Review of UK Mobile (prepaid) services for visitors / students

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keason

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UK has four major carriers:

Three (The newest carrier)
EE (T-mobile and Orange combined) Some LTE, but not on prepaid :(
O2 (includes many MVNO's, including Tesco, Lebara, etc...)
Vodaphone (includes Virgin Mobile)

All use SIM cards. Three uses 2100 Mhz 3G (up to HSDPA+, around 25Mb/3Mb max), others have a combination of 2G and 3G HSDPA variants. We tried Pay as you go (prepaid) plans on O2/Tesco, Three, and EE/Tmobile. We used iphone 5's (Sprint version, unlocked) and ipads

Native iPhone carriers
To get visual VM and other iphone features, pick Three, Tesco, O2, Vodaphone or EE. Everyone supports Android.

Contract or Prepaid (PAYG)
You can't get a contract phone without a UK bank account or credit history. Some of the prepaid carriers (like giff-gaff) won't take non-UK credit cards one the phone or internet either. That leaves stores with physical locations or carriers who you can purchase vouchers from. Most of the larger carriers sell vouchers at supermarkets (from the cashier) (e.g. Sainsburys). You can get Lebara from kiosks and shops, Tesco at Tesco stores.

For iPads: Amazon.co.uk is a good (cheaper) source for prepaid , pre-loaded data sims. Just make sure to order the correct size! They deliver by mail. A 3Gb Sim is around £12. Otherwise you can get the for a higher price at the stores. Data can be used as a hotspot.

How much data?
Many hotels charge for wifi in the UK (!), usually from £5-15/day. You'll probably use a lot more than your normal environment. We used about 1.5Gb/person/week with no video and lots of GPS.

How to get a SIM:
Three, O2, EE, and Vodaphone have dedicated stores in most larger towns. Specialists such as Carphone warehouse also carry them (nano-sims are rarer). You can also order a Tesco SIM from the tesco mobile web site (allow 5 days) and they will mail it to your hotel/address (call them for nano-sims) or a Tesco mobile shop (rare). Lebara SIMs (cheap international calls) are available from almost everyone, but are hard to get in nano-sim format. I'd seriously think about bringing a cutter.

Cost
Incoming texts and calls are free in the UK. Most of the PAYG carriers are around 20-30p/min. You can buy buckets and bundles of domestic minutes, texts, and data. The 'big' carriers (EE, Vodaphone, O2) give you smaller bundles. For £10 you get
For instance, three gives you 3000 text, 300 min, and unlimited data for £15/mo. EE/Tmo is 400 text, 100 min, 2Gb for the same price. You can get unlimited calling (intl too), text, and data on Lebara for £29. Carphone warehouse has a good comparison chart.

Tesco has an extremely confusing plan, but you get 5000 text, 150 min, 1Gb for £15 plus extra credit of £30 for more data (£5 max/day), UK calls, or texts.

Calling 'premium numbers' and international
Lebara has cheaper international calling, a 5-10p to most countries,. raging to over £1/min on EE. UK also has 0845 numbers (like 800 in US)- used by hotel reservation, car rental, etc which is not included in the minute buckets. You'll need extra money on your account to use them.

Using Skype
Skype works pretty well if you have a high quality 3G connection - I used it with three for overseas and 0845 calls with minimal breakup with a strong connection. It wasn't great with a weak one. LTE is much better if it ever arrives on prepaid in UK.

Customer Service
Prepaid customer service is pretty bad if you don't go to a store. EE is really bad. You have to pay per call to talk to someone, free in store.

Coverage:
Coverage in London is good for all of the carriers. When traveling from London to SW England, north to Manchester and through wilderness areas I didn't notice much of a difference between carriers. All worked well in towns, and has some gaps in remote areas. Inside buildings is bad from everyone - many UK buildings are stone and nothing works.

Data Speeds
Three was the winner here by a long shot. Worst was 2Mb/2 min, with up to 27/
3 at some sites with average around 8/1.5 with 70ms latency. Others are much slower. EE is building LTE but it's not available on prepaid.

Recommendation
We were happiest with Three because of the high value and faster,unlimited data.
 
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Thanks for the thorough but simple review. Ths should prove helpful for any of us who may decide to travel to the UK.

I've stickied the thread for now. Let me know if anything changes and I can update the original post on your behalf.
 
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i used GiffGaff on a recent trip to the UK, i looked on their forums and found the
have a program where established members can send you a sim and when you
activate it you get a £5 credit. i also got a £10 voucher from the same member
so i had £15 total credit to start with. he mailed the sim card to me in Florida
before i left. i chose their £15 Goodybag which gave
me 400 anytime minutes, unlimited text and data. worked perfectly with my
unlocked S3 for the week i was there.
 
Can you put money/credit onto a GiffGaff SIM with a North American credit card? I heard they do not accept them.
 
I paid twenty pounds at the airport for a three pay as you go SIM card, only to find out that you have to activate it at the website (using a computer) before it works. It would also not receive incoming calls from the US. Thankfully T-mobile has added free international service as of oct. 31 for data.
 
I paid twenty pounds at the airport for a three pay as you go SIM card, only to find out that you have to activate it at the website (using a computer) before it works. It would also not receive incoming calls from the US. Thankfully T-mobile has added free international service as of oct. 31 for data.

All carriers accept incoming calls. It may have been that the calling party had an international or mobile phone block on their plan. For Euro cell phones, the caller pays. Three SIMs should have been only free or only £1 or so, did the £20 rate include £20 credit too?

I agree, if we had Tmo we would have just purchased a three data SIM for our ipads. They are available on Amazon UK for a 30-40% discount and Amazon will ship to your hotel or use a dropbox location (all over UK).
 
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Im going to be in the UK next spring and I'm leaning more towards three because of the generous data allotment for iPad's, when I look for sims on eBay and amazon they are all $30. Is there any way I can get one cheaper? I would prefer to have it shipped to the states so when I cross over from Ireland I have immediate data on my iPad, but if they ave free sims they mail I guess I wouldn't be opposed to doing that also to save $30.
 
I'm pretty sure you cannot order a free SIM from three without a UK shipping address and UK credit/debit card (with a UK address associated with it).

I wonder if the $30 is pure profit for the seller (less the cost of shipping a box of free SIMs from the UK to the seller)? Or is there a balance on the SIM cards that you get to use?
 
You can purchase prepaid data sims from Amazon (amazon.co.uk). They will ship to any UK address and will accept US credit cards (I don't know about other countries. They also have 'lockers' all over the UK. You can pick up your data sim from them.

Pricing used to be cheaper. £20 for 3Gb on Amazon. Three store is 50p more. The 12Gb SIM is £55 on Amazon, £70 at Three store.

I was able to use wifi hotspot feature on my Sprint iphone with the Three sim (unlimited data).

Many carriers will ship a free phone sim (or several) to your hotel (e.g. Tesco) without a credit card. Allow 5 days for shipping - Royal mail only works on weekdays. Go to their web site to order.You will need to buy credit at a local shop or market, they will accept overseas credit cards in person , or cash/ATM (but not online). The big advantage is that cell phone shops have limited hours but markets are open 7 days (many 24/7) and nanoSIMs are sometimes hard to find (you may need to call to order).
 
I'm pretty sure you cannot order a free SIM from three without a UK shipping address and UK credit/debit card (with a UK address associated with it).

I wonder if the $30 is pure profit for the seller (less the cost of shipping a box of free SIMs from the UK to the seller)? Or is there a balance on the SIM cards that you get to use?

I have no idea, some of them look like they have a balance and some don't. I'm going to try to order one from three.co.uk and have it shipped to the hotel in the UK. Hopefully I can either reason with them to add money from my American account or I may have to buy a code off of eBay or something.
 
I'm pretty sure you cannot order a free SIM from three without a UK shipping address and UK credit/debit card (with a UK address associated with it).

I wonder if the $30 is pure profit for the seller (less the cost of shipping a box of free SIMs from the UK to the seller)? Or is there a balance on the SIM cards that you get to use?

I have no idea, some of them look like they have a balance and some don't. I'm going to try to order one from three.co.uk and have it shipped to the hotel in the UK. Hopefully I can either reason with them to add money from my American account or I may have to buy a code off of eBay or something.
 
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UK has four major carriers:

Three (The newest carrier)
EE (T-mobile and Orange combined) Some LTE, but not on prepaid :(
O2 (includes many MVNO's, including Tesco, Lebara, etc...)
Vodaphone (includes Virgin Mobile)

All use SIM cards. Three uses 2100 Mhz 3G (up to HSDPA+, around 25Mb/3Mb max), others have a combination of 2G and 3G HSDPA variants. We tried Pay as you go (prepaid) plans on O2/Tesco, Three, and EE/Tmobile. We used iphone 5's (Sprint version, unlocked) and ipads

Native iPhone carriers
To get visual VM and other iphone features, pick Three, Tesco, O2, Vodaphone or EE. Everyone supports Android.

Contract or Prepaid (PAYG)
You can't get a contract phone without a UK bank account or credit history. Some of the prepaid carriers (like giff-gaff) won't take non-UK credit cards one the phone or internet either. That leaves stores with physical locations or carriers who you can purchase vouchers from. Most of the larger carriers sell vouchers at supermarkets (from the cashier) (e.g. Sainsburys). You can get Lebara from kiosks and shops, Tesco at Tesco stores.

For iPads: Amazon.co.uk is a good (cheaper) source for prepaid , pre-loaded data sims. Just make sure to order the correct size! They deliver by mail. A 3Gb Sim is around £12. Otherwise you can get the for a higher price at the stores. Data can be used as a hotspot.

How much data?
Many hotels charge for wifi in the UK (!), usually from £5-15/day. You'll probably use a lot more than your normal environment. We used about 1.5Gb/person/week with no video and lots of GPS.

How to get a SIM:
Three, O2, EE, and Vodaphone have dedicated stores in most larger towns. Specialists such as Carphone warehouse also carry them (nano-sims are rarer). You can also order a Tesco SIM from the tesco mobile web site (allow 5 days) and they will mail it to your hotel/address (call them for nano-sims) or a Tesco mobile shop (rare). Lebara SIMs (cheap international calls) are available from almost everyone, but are hard to get in nano-sim format. I'd seriously think about bringing a cutter.

Cost
Incoming texts and calls are free in the UK. Most of the PAYG carriers are around 20-30p/min. You can buy buckets and bundles of domestic minutes, texts, and data. The 'big' carriers (EE, Vodaphone, O2) give you smaller bundles. For £10 you get
For instance, three gives you 3000 text, 300 min, and unlimited data for £15/mo. EE/Tmo is 400 text, 100 min, 2Gb for the same price. You can get unlimited calling (intl too), text, and data on Lebara for £29. Carphone warehouse has a good comparison chart.

Tesco has an extremely confusing plan, but you get 5000 text, 150 min, 1Gb for £15 plus extra credit of £30 for more data (£5 max/day), UK calls, or texts.

Calling 'premium numbers' and international
Lebara has cheaper international calling, a 5-10p to most countries,. raging to over £1/min on EE. UK also has 0845 numbers (like 800 in US)- used by hotel reservation, car rental, etc which is not included in the minute buckets. You'll need extra money on your account to use them.

Using Skype
Skype works pretty well if you have a high quality 3G connection - I used it with three for overseas and 0845 calls with minimal breakup with a strong connection. It wasn't great with a weak one. LTE is much better if it ever arrives on prepaid in UK.

Customer Service
Prepaid customer service is pretty bad if you don't go to a store. EE is really bad. You have to pay per call to talk to someone, free in store.

Coverage:
Coverage in London is good for all of the carriers. When traveling from London to SW England, north to Manchester and through wilderness areas I didn't notice much of a difference between carriers. All worked well in towns, and has some gaps in remote areas. Inside buildings is bad from everyone - many UK buildings are stone and nothing works.

Data Speeds
Three was the winner here by a long shot. Worst was 2Mb/2 min, with up to 27/
3 at some sites with average around 8/1.5 with 70ms latency. Others are much slower. EE is building LTE but it's not available on prepaid.

Recommendation
We were happiest with Three because of the high value and faster,unlimited data.

I have worked for Three almost a year ago covering Olympics duration too. Lived in UK for 3 years.

I will compare Three & Giffgaff.

Giffgaff is a MVNO using O2 network, its like AIO Wireless, launched by AT&T in USA. Giffgaff doesn't have telephonic support, based on community forums and email support. I had Three contract and back then £10 bucket from giffgaff, it gave 250 mins, ultd text and data (tethering wasn't included but I did use in May-September 2012 more than 15GB/month via tethering, just ignored their warning message). Now £15 bucket is available for ultd data. Speed used to be over 4MB/sec and Three over 2MB/sec. No doubt O2 and Vodafone is well known and well reputed for their coverage and service. There were a few places, as my home address which had pot on coverage map, three calls dropped every now and then, data used to just feel timed out, hell lot of streaming.... I will go for giffgaff, if I go back again.

I and my colleagues at Three sold our plan on prepaid £15/month 300 mins, 3000 texts and all you can eat data (doesn't allow tethering) to many visitors as you don't need to have UK credit/debit card for prepaid. I myself sold the sims and vouchers to American athletes/visitors and other nationalities too.

Important: Try to get hold of Chip and pin card from your bank, see if they offer you. I think many banks do, have Bank of America card myself so call your bank customer service.

Giffgaff accepts O2 vouchers to recharge account so don't really need a UK debit/credit card to pay. Sims are free delivered acround to users in UK. Try getting a friend to ship you one.

Sent with the HoFo App
 
I have worked for Three almost a year ago covering Olympics duration too. Lived in UK for 3 years.

I will compare Three & Giffgaff.

Giffgaff is a MVNO using O2 network, its like AIO Wireless, launched by AT&T in USA. Giffgaff doesn't have telephonic support, based on community forums and email support. I had Three contract and back then £10 bucket from giffgaff, it gave 250 mins, ultd text and data (tethering wasn't included but I did use in May-September 2012 more than 15GB/month via tethering, just ignored their warning message). Now £15 bucket is available for ultd data. Speed used to be over 4MB/sec and Three over 2MB/sec. No doubt O2 and Vodafone is well known and well reputed for their coverage and service. There were a few places, as my home address which had pot on coverage map, three calls dropped every now and then, data used to just feel timed out, hell lot of streaming.... I will go for giffgaff, if I go back again.

I and my colleagues at Three sold our plan on prepaid £15/month 300 mins, 3000 texts and all you can eat data (doesn't allow tethering) to many visitors as you don't need to have UK credit/debit card for prepaid. I myself sold the sims and vouchers to American athletes/visitors and other nationalities too.

Important: Try to get hold of Chip and pin card from your bank, see if they offer you. I think many banks do, have Bank of America card myself so call your bank customer service.

Giffgaff accepts O2 vouchers to recharge account so don't really need a UK debit/credit card to pay. Sims are free delivered acround to users in UK. Try getting a friend to ship you one.

Sent with the HoFo App

Also you don't need UK registered debit/credit card to order a free sim. You will need it to recharge account online. I still sometimes do it and ask friends to post sims to me :)

Sent with the HoFo App
 
I have worked for Three almost a year ago covering Olympics duration too. Lived in UK for 3 years.

I will compare Three & Giffgaff.

Giffgaff is a MVNO using O2 network, its like AIO Wireless, launched by AT&T in USA. Giffgaff doesn't have telephonic support, based on community forums and email support. I had Three contract and back then £10 bucket from giffgaff, it gave 250 mins, ultd text and data (tethering wasn't included but I did use in May-September 2012 more than 15GB/month via tethering, just ignored their warning message). Now £15 bucket is available for ultd data. Speed used to be over 4MB/sec and Three over 2MB/sec. No doubt O2 and Vodafone is well known and well reputed for their coverage and service. There were a few places, as my home address which had pot on coverage map, three calls dropped every now and then, data used to just feel timed out, hell lot of streaming.... I will go for giffgaff, if I go back again.

I and my colleagues at Three sold our plan on prepaid £15/month 300 mins, 3000 texts and all you can eat data (doesn't allow tethering) to many visitors as you don't need to have UK credit/debit card for prepaid. I myself sold the sims and vouchers to American athletes/visitors and other nationalities too.

Important: Try to get hold of Chip and pin card from your bank, see if they offer you. I think many banks do, have Bank of America card myself so call your bank customer service.

Giffgaff accepts O2 vouchers to recharge account so don't really need a UK debit/credit card to pay. Sims are free delivered acround to users in UK. Try getting a friend to ship you one.

Sent with the HoFo App

I have a chip in pin card, my friend went to Italy and said his card worked and that I wouldn't need a chip in pin. Luckily I have one though. Is it possible to buy three vouchers online? I'm wanting the 10Gb £15 data plan for my iPad.
 
Also you don't need UK registered debit/credit card to order a free sim. You will need it to recharge account online. I still sometimes do it and ask friends to post sims to me :)

Sent with the HoFo App

So I can order the free sim online and have it shipped to the hotel, but I need a UK credit card to top up?
 
I have a chip in pin card, my friend went to Italy and said his card worked and that I wouldn't need a chip in pin. Luckily I have one though. Is it possible to buy three vouchers online? I'm wanting the 10Gb £15 data plan for my iPad.

No you won't be able to get it, as it is a contract deal. You need pay as you go

Sent from my GT-I9300 using HoFo mobile app
 
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So I can order the free sim online and have it shipped to the hotel, but I need a UK credit card to top up?

You need UK credit card only if you want to topup online otherwise your US credit card will be fine

Sent from my GT-I9300 using HoFo mobile app
 
You can't get a contract plan, even a 1 month one, without a UK credit or bank account. If you need to top-off online you and don't want to buy a voucher at a grocery store, you can purchase a prepaid UK credit card too. For a voucher the cashier will give you a receipt with a code, and you can type the code in on-line or on your phone to top off.

So my advice is to have the sim shipped to the hotel, then walk to a Sainsbury / Tesco / etc. to get your voucher. They are everywhere and within easy walking distance is most every city in the UK (and even villages)
 
You need UK credit card only if you want to topup online otherwise your US credit card will be fine

Sent from my GT-I9300 using HoFo mobile app

Once I get the itinerary of the hotel I will probably find a tesco or other grocery like someone mentioned above, so far all I know is that it's somewhere in Wales. Thanks for everyone's help.
 
You can't get a contract plan, even a 1 month one, without a UK credit or bank account. If you need to top-off online you and don't want to buy a voucher at a grocery store, you can purchase a prepaid UK credit card too. For a voucher the cashier will give you a receipt with a code, and you can type the code in on-line or on your phone to top off.

So my advice is to have the sim shipped to the hotel, then walk to a Sainsbury / Tesco / etc. to get your voucher. They are everywhere and within easy walking distance is most every city in the UK (and even villages)

I agree with Keason, let me add this further to what has already been said. Prepaid debit card will definitely incur charges extra which bank card doesn't, certain % of topup is deducted, some have maintenance charges etc and it can't be used to get a contract either.

For prospective students, you can open a bank account (savings account is of no use, so get current account) there, you will require letter from your college/uni (Tier 4 sponsor), after that you will be fine to go for monthly contracts and can upgrade to 24 months while atleast being with Three for 3 months, from my experience as ex-employee of Three, use on monthly basis for 6 months to be on a safer side and avoid deposit which is minimum of £75 and varies with the phone.

Sent from my GT-I9300 using HoFo mobile app
 
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