Whether your phone's super-glued to your ear or just used for the odd call, the chances are you're massively over-paying for the minutes, texts and data you use.
With 1,000s up for grabs, picking the best mobile phone deal may seem like a lottery. This guide shows you how to quickly find the cheapest contract tariff, then check for added discounts.
Best buys: Cheap mobile deals
Quick tips before you start
Haggle down contract costs without changing network
It's possible to slash costs without switching. Anyone on a contract is wielding a serious MoneySaving weapon - loyalty. When nearing the end of your contract, demand the very best deal possible - not just on your network, but of any out there.
If your provider won't budge, tell it "give me a better package or I'll leave". You'll be put through to the disconnections department, which internally is called "customer retentions". It has much more discretion to offer better packages to keep you.
Remember though - this usually means you're signing up for a NEW contract. Make sure you ask how long the contract's for before committing.
Full step-by-step guide: Mobile Phone Contracts
Do I need mobile phone insurance?
The best mobile phones no longer just make calls. They're our diaries, contact books, cameras, games consoles and more - so lose it, break it or have it nicked and there can be tears.
Insurers play on this fear with hefty prices and unnecessary cover. Yet you can get cheap smartphone and iPhone insurance from £5/month.
Full info and best buys in Cheap Mobile Phone Insurance.
Smartphones aren't MoneySaving - do you really need one?
Smartphones generally aren't MoneySaving. But if you must get your mitts on one, it's possible to pay less and get a shorter contract if you know where to go.
If you're currently out of contract, the biggest decision is whether to tie yourself down to a new one or to stump up for a no-contract handset, which gives you far more freedom, but at a hefty upfront cost. The guide takes you through all the options, plus the iPhone tool compares available tariffs.
Beware - voicemail can cost big
Many assume voicemail is always free, yet exceed your inclusive minutes or call from abroad and voicemail costs about 40p/min on contracts out of allowances. On PAYG it can cost up to 26p/min. Keep track of how many minutes you have left or turn it off entirely, especially on holidays. Simply call your network and get it to deactivate voicemail.
You could try an app such as HulloMail. Download it to your smartphone and it replaces the voicemail system on your phone, using wi-fi or 3G to retrieve messages. It can be patchy if you're in an area with limited signal, but it's worth considering if voicemail is costing you big.
How do I keep my number?
Transferring, or porting, your old mobile number is easy when you switch phone. All you need to do is get your PAC (porting authorisation code) from your existing provider, then give it to your new one.
Buy online, or over the phone, and you have a 14-day cooling-off period. Change your mind within this time and you can get a full refund.
Most networks will ask you to do this before you buy the new phone but some will still do it after the new contract is set up.
Recycle your old handset for £100s
If you're getting a new handset, recycle the old one and you could earn £100s, depending on the make, model and condition of the phone.
There's a raft of companies out there willing to recycle your phone for cash, yet be warned: the value differences are huge. At the time of writing, a black iPhone 4 16GB can range from £60 to £105, for example.
To help, use MSE's unique Mobile Valuer tool; it instantly tells you what each of the main mobile recycling sites will pay. You can get up to £400 for some handsets. Of course others are virtually worthless, but it's worth a quick try.
Once you agree to sell, companies send you a freepost bag for your phone. You post it, and then they give you the cash.
These sites are all about instant prices. Yet if you're prepared to put in a little more effort and flog it yourself on eBay, you can often beat their prices. Plus, if you sell a mobile on eBay for more than £100 before Wed 19 Nov you'll also receive a £25 voucher to use on the auction site. See our full 30+ eBay Selling Tricks for more info on how to sell.
What are my rights if my phone breaks?
All the usual consumer rights apply when you buy a mobile phone. The phone must be of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose. (See the Consumer Rights guide for full details.)
Remember here, the responsibility is with the retailer, and not the manufacturer, so it must sort the problem for you. If the fault is minor, it's reasonable to accept a repair. If not, you're entitled to a refund, although the retailer can deduct an amount for the use you've already had.
How to escape your contract early
If you're stuck in a contract you can't afford, you can try a few things to soften the blow. Shifting to a cheaper plan on your network, paying off the contract. If you've had unfair contract changes you may also be able to leave your contact, see below.
Can I cancel my contract if my provider increases the price?
Ofcom changed the rules around mid-contract price rises earlier this year. It confirmed that users with a landline, broadband or mobile contract should be allowed to leave if their provider introduces mid-contract price rises.
It said price increases to a recurring monthly subscription are "materially detrimental" to users. Providers now need to give at least 30 days' notice of any such rises and allow users to leave the contract without penalty. (see the MSE News story).
Text the UK and overseas for nowt
For textaholics, several websites offer free texts to the UK and overseas countries. If you're near a PC, ditch your mobile and use these instead.
Alternatively, some nifty software providers let you use your internet connection to text for fractions of a penny.
For more details: See Below
In the long run, the cost per month and what you get for it is what really adds up. So never just look at whether you'll get a cheap handset. Look at the total cost over the contract length, including per month charges and upfront handset costs, and compare that way.
If you've a smartphone, you may find you can keep costs down by taking a smaller data plan and using free wi-fi while you're out and about.
There are wi-fi hotspots dotted all over the UK (and abroad), many of which are free. McDonald's, Starbucks, Wetherspoons and Walkabout pubs all offer free wireless internet. It's also worth checking:
- My Hotspots (UK-only, quite limited)
- Free Hotspot (UK and Europe, more detailed, but not very many hotspots)
- JiWire (worldwide, thousands of hotspots).
So, if you need to download anything or need urgent access while out, it's worth popping into one of these to save your data limit.
Full details in the guide: Mobile Broadband & WiFi
How much data do my apps use?
|Netflix||1GB per hour standard viewing, up to 3GB for HD.||One hour-long episode of Breaking Bad will use around 1GB of data.|
Sending a tweet uses 1KB, refreshing your feed 70KB.
|Send a million tweets and it'll use 1MB of data. To refresh your timeline it's 70KB.|
|Google Maps||Between 1MB - 2MB for five minutes.||Google Maps uses 2MB for every five minutes, more with the zoom function.|
|Sky Go||15MB for every three minutes.||One 55-minute episode of Game of Thrones uses around 275MB of data.|
|Between 1.5MB - 6MB per photo.||If you're uploading a selfie using an iPhone 5S, it would use around 2.6MB of data.|
|BBC iplayer||Between 25MB - 175MB for 30 mins||An episode of Eastenders uses around 175MB of data.|
|Skype||2MB per sec||A ten-minute Skype call to your friend in New York uses around 1.2GB of data.|
|Spotify||1.2MB per min||If you're listening to the four-minute Pharrell song Happy you'd use 4.8MB of data.|
|Between 2MB - 6MB to upload a photo.||If you're uploading your holiday snaps from your iPhone 5S to Facebook, ten would use about 20MB.|
|Snapchat||Between 30KB - 50KB per snap||Send 20 selfies and you'll use up to 1MB.|
Call abroad for free or cheap to cut costs
Calling someone overseas from your mobile earns companies big bucks, yet it doesn't have to be that way. There's a range of tricks to get free international calls from your mobile.
Full details in the guide: Free Web Calls
Cheapest way to call from abroad
Head abroad and your mobile provider may hike prices massively, and charge for receiving calls as well. Yet you can substantially cut the cost by using networks' hidden deals or by getting a specialist Sim card to use overseas.
Full details in the guide: Mobile Roaming
Would pay-as-you-go be cheaper?
The days where PAYG tariffs were only cheaper for lower users are long gone. PAYG phones are now far more competitive, with contract-style bundles available when you top up by a minimum amount.
The main reason for choosing a contract is wanting a new handset, as they're heavily subsidised on contracts. But be careful you're not paying for it with a higher monthly premium.
Pay a monthly fee and get an inclusive bundle varying in minutes, texts and data.
- Smartphones cheaper with a contract
- Often better for heavy texters/callers
- More likely to get free mobile data
- No risk of running out of credit
Decided a contract is better? Read on
PAYG & (Including Sim only)
No fixed contract, pay for what you use via top-ups, online or on the phone.
- No credit check
- Can be cheaper for light users
- No contract commitment
- Easier to budget
Prefer pay-as-you-go? Jump to deals
How to get the cheapest contract
First work out what you need, then get the cheapest tariff. Only after that should you find the deals. It's a simple three-step plan:
Step 1. Pinpoint your exact usage
Knowing how much you use your phone and what you do with it the most is crucial to getting the best plan.
Match free mins/texts closely to your usage. If you don't, go over and you'll overpay for calls. Go under and you'll overpay on the package.
The easiest way to check usage is to simply dust off your last 3-6 months' bills, jot down what you use every month and then work out the average. Or if you ring your provider, it'll usually tell you - you may also be able to check online. Once you've got the info, check the following:
How many minutes or texts do you use?
Most people massively overestimate the number of minutes and texts they use and end up on tariffs over and above what they really need.
Do you get free minutes with your landline? If so, there's no point in doubling up.
How much do you use the web?
If you use your phone to constantly search the web, you need to watch the amount of data you use.
Before you get the contract, be sure to check your fair use policy.
For checking emails, looking at Facebook and watching the odd YouTube video, 500MB should be more than enough.
If you're downloading videos, TV shows or other web-heavy apps, you may go over your limit and incur heavy charges.
Step 2. Find the perfect tariff
Once you know your usage, you need to find the cheapest and best mobile phone tariff to match it.
Give yourself some leeway, as a slightly higher monthly fee will be cheaper than paying extra call costs.
Are you happy with your existing handset?
If you already have a decent handset in good nick, you'll get a far cheaper deal if you opt for Sim-only. Here you simply get the Sim card with the tariff, and no handset.
If you want a new handset, first think about what features you want and will use. A useful site that allows you to compare handsets is GSM Arena. It lists full specifications for each model so you can see at-a-glance if it has what you need.
For accurate results, Billmonitor* finds the best tariff by accessing your online bills (it doesn't include Virgin Mobile).
Give it login details for your online account and it calculates your average usage over the past three months to find the best contract.
It assumes your habits won't change, but to make sure you don't go over your tariff minutes (which is costly), it'll pick a tariff very slightly above your needs.
Is it safe to give your login details?
Billmonitor says it follows a robust data security policy which it's outlined to the telecoms regulator Ofcom, and encrypts all users' passwords.
CompareMobileDeals.com includes some smaller retailers and networks, so sometimes trumps Billmonitor on price. However, the site's slightly clunky and we have no user feedback on it.
MobilePhoneChecker* covers some smaller networks and retailers that the others don't, so it's worth checking too.
It also has an excellent filtering system so you can clearly pick and choose what you want.
Crucially, you can tell both sites which handset you want and they'll find cheap deals for it.
MoneySupermarket just pips Omio to the post as it lets you filter deals including data. Also, Omio doesn't automatically sort by cheapest price, so make sure you change the dropdown.
But Omio lets you sort tariffs further, by phone features and operating system (eg, Android, iPhone or Symbian). You can also sort by network (useful if your coverage is hit and miss), brands and style of phone.
Before committing, check signal strength in the place you use your phone most. Having no coverage isn't sufficient grounds to return your phone (outside normal consumer rights), so it's your responsibility to check.
Providers all have maps to indicate what 3G and 4G coverage is, although providers tend to be generous and over-estimate signals. Ofcom also has a PDF map detailing 3G coverage.
If you're looking for 4G, most providers have their own coverage checkers online so double-check before you sign up.
4G - do you need it?
Most providers now offer 4G but before signing up, remember you'll need to have a 4G-ready handset and live in an area with 4G coverage.
4G offers a lightning-quick internet connection for mobile devices. You’ll be able to browse the web, download music and movies, and play games on your phone at speeds up to five times faster than 3G.
However, it’s still a relatively new technology, and therefore a bit more expensive than 3G.
If speed isn't important to you, it's not essential. Also keep in mind if you travel around a lot, you'll need coverage in each area you visit.
Strictly speaking, you have no legal rights if you find yourself unable to use your phone due to poor coverage.
The only exception is if you've been mis-sold a phone. If a salesperson guaranteed you'd get coverage and you don't, this would be a reason for a refund. But proving it would be difficult.
That said, some providers have returns policies for refunds due to poor coverage, some of which exceed the statutory seven-day cooling-off period.
Mobile cancellation rights
|Cancellation limit after purchase||Return reasons allowed|
|Three||Any time||Coverage only.|
|Orange||14 days||Proven fault if bought in-store. Any reason if bought online.|
|T-Mobile||14 days||Coverage or technical issues. Any reason if bought online|
|EE||14 days||Coverage or technical issues. Any reason if bought online.|
|Virgin Mobile||14 days||Any.|
|Source: Communications Consumer Panel.|
The sites above will help you find the cheapest tariff for most mobiles. But if you're after a swanky smartphone, it's worth checking out the Cheap iPhone Tool and Cheap Samsung Galaxy Tool to view our top picks and find the best deal for your usage.
Now you know the best mobile phone tariff for you, use the comparison services again. This time, find out which will give you the biggest discount on your chosen tariff. Don't be tempted to switch to a different tariff to get a freebie - let the tariff rule.
Always pick the right tariff first. Then even if your promo falls through, as many have, you're still on the cheapest package.
On Omio, to find deals, click on the tariff for more details and then "see all deals for this tariff".
On MobilePhoneChecker, simply click on the "view offers" dropdown. It'll show you which retailer offers cashback or gifts with that specific tariff.
The mobile market is rife with a variety of discount packages, meaning the same tariff on the same network can cost vastly different amounts. Discounts include free gifts, but it's most important to understand the difference between these:
The big discounts come in the form of a "cashback redemption" that has to be claimed from the retailer, yet they're notoriously unreliable.
These are cashback deals where you're sent a cheque automatically without claiming. They usually don't offer as big a discount as manual cashback.
Some deals can also be part manual, part automatic cashback; if that's the case, only count on receiving the automatic amount.
Cashback via cashback sites.
It's possible to sometimes beat the deals above with some powerhouse cashback offers, most commonly for Sim-only deals. However, don't think of this type of cashback as guaranteed, there can be and are problems. Read the full Top Cashback Sites guide for info.
Beat the cashback trap
Encouraged by the mobile networks, many retailers offer big cashback deals. These deals often look too good to be true, and usually they are too good to be true. The simple fact is many people won't collect on them, and retailers know that. Yet if you do get cashback, it can often cover an entire year's worth of monthly fees, so could be worth many £100s.
If you've followed the system above, you're assured of the best mobile phone deal for you, because you're on the right tariff, so there's no problem trying to grab the cashback on top.
Reclaiming usually involves filling in a form and sending it off up to five times during the contract period. Fail to do exactly this and you'll miss out on the whole discount. The main things to watch for are:
- Always read the small print. It's important to discover every hoop they'll force you through. Does each time you send a form trigger some payment? Or, as usual, is it a "send all or get nothing" scenario, so if you miss sending one form, the whole thing's invalidated?
- Call and check the timings needed. Never assume a cashback deal is simple. If it says "send your bill after three months", this may mean three months from application, three months from activating the phone or after you've received your third monthly bill. Call the cashback company and check.
- Be careful with addresses. The address you send claims from needs to be the address used to order with, otherwise the claim may be invalidated. So if you move house, let them know immediately.
- Are you keeping your old mobile number? If you port your existing number to the new contract then you might be asked to send, in addition, the very first bill you received showing the original mobile number you were allocated.
- Use the Tart Alert as a reminder. The Tart Alert is this site's free text message/email reminder service; it's mainly to remind people before their credit card 0% period ends, but you can use it as a reminder to fill in your rebate form. Enter the rebate date and you'll be sent a free text message or email (it's your choice) six weeks beforehand.
Consider another form of cashback. Regardless of whether cashback is officially offered, there's a possible additional amount. Simply sign up for the phone via a cashback website.
These are special sites carrying paid links from retailers and if you click through them and get a product, they're paid. Importantly, they then give you some of this cash. It's nowhere near as big a deal as cashback redemption but could mean an extra £20 or £30. Find out more in the Top Cashback Sites guide.
The cashback deal's with the retailer, the tariff with the network. Even if it goes wrong, you still keep the tariff with the network. Sadly, cashback retailers can and do go bust; if yours does, it'll be tough to recoup. Yet don't forget the networks encourage these deals, and if you believe you've been unfairly treated, a strong letter to the network asking it to step in may be worthwhile.
If you do have cashback problems, always make sure you report the company to Trading Standards. If you've been treated unfairly, consider a small claims court action.
Cheap Sim-only deals
If you're happy with your mobile handset, it's well worth looking at Sim-only deals as a cheaper alternative. Here are our top picks:
Virgin Mobile - good for heavy users* Sim-only deal gets unlimited minutes, texts and 2GB data for £15/mth
If you're practically glued to your phone, Virgin Mobile's* £15/mth Unlimited VIP Sim-only tariff gives you unlimited minutes, texts and 2GB data/mth. Plus it's on a 30-day rolling contract, so you won't be locked in for a year.
It's available for everyone but if you're not already a Virgin customer, you'll need to select "No I don't" when asked "Do you already have Virgin Broadband, TV or home phone?" in the sign-up process.
If you're a current Virgin customer, you can get unlimited data instead of 2GB for £18/mth.
It's available on standard, micro and nano Sims - there's a 99p delivery charge for the Sim, though this is free if you've got Virgin Media cable. If you want monthly bills by post, it's an extra £1.50/mth.
You can use your existing handset, but only if it's already on Virgin's network, or unlocked. Read the Mobile Unlocking guide for full help if your phone needs unlocking.
Tesco Mobile - good all-rounder with 4G data* Sim-only deal gets hearty 750 mins, 5,000 texts and 500MB data for £10/mth
If you want a cheaper deal than the Virgin Mobile tariff above, this is a good all-rounder. On a 12-month contract, Tesco Mobile* is offering 750 minutes, 5,000 texts and 500MB of data for £10/mth. Plus, if your phone is 4G ready, it's free with this offer.
It doesn't matter if you've a flash or ancient phone; handily, it's available in standard, micro and nano Sim sizes. If you manage to eat your way through its inclusive allowance, it's 10p/MB for data, 25p/min for calls to UK mobiles or landlines, and 10p per text.
You can use your existing handset, but only if it's on Tesco Mobile's network or unlocked. Read the Mobile Unlocking guide for full help if your phone needs unlocking.
Giffgaff - good for average/heavy users* Giffgaff Goodybags start from £5/mth for 60 mins, 300 texts and 20MB
Sim-only provider Giffgaff* offers top-up bundles which are as good value - if not better - as some contracts.
The bundles, called Goodybags, start from £5/mth and go all the way up to £18/mth. Here's a breakdown of what each bundle will get you. The cheapest bundles have very low allowances, so check what's included before you buy.
- £5/mth Goodybag. 60 mins (plus a free extra min for every min you get called by a non-Giffgaff number), 300 texts, 20MB data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls/texts.
- £7.50/mth Goodybag. 200 mins, unlimited texts, 250MB data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
- £10/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 1GB data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
- £12/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 3GB data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
- £15/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 5GB data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
- £18/mth Goodybag. 2,000 mins, unlimited texts, unlimited data, unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
Is it any good? The standard rates for Giffgaff aren't quite as cheap as the Three deal below. But if you're an average or heavy user, getting a Goodybag is good value for money.
You can use your existing handset, but only if it's on the O2 network or unlocked. Read the Mobile Unlocking guide if your phone needs unlocking.
Cheap PAYG tariffs
Three 321 - for low users/emergency phone* Call for 3p/min, text for 2p/text and browse the web for 1p/MB
The 321 tariff from Three* does just what it says on the tin - it's a simple and cheap tariff, charging on a pure pay-as-you-go basis.
It's a Sim-only deal, so you'll need an unlocked or Three handset to put the Sim in. It'll only work in 3G-compatible handsets.
How much is it? Top up with £10 and you it costs 3p/min for calls, 2p/text and 1p/MB for mobile data (though the first 150MB after each top-up is free).
The credit will stay on your phone for six months if unused, so use your phone occasionally and it'll stay on permanently.
Who is it right for? This is a cracking deal for occasional mobile users, as it's by far the cheapest PAYG rate on the market.
For someone using their phone a decent amount, a Giffgaff* Goodybag bundle is cheaper. These are monthly add-ons, so for example, for for £7.50/mth you get unlimited texts, 200 minutes and 250MB.
Can I add extras on? If you want extras, such as "all you can eat" data, you can add these whenever you need (see the Three website for info).
Typical £10 PAYG rates compared
|Three 321||Vodafone Freedom||Orange Dolphin||T-Mobile Smart Packs||O2||Giffgaff|
|Calls||3p/min||150 mins||30p/min||100 mins||100 mins||500 mins|
|Texts||2p/text||Unlimited||400 texts||400 texts||1000 texts||Unlimited|
A ‘granny in a glovebox’ phone is great to stash in your car as an emergency second mobile, to give to your kids or if you only need to use a phone very occasionally.
One of the cheapest we've found, which doesn't need to be topped up often, is the unlocked Samsung E1200* from Tesco Direct for £8. It comes locked to the Vodafone network, which for £10 will get you 150 mins, unlimited texts and 500MB.
After that you only have to use the Sim once every six months - one quick call will do - to make sure the credit doesn't expire.
If you're after a phone with web access, a cheap smartphone on a pay-as-you-go contract is the Samsung Galaxy Y* at £59.95 (£3.95 p&p) from Argos. You'll have to buy a Sim card and you can choose from a range of providers. The cheapest from Three* requires a £10 top-up - calls are 3p/min, texts are 2p each and data costs 1p/MB (after the first 150MB, which is free).
If you're a textaholic without inclusive texts - or if you're travelling abroad - then it's worth knowing about the hidden ways to send texts for less.
First use your tariff's text allowance
These days many mobile phone tariffs include unlimited texts, or at least very generous allowances that should be enough to cater for all but the most dedicated texters. If you've got inclusive texts in your monthly allowance, use these first - but make sure you don't exceed your allowance as extra texts can be costly.
Send messages using your data allowance
If you're using a smartphone in the UK - or if you're on wi-fi abroad - there's really no excuse for ever paying to text. Instead, you can send messages for free or next to nothing using dedicated instant messenger (IM) apps.
If you're out and about you'll be using your data, but the amount used is tiny (WhatsApp, for instance, uses 1MB to send 4,000 'push notifications' or texts). If you're using wi-fi, either at home or at a free hotspot, there's nothing extra to pay.
Here's our selection of three of the best:
You can use Facebook Chat on a computer or from a variety of mobile phones and tablets. It's free and you can chat to one friend or have conversations with multiple friends at the same time. Select "Turn On Chat" to start a conversation and "Turn Off Chat" to go offline. When it's turned off, any message you send will go direct to a friend's inbox.
If you've got a BlackBerry, iPhone or Android phone, you can use BlackBerry Messenger - or BBM as it's known to users. It's a free instant messaging app with a chat-style layout and unlimited characters. BlackBerrys come with the app pre-installed, but you may have to download updates as new versions become available.
The WhatsApp IM service works on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Nokias and phones with Android.
You can message friends who have the app installed, regardless of which smartphone they own. It's free-to-use for the first year, and about 58p/year after that. In addition to texting, users can send each other unlimited images, video and audio messages.
Sending texts from your computer
You can also send free texts from your computer.
The website CBFSMS.com gives you unlimited free texts. For international texts, try SendSMSNow. They allow you to send free unlimited international texts to some countries including the USA, Canada, Poland and India; plus replies can be received to your own online inbox.
Remember, text via the internet and the message won't appear to be from your phone, so always sign your name to let people know who sent it. Include your phone number too, to make it easier for them to reply.
If you don't have a smartphone, you can use Fishtext to send messages for free. It works by downloading data by GPRS, and supports Java. It's free to other FishText mobiles, otherwise 2p/text (doesn't include data) in the UK.