For anyone lucky enough to live and travel solely within the EU, roaming charges are falling. Fast. But if you are visiting the UK with a smartphone from outside the EU—from North America, Asia, Australasia, the Middle East or elsewhere—you need a local SIM with a prepaid data plan.
Getting the SIM is fairly easy. But which has the best data offering?
All plans I recommend below are good with nano, micro- and regular SIMs. And, of course, you will need an unlocked, 3G-compatible smartphone to access them.
O2’s best prepay plan for visitors is called Pay & Go Go Go. The prepaid bundles depends on how much you top up. Add £10 credit for 75 UK talk minutes (to UK cellphones and fixed lines), 500 texts, and 250 MB of data, valid for a month. Top up with £20 and receive 250 minutes, 2500 texts, and 500 MB of data, valid for a month. For more data, add a Web Bolt-On: add 500 MB to any tariff at a cost of £6, or add 1 GB for £10. Both also include free Wi-Fi access at the countrywide BT Wi-Fi network.
T-Mobile’s prepaid data add-ons are known as Smart Packs. These are prepaid usage bundles that come in three grades—choose the one you think most likely corresponds to your usage. The cheapest costs £10, is valid for 30 days and includes 1 GB of data, 100 minutes of domestic calls, and 400 domestic texts. For £15, the inclusive bundle offers 2 GB, 200 minutes and 600 texts. At £25, it’s 3 GB, 500 minutes and unlimited texts. To activate a Smart Pack from a T-Mobile SIM simply text SMART10, SMART15 or SMART25 to 441.
Orange has a bewildering array of prepaid plans, all named after animals. (“Sorry, I have no idea why,” is the answer to that question already forming in your head.) The key offering for data-hungry visitors to the UK is Dolphin. Top up £10 and—in addition to your credit—you’ll receive 400 free UK texts plus 1 GB of data. Top up £15 and that bonus rises to 600 texts and 2 GB. Top up £20 and it’s unlimited texts and 3 GB. Text DOLPHIN to 450 to join this plan.
Three’s plan setup is very simple. Get a PAYG SIM (they’re free) and top-up £10 to get started: Three charges just 1p per MB for pay-as-you-go data. You can prepay for more data (and some calls) with an All-in-One add-on. All-in-One 10 includes 500 MB of data plus 100 minutes and 3000 texts, valid for a month, for £10. All-in-One 15 includes unlimited data, 300 minutes and 3000 texts for £15.
All Vodafone prepay users can choose a Freebee which gets added, alongside their credit, each time they top up. It is basically a bonus that users receive on top of the airtime. You can register for the Freebee of your choice when you buy a SIM, or add it later. However, remember to register before you top up. The best for browsers is probably Text & Web: top up £10 and get an extra 300 texts and 500 MB of Internet on top of your £10 credit. Top up £15 and that rises to 500 texts and 500 MB. To register for Text & Web Freebees, call 4350. An alternative for anyone who plans to do some talking too is the Freedom Freebee. These are prepaid plans rather than bonuses: £15 buys you 200 minutes, 600 texts and 100 MB; £20 is better value, buying 300 minutes, 3000 texts and 500 MB. Note: until July 31, 2013, Freedom Freebees come with unlimited Internet.
Freebees are valid for 30 days.
For a lot more information on scoring cheap prepaid phone deals in the UK, including:
- how to get prepaid tariffs for calling home very cheap;
- what to do if you don’t have an unlocked phone;
- how to access 4G speeds from your smartphone;