How To Buy a Prepaid Sim Card in the UK

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If you’re visiting the UK, I highly recommend getting a prepaid sim card on arrival so you can access the internet without having to hunt for public WiFi and to help save money on roaming costs. While, there are tons of free public WiFi’s throughout the UK but in some areas, they’re harder to find, and in my experience, they can be pretty slow and they’re really insecure. Having data will also help you with navigating, checking train/bus times, checking restaurant reviews, buying tickets for tours, etc. It’ll also let you use Google/Apple Pay in stores to pay for things in stores, your bus fare, and the London Underground.

Why You Should Avoid Using Public WiFi

Man of Storr in Scotland
Man of Storr in Scotland

Even if you’re in a large city like Liverpool or London where public WiFi is on every corner, having phone data is much more secure. Public WiFi’s uses unencrypted connections which allow hackers to monitor your internet activity, and see data fo things like your online banking, emails, social media accounts. If you need to use public WiFi, make sure you have a VPN.

If you’re on a low budget, Proton VPN offers a free plan that will offer you a good level of security with a limited connection speed (it’s really slow but it’s probably the most secure free one out there). If your budget allows, I recommend upgrading to a paid version of Proton VPN or NordVPN. Both of these VPNs have great support, a good level of security and will help ensure hackers cannot access your information over public WiFI. I have personally used both, and I’m currently using Proton VPN.

Reasons I like Proton VPN: Fast connection speed with lower latency than other VPN’s I’ve used when using the premium plan. Works for Windows, Linux, Android, Mac and iOS so can use it on all my devices. Works for Netflix and other streaming sites. Plus they have good privacy rules. They’re not under surveillance and don’t keep traffic logs (a lot of VPNs do!). They’re based in Switzerland, which has some of the best privacy laws in the world and isn’t a member of fourteen eyes surveillance network (so basically they won’t share data with the other countries that are a member including the US, UK, Canada, Australia and more). If you really care about your privacy, then Proton is probably the best VPN you can get. They also offer a really secure email service as well.

Buying a Prepaid Sim Card Online

Woman using smart phone, while smiling against a background that shows a world map

If possible I recommend buying a prepaid sim card online before you get to the UK, as this is so much less stressful than having to faff with going to a store to buy a sim card. They are not always cheaper but reduced stress and less time wasted can be worth it. You can either order one that will be delivered to your UK accommodation, an Amazon Locker (if you buy the sim card from Amazon), or purchase one that is delivered to your home address so you can bring it with you.

Here’s a list of some sim cards you can buy online:

  • Three Mobile –  36GB Simcard with unlimited calls and texts plus you can use 12GB of the data in the EU
  • EE – 6GB Sim Card that lasts for 90 days (This is who I use as my main UK network)
  • Vodafone – 15GB of data that lasts for 90 days + international calling
  • GiffGaff – Free Sim Card with £10 minimum top-up and free delivery to any UK address. They have 30 day plans that start at £10 for 15GB of data and go up to £35 for unlimited data. Plus they support roaming in the EU. All plans include unlimited minutes + texts. These sim cards don’t expire as long as they’re used every 6 months and you can top them up. If you need to get a sim card delivered ASAP then order from Amazon, for 1 penny (£0.01) plus £2.99 for postage (so £3 total) to get it delivered the next day.
  • SMARTY Sim Card – Runs on the Three Network but has some cheaper deals. SMARTY Sim cards are £1 on (plus £2.99 for next-day delivery), and then you just need to add a top-up and pick a plan. Plans start at £10 for 30GB data, unlimited calls and texts and last 30 days. They include 5G data, data roaming in the EU and can be used in Portable Wifi, Laptops and other devices.

If you buy a prepaid sim card online, make sure to also order a sim card ejector tool. I recommend getting this one, as you can put them on a key ring to ensure you don’t lose it.

If you order a sim card from Amazon UK, you can get it delivered to an Amazon Locker. You don’t have to be a UK resident to use Amazon UK, and you can sign in with your existing Amazon account so there’s no need to sign-up again. Just make sure you select that you want the item delivered to the UK on the “Deliver to” option, to ensure you see the full range of sim cards available.

Buy or Hire a Portable Mobile Wifi/Pocket Wifi

Inside The Sky Garden, London
Inside The Sky Garden, London

If you’re travelling as a group or running multiple devices you should consider buying or hire a Portable mobile WiFi. Portable WiFi’s can save money, as you won’t need to buy multiple sim cards.

Whilst buying a portable mobile WiFi device can look expensive at first glance, if you travel a lot they can help save money over hiring a mobile WiFi in the long run. When picking a mobile WiFi, you’ll need to decide whether you wish to buy one that requires you use the manufacturer’s plans or insert your own sim card. I personally prefer having an unlocked mobile WiFi such as those made by Huawei as this let’s me access better offers in each country I visit, and benefit from the local deals rather than being limited to plans through the devices manufacturer that can be overpriced. In the UK for example, I have a SMARTY Sim Card to use in my portable WiFi as they have good deals and decent overall coverage in London, Bristol etc through the Three Network whilst being cheaper than Three.

Here’s a list of mobile WiFi devices and the plans they include that work in the UK.

Mobile Wifi Device / Mobile Wifi Plan
Skyroam Mobile WiFi Hotspot & Power Bank, works in 130+ countries including the UK and Europe.
Skyroam Skyroam Pre-Paid Card: 5 Global WiFi Day passes 
GlocalMe GlocalMe G3 4G Mobile WiFi Hotspot, with 1.1GB Global data
Three Mobile Broadband 24 GB Data SIM
GMYLE Prepaid Travel Sim with 200 MB Global Data
Huawei Huawei E5573Cs-322, 4G Travel Hotspot  this is the one I use with a SMARTY sim card.
TP-Link TP-Link M7350 4G LTE MiFi Device (No Sim Card included)

If you’d prefer to hire a Portable Mobile WiFi and you are staying in London, or flying through Heathrow Airport then you could hire this one from Rent n’ Connect. Their portable WiFi includes unlimited 4G/LTE data throughout the whole of the UK, and also the EU! You’ll pay per day you want to rent it, and they’ll deliver it to your hotel or you can collect it at Heathrow Airport.

Buying a UK Prepaid eSim for Traveling

eSims are a digital sim cards that you download onto your phone. Newer phones (about 2020 onwards) are likely to support them including Samsung Galaxy S22 and the iPhone 13. eSims are great, as it lets you keep your home country physical sim card in your phone, and download a travel eSim for each country/region you are visiting. This reduces the risk of you losing your home country’s sim card, and lets you still receive texts for things like authentication codes to access your bank, verify transactions, etc.

I recommend buying an eSim from Airalo. Their website is easy to use. You buy the eSim, download the app and then download the eSim to your phone via their app. You can renew the eSims plan if your data or time limit runs out via the app as well. Plus they’re really affordable, starting for as little as $7. The only downside is, they do not include any call or text allowance so if you need to ring/text people during your travels you’ll still need to get a physical sim card.

Airalo has four different UK sim card plans for you to pick from.

Airalo UK sim card plan options

They offer these four e-Sim plans for the UK:

$5 gets you 1GB of data that is valid for 7 days.
$10 gets you 3GB of data that is valid for 30 days.
$15 gets you 5GB of data that is valid for 30 days.
$22.50 gets you 10GB of data that is valid for 30 days.

If you’re visiting multiple countries, you could also look at their regional e-Sims as these can work out cheaper than buying multiple local sim cards/eSims. If you’ll be visiting the EU, why not pick up their EU eSim? These work in the UK and 39 other countries including Iceland, Spain, Ireland and Germany.

eurolink e sim plans for europe
eSim Plans for use in 39 countries.

Airalo offers the following eSim plans for use within the EU:

If you’ll be traveling outside the EU, then I recommend checking out their global eSim cards. Although these aren’t as affordable as the regional or local sims, so make sure to compare them against buying a local sim card for the country you’ll be visiting.

global esim card from airalo

They have these plans available:

Which Stores Sell a Prepaid Sim Card

Glasgow highstreet
Glasgow High Street

The best places to buy a UK sim card are in a supermarket or one of the major convenience store chains (such as Tesco Express, OneStop, Co-Op, Morrisons Daily, Budgens and Londis).

The sim cards in UK supermarkets/convenience stores are normally located near the checkouts but you can always ask a member of staff where you can find the sim cards. Most sim cards sold in stores cost 99p plus require a £10 minimum top-up, and you’ll have to select which plan you’d like to activate when you have topped up. Some sim cards will have time-limited offers, giving you bonus data. These will normally be advertised on the sim card packaging, so make sure to do a comparison of these offers before picking a network.

When you visit a UK supermarket/convenience store, you will have the option of buying sim cards from all major networks such as EE, Vodafone, GiffGaff, O2, and Three. Depending on which supermarket you are in, you may also find deals from their own network (e.g. Tesco Mobile for Tesco stores, and Asda Mobile for Asda stores). Supermarkets own networks tend to be decent, especially Tesco Mobile. These networks operate by using one of the main networks infrastructures (o2 for Tesco, and Vodafone for Asda ) whilst normally being more affordable than the main network.

You could also visit Argos for a sim card, but the stock will vary depending on the store. Argos is also a bit more confusing for a first-time visitor. They work by using a catalog where you find the product you want and enter the code into a little screen that’ll give you some information. You then have to write this down and pay for the sim card at the checkout. Then collect it. Whilst it’s not that difficult, it is a bit annoying if you’ve never done it before and takes longer than going to somewhere like Tesco Express.

Argos has some decent offers though, and you may find limited-time deals exclusive to them. They also have sim cards from other networks such as VOXI which you may not find in a supermarket.

sim cards for sale on the argos website in september 2022. screenshot shows 3 sim cards from voxi, smarty and EE.

In general, all networks have good overall coverage for 3G and 4G. In major cities such as London, Edinburgh, and Manchester you’ll find decent 5G coverage from all major networks. When in remote areas, coverage can be spotty but from my personal experience, EE is normally really reliable with o2 following shortly behind. I personally find Three to be the least reliable network when I am in remote areas such as the Scottish Highlands and Cornwall. But cost-wise, EE is the most expensive network so you do have to pay extra for access to their better coverage.

If you’re on a budget, GiffGaff is a good overall option. They have good signal coverage and affordable plans. They are still one of the only UK networks to include some roaming within the EU on their plans (up to 5GB of your allowance). They run on the o2 network so you benefit from good overall coverage, but they can be more affordable and have a good range of deals available via their site.

In-Store Sim Card Offers

The actual offers available in-store will vary depending on when you’re visiting, and which store you visit but in general most of them have similar offers.

Here are some recent offers I spotted in a Tesco supermarket. Each of these sim cards cost 99p and then you have to add a top-up to activate your chosen plan:

  • EE – £10 for 20GB data (for up to 6 months), plus 500 minutes and unlimited texts.
  • Lyca Mobile – 25GB data for £12
  • Three – 20GB Data for £10

Two of the main supermarkets have their own network – Asda and Tesco. These offer competitive pricing and plans with different benefits. You can to either order their sim cards online or go to their store to pick one up at the check out.

If you go to a Tesco/Tesco Express you can pick up a Tesco Mobile UK pay-as-you-go (prepaid) sim card for as little as £7.50. Here’s some of the best deals Tesco Mobile offers as of September 2022, all these plans include 5G speeds but EU roaming isn’t included:

  • 2GB data, 500 minutes and 5000 texts for £7.50
  • 10GB data, 5000 minutes, and 5000 texts for £10
  • 25GB Data, 5000 minutes and 5000 texts for £15
  • 100GB Data, 5000 minutes and 5000 texts for £30

If you go to an Asda Supermarket, you could pick up an Asda mobile pay-as-you-go sim card. These sim cards include EU roaming for 36 countries but the speed you’ll get is capped based on your plan. Asda mobile currently has 3 deals available:

  • 3GB data, unlimited minutes and texts for £5
  • 12GB Data plus unlimited minutes and texts for £10 – Supports 5G speed
  • 100GB data, unlimited minutes and texts for £25 – Supports 5G speeds

Asda mobile has some unlimited data plans as well but these are speed capped, for example, £20 will get you unlimited data, minutes, and texts but is limited to 2Mbps speed. £30 will get you unlimited data, minutes and texts with a 150Mbps speed cap.

Asda will be changing its pricing on 26th September 2022. The above prices are accurate as of 20th September 2022.

Which UK Networks Let You Roam In the EU?

Plaza de España in Spain

One great thing about the EU is that you can use one countries sim card plan allowance, in other EU countries at no extra cost (subject to data limits). This used to include the UK, however since Brexit, most networks in the UK have changed their rules and some now charge for EU roaming.

Here’s a list of of UK networks that offer prepaid sim cards and support roaming at no extra cost as of September 2022:

  • Asda Mobile
  • GiffGaff (up to 5GB of data)
  • iD mobile
  • Lebara
  • O2
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Smarty
  • EE (prepaid sim cards only, those on contracts have to pay)

Some of these networks may have limitations on how much of your allowance you can use in the EU, and their rules can change at any time so always check them before buying or topping up a sim card. If in doubt, buy a local sim card when you arrive in whichever EU country you’ll be visiting or if your phone supports it buy one of the Airalo EU eSims.

Buying a Prepaid UK Sim Card At The Airport

Arrivals at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5

Most UK airports have stores selling prepaid sim cards for use in the UK (and sometimes the EU). You’ll normally find these for sale in WHSmith stores which are in most airports. In larger airports such as Heathrow Airport you will find Sim Local stores, and sometimes even a vending machine selling a range of sim cards. Get more information on buying a sim card at Heathrow Airport here. Smaller airports such as Bristol, don’t really have any options for arrivals but they do sell sim cards in the InMotion store which is located after secuirty.

Before buying a sim card at the airport, you should be aware that they are normally at a premium price. You’ll be paying for the convenience so if you can manage with free WiFi for a bit, I recommend buying online or in a store once you leave the airport.

In most UK Airports you’ll find sim cards from EE, Three, and Vodafone. Sometimes there’ll also be Lebara and Lyca Mobile but I’ve yet to see an airport selling sim cards from VOXI, GiffGaff, or Smarty. You also won’t find supermarket (Tesco and Asda) network sim cards for sale in airports. So another downside of buying at the airport means limited access to offers from the budget networks.

Hope you found this guide helpful, please drop a comment to let me know how your trip to the UK went.

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