Given how much we use our phones, it’s important we get it right when buying them. This means not only getting the right device, but also choosing the right network and tariff. Tech is important, but so is good reception, reliable customer service, contract flexibility, seamless video streaming, and, of course, affordable prices.
Here’s what to look for when choosing a mobile phone tariff, handset, and provider.
There are several ways to get a mobile phone in the UK. If you need a handset, you can choose a contract that allows you to rent it—or rather, pay it off—alongside your monthly bill for airtime and data.
Already have a device or want to buy one outright? You can get a SIM-only deal on contract, so you just pay for your minutes, messages, and mobile data. Don’t want to get locked into a contract? Only pay for the minutes and MBs you use with a pay as you go deal.
Let’s take a closer look at each purchasing option and why you might choose it:
We tend to buy our mobile handsets and usage packages bundled together, on one contract with one bill. These contracts lock you into monthly payments for at least 12 months, and often two years for high-end gadgets like iPhones. When the contract is up, your mobile phone provider hopes you’ll negotiate a new one a new one, with an upgraded phone, and begin paying off that new device.
The benefits of these bundled contracts are clear: you have one contract, with one expiry date and one payment. You can get top-of-the-range handsets and pay for them in instalments. This has become an increasingly attractive option as the prices of handsets have ballooned: the iPhone X retails for around £1,000 new.
Also, once you’ve locked in a contract for two years you don’t have to think about it—until you find your data allowance isn’t sufficient or you want a new gadget.
You’ll pay in total more for your device on a contract than you would if you bought it outright. With pay-monthly phone contracts, you’re effectively taking out a loan on the device from your mobile provider, and there will be interest. If you don’t have the lump sum, you can consider taking out an interest-free credit card and using it to purchase the phone (but remember to pay it off before it starts accumulating interest).
If you do get a pay-monthly phone, you need to be vigilant about renegotiating a cheaper deal when the contract runs out. A recent study by consumer advocate Citizens Advice found that three major phone providers, including EE, Three, and Vodafone, don’t reduce your costs after your fixed term deal has expired and you’ve paid off the phone. The consumer watchdog estimated that four million mobile phone customers were, on average, spending £38 a month on phones they technically already owned. When you contract is up, either upgrade to a new device or switch to a SIM-only deal with the old one (for more information see below).
Additionally, these contracts are long and inflexible: you’re locked into paying for your usage and the device for up to 24 months, which can be costly if you’re overestimated your appetite for data, as many of us do. Get sick of the device, start pining for a new one, and you’re also in a pickle. However, you may have some early upgrade options, if you’re dying to get your hands on the latest headset.
If you already have a device, either one you’ve purchased outright or one previously bought on contract and paid off, you can get a SIM-only deal for it. A SIM-only contract allows you to pay for just your minutes, messages, and data. Pop a SIM into an unlocked phone and you’re free to call, text, and stream to your heart’s content—or at least within your allowance.
You can get SIM-only deals on 12-month (or longer) contracts, or on a rolling, 30-day basis.
Buy a phone directly from the manufacturer or from another retailer and you can immediately use a SIM from any provider and network on it. But many phones sold by network operators, either on contract or for PAYG usage, are locked to those networks, meaning you won’t be able to use them with a SIM from a rival network. You can free a phone to use a SIM from any provider through a process called unlocking, depending on the policies of your mobile provider.
You can free a phone to use a SIM from any provider through a process called unlocking, depending on the policies of your mobile provider.
You can also get a SIM that allows you to purchase airtime, texts, and data on a pay as you go (PAYG) basis. PAYG phone deals are ideal for those who want to avoid the commitment of a contract, who want more control over the amount they spend, or whose phone needs may change from month to month.
All mobile phone providers will have a PAYG rate they charge for talk minutes, messages, and data. Normal usage on these rates is pretty expensive though. Providers tend to also offer bundles you can use to ‘top up’ your phone. Terminology will vary (giffgaff calls them ‘goodybags’ and EE calls them ‘packs’) but they’re usually a certain, or even unlimited, allowance of minutes, texts, and data you can use within a time period—often 30 but sometimes 90 days. You can generally roll over unused allowances to the next time period. Three even offers an unlimited PAYG package: all you can eat minutes, messages, and data, for 90 days.
While PAYG phone plans offer flexibility and are especially good for second phones or those you only use for short periods of time, PAYG is ultimately a more expensive way to pay for service than pay monthly contract plans.
There are four mobile phone carriers in the UK—EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone—offering phone and data services. Your device will ultimately be connecting to one of these four networks, but they’re not your only options for a mobile contract.
In Britain there are also around 60 mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), firms which lease mobile telephone and data spectrum from the major networks. Effectively these firms piggyback off the major carriers: sign up for giffgaff, for instance, and you’ll be hitching a ride on O2’s network. The largest MVNOs include Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile (all EE); giffgaff (O2); and ID Mobile (Three).
MVNOs can give you the service of one of the major providers at a lower cost, but you should be aware of the network you’re actually using and its strength and reliability, and coverage in your area. Check a coverage map online or check with friends visiting your home or living in your area before you commit to a network.
As we use our handsets for fewer phone calls and more streaming, shopping, and browsing online content, consumers are mostly concerned with the availability and speed of data networks, especially 4G. Here’s how the major network carriers perform, whether you’re on contract with their provider themselves or using a MVNO.
Once you’ve chosen a network and provider and a way of paying for phone services, you’ll need to choose a handset. Most networks will offer you a full menu of devices, from all ranges of manufacturers. Since most phones have similar basic functionality nowadays, deciding which one you want is partly a matter of taste.
Here’s what to consider when selecting a device: