Vodafone, O2, and EE) so if you’re in (or going to be in) a remote rural location, you can check out signal strength before you buy a SIM—see the section above describing which SIM provider is on which network.

Unlocking mobile phones in the UK

From December 2021, mobile carriers in the UK have been banned from selling locked cell phones. While they’ve had to unlock phones on request for many years now, they were still allowed to sell them locked. Having access to an unlocked phone from the get-go can be a money-saver, as it makes it easier to switch providers.

Information on SIMs for travellers to the UK

Travelling without constant data these days is almost unthinkable. Getting from the station to your accommodation? You’re probably going to want to follow that little blue dot on the screen all the way to your bed for the night. Luckily, getting a good-value prepaid/pay-as-you-go UK SIM card is easy.

Just arrived? Keep calm and use wifi

The good news about London is that pretty much everywhere you go there’ll be some kind of open wifi network, starting with the airport. Don’t be tempted to get a PAYG UK SIM at the airport, because there’s a good chance it won’t be the best deal available. Rather order online, or wait a bit.

Do I even need a UK SIM card?

Before Brexit, EU residents could typically roam for free in the UK. Nowadays, it depends on your particular mobile provider, and the rules they’ve set (these can change, too). So, your best bet is to ask on sign-up.

Increasingly, non-EU mobile providers are offering free or discounted roaming. For example, if you’re in the US on T-Mobile, free international roaming is included with “ONE”, “Magenta”, “Simple Choice”, “New Classic” or “Select Choice” plans. Others offer low per-day roaming costs. Sometimes these roaming plans require pre-activation, so check with your mobile company before you travel.

Even if your plan does include international roaming, you might want to check the fine print—or just test performance after you arrive. Some plans are restricted to 2G data speeds (for example T-Mobile is restricted to 128Kb/s!), so getting a UK SIM might still be worth it.

How much data do you need?

As long as you log in to wifi when available, you probably won’t use much more data than you use at home. If you go on a data diet, you might be able to keep yourself to 100Mb/day or less, but personally we like to have a comfortable buffer of data for those situations when you need to know if the last train is leaving from your closest station in the next five minutes.

While we do our best to make sure the information in this post is correct, prices and other details are subject to change. This post was originally published on July 12, 2017. Last updated September 12, 2021.

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