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Choosing a UK mobile phone plan

Two students looking at their phones, with Manchester Christmas market in the background

If you’re studying in the UK for a year or more, it’s likely you will want to get a British mobile (cellphone) contract right away. You’ll need a UK phone number for almost everything you do – from organising fun socials with friends to filling out everyday forms.

But it’s important to be aware of your options – there are several different network providers, different types of contract and a wide range of costs, so consider what kind of plan is best for you:

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG)

If you already have a phone handset or you don’t expect to make a lot of calls, then ‘pay as you go’ is the easiest and quickest option. Pay-as-you-go means that:

  • You only get a SIM card, so you can buy a phone separately or use one you already have (but check that you can ‘unlock’ your handset to use it with a UK network).
  • You do not need to sign a contract, so you can stop using it whenever you want.
  • You only pay for the calls and text messages that you send. Within the UK, it's free to receive calls and texts.
  • Add as much or as little money as you want to your account, and ‘top up’ this amount anytime. You can top up by phone, online, at cash machines (ATMs), in a mobile phone store or in supermarkets.
  • However, it may be more expensive in the long term as rates per minute are often higher than on a contract.
  • You can’t ‘go over’ your credit – so there will be no unexpectedly high bills, but you need to be organised to avoid running out of credit when you need it.

Contracts (pay monthly)

There are many different types of contract – this is a general guide, but we recommend doing your research (look online or go into a phone shop) to find out about the best prices and deals.

With contracts, you pay a monthly fee for a certain amount of call minutes, text (SMS) messages and internet data usage. If you use your mobile phone a lot, this can work out cheaper than pay-as-you-go. Be careful though – if you exceed your allowance, you will automatically be charged for the extra calls, messages or data usage.

With a ‘SIM only’ contract:

  • You're only buying a SIM card, and can keep using the same phone (just check that you can unlock it for UK use).
  • You pay a fixed monthly fee, which will usually include a certain number of call minutes and text messages (so it might be cheaper than pay-as-you-go).
  • Bills are paid by direct debit (the company takes payment from your bank account automatically every month), saving time compared to pay-as-you-go.
  • You can get a 30-day rolling contract, which is much more flexible than a long-term contract – this means you have the freedom to cancel the contract anytime, so you can switch your phone provider easily if you’re not happy with the service.

Long-term contracts:

  • This means signing a contract for a fixed period – usually 12, 18 or 24 months. There might be a large cancellation fee if you want to end the contract early (and most companies require 30 days’ notice).
  • However, this is a good option if you want a new phone. When you sign up to a long-term contract, you can usually get a new phone for free or at a significantly reduced price, compared to buying it without a contract.
  • There can be extra perks for customers on contracts, such as cheaper calls when you’re outside the UK.

Remember that the best offers and deals change on a regular basis and nothing is set in stone. Phone companies are often happy to negotiate ‘extras’ with you – for example, if you’re an EU student and travel home a lot, you might be able to avoid roaming fees (fees for using your phone outside the UK). There might be an option that allows you to use your UK phone abroad for a fixed daily charge instead of paying extra for each call.

The key thing is to ask lots of questions before signing up to any contract and to make sure it suits your personal needs.

Getting your contract

You can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card in any mobile phone store and many supermarkets, but if you want a contract, it’s a bit more complicated.

You might need to show:

  • Proof of identity, such as your passport
  • Proof of enrolment at your school, college or university, such as your acceptance letter
  • Your address in the UK.

You will also need a UK bank account. Phone companies usually run a ‘credit check’ if you want a contract – this means checking the history of your past loans and repayments. If you’re new to the UK and don’t have a UK credit history, the company might ask for a deposit instead – a sum of money that is paid back to you after a certain amount of time (for example, after six months, as long as all your phone bills were paid on time during that period).