So, you have just booked your vacation to London. Brilliant! We look forward to welcoming you to our humble city, we hope you drink lots of pints, eat lots of fish n’ chips and please please remember to stand on the right!
You’re probably going to want some internet connectivity whilst you’re here to keep in touch with friends & colleagues, and to plan your time in London (and, of course, use Uber to get around).
For this you are going to need some mobile data.
In this article we’re going to run you through what you’ll need to get online in the UK during your vacation.
The quick recommendations
Sign up to FreedomPop here; it really is free each month (except for the £0.99 one off fee) and you get enough data for WhatsApp, email and browsing use whilst on your vacation in the UK. You can buy it online using just your PayPal account.
Fastest Data Network: EE
Our recommendation (free data): FreedomPop
Best backup option: Vodafone Free SIM
First up, you’re going to need a device to get online with. Your phone should be your first port of call. You need to make sure it is unlocked (so that you can put a SIM card from a UK cellular network in it) and that it supports our network frequencies. You can see the 2G, 3G and 4G frequencies used in London here; it’s almost certain that your phone will work on 3G in London and hopefully you will get some 4G LTE coverage too.
If your phone is not compatible, or you don’t want to take out your current SIM card we’d recommend using a portable WiFi hotspot (often called a MiFi). You can buy a 4G one such as this one or a cheaper 3G one such as this one, and then put a SIM card in it. This is also a good idea if a few of you want to get online or if you have multiple devices that need to connect, and you can always use it on your next vacation.
Unlike many other countries we don’t have regional cell networks in the UK. Apart from some rural areas which may not have coverage at all, you can buy one SIM card and use it all over the UK.
Prepaid vs Contract
Most residents in the UK purchase a contract (or plan) from a cellular provider which is normally 24 months in length. This is clearly no use to the short term visitor on vacation so we’re going to focus on prepaid (what we usually call ‘pay as you go’) SIM cards which can be bought with no contract.
How to order your vacation SIM card
There’s no need to provide ID in the UK when buying a SIM card and it can usually be done online. We recommend ordering it in advance and having it shipped to your hotel (or other accommodation). It is usually worth sending an email to your hotel letting them know that a small package will be arriving for you. You can the pick it up on your arrival in the UK.
Focus on data
In this article we’re going to focus on data use. Many prepaid cards will also offer the ability to make calls, but we’re figuring that you’ll use Skype or a similar VoIP service to call home.
The main networks
In the UK we have four main cell phone networks – the are the companies that own the physical infrastructure. They are O2, EE, Vodafone and Three. All of these companies operate 2G, 3G and 4G LTE networks except Three who have no 2G fallback. Other companies lease space on these networks (called Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs) under different names.
If you are going to require the best performance then you should consider EE. They have invested the most in 4G LTE in the UK and have the most coverage of 4G LTE. You will see speeds up to 60mb/second on their double speed 4G LTE. EE offer a data only sim card valid for 1 month with 5GB of data loaded onto it for £25. Click here to see it. If you are a heavy data user, or a business user then this is the card for you.
If you don’t want to go with EE, then try Vodafone who will ship you a free SIM card here.
It is also a good idea to order the vodafone sim card anyway to keep as a backup incase you have a problem with any other supplier, or don’t make it to a physical store.. it is free after all. It’s also worth looking at Amazon UK, as there are sometimes good deals such as this one.
This is where you’ll probably find the best deal, as the main networks are generally focused on long term contracts from UK residents rather than visitors.
We recommend: FreedomPop
We can’t recommend these guys enough. You sign up online (enter the postcode of your hotel), and can pay the £0.99 fee with PayPal to avoid problems with international credit cards. They run on Three’s network so you’ll get good 3G and 4G LTE coverage. For free you will get 200mb of data, which is plenty for light WhatsApp, email and browsing. If you want to get a bit more data then their packages are very competitively priced.
They will post a 3 in 1 SIM card to you, so it will work in devices that need a full size, micro or nano SIM (that is, any device that accepts a SIM card). You can make and receive phone calls with FreedomPop. They have an intuitive app which makes calls over the data network.
Make sure that, once you have your FreedomPop card that you keep track of the auto top up feature. Some people like this, but others prefer to switch it off.
International calls: giffgaff
This is a virtual network that runs on O2, so you will have coverage anywhere that there is O2 coverage. giffgaff is a purely pay as you go network. For data use you buy ‘gigabags’ which are quite well priced. The process is to order your SIM online here, when it arrives at your hotel you activate it and add credit via the giffgaff website, then you add the ‘gigabag’. It is a little more complicated than FreedomPop but worth looking at if you want cheaper access to O2’s network. giffgaff also has some good international call options, so if you are looking to make calls back home, this may be a good option.
Simple pricing: 1pmobile
This company runs on the EE network, which is very robust. 1pmobile is very straightforward – they charge £0.01 for each minute, SMS or megabyte of data. The caveat is that there is a minimum of £5.00 per month spend, so you can think of this as 500mb of data on EE’s network for £5.00. You can order the SIM with £5.00 of credit online here.