Find out more about mobile phone and internet services in the UK.
“Shall I buy a new phone in the UK or can I bring my current phone over and use a UK SIM card?”
It’s a question that international students face every single year and it’s important that you do your homework before turning up at the airport.
It usually comes down to one simple question – is your phone locked or unlocked?
Having a locked phone means that your phone can only be used with a specific network. This can often be the case if you received a discounted/free hand when signing up for a contract. The network provider doesn’t want you getting the discounted/free phone and jumping to another provider.
If your phone is locked, you may be able to pay to get your phone unlocked in your home country, although this is usually only possible after your initial contract term has ended.
If you can’t get it unlocked, then your options are to either buy an unlocked phone in your home country than can be used in the UK or buy a phone in the UK. In this situation, you are probably better off buying an unlocked phone in your home country as it will be ready to use as soon as you arrive and you avoid the hassle of buying a brand new phone in the UK.
If your phone is unlocked, then can bring it to the UK, pop in a UK SIM card and start using it straight away. It really is that simple.
UK SIM cards
Network providers in the UK will target international students because they know that many will be coming here in need of a SIM card. This gives you the luxury of being picky and choosing the right deal for you. When it comes to getting a UK SIM card, you’ll have 2 options:
SIM only deal
Network providers will give you a free SIM card and charge you a monthly rate e.g. £6 per month for 5GB of data per month. The more you pay per month, the more GB of data you’ll get per month. Some of these will sometimes lock you into a 12 month contract whereas others will just be a 1 month contract which keeps rolling over until you cancel it, so it’s important to check before signing up.
Some contracts will offer unlimited texts and minutes (calls) but this method of communication is only usually used professionally e.g. for job interviews. Nearly everyone messages and calls using an app like WhatsApp.
'Pay as you go' SIM
If you really don’t use your phone that much at all, then a 'pay as you go' SIM card may be the best option. You will need to add/top-up the credit on your phone in order to use data/send texts/make calls. The majority of people in the UK have a contracted SIM and don’t use pay as you go.
Getting a UK SIM card delivered to your home country address
Some UK networks will now send you a free SIM card to your home country address so that when you arrive in the UK, you can start using your phone straight away. You can usually either pay for these before you arrive or pay once you arrive. These are usually 'SIM only' deal cards but some networks will send pay as you go SIM cards.
Remember that in order to register with a GP and engage with other NHS services, you will need to provide a UK mobile number, so sorting this out as soon as possible is important.
UK mobile network providers
The 4 main mobile network providers in the UK are:
There are several smaller mobile network providers who ‘piggyback’ off one of the 4 main networks which means they use the signal of one of the 4 main providers to provide coverage to their own customers. This is perfectly legitimate and many people in the UK have a contract with one of these networks:
To see which mobile network provider is the best for your area, visit the OFCOM website and type in your UK address postcode.
Wi-Fi and broadband
The UK ranks in the top 17% for broadband speeds around the world. There are many public places around the country such as supermarkets, cafes and train stations which offer free Wi-Fi and the number of these places increases massively in London.
Visit Wi-Fi Map to find out where the free Wi-Fi hotspots are in London.
Free Wi-Fi is provided throughout UCL campuses by eduroam and if you’re in UCL Accommodation, then Wi-Fi access is part of your package. You will need your UCL user ID and password to be able to access this Wi-Fi.
If you’re living in private accommodation, you will most likely need to arrange your own Wi-Fi access through broadband. Most providers will offer contracts of either 12 or 18 months but some may offer shorter contracts and discounts for students. Popular broadband providers include:
To see which broadband provider is the best for your area, visit the OFCOM website and type in your UK address postcode.