How to choose the best SIM only deal for you

Submitted by Abi on 9 February 2015 - 4:29pm

If you are new to SIM-only, or you want to make sure you get the best deal for you, then we’re here to help you navigate step by step all of the big decisions you face when choosing your SIM-only deal. 

Step one: Location, location, location

Where you live can influence which network you choose. If you live within a city or town then your 3G mobile coverage should be pretty good across all of the networks. But if you want 4G, or you live in a more rural area, then it’s a good idea to check the coverage where you live, where you work and at any other locations that you frequently visit before you commit to a long contract. 

You can use coverage checkers, like the ones below, but to get a real feel for a particular network's coverage it is best to ask friends or family who are already with the network, or choose a 30-day SIM plan and experience it for yourself, before you commit.

Check EE's coverage in your area Check O2's coverage in your area Check 3's coverage in your area Check Vodafone's coverage in your area
EE coverage checker O2 coverage checker Three coverage checker Vodafone coverage checker

If you're looking for 4G read our guide When will I get 4G? for the latest rollout news, or check out our guide How to upgrade your current phone to 4G if it's already available near you.

Step two: What do you use your phone for?

It may seem like a silly question but we no longer use our phones for just calls and texts and there’s a lot of choice when it comes to SIM-only. It’s a good idea to narrow down your options by deciding what you really need from your contract. 

If you only use your phone occasionally, or just for emergencies, then you may be better off choosing a Pay As You Go deal instead of paying out each month for a contract. If on the other hand you own a smartphone that’s practically family you’ll want to look for a deal that includes plenty of data to keep up with all of your online activities.

Step three: How much call, text and data allowance do you really need?

No one likes to pay more than they need to, but even worse is being charged extra for going over your allowances. Mobile network charges can be expensive for off plan billing so it’s important to choose a plan that suits your needs and not just opt for the cheapest deal. 

To work out how much you use each month take a look at your previous bills. If you are regularly being charged extra for using calls, texts or data outside of your plan then it’s time to upgrade to a bigger deal. If on the other hand you barely use any of your allowances then save yourself some money and choose a smaller deal. Most networks will let you increase your plan at a later date if you need too, but few will let you reduce you plan once you’ve signed your contract.

Read our guide How to check your mobile phone usage for practical tips on calculating your usage.

Step four: How much do you want to pay?

Set a budget and stick to it is the key lesson here. You can find SIM-only deals from £5 - £40 so there is something for every wallet. It’s easy to be tempted by big allowances and extras but if you don’t need them then, like we said before, don’t bother – it’s a false economy. 

Many of the bigger networks offer add-ons. These are bundles of calls and texts or data and you can add these to your plan on a rolling monthly basis. This is a much cheaper option than paying off-plan if you find you need a little extra one month.

There are also a number of ways to reduce your data use without changing what you do with your phone. This is a good way to make your allowances go further. For practical tips read our guide How to reduce your mobile data usage.

Step five: How long do you want your contract to last?

SIM only deals come in two contract lengths; 12 months or 30 days. 12 month deals are the most popular and tend to work out around £3 cheaper each month. If you know you'll stick with the same network and you don't anticipate any changes in your mobile phone use then you could save around £36 over the year.

If you think you might want to change your plan, for example if you're going travelling for an extended period of time or if you want to bridge a short gap between contracts while you wait for that phone to be released, then the added flexibility of being able to cancel your contract with just 30 days notice could be worth the extra few pounds for a 30 day SIM. 

Find out more about the benefits of shorter contracts in our guide What is a 30-day rolling SIM?

Step six: Choosing your network - MNO or MVNO?

When it comes to selecting your network it comes down to a choice between price and perks. Most people are familiar with the big four Mobile Networks Operators - EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. But there are a whole host of smaller Mobile Virtual Network Operators that run using the infrastructure of the bigger networks. These include Tesco Mobile, giffgaff and Virgin Media.

The MNVOs offer some great value deals and shouldn’t be disregarded. But if it’s particular features you are looking for like roaming, or you are more interested in what is known as provider wraparound benefits such as freebies, discounts and entertainment packages, then a deal from one of the big four might be more suitable. 

Often the acquisition deals networks use to attract new customers are better than the retention deals offered to existing customers to stay with the network. So even if you love the network you are with don’t let inertia cost you money.

If you have come to the end of your minimum term compare the deals offered by all of the networks, including your own. The plan you are on may have been reduced in price and this could help you negotiate a better renewal deal with your existing provider.

Step seven: Changing networks

OK, so you know how much call, text and data allowance you need and how much you want to spend. You’ve found your perfect deal on your favourite network and you’ve ordered your new SIM. Well done! You're almost there. Just a couple of extra things to do.

The first is to unlock your phone from your current provider. If you are changing to a new network you'll need to make sure your phone is unlocked so that your new SIM will work in your handset. This is a simple process and most networks just require you to fill in an online form. Read our guide How to unlock your mobile phone for instructions.

If you want to keep your mobile number then you’ll need to ask your current network for a Porting Authorisation Code or PAC. You can do this when you contact them to cancel your contract. A PAC will let you transfer your existing phone number to your new contract. There are no limits to how many times you can port your number so you can keep it even if you frequently switch between 30-day deals. To find out more read our guide How to port your mobile telephone number.

Looking for something specific?

The advice above covers the basics of choosing a SIM only deal but there are some additional considerations if you are looking for specific features from your mobile phone contract. We've written separate short guides to cover these topics in greater detail. Simply click on the links below to find out more.

Capped contracts - these are useful if you're repeatedly being charged extra for going over your contract allowances, or you want a phone contract for your child but don't want them running up huge phone bills.

Credit checks - if you have been refused a mobile phone due to a poor credit score then SIM only may be your solution.