Cell Phones in the U.K. : A Beginner’s Guide

IFSA-Butler has a new policy that students must have a cell phone which can send and receive local calls and texts while they are abroad, because it is important to be able to reach them in case of emergency.  In the U.K., there are a few options for this.  Different plans work for different people, depending on what their home networks and budgets are.

Buying a Pay-as-You-Go Phone

You do not need to use the same phone you use at home to make domestic calls and texts.  Inexpensive pay-as-you-go phones can be purchased when you arrive in the U.K. for these functions.  Plus, you can still keep your regular phone with you to use apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to text the folks at home using local wifi networks.  Often there is wifi in shops, restaurants, and cafés among other locations.  If you do this, make sure to turn your data and roaming off on your phone from home so you do not get charged by the minute!

This is useful if you know your way around the city (or are comfortable using paper maps) and you are living in a residence hall close to your campus and/or tube stations.  If you use apps like Google Maps frequently, you may want to consider another method that will provide you with data.

Some inexpensive options include:

  • Nokia 105 2017 starting from £7.99/month
  • Nokia 130 2017 starting from £9.99/month
  • Samsung Galaxy Core Prime starting from £8.99/month

Please note: Carphone Warehouse will have many options like these.  You can visit their website (https://www.carphonewarehouse.com) or explore different price options upon arrival.

Purchasing a U.K. SIM Card

Before traveling to the UK, you must make sure that your phone is unlocked.  Purchasing a U.K. SIM card was the choice I made, although it was slightly more difficult than I anticipated, as I was unsure what “locking a phone” meant.  I may just be bad with technology, but I thought it had to either do with the physical locking of a SIM card into a phone, or the passcode encryption of a phone.  Unfortunately, I did not realize that unlocking a phone had to do with your phone’s ability to change networks, and that this can sometimes require communication with your home network as well as network approval.  Luckily, with lots of help with my family back at home, I was able to unlock my phone during my first day abroad.  I would definitely recommend doing so before you arrive in the U.K., as this process added unnecessary stress.

Once you arrive, travel to different networks’ stores to explore their SIM card options.  I would recommend visiting a few before committing to a plan to make sure which one works best for you, or stop by Carphone Warehouse, which will tell you about all the carriers available.  I found that the employees of these stores were very understanding and helpful when it came to this process.  Once you find one you like, you can ask for the card to be placed into your phone if you do not know how to do so.  Make sure everything works before you leave the store!

This is useful if unlocking your phone is not a problem, you wish to use data and international call/text on the phone you brought from home, and if you are willing to shop around for plans and prices.

Some inexpensive options include:

  • An O2 SIM costs £10.50 per month (250MB, 250 min, and unlimited text).
  • A Virgin media SIM costs £9.00 per month (1GB, 1500 min, and unlimited text).
  • A Vodafine SIM costs £9.50 per month (250MB, 250 min, and unlimited text).
  • An EE SIM costs £10.99 per month (250MB, 250 min, and unlimited text).
  • An iD SIM costs £3.99 per month (500MB, 500 min, and 5000 texts).

Please note: if you would like more data, minutes, text, etc. the costs will vary.  To explore prices before arriving in the U.K., visit the Carphone Warehouse website.  You can also find out the benefits of each network from looking at that website (i.e. data rollover, wifi networks, etc.).

Purchasing an International Data Plan

For some students, it is more difficult to unlock their phones in a timely manner before they go abroad, so they may choose to purchase an international data plan.  In some countries, however, this does not always work with certain networks.  Fortunately, from both past experiences and from what I have heard from students studying abroad with me, these international plans seem to work fine in the U.K.

This is useful if your network is a bit more finicky about unlocking phones, and if you still want to use data while abroad.

  • AT&T has $10/day international day passes for certain countries, and their monthly “passport” costs $40
  • T-Mobile covers international data for no additional cost. Calling costs $0.20 per minute.
  • For the U.K., Sprint’s rates are $0.019/KB data, $0.50 per text sent, and $0.05 per text received. You can buy a $4.99/month plan for voice if you please, with the additional rate of $0.99.  Without this plan it is $1.49.
  • Verizon’s international plan costs $25/month for each mobile device. This includes 100MB of international data. Voice costs $1.79/minute and texts cost $0.50 to send and $0.05 to receive.

No matter the method, make sure you have a phone that works in case of emergency and to keep in touch with the new friends you will meet.  Also don’t forget to memorize the U.K. emergency number (999) and have the number of the IFSA-Butler Paddington Office on you at all times.  Have fun, and stay safe!

SIM

Prices for U.K. phones and carriers were obtained from the Carphone Warehouse website, and U.S. international plan information was obtained from each carrier’s website (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon).

Emma Henricks is a Connecticut College student studying at King’s College London during the Fall 2017 semester.  She is a Health and Safety Advisor through the IFSA-Butler Work to Study program.

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