Many people come to the UK every year for business, for visiting their families or maybe just for fun. Irrespective of why you visit the UK, one of the things that may be on your mind is “how much will I pay for roaming?” or “how much would it cost me to make calls?” or maybe something along those lines. If you search online, you will find that the cost for 1GB of mobile data in the UK is somewhere between $6 and $7 (USD) which may be cheaper than countries like US/Canada but still more expensive than some European and Asian countries. You may also find that the penetration of 4G in the UK is not as high as some other countries which could make you wonder “why am I paying so much money when I am not even getting 4G?”. Well, one key thing to remember is that just because you are getting 4G coverage in a country doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have great speeds also because it is always a combination of coverage and capacity that makes the difference.
If you are coming to the UK and want to stay connected, there are many great options available. In fact, you can get so much data that you may even feel a bit ‘spoilt’. But in order for you to really enjoy the data freely, there are some key decisions for you to make i.e. do you want to pay for roaming –OR– do you want to buy a local SIM in the UK for the duration of your trip. If your trip is longer than a few days and you don’t really know anyone who can lend you their spare tablet or any other SIM-enabled device as a mobile hotspot, then it might be worth buying a local SIM. That helps especially if your trip involves a lot of outdoor activities so you can move around without having to worry about a bill shock or using unsecure WiFi hotspots. But let’s clarify a few terminologies first just to avoid confusion:
What is a local SIM?
When you live in one country, buy a mobile phone service (SIM) from that country and use your phone to make calls or send text messages to phone numbers in the same country, then you are using local services and you are charged at local rates. Just to be clear, in some countries there might be something called ‘national roaming’ which is when you travel to a different state/province, you are charged differently. Best to always check with your mobile service provider. In the UK, you don’t have to worry about national roaming but if you have any questions or confusions, always check with the service provider.
Roaming vs. International
You are considered to be ‘roaming’ when you buy your mobile plan in one country (e.g. USA) and then take that to another country (e.g. UK) and access the mobile services such as voice calls, SMS/MMS, and mobile data there. Many operators incorporate roaming in their mobile tariffs in some way e.g. you pay a fixed daily/weekly/monthly rate for the included countries and taxi-meter type rates (pay for what you use) for other countries. More about roaming in this post.
The term ‘international’ becomes relevant when you are making an international phone call or sending an international SMS/MMS to any non-local number. For example, let’s say you live in the UK and have a mobile plan from a local operator such as Vodafone UK. If you try to make a voice call or send an SMS/MMS to any number that is not a UK number, then you are doing something international for which you may be charged at international rates (unless you have a tariff that includes international calls to certain countries). More about international calls in this post.
What solution would you need during your UK trip?
The kind of solution you need depends on what you want to do when you come to the UK. For example, if your trip requires making lots of local calls e.g. to taxi drivers, friends & family or maybe joining audio conferences through local UK numbers, then it may be better for you to get a local UK SIM. While many local numbers are included in the mobile plans, you can still check the call rates on this page from Ofcom for numbers that may incur additional costs.
If your need is more around ‘local calls’ as opposed to ‘data’, then your best bet would be to get a tariff that gives you unlimited minutes/texts with a few GBs of data. On the other hand, if your main requirement is data e.g. making WhatsApp calls, checking maps online, uploading photos on FB, then you can either get a regular SIM with a lot of data or get a data-only SIM to put in a tablet or MiFi device to have your own little hotspot wherever you go.
There may be cases when you feel that you need a local SIM but you still need to make international calls back to your home country or maybe other countries outside of the UK. Interestingly, there are ‘international’ SIMs available from some UK mobile service providers that can help you do just that. The UK mobile market is highly competitive which makes it a bit difficult to choose sometimes due to the similarities in the bundle prices from various key providers. So, you need to plan well to choose a network operator that gives you the right bundles but at the same time, you want to make sure that you have decent coverage from that operator in the areas you will be visiting. Here we have a simple step-by-step approach to help you:
Step 1: Decide whether you want to pay for roaming to your mobile operator or buy a local SIM from a UK mobile operator for a fixed price for the duration of your stay.
Step 2: If you decide to go for a local UK SIM, your best bet is a prepaid SIM which is also known as Pay As You Go (PAYG). The postpaid (or pay-monthly) contracts have requirements (e.g. credit checks) that generally suit those who live in the UK more long-term.
Step 3: Find a bundle that best suits your needs in terms of mobile data, voice minutes and text messages. If you plan to make international calls, look for those international SIMs we talked about earlier.
Step 4: Always check the network coverage to find out if you are getting decent 3G/4G/5G services in the areas you plan to use your mobile phone mostly. All you need is the postcode of the area that you plan to visit and the coverage checker can show you which services e.g. voice/data will work best in that area. If you plan to use data services (e.g. WhatsApp calls, web browsing etc.), then you will need at least a decent 3G coverage (i.e. HSPA+). Even normal HSPA won’t cut it because you may get the coverage but not enough capacity to do much. Ideally, what you want is some decent 4G coverage in the areas of interest. Just for clarity, 5G services are only available to those who have 5G enabled devices. Mobile operators usually have a network coverage page where you can enter your postcode to check the coverage. You can also use the coverage-checker page from Ofcom which is the UK government-approved regulatory and competition authority for telecom and other services.