Whether your phone's superglued to your ear or you only use it for the odd call, the chances are you're massively overpaying for the minutes, texts and data that you use.
Getting a new phone can be a big financial decision, particularly if you're committing to a contract. This guide crunches the numbers and talks you through the different options – plus offers handy tips to drive down the cost of your existing mobile deal.
30+ cheap mobile tips, including...
If you're paying more than £15/mth, you're probably paying too much
How much is your mobile bill each month? If you're paying more than £15/mth, then you need to ask yourself why.
£15/mth is the key benchmark because that's how much it typically costs to get yourself a decent allowance on a Sim-only deal, though which one to get depends on exactly what balance of minutes, texts and data you want. See full details of all our top pick tariffs below, including discounted plans for those with certain broadband providers.
In our recent poll almost 25,000 of you told us how much you pay for your mobile. The results were eye-opening – a whopping 78% of those on contracts which factor in the cost of a handset (and 46% overall) shell out more than £15 a month, with an average cost of £27/mth, or £330 a year.
Of course, there are valid reasons why you may be paying more than £15/mth. These include:
- You're paying off the cost of a handset.
- You're paying more for 4G.
- You're paying more for a really hefty data allowance.
- You have a low credit score and so can't get a contract.
If one of the above applies, then at least there's a reason for your bill being higher – though you still may be able to save.
But if you just settle for the same deal, provider and price each year, then STOP. Mobile tariffs are deflating in price, so if anything you should be paying less each year, not more.
The biggest single factor affecting the cost of your new mobile deal is whether or not you'll be paying for a new handset as well. It's important to understand that even if you get a contract tariff where the phone itself is 'free' or relatively cheap, in practice you'll end up paying for it – and generally end up paying MORE for it – through the monthly tariff.
If you already have a decent handset in good nick, you'll get a far cheaper deal if you opt for a Sim-only deal. Here you simply get the Sim card with the tariff, but no handset. (See our top picks below).
How to find a new handset
If you DO 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 the full specifications for each model so you can see at a glance if it has what you need.
Read reviews online and ask friends and family for advice on which handset might be best for you before you set your heart on any gadget. You might also consider buying a second-hand phone – check websites such as eBay* and Gumtree.
Knowing how much you use your phone and what you use it for is crucial to getting the best plan.
Match free mins, texts and data closely to your usage. If you don't, you'll go over and overpay for calls. Go under and you'll overpay on the package.
Some tariffs offer unlimited options for calls and texts, meaning unlimited calls to UK landlines and mobiles and unlimited texts to UK mobiles- other calls/texts and roaming outside the UK will cost extra. But only the heaviest users would need this amount of allowance.
The easiest way to check your usage is to simply dust off your last three to six 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.
- Finds the best deals in the market: MobilePhoneChecker* is one of only two Ofcom-accredited mobile comparison tools (along with Billmonitor, see below). It's easy to use and the most comprehensive we've come across.
It's also recently introduced a bill monitoring feature that shows you how much you're actually using each month and recommends tariffs based on this – it works with BT Mobile, EE, Giffgaff, iD Mobile, O2, Talk Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.
- Free matchmaking tool: Stalwart bill-comparison site Billmonitor* compares your previous three months of bills to find the best contract or Sim-only deal based on your usage. However unlike MobilePhoneChecker, it only works with customers of O2, Three, EE, T-Mobile, Orange, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone.
Is it safe to give MobilePhoneChecker and Billmonitor your login details?
MobilePhoneChecker and Billmonitor follows a robust data security policy which it's outlined by the telecoms regulator Ofcom, and encrypts all users' passwords.
- If you know what you want: Head to MoneySupermarket* where you can specify an allowance of minutes, texts and data and it'll show you the cheapest tariff for that package. Crucially, you can also search by handset and filter by cashback.
- For a quick search: Use Omio* to narrow down your search by cost, allowance or type of handset. You can also sort by phone features and operating systems (eg, Android, iPhone or Symbian) and by network (useful if your coverage is hit and miss). Omio doesn't automatically sort by cheapest price though, so make sure you change the dropdown tab.
Don't forget about cashback. The mobile market is rife with a variety of discount packages, so it's important to understand the difference.
There are lots of different ways to claim cashback – see the variations below:
- Redemption cashback. The big discounts come in the form of a "cashback redemption" that has to be claimed from the retailer, yet they're notoriously unreliable.
- Automatic cashback. 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 are often problems. Read the Top Cashback Sites guide for full info.
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.
The number of different mobile tariffs on the market can be baffling – there are thousands of different combinations and it can be tricky to compare them on a like-for-like basis.
There are three different types of tariffs to choose from. Here's how they stack up:
Contract with handset – best for heavy users and spreading the cost
With a traditional mobile phone contract you pay a monthly fee and get a handset plus an inclusive bundle with a certain allowance of minutes, texts and data.
Handset price is spread out – but it costs you more in the long term
Often better for heavy users, especially on calls and texts
You'll be locked in for 12, 18 or 24 months
No risk of running out of credit
There are two types of Sim-only deals – 30-day rolling contracts which you are free to leave each month, or fixed term contracts, usually lasting 12 months.
- Good if you have a handset or can afford to buy one upfront
- Rolling 30-day contracts offer maximum flexibility
- Often good for heavy data users
PAYG – no ties and never go over your allowance
If you pay for your mobile via pay-as-you-go, you won't be tied into any contract – simply pay in advance for what you use via top-ups, online or on the phone.
PAYG doesn't require any credit check
Easier to budget
- Generally more expensive for medium or heavy users
Happy with your handset? Haggle down the contract costs
If you don't want to switch, and are near or past your contract's end, you're wielding a powerful weapon... your loyalty. When approaching the end of your contract, make sure you demand the very best deal possible – not just of your network, but of any out there.
The mobile world's a mature market. Everyone has a handset, so networks fight hard to win custom from elsewhere AND keep their own. If your provider won't give you a good enough deal, let it know. The aim's to get through to 'customer disconnections', which internally is often called 'retentions' as its job is to keep you. Watch Martin show Mrs MSE how to do it, with real chutzpah!
We know this method works, as you regularly tell us it does. Forumite elfy1807 says: "My contract with Orange was up and I asked them what they could do for me. I turned down two offers until I got £16/mth, 1.5GB data, unltd texts and 2,000 mins – a saving of £36/mth, that's £432/yr."
Full help on how to do this in our Haggle Down Your Mobile Bill guide.
Networks claim that 4G is up to 5x faster than 3G, though Ofcom estimates suggest that in practice downloads are only twice as fast, compared to uploads which were more than eight times quicker. The regulator also says 4G and 3G performance differs between networks, with some outperforming others.
Many operators charge more for 4G tariffs, and even if they don't, you're likely to use more data if you're on one.
So think about where you use your phone. If you're out and about a lot and will benefit from a faster connection, it may be worth it. If you mainly use it at home and work and you're able to connect to wi-fi there, then that often beats 4G anyway.
To get 4G you'll need a handset that's capable of getting it (many launched in the last two years can).
If you're happy with your mobile handset or are buying one upfront, then it's well worth looking at Sim-only deals as they generally offer a cheaper alternative.
Unless you're already with a Sim-only tariff provider, you'll probably need to get your phone unlocked (though Giffgaff will work if your phone is locked to O2). Our Mobile Unlocking guide has full help. Also see our PAYG top picks, including GiffGaff bundles and options for low users or those concerned about being credit-scored.
EE* – Top heavy-user deal if you'll use the voucher
Until 11.59pm on Sat 1 Aug, we’ve blagged new EE mobile (including T-Mobile and Orange) customers this one-year contract Sim-only deal with unlimited UK minutes, unlimited texts and 4GB of 4G data for £19.99/mth, plus a £120 Amazon voucher.
- How do I get it? Go via this specific EE Sim* link and use the code MSEAMAZON120, and you can choose from a standard, micro or nano Sim.
- How do I get the £120 Amazon voucher? Use the link and code above and the voucher will be automatically emailed to you within three months of Sim activation (if you cancel during the 14-day grace period you won't get the voucher). How to ensure you get the voucher
EE says there won't be any issues tracking this deal, but to be doubly certain we suggest you turn off ad and cookie blockers when you order.
As the voucher is sent by email, sometimes it can get caught in spam filters. Please check your spam folder regularly in case it's diverted there.
If after three months you still haven't received your voucher, please email email@example.com with as much information as possible - ie your full name, address, mobile number and sign up date - to ensure you get a quick response.
- Who can get it? Anyone who doesn't currently have an EE, T-Mobile or Orange mobile contract. Existing EE broadband customers can get it.
- How good is it? The Sim itself's £5/mth more than the cheapest with a (roughly) similar allowance. But if you were going to spend the voucher at Amazon anyway, factor it in and it's equiv £119.88/yr or £9.99/mth - a cracking deal for the allowance.
- Can I move my number? Yes, you can move your number to this Sim.
- What happens after the year’s contract? The deal is ongoing (except of course you don’t get another voucher each year). After a year you're free to leave the contract but have to give 30 days' notice.
- Is the price fixed? EE's T&Cs entitle it to raise its prices each year by up to the rate of inflation - this usually happens in March or April. Of course, EE could always decide to raise its prices anyway, by more than inflation - but if so Ofcom's rules mean you can leave the contract penalty-free.
- 12-month contract
- Available in standard, micro and nano Sim sizes
- Use up your data and you have to buy an add-on for more (from £1.99 for 100MB/day)
- Calls to UK landlines and mobiles included. Calls to 08 numbers (other than 0800) cost 40p/min
- You'll be credit-checked – see our Credit Scores guide
TalkTalk Mobile* – a great deal if you don't need 4G
Until Thu 13 Aug TalkTalk* broadband customers can get its latest Sim-only offering which we think is a stand-out deal. For £12/mth you get unlimited minutes, texts and 3G data on a rolling 30-day contract, meaning that as long as you give 30 days' notice, you can cancel anytime.
Unfortunately tethering isn't allowed on TalkTalk Sims so you can't share the data to use on other devices.
If you cancel your broadband contract at any point, the cost of the Sim will rise to £24/mth and the allowance will revert to 2,000 minutes, unlimited text and 2GB of data so consider switching your Sim deal then too.
Alternatively, if you don't need such a big allowance you can get the following plans*, though they're all on 12-month contracts (the prices increase after this so look to switch then):
£3.95/mth for TalkTalk b'band custs. 250 mins, 250 texts, 300MB.
£6.50/mth for TalkTalk b'band custs. 400 mins, unltd texts, 1GB.
£7.75/mth for TalkTalk b'band custs. 700 mins, unltd texts, 2GB.
- 30–day rolling contract.
- Runs off the Vodafone network.
- Calls and texts to UK mobiles and landlines included. Calls to 08, other than 0800, numbers may cost extra.
- You'll be credit-checked – see our Credit Scores guide.
- Tethering is not permitted.
BT Mobile* – strong deal for existing BT customers
Telecoms giant BT* has returned to the mobile market with a bang, offering three 12mth Sim-only plans. If you're a BT broadband customer, you'll pay £5/mth less for each of the tariffs than everyone else, which makes them among the most competitive around (though BT's broadband prices can often be beaten so it's not worth swapping providers just to get the Sim).
All the plans come with 4G data, a free BT Sport app and free access to more than five million BT Wi-fi hotspots.
Here are the options:
£5/mth for BT b'band custs (£10/mth otherwise). 200 mins, unltd texts, 500MB.
£12/mth for BT b'band custs (£17/mth otherwise). 500 mins, unltd texts, 2GB.
£20/mth for BT b'band custs (£25/mth otherwise). Unltd mins and texts, 20GB.
BT allows you to switch tariffs mid-contract with no penalties or extensions, but you can only downgrade once. If you stop being a BT broadband customer at any point your monthly mobile tariff will jump by £5.
- 30-day rolling contract.
- Runs off the EE network – use BT's 4G and 3G coverage checker.
- Calls and texts to UK mobiles and landlines are included. Calls to other 08 numbers, other than 0800, may cost extra.
- Monthly spending can be capped, from a starting point of £5 over your tariff.
- Use up your allowance and you'll have to pay 35p/min and 10p/MB. Full costs here.
- You'll be credit-checked – see our Credit Scores guide.
Virgin* – good if you only need 3G, plus it's a 30-day contract
If you don't want to worry about exceeding your allowance, Virgin Mobile's* £15/mth Sim-only tariff gives you unlimited minutes, unlimited texts and a decent 4GB of 3G data each month, which should be enough for all but the heaviest users.
To get the deal, click "No I don't" below where it asks if you're already a Virgin Media customer (existing customers can get the same deal, with unlimited calls to other Virgin Mobile numbers thrown in).
Here's the range of options:
£5/mth. 250 mins, unltd texts, 250MB.
£8/mth. 1,250 mins, unltd texts, 500MB.
£10/mth. 2,500 mins, unltd texts, 1GB.
£12/mth. Unltd calls (incl calls to 084 and 087 numbers) and unltd texts, 2GB.
£15/mth. Unltd calls (incl calls to 084 and 087 numbers) and unltd texts, 4GB.
£23/mth. Unltd calls (incl calls to 084 and 087 numbers) and unltd texts, 8GB.
- 30-day rolling contract.
- Runs off the EE network.
- Calls and texts to UK mobiles and landlines are included.
- Your tariff will increase in line with RPI every July, you will be given 30 days' notice.
- Monthly spending can be capped, from a starting point of £5 over your tariff.
- Use up your allowance and you'll have to pay 40p/min and £1 per day for data. Full costs here.
- If you opt for paper bills rather than e-billing you will be charged £1.50 per month.
- You'll be credit-checked – see our Credit Scores guide.
iD Mobile* – top all-round 4G contract
Carphone Warehouse has just launched its own virtual mobile network called iD Mobile, which runs off Three's network. It's got a huge range of plans - long-term, short-term, with handset, Sim-only - all on 4G.
It's Sim-only offerings are very competitive. The one we've highlighted as our top pick costs £15/month and comes with 2,000 minutes, 5,000 texts and 3GB of 4G data, but there are a few available. They're all one-month contracts.
£5/mth. 250 mins, 5,000 texts, 500MB.
£7.50/mth. 100 mins, 5,000 texts, 1GB.
£10/mth. 100 mins, 5,000 texts, 2GB.
£10/mth. 500 mins, 5,000 texts, 1GB.
£12.50/mth. 200 mins, 5,000 texts, 3GB.
£12.50/mth. 500 mins, 5,000 texts, 2GB.
£15/mth. 2,000 mins, 5,000 texts, 3GB.
£15/mth. 500 mins, 5,000 texts, 5GB.
£20/mth. 2,000 mins, 5,000 texts, 10GB data.
Most of these tariffs are available as "ShockProof" plans too, which means you can limit your additional usage (and bill) to no more than £5 beyond the monthly contract price.
- 1-month contract.
- Runs off the Three network.
- If you exceed your allowance, it's 10.24p/MB for data, 40p/min for calls to UK mobiles or landlines and 14p per text.
- Monthly spending can be capped at no more than £5 above your monthly tariff.
- You'll be credit-checked – see our Credit Scores guide.
Three* – good for really heavy data users, plus 'free' roaming abroad
If you're looking for a cheap deal with lots of 4G data, Three's* £22/mth Sim-only tariff gives you 600 minutes, unlimited texts and unlimited 4G data on a 12-month contract. If you'd rather have the freedom of a rolling contract, then it's £25/mth.
Alternatively if you want to go all out, you can get unlimited minutes, texts and 4G data on a 12-month contract for £27/mth, or £30/mth on a 30-day contract.
- 12-month contract
- If your minute allowance runs out you'll be charged 35p/min.
- Three's 'Feel at Home' feature lets you use your allowance in 18 countries at no extra cost.
- Turn your phone into a wi-fi hotspot with tethering (limit of 4GB/mth).
- You'll be credit checked – see our Credit Scores guide for how you can boost yours.
Sadly, there's no way round this one – a shiny high-spec smartphone just isn't MoneySaving. But if you absolutely must get your mitts on one, it's possible to pay less and avoid being locked into a long contract if you do it right.
The cheapest way to get a new iPhone 6 or Samsung S6 is usually to buy the handset upfront, then get a separate Sim-only deal – but not everyone can afford to do this. If you can't pay upfront, then perhaps think about switching down to a cheaper model, waiting and saving up for it.
If you don't have the readies to pay upfront for a handset, think long and hard before tying yourself into a lengthy contract instead – even if it offers you the phone 'free' or at a much-reduced upfront cost. Not only will the cost of the handset be wrapped up in the monthly tariff, you'll nearly always be paying a significant amount extra over the course of the contract.
When we crunched the numbers in March we calculated that in some cases it'd actually be cheaper to buy a handset direct with a 44% APR two-year loan (typical contract length) than take a contract. (Of course, we're not suggesting you do that.)
We worked out how much extra users would pay with six of the UK's biggest mobile providers if they were to get a 16GB iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy S5 on a two-year contract, as opposed to buying the handset directly and taking out the same network's equivalent Sim-only deal.
The table below displays the 'effective APR', which is the interest rate you could afford to pay on a loan to buy the handset upfront plus get the equivalent Sim-only plan on the same network and it STILL be cheaper than taking out a similar contract deal from each network.
'Effective APR' of popular phones
|Network||iPhone 6 (16GB)||Samsung Galaxy S5|
|Virgin Mobile 1||44%||42%|
|EE (incl T-Mobile & Orange)||35%||14%|
|Three||11%||Same on contract|
|O2||8%||Cheaper on contract|
|(1) Non existing Virgin Media customers. Figures rounded to the nearest %. Table correct as of 3 Mar 2015.|
Mobile providers say that a contract isn't a loan (so they don't usually display an APR) but effectively it is one as you're credit checked. Even if a network offers you a deal where you can pay the cost of the handset and your tariff off separately you're likely to be paying a premium.
Could I get the handset on a 0% credit card instead?
If you want a snazzy phone but can't afford to buy the handset upfront, you're best off saving up. But if you really can't wait, then instead of paying mobile providers' inflated prices, you might want to consider taking out a credit card with a lengthy 0% Credit Card spending offer, buying the phone upfront, then stashing the card in a bowl of water in the freezer (so you won't be tempted to use it again) and getting a cheap Sim-only deal.
The longest 0% card currently is the Post Office’s 25mth 0%* or Virgin Money's 24mth 0%* but remember you must always ensure you meet the minimum repayments and clear it before the 0% term ends or it jumps to 18.9% rep APR (or more for some). Use our eligibility calc to see which cards will most likely accept you. See a full range of alternatives in our 0% Credit Card spending guide.
Top PAYG deals – for low users or to avoid being credit checked
If you're a very low user, can't pass a credit score or just want to be totally in control of how much you spend, then opting for a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deal might be good option.
Why does my credit score matter? When you apply for a mobile contract (including Sim-only contracts) you're usually credit scored (because the company is spreading the cost of the handset over the contract, so for the firm, it's effectively a loan). If your credit history's poor then there's a chance you will be rejected and won't get a contract.
If this happens, don't despair – you still have options. You can choose between Giffgaff (which doesn't credit score you because you're technically prepaying rather than signing up for a contract) or another PAYG provider. Or alternatively, you could always try boosting your credit score.
Giffgaff* - no contract commitment for max flexibility
Sim-only provider Giffgaff* offers PAYG bundles called Goodybags, which start from £5/mth and go all the way up to £18/mth. Here's a summary of selected bundles (view the full list). All bundles include unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts. The cheapest bundles have very low allowances, so check what's included before you buy.
£5/mth Goodybag. 100 mins, 300 texts, 100MB data.
£7.50/mth Goodybag. 250 mins, unlimited texts, 500MB data.
£10/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 1GB data.
£12/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 3GB data.
£15/mth Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 5GB data.
£20/mth Goodybag. 2,000 mins, unlimited texts, unlimited data.
The Goodybags listed above come with 3G data. Giffgaff also offers the following 4G Goodybags*. All 4G bundles also include unlimited Giffgaff-to-Giffgaff calls and texts.
£12/mth 4G Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 1GB data.
£15/mth 4G Goodybag. 500 mins, unlimited texts, 3GB data.
- £18/mth 4G Goodybag. 1,000 mins, unlimited texts, 5GB data.
- Buy bundles on a 30-day rolling basis.
- Runs off the O2 network.
- If you exceed your allowance you'll be charged 10p/min and 6p/text for UK landlines and mobiles, and 20p/day for data (up to 20MB).
- No credit check.
- You won't be able to go over your allowance without buying another goodybag (unless you have credit).
Three* – Best for low users or emergency phones
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 cracking deal for occasional mobile users, as it's by far the cheapest PAYG rate on the market.
It's a Sim-only deal, so you'll need an unlocked or Three handset to put the Sim into. It'll only work in 3G-compatible handsets.
How much is it? Top up with £10 minimum and it costs 3p/min for calls, 2p/text and 1p/MB for data (though the first 150MB after each top-up is free).
The credit will stay on your phone for six months if unused – use your phone occasionally and it'll stay on permanently.
Can I add extras on? If you want extras, such as "all you can eat" data, you can add these whenever you need to (see the Three website* for info).
There are a range of other PAYG providers to choose from. Here are their pay-as-you-go rates:
PAYG rates compared
|1. For the first 20MB, 20p/MB thereafter. 2. Cannot pay for data as you go, must buy a data add-on/pack. 3. Up to 50MB/day. 4. For the first 50MB, 10p/MB therefater.|
This is out what you'll get from each on a £10 bundle, which gives better value than paying as you go. They're more like Sim-only plans in that you get a fixed allowance each month, the difference being you'll still have to top up if you want to use more or buy another bundle.
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 Nigel O'Hara for £13.03 (+£2.95 p&p).
Since it's unlocked, you can pick up a PAYG Sim from any of the networks. Bear in mind though that Three Sim cards won't work in 2G (older, non-smartphone) handsets, so we recommend taking one with another network such as Giffgaff if you're planning on using it in this way.
If you're after a phone with web access, one example of a cheap smartphone on a pay-as-you-go contract is the sim-free Samsung Galaxy Y from Nigel O'Hara for £40.33 (+£2.95 p&p).
Before you commit to a contract, check network coverage – and know your rights if you end up having problems
Before committing to a contract, check signal strength in the places you use your phone most, eg, at home and at work. Having no coverage isn't sufficient grounds to return your phone (though normal consumer rights do apply), so it's your responsibility to check.
The major providers all have maps indicating what 3G and 4G coverage they offer, although providers can be generous and overestimate signals.
What are my rights if I'm unhappy with my mobile coverage? It very much depends. Under consumer law you can cancel your mobile contract up to 14 days after you sign up but if the problem arises after that, it's tricky.
The telecoms regulator Ofcom says it expects providers to deal "fairly and sympathetically" with customers who have signal issues because of mobile network problems – for example if a provider switches off a mast or there are faults with the network. In these circumstances the customer should be offered compensation or be allowed to leave the contract early without penalty.
However, if the reason for the loss of coverage is unclear or in dispute – say if there's bad weather – it's less clear cut. In these cases Ofcom says you have "clear rights to seek redress or a resolution" to a complaint. In the first instance complain directly to your network, and if it's not able to help then go through its official complaints procedure.
If after eight weeks the response you've got isn't up to scratch (or you haven't got one) you can go through an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme. These are independent schemes which can investigate the complaint – if they find in your favour, they can order the mobile phone provider to pay out up to £5,000 in compensation for any loss you may have suffered.
Alternatively, go to free complaints handling company Resolver who will help you with your claim. If it doesn't get anywhere with the provider, it'll escalate it on your behalf to the relevant ADR scheme.
There are three Sim sizes around - standard, micro and nano - and which one you'll need depends on your handset. All iPhone models from the iPhone 5 onwards use a nano Sim, as do some of the latest Android phones such as the Nexus 6.
Most other Android phones, including the Samsung S5, Note 4 and Windows phones, take micro Sims, which are slightly larger than nano Sims. The iPhone 4 and 4S also take micro Sims.
Standard-size Sims haven't been used in smartphones for the past few years and not many take them anymore. If you're upgrading to a newer handset, most networks can very easily swap your Sim card for the right one if you ask.
If you sign up for a contract you're essentially commiting to a phone company (and often a handset too) for the length of the contract. This means you must think carefully about your budget and if you can afford the ongoing, monthly payments. The amount of time varies between deals – a few last 12 months, but most high-end smartphone contracts now span 24 months.
Before you sign up to a contract make sure you're happy to be locked in for the minimum term. If you want to leave early then it's likely that you'll have to pay termination fees which cover the cost of the contract.
Some providers have started to offer tariffs which make it easier for customers to upgrade early. (See below for full details.)
Always calculate the total cost of the contract
Whether you're taking out a 12-month or 24-month contract you should always look at how the total cost compares. You can do this by multiplying the monthly cost by the length of the contract, then adding in the upfront cost.
For example, let's say there's an upfront cost of £39, plus a monthly charge of £15 multiplied by 18 months. The total cost of the contract would equal £309.
Transferring, or 'porting', your old mobile number is easy when you switch phone provider. All you need to do is get your PAC (porting authorisation code) from your existing provider, then give it to your new one.
Most networks will ask you to request a switch of number before you start using your new phone, but some will still do it after the new contract is set up. It usually only takes a couple of days.
You can't port your number within the same network, so if you take out a deal on your existing network that's intended for new customers (ie, that isn't specifically an upgrade) you won't be able to keep your old number. When you terminate the old contract you'll lose it.
The only way to get the new deal and keep your number would be to get yourself a free pay-as-you-go Sim from a different network, port your existing number across to it, then port it again to the new contract once it's been set up.
Recycle your old handset and earn £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 are a raft of companies out there willing to recycle your phone for cash, yet be warned – the differences in what they'll offer are huge. At the time of writing, for example, a 16GB iPhone 5 could fetch anything from £72 to £124.
To help, use our unique MobileValuer 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, most companies send you a Freepost bag for your phone. You post it, and they'll give you the cash.
These sites are all about instant prices though. If you're prepared to put in a little more effort and flog your handset on eBay, you can often beat their prices. See our full 30+ eBay Selling Tricks guide for more info.
'Piggybacking' means you do have a choice of mobile provider – even if you can only get signal with one network
If you live somewhere with rubbish phone signal and you can only get coverage on one or two networks, fear not. You may assume your choice of provider is limited – but switching to a 'piggyback' deal can allow you to cut bills without your signal dropping.
There are only four UK networks – EE, Vodafone, Three and O2. All the others piggyback on and buy space from one of these four. For example, Tesco and Giffgaff are on O2, Asda is on EE and TalkMobile is on Vodafone.
You're still using the same network as the larger company so the reliability's the same, but it's normally cheaper or you get more. For example, £10/mth gets you an O2 Sim with 250 mins, 1,000 texts and 500MB data, but alternatively you can get a Giffgaff Sim (on the O2 network) with 500 mins, unlimited texts and 1GB of data.
There are lots of piggybackers to choose from – see our full mobile piggybacking guide & list to see which you can move to, paying less with the same signal.
Don't sign on the dotted line until you've used our 'before you buy' checklist
Signing up to a new mobile deal, especially if it's a contract that locks you in, is a big commitment. Most contracts will lock you in for 24 months, which means that you won't be able to get out of paying for it during this time. That's why we've come up with six MUST-CHECK points to consider before you sign on the dotted line.
- Check coverage. Most operators will allow you to check your coverage by tapping your postcode into a tool on their website. It's well worth researching before you sign up.
- Don't forget about credit checks. If you have a poor credit history then there's a chance that you could get rejected for a contract. When you apply for a mobile contract the provider will check your score to see how reliable you are at paying bills on time. Before applying, check your credit score, and if necessary see our tips for boosting your credit score.
- Consider the contract length and total cost of the contract. Do the maths to make sure you're getting a good deal.
- Do you need mobile phone insurance? Depending on the cost of replacing your handset it might be worth getting mobile phone insurance. See our Cheap Mobile Insurance guide for full info.
- Keep your number when you switch. It's easy to keep your number but you'll need to get your PAC code.
Many providers allow early upgrades
If you're happy to stick with your current provider, then it's often possible to upgrade your handset before your current contract comes to an end.
Don't forget that the cheapest deals usually some from switching provider, but if you're willing to haggle then this info might be useful. The following table sets out the major providers' early upgrade policies.
How early can you upgrade?
|Provider||Energy upgrade policy|
|EE (incl T-Mobile and Orange)||Switch to a new phone and plan up to 45 days before your contract ends.|
|O2||O2 Refresh splits your monthly statement into a cost for the handset and cost for your allowance. You can pay off the handset part of your contract whenever you want and upgrade without also having to pay off the ‘allowance’ segment – you’ll just continue paying it alongside the ‘new device’ segment of the bill.
|Vodafone||Upgrade up to 30 days before your contract ends.|
|Three||Upgrade up to 30 days before your contract ends.|
|Tesco Mobile||The same system as O2 Refresh, above.|
|Virgin Mobile||No official policy on early upgrades. Its Freestyle contracts allow you to pay off the handset and buy a new phone to use with your existing airtime contract.|
Know how to unlock your phone to ensure you have maximum choice of provider
Unlocking your phone means you can use any network's Sim, which gives you the freedom to switch providers and hopefully cut your mobile phone bill.
Some handsets are unlocked when you buy them – usually if you purchase them directly from the company that makes them or if you buy from a middleman store such as Carphone Warehouse. But if you got your handset from a network it will usually be 'locked' to that specific provider.
You may be able to unlock your phone for free, depending on your network and the type of handset you have. If you can't then providers will charge you for an unlocking code – prices vary but it usually costs between £10-£20. See our Mobile Phone Unlocking guide for full details.
Decide whether you need mobile phone insurance – and if you do, get a cheap deal from as little as £5/mth
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.
But do you really need insurance? Deciding whether to get a policy comes down to the fact that you know yourself better than insurers will.
How likely are you to lose or damage your phone? If your mobile's been permanently attached to your hand and you haven't broken it or lost in the last 10 years, the chances you'll lose or break it in the future are slim. But if you've broken or lost a phone in the past then it might be worth considering. It's important to know yourself, then you can play the odds.
Are you worried about mobile phone theft? Theft of mobile phones is falling, according to a report by the Home Office earlier this year – but these numbers are often questioned because it's believed a high proportion of mobile theft is never reported. If you live in a crime hotspot then insuring your phone for theft might be a good idea.
Beware of exceeding your data allowance - it could add £60/yr to your bill
If you use up your data allowance before the end of each month it could end up costing you. The majority of networks will ask you to pay an extra chunk of cash if you want to extend your allowance, usually around £5/mth. This could add £60 (or more) to your annual mobile bill.
There are a number of ways to avoid this:
Be sure you understand what ‘unlimited’ includes
Many mobile contract and Sim-only deals offer ‘unlimited’ minutes, texts or data, but it’s important to understand what that actually covers.
Unlimited minutes means to UK landlines and mobiles, and unlimited texts to UK mobiles – other calls/texts and roaming outside the UK may cost more. Always make sure you know exactly what’s covered and what you’ll have to pay extra for.
Similarly some networks place 'fair usage' caps on their 'unlimited' tariffs, (confusingly) limiting the allowance you actually get. Where a provider does this on a plan we write about we'll say so, but it's worth checking yourself before signing up.
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).
Head abroad and your mobile provider may hike prices massively, and even 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.Get more info on the cost of using your phone abroad and the various specialist Sims available in the Mobile Roaming guide.
Calling someone overseas from your mobile often costs big bucks, yet it doesn't have to be that way. Making free internet phone calls (VoIP) sounds complicated, but it's very easy, especially if you have a smartphone.
Our guide to Free Web Calls has details on apps that let you call for nowt, how to make free calls from your computer and the best way to call friends who don't use VoIP. Don't forget to also consult our International Callchecker which tells you the cheapest way to call any country from the UK.
If your phone is faulty, then it's the responsibility of the retailer to fix it
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 more.)
Remember here, the responsibility lies with the retailer, not the manufacturer. So if you discover a problem after buying a new phone, it's the retailer who 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.
If you think that you've been mis-sold, either by the mobile phone company or by a company selling on its behalf, then you need to know your rights. Your first action should be to inform the provider and follow its complaints procedure. Or, use free complaints handling company Resolver, who will help you with your claim.
After that, if you are still unhappy and feel the issue has not been resolved, Resolver will appeal on your behalf to one of two Alternative Dispute Resolution schemes – Ombudsman Services: Communications and CISAS – which act as middlemen between mobile phone providers and users.
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If you're locked into a phone contract and your provider decides to hike prices, then you may be able to get out of the deal without paying a penalty.
Over the past few years mobile phone firms have started introducing annual price hikes, usually in line with inflation, which affect customers who are mid-contract. This used to mean that the price of your contract would rise and there was nothing you could do about it.
However, in January 2014 Ofcom changed the rules around mid-contract price rises. It confirmed that users with a landline, broadband or mobile contract should be allowed to leave if their provider introduces unilateral mid-contract price rises.
Ofcom 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 O2 to hike its prices MSE news story).
These rules apply to any NEW contract taken out after 23 January 2014. Unfortunately they don't apply retrospectively though, so companies can still hike prices for contracts taken out before this date.
What's more, if there's a warning in your T&Cs about mid-contract price hikes in line with inflation then they can side-step this ruling entirely. Until recently EE and O2 were the only networks that did this, but on 29 May Three also introduced a term which means those upgrading or taking out new contracts after that date may be subject to the same increases each year.
Adjustments are made in line with figures published in February each year based on the Retail Prices Index (a measure of inflation). This year the RPI grew by 1.1% and both EE and O2 put up customers' monthly payments by the full 1.1% - EE on 26 Mar and O2 on 1 Apr. Any bill you received after those dates will have reflected the increase.
If you've switched providers recently, check whether you're owed cash
If you've switched mobile provider within the last six years and still had money remaining in your account when you left then it's possible to claim it back.
Many providers don't automatically refund credit when you leave, so it's worth checking. See our Reclaim Phone Credit guide for full details.
Some providers charge for voicemail services – deactivate this to avoid charges
Many assume voicemail is always free. Yet exceed your inclusive minutes or call from abroad and voicemail costs up to 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org as that’s usually quicker.