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Cheap Pay-as-you-go Sims

£10/mth for 300 mins, unltd texts & 2GB of 4G data

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Nick | Edited by Steve N

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payg introWhen you hear 'pay-as-you-go', you might think of the early days of mobiles, when it was common to pay upfront for each pricey call and text. But now it's possible to get great value pay-as-you-go 'bundles', giving a better value allowance and also tighter control over your bill.

If that's what you're after – or even if you just want a back-up Sim for occasional use – then here you'll find all you need to know about pay-as-you-go, including where to find the best deals and our own top picks.

Is pay-as-you-go right for you? Before reading this guide...

  • Concerned about a credit check or want a tighter control over your bill? A pay-as-you-go bundle is probably a good bet. Read on...
  • Happy to commit to a contract? Sim-only generally offers better value.
  • Want a new phone but can't afford to buy it upfront? Traditional mobile contracts are usually more expensive – for other options, see Buying a new mobile.

Pay-as-you-go need-to-knows

Before you take out a PAYG deal, here are the key things to consider:

  • 'Traditional' PAYG or bundled PAYG?

    payg

    While pay-upfront mobile deals which don't require a credit check are all generally referred to as pay-as-you-go (PAYG), there are actually two types to choose from:

    1. 'Traditional' PAYG - where you really do pay as you go. This is the traditional model where you top up with credit and are then charged for each minute, text and MB as you use it. Though a couple of providers do this cheaply, it's generally worse value so is better for an emergency-use or back-up Sim. These are the top providers' rates:

      'Traditional' PAYG rates compared
      Calls Texts Data
      Three* 3p/min 2p 1p/MB (4G)
      Asda Mobile 8p/min 4p 5p/MB (3G)
      Giffgaff* 15p/min 5p 5p/MB (4G)
      EE* 30p/min 12p N/A1
      O2* 30p/min 14p £1/day2 (4G)
      Vodafone* 30p/min 14p

      £2/day3 (4G)

      1. Cannot pay for data as you go, must buy a 4G data add-on/pack. 2. Up to 50MB/day. 3. For the first 50MB, 10p/MB thereafter.
    2. PAYG 'bundles' - where you pay before you go, for a bundle. What tends to give better value is buying a bundle of minutes, texts and data with your credit once you've topped up. These bundles nearly always last for a month, after which you'll need to buy another. There are many to choose from (see our top picks below). As a rough guide, here's what a tenner will get you

  • You'll need to have an unlocked phone – it's usually free to get it done

    unlock

    If you have an existing handset which you originally bought on a traditional contract, it may be locked to the network that sold it to you (to check, just pop in another network's Sim). If so, you'll need to get it unlocked in order to make sure your new provider's Sim will work in it.

    All the networks will now do this for free if your contract's minimum term has expired - however if it hasn't, or you bought the phone on PAYG, they may charge up to £20. Unlocking usually takes up to 10 days - see the Mobile Unlocking guide for a full list of providers' unlocking policies and how to do it.

  • Get the allowance you actually need

    Don't be sold on overly generous allowances that you'll never use. Do you really need unlimited minutes or 6GB of data? Most don't use anywhere near that – check your actual past usage with an online tool.

    There are three Ofcom-accredited sites to choose from. Each will analyse your bills from the last three months to determine your average usage and suggest deals based on this.

    • Billmonitor* works with customers of EE, O2, Tesco Mobile, Three and Vodafone. It's not quite as user-friendly as MobilePhoneChecker (below), though it gives a more detailed bill analysis.
    • MobilePhoneChecker*, though not as thorough as Billmonitor, works with more networks – the big four (bar Vodafone), plus BT Mobile, Giffgaff, iD Mobile, TalkMobile, Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile.
    • Ctrlio will handily remind you when better deals at your usage become available (either monthly or just at the end of your contract), though currently it can only read the bills of Three, EE, O2 and Giffgaff.

    MobilePhoneChecker is also useful for when you're ready to locate the best pay-as-you-go deals.

  • Signal strength can vary - check it in advance at home and work

    signal

    You can get an idea of signal strength in a particular area with Ofcom's Telecoms Coverage Checker. This'll show you results for the four main networks – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Don't just put your home address in either - check where you work and anywhere else you want to be sure of getting good reception.

    Many other smaller mobile providers 'piggyback' off these networks, using their signal, and they can better offer better value - the signal''s the same so you can still check in advance using Ofcom's tool. See a full list of which provider is on which network in our Mobile Piggybacking guide.

    For a more accurate indication than Ofcom's checker can give you, it may be worth picking up a free pay-as-you-go Sim from the network you're considering, topping it up with a bit of credit and putting it to the test before committing.

  • Switching from a contract? Serve your notice to leave ASAP

    leave

    Most contracts require at least 30 days' notice to cancel, meaning as a minimum you'll have to pay for this many days once you tell your provider you're leaving. Plans roll over at the same price, and if yours came with a handset this could be £50+/month – so you don't want to be paying for it any longer than necessary.

  • The first thing you want to do before even looking for a new deal is call up, tell 'em you want to leave and request your PAC (porting authorisation code) to keep your number. Then use the 30-day notice period to find yourself a new deal while the clock ticks down.

    If you change your mind within that time you can always tell your network that you've decided to stay – plus it's more likely to get in touch with a better deal once it thinks you're serious about leaving (always do your homework before agreeing to anything it offers though).

  • You can keep your number – here's how

    pac payg

    When you called up to hand in your notice, you should have been offered your PAC, which you'll need to keep your number when you move to a new network. But if you didn't get it then, you should still be able to call up and get it as long as your pre-existing contract hasn't been terminated yet.

    Though the process varies depending on which firm you're moving to, once you've got your new (temporary) number from your new network you'll then need to fill in an online form.

    The switch usually takes place the next working day after submitting your PAC.

    If you're switching to a new tariff on the same network, you shouldn't need to carry out this process – call customer services and they should be able to sort it.

Pay-as-you-go top pick Sims

Once you know which network(s) you're happy to go with and what allowance you need, find the best deal you can that fits with this.

Below we've listed our top pick pay-as-you-go deals for different categories of user – mid-level users, heavy users, cheap 3G-only deals, for occasional use and those who want a deal for roaming. Because for some signal is the overriding factor, we've also listed the top alternatives for each of the other three main networks (or a network that piggybacks on it).

In all but the occasional use category, we've listed PAYG bundles rather than traditional PAYG tariffs, which tend to be more expensive - see Traditional vs bundled PAYG for more. For a broader range of deals if you can't find one of our top picks that matches your criteria, use a comparison site such as MobilePhoneChecker.

Mid-level users

Here are top picks for mid-level users, with at least 2GB of 4G data and 500 mins a month.

The People's Operator

300 mins, Unltd texts, 2GB (4G): £10/mth*

GREAT FOR MEDIUM USERS WHO NEED 4G SPEED

The People's Operator* now offers 4G and this a decent tariff for mid-level users. For £10/mth this Sim-only tariff gets you 300 minutes, unlimited texts and 2GB of data – the cheapest around at the moment with 4G speeds.

The People's Operator, launched in 2012, is a piggyback network running off Three's signal. The company has mixed reviews on customer service in the past, but it's taken steps to improve since. It will also give 10% of your monthly spend (pre-VAT) to a charity of your choice – a nice touch.

Need-to-knows

  • 30-day bundles.
  • Runs off the Three network.
  • Calls to UK mobiles & landlines are included. Calls to 084/087 numbers cost extra, see call costs.
  • Use up your allowance and you'll have to pay 2p/MB.
  • You won't be credit-checked.
Giffgaff

500 mins, 2GB (4G): £12/mth*

GOOD MID-LEVEL DEAL FROM THE BIGGEST PAYG PROVIDER

If you're concerned about going with a smaller network, you may want to consider piggybacking network Giffgaff* (runs off O2's signal) and offers PAYG bundles called Goodybags. The one we've highlighted as our all-round top pick is the £12 Goodybag, which gives 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 2GB of 4G data. You also get unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.

If you do run out of minutes or data you can purchase another Goodybag if you don't want to wait until your current one expires. Note though – if you do this, you'll lose any remaining allowance you had on the existing Goodybag.

Need-to-knows
  • Buy bundles on a 30-day rolling basis.
  • Runs off the O2 network.
  • Out-of-allowance charges are 15p/min, 5p/text and 2p/MB.
  • No credit check.
  • You won't be able to go over your allowance without buying another Goodybag (unless you have credit).

If you can't get Three or O2 signal where you live...

These are the best of the rest with at least 2GB of 4G data a month.

  • EE*: 500 mins, unltd texts, 2GB - £15/mth.
  • Vodafone*: 500 mins, unltd texts, 4GB - £20/mth.

Heavy users

For the data fiends out there, these are our top picks with 5GB+ of 4G data and a healthy number of minutes.

Giffgaff

2,000 mins, 6GB (4G): £18/mth*

PLENTY OF DATA FROM THE BIGGEST PAYG PROVIDER

Piggybacking network Giffgaff* (runs off O2's signal) is a top pick in this category too. The 'Goodybag' we've highlighted for heavy users is the £18/mth one, which gives a hefty 2,000 minutes, unlimited texts and 6GB of 4G data.

If you do run out of minutes or data you can purchase another Goodybag if you don't want to wait until your current one expires. Note though – if you do this, you'll lose any remaining allowance you had on the existing Goodybag.

Need-to-knows
  • Buy bundles on a 30-day rolling basis.
  • Runs off the O2 network.
  • Out-of-allowance charges are 15p/min and 5p/text and 2p/MB, after the Goodybag ends it's 5p/MB.
  • No credit check.
  • You won't be able to go over your allowance without buying another Goodybag (unless you have credit).

If you can't get O2 signal where you live...

These are the best of the rest with 5GB+ of 4G data a month.

  • Three*: 300 mins, 3,000 texts, 12GB - £20/mth.
  • Vodafone*: Unltd mins, unltd texts, 12GB - £30/mth.
  • EE: 1,000 mins, unltd texts, 5GB - £25/mth.

Low users

These are our top picks with 1GB+ data a month - in this category we also include 3G-only tariffs, which can be great value if you're not bothered about getting the fastest speeds.

asda

600 mins, 1.5GB (3G): £10/mth*

A SUPER-CHEAP 3G-ONLY TARIFF

Supermarket giant Asda* offers a decent pay-as-you-go deal for new customers. For £10/mth you'll get 600 minutes, unlimited texts and 1.5GB of data which should be enough if you're just checking emails and browsing. If you use up all of your bundle within 30 days you'll have to top-up with airtime credit and you'll be charged out of bundle prices.

Unfortunately the Sim won't work in a tablet or wireless hotspot device – only a smartphone – but you can use it to tether (ie, share the connection) from your phone to other devices, making this deal particularly great if you want more data out and about.

Need-to-knows
  • Runs off the EE network.
  • Out of bundle charges are 8p/min, 4p/text and 5p/MB.
  • No credit check.
  • Tethering is permitted.

If you can't get EE signal where you live...

These are some other cheap 3G-only tariffs on other networks:

  • Lycamobile (piggybacks on O2): 500 mins, unltd texts, 1GB (4G – no cheaper 3G-only option) - £10/mth.
  • Lebara Mobile (piggybacks on Vodafone): 500 mins, 200 texts, 1GB - £10/mth.
  • Tello (piggybacks on Three): 100 mins, 100 texts, 1GB (4G – no cheaper 3G-only option) - £7.50/mth.

For occasional/back-up use

It can be useful to keep a spare Sim for emergency use in case you lose your phone, or perhaps for entering competitions or listing adverts where you're not comfortable giving your main number. This is where traditional PAYG deals rather than bundles can win.

EE

'True' pay-as-you-go: 3p/min, 2p/text, 1p/MB (4G)*

BEST FOR INFREQUENT OR EMERGENCY USE

The 321 tariff from Three* does just what it says on the tin – it's a simple and cheap tariff, charging on a purely pay-as-you-go basis. It's a cracking deal for occasional mobile users, by far the cheapest traditional PAYG rate on the market.

It'll only work in 3G-compatible handsets, so older non-smartphones are a no-no.

How much is it? Top up online with £5 minimum (£10 in store) and it costs 3p/min for calls, 2p/text and 1p/MB for data (though the first 150MB after each top-up is free).

You'll lose credit after six months if you don't use it – but use your phone occasionally and it'll stay on permanently.

If you can't get Three signal where you live...

These are the best of the rest.

  • O2*: 5p/min, 5p/text, 5p/MB (4G).
  • Lebara (piggybacks on Vodafone): 9p/min, 15p/min mobiles, 19p/text, 19p/MB, 3G-only.
  • Asda (piggybacks on EE): 8p/min, 4p/text, 5p/MB, 3G-only.

For roaming abroad

Those on Three's 'Advanced' contracts get to use their allowance free in 42 countries and territories including the US, Australia and most of Europe as part of the deal. However pay-as-you-go users who convert their credit into a bundle can get the same benefit.

This is perfect trick for the occasional trip abroad, if you're heading to one of the covered countries. Alternatively, if you go away often enough it might be worth getting a more generous bundle and paying for it every month.

EE

100 mins, 3,000 texts, 1GB (4G): £10/mth*

FOR THE ODD TRIP ABROAD

Here's how to get yourself free roaming in 42 countries and territories without tying yourself into a contract with Three:

  • Step 1: Order a free PAYG Sim from the Three* website – it'll work in any unlocked 3G or 4G phone. You can also buy one in store – it normally costs £1, but the fee's waived if you top up at the same time (£10 minimum).

  • Step 2: You'll then need to use your credit to buy a Three add-on bundle of calls, texts and data. They cost from £5 to £25 – our example gets you 100 minutes, 3,000 texts and 1GB. To do this, log in to your 'My 3' account, or call 333 using your new Sim.

  • Step 3: Your Sim should already be activated for international roaming, so Feel At Home will work automatically when you arrive in any of the countries covered. You'll be able to use the allowance in your add-on in the same way as in the UK.

Add-ons and their allowances last for 30 days. Any left over credit not used towards a bundle expires after six months if you don't use it.

For more information about Feel at Home and how it works, including its restrictions, see Cheap Mobile Roaming.

If you can't get Three signal where you live...

It is possible to get Sims with other networks that including roaming allowances, but they're generally not very competitive. For more tips on how to cut the cost of using your mobile abroad, see our Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming guide.

How to complain about your network

The mobile industry doesn't have the best customer service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include limited network coverage, slow data speeds, unexpected charges and more. It’s always worth trying to call your provider first, but if not then…

Free tool if you’re having a problem

This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It’s totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.

If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will escalate it to the free Ombudsman Services (or CISAS if you're complaining about EE or Virgin Mobile).

Important: if your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead just let us know by emailing voucherhelp@moneysavingexpert.com as that’s usually quicker.