How to get a UK phone | Expat in the UK

Having a cellphone in the UK as an expat is absolutely vital. Here’s everything you need to know to make it a reality for your new life abroad.

First off: British word differences

Many Canadians and Americans will typically say “cellphone” or “cellphone contract” but in the UK British people will often say mobile or a mobile phone. Don’t get confused when you see the word “mobile” – we’re talking about cellphones!

Prepaid SIM card vs a mobile contract

There’s 2 main routes when getting a mobile in the UK: either a prepaid SIM (or Pay As You Go) or a mobile contract. Both have their pros and cons:

Prepaid SIMs in the UK

  • typically, prepaid SIMs are an easier option
  • with prepaid SIM cards, you’ll be able to make calls, send text messages, and use mobile data
  • these are particularly popular for expats who already own a phone and simply want to quickly have a UK number
  • it also allows more freedom if they don’t plan to stay for long as it doesn’t involve signing up for a lengthy contract
  • super easy to buy these online or at the store (and even many supermarkets or connivence stores)
  • once you have a prepaid SIM card in your phone, topping up is simple: you can either top-up in a mobile phone shop or at most convenience stores and supermarkets. Otherwise, you can top-up online or using your phone
  • most SIM cards will come with credit already loaded onto it, usually £10, £25, or more.

However, some expats prefer to have the security and savings of a mobile contract:

  • generally speaking, calls, texts, and data will work out cheaper on a contract if you use your phone a lot
  • this can be a good option if you’re planning on staying in the UK longer term
  • UK mobile contracts are either SIM-only or include a phone itself and are available for one, two, or even three years
  • monthly charges will depend on usage and contract
  • these payments are usually collected from your bank account monthly via direct debit
  • most providers should have some kind of coverage map, make sure your area is covered before you commit to a provider
How to get a UK phone as an expat

Which mobile provider should I use?

In the UK, there are four mobile operators that own the mobile network infrastructure. They are:

There are tons of other smaller providers as well. Personally, my partner and I have used Three for years without any issues but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect or they’ll be the best fit for you. That being said, they’ve been great for us.

How to get a mobile phone contract in the UK

Decided on the right operator for you? Now all you need to do is sign up for a UK mobile phone contract.

Thankfully, signing up is relatively straightforward and can be done either online or in-store. If you order online, your SIM card and/or handset should be delivered to your UK address

Requirements for signing up differ between operators, but generally speaking, you’ll likely need the following:

  • proof of identity (ex. passport or Biometric Residents Permit card)
  • proof of address in the UK (ex. a utility bill)
  • UK bank account for payment

Tip: Be aware that some mobile operators may choose to run a credit check before accepting you for a mobile phone contract

If you don’t already have a UK bank account, you can sign up for one in minutes with a mobile banking app such as Starling or Monzo (you can find more details about bank accounts here).

What did I do as an expat in the UK?

When I moved to the UK, I didn’t have a smartphone – I know. I bought a cheap “dumb” phone from Argos and a prepaid SIM card – it gave me basic allowances but it was needed for getting calls about job interviews. I would then top-up the card every 30 days online.

At the time, I would not have been approved for a mobile contract because I had no credit history and no proof of address. I also didn’t already own a smartphone that I could just put a prepaid sim into.

Eventually I bought my own iPhone directly from Apple and put my Pay As You Go SIM into that. This meant I could use a smartphone (finally) but still needed to manually top up my phone every month

Topping up was annoying, but it was still doable, especially if you won’t be approved for a contract yet.

After living in the UK for a few years, I signed up for a SIM-Only Contract from Three. The mobile plan is £10 per month for unlimited text, calls and 10GB of data – definitely enough for me. It doesn’t include any payments for the phone itself because I bought that outright prior.

Now I don’t need to think about topping up my phone – it’s always good to go.

I would also recommend checking out these extremely important mobile apps to help make your life in the UK a bit easier.

What would I suggest for a new expat in the UK?

It’s almost required now to have a smartphone – it’s next to impossible to do everyday tasks without one

  1. If you already have a smartphone
    • I would suggest bringing your smartphone and buying a prepaid SIM card – this is super easy and will get you set up with a UK number immediately. It’s a pain to top up every month, but you won’t be approved for a mobile contract right away anyway
    • Make sure your phone is unlocked – Mobile providers are now banned from locking devices to their network. But if you purchased your phone through a network before December 2021, chances are it’ll be locked to that network – if you try to put another network’s Sim card in, it won’t work.
    • When you’re a bit more settled, I’d look at getting a SIM-only contract – then you don’t have to worry about topping up each month
  2. If you don’t have a smartphone, you may want to budget for buying one here as you won’t be approved for a mobile contract including a phone right away