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Cell Phones (Mobiles) in the United Kingdom

Pauline Kenny

Cell phones are called "mobile phones" in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland). Cell phones in the UK work the same as in the rest of Europe. Read our Europe Trip Planning - Cell Phones page for complete information on GSM cell phones and SIM cards.

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Purchase a GSM Phone and UK SIM Card Online

Buy or rent a cell phone from Cellular Abroad and purchase the United Kingdom Mobile World prepaid SIM card for $49. You get 100 minutes of calls to the US/Canada with the card (under $0.50/minute) AND you can "top up" the card with minutes at the low rate of 5 pence/minute calling the US/Canada (under $0.10/minute). More information below.

Telestial carries the Mobile World SIM card from Car Phone Warehouse (CPW) for $39 without any airtime. Airtime can be loaded by conveniently by credit card over the phone.

Purchase a Cell Phone and/or SIM Card in the UK

Don't plan on buying an unlocked phone in the UK - they are very expensive there. It is best to purchase an unlocked cell phone in the US and then purchase your SIM card only in the UK (or purchase the SIM card in North America before you leave).

If you have an unlocked World Phone (a GSM phone that works on Europe frequencies - must work on GSM 900 and 1800 bands), you can purchase a UK SIM Card to use with your phone. Read more: How to Choose a GSM Cell Phone.

In 2006 we saw "pay as you go" phones and SIM cards for sale at a Tesco supermarket in Somerset. Pay as you go phones from £29.99 to £129.99; SIM cards for £9.87 (Virgin) and £9.99 (O2, Orange). The SIM cards come with a very small amount of prepaid time (£1.00). The phones will be locked to the provider. You will see phone stores in most towns. You can buy phones and/or SIM cards from them.

Rack of Mobile Phones and SIM cards in a Tesco store

We purchased a Virgin SIM card, an Orange SIM card and a Vodafone SIM card (in a desperate attempt to find a signal in the Cotswolds - none of them worked everywhere). We had to give some personal information to register the Orange SIM card (date of birth, address, name). I gave them the UK address of our vacation rental and that worked. For the Virgin and Vodafone SIM cards, we did not have to register. We did not have to show a passport to register any of these SIM cards.

Example Calling Rates

Remember, as with all cell phones in Europe, incoming calls are free. You only pay for the calls you make. Toll free numbers are not free. Each mobile phone service has different rates. Some have different plans. Here are some examples - prices from spring 2006.

Virgin: Within the UK, first 5 minutes of calls per day 15p/min, after that 5p/min. Calling the US/Canada, 20p/min (about $0.35/min).

Orange: "Talk and Save" plan, first 3 minutes of calls per day 25p/min, after that 5p/min for calls to other Orange phones or land lines. More expensive to call non-Orange mobiles (40p/min).

Vodafone: They are the most expensive. They have the Smartplus Plan; if calling the same network, 5p/min evenings and weekends (with a 10p min), 30p/min other times, other networks 35p/min all times. You can purchase a voice package; £15.00 for 100 minutes, expires after 30 days, not good for premium calls (toll free numbers). This works out to 15p/min.

Calling Long Distance from your UK Cell Phone

Caution: If using an International Phone Card from a Cell Phone, you may have to pay for the minutes used on your cell phone as well as on the International Phone Card. Read more.

How to Recharge Your UK SIM Card - Top-Up!

When you buy a UK SIM card, it comes with a small amount of prepaid time (ours came with £1.00 of prepaid time) and a "Top-Up" card. To add more prepaid time (airtime), go to an authorized dealer, pay for more airtime, they swipe the Top-Up card, and your phone is automatically updated. You do not need to do anything - your phone account is updated. You do not have to have a UK credit card to do this.

You will see signs in the windows of authorized dealers - newsagents, phone stores, supermarkets. There are other ways to add money/time to your UK SIM card, but for the traveler, the Top-Up card is the easiest.

Virgin Top-Up card

Orange Top-Up card

Do the SIM Cards Expire?

If your cell phone is not used for a set length of time, your SIM card expires - ask about this when you purchase it. For example, the Virgin SIM card I bought in 2004 says it may expire 90 days after the last recharge. (Although the Top-Up card says it expires in 2013 and I recently used the phone 9 months after the last recharge.)

Some cards will stay active as long as a call is made to them or they are used, every three months. So, you could call your UK cell number from home every three months to keep it active. This varies by cell provider; check with your provider.

If the SIM card expires, you must purchase a new one (and get a new phone number).

How Much Money Do I Have Left on the SIM Card?

You can call a number from your cell phone to find out your remaining minutes. You will find this number in the information you received with your SIM card. (For Orange, dial 453. For Virgin, dial 798. For Vodafone, dial *#1345#.)

Calling Long Distance from your UK Cell Phone

If using an International Phone Card from a Cell Phone, you have to pay for the minutes used on your cell phone as well as on the International Phone Card. This drives up the price per minute of calling home from the UK.

Cellular Abroad Mobile World SIM Card

Cellular Abroad offers the United Kingdom Mobile World prepaid SIM card for $49. This comes with 100 minutes worth of calls back to the US/Canada and unlimited free incoming calls from anywhere. You will have your UK phone number before you leave on your trip. The SIM card can be used with a rented or purchased cell phone. This SIM card can only be used from the UK.

This works out to just under $0.50/minute to call the US for the first 100 minutes, BUT you can add more minutes to your SIM at the rate of 5 pence per minute when calling the US (under $0.10/minute). This rate is good to any number in the United States, 24 hours a day with no peak or off peak limitations, and no special dialing requirements.

This is a very good rate for calling the US from a cell phone. On our spring 2006 trip, we paid 35 pence per minute from our UK cell phone just to dial the long distance access number! The United Kingdom Mobile World SIM is designed for US/Canada travelers to the UK who will be calling home frequently. Rates for calling within the UK are also good - $0.27/minute. This is similar to what we paid with a UK SIM.The minutes added expire after 60 days - so topup with just the amount you will use on the trip. The SIM card expires 90 days after the last call or text message was made from the phone.

Cell Phones in the Cotswolds

Cell phones do not work well in many places in the Cotswolds. In 2004, in Winchcombe, our Virgin mobile did not get reception, but other carriers worked (Vodaphone, Orange or O2 systems). Our Virgin phone worked in London and Bath and some parts of the Cotswolds. On our 2005 trip, I brought the Virgin SIM card again and it was fine in Salisbury and Somerset, but did not work in Minchinhampton in the Cotswolds. It worked down the hill in Stroud.

We went to a phone store in Stroud (Phones 4 U) and bought a Vodafone SIM card. I did not try it immediately, but put the card in later while having coffee. The phone would not work and just said "SIM Error". We went back to the store and it turned out that none of their Vodafone SIM cards worked; they had been sent a batch of un-registered SIM cards. So we tried Orange. We were told by Rural Retreats that Orange works well in the Cotswolds and the guys at the store said Orange or Vodafone were best.

For Vodafone all we did was pay £9.95 for the SIM card (it comes with £1.00 of calling time) and then £20.00 "top up" - money added to the account. With Orange I had to speak to someone on the phone, give them my name, a UK address and date of birth. I gave them my name, the address of the house we are renting for the week, and an invented DOB. No one at the store checked any ID.

In May 2006 I went to the Cotswolds with my three SIM cards: Virgin, Orange, Vodafone and a new GSM cell phone purchased in the UK. I rarely got good reception. The problem is not the cell phone or the SIM cards, it is the Cotswolds. This is a protected area and there are not many cell towers (masts), so coverage is spotty.

Resources

www.virgin.com : Virgin, UK mobile phone company

www.orange.co.uk: Orange, UK mobile phone company

www.vodafone.co.uk: Vodafone, UK mobile phone company

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