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Cheap Prepaid Gas & Elec

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Sally | Edited by Martin

Updated May 2016

If you have a prepaid gas or electric meter, your options are finally getting better. All the big six energy firms now let many switch to a credit meter for free, and if you can't switch, there are now a few cheaper deals available that help you save.

Prepayment meters are electricity and gas meters that let you pay for your energy on a pay-as-you-go basis. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, around four million UK homes have them.

You top up via a key or card, which you can credit at newsagents, post offices, garages, or sometimes online. While they can help to budget, you usually end up paying more for energy. This guide shows you how to switch to a credit meter or switch energy supplier to save £100s.

Can you switch to a credit meter?

The very cheapest energy tariffs are online deals for those who have credit meters – in other words, standard 'billed' meters. They measure your usage, then you receive a bill or pay by direct debit afterwards, rather than paying in advance.

Typical average prepay meter cost: £1,137 Typical cheapest prepay meter cost: £1,018 Typical cheap credit meter cost: £744
Correct at May 2016. Based on average consumption for a typical house using a 'medium' amount of energy.

Standard meters offer a wider choice of tariffs, including cheap online deals, direct debit discounts and more. It's simply a more competitive marketplace.

Choices are opening up for prepay users, but it's still an outrage that some of society's poorest often pay more for their energy with these meters. So if you can, ditch and switch to a credit meter – usually this involves a credit check and ensuring you've repaid any debt owed to the supplier.

How to switch to a credit meter if you're with a big six supplier, or others that don't charge

In April 2016, Npower became the last of the big six suppliers to remove a fee for switching from a prepayment meter to a billed meter. That means if you're with it, British Gas, EDF, E.on, Scottish Power or SSE, you can move without being charged.

Some smaller providers such as First Utility also let you get a credit meter for free, though a number of them don't (see below), so always check first.

  • Will they allow you to switch?

    To move off prepay you'll usually need to have paid any outstanding debt on your energy account and be credit-scored, so they can see if there's a risk you won't repay.

    All of the big six suppliers' criteria are detailed in the table below. If you're not with one of the big six, check your supplier's criteria.

    Supplier Eligibility criteria to switch to a credit meter Type of credit check (1)
    British Gas An account review and credit check. You can't be in debt with British Gas, or have had a debt in the last 12 months at your current/previous address. Hard check
    EDF No credit check, but you must repay any outstanding debt first, at least three months before requesting to switch meters. None
    E.On A credit check. Hard check
    Npower You need to have a good repayment history (or build one up for between six and 12 months), and can't be in debt on your account. Hard check
    Scottish Power Your account history is reviewed to ensure you won't build up debt. A credit check may be done. It may ask for a £150 deposit which will be returned in 12 months. Hard check
    Scottish & Southern Energy A credit check. Soft check
    Correct at Apr 2016. (1) A hard check leaves a footprint meaning lenders can see it if they search your credit file. A soft search is only visible to you.
  • If they let you change, don't then stick with that provider – the real savings come from doing a comparison

    If your provider allows you to switch to a billed meter, suddenly a world of competition and cheap prices is available to you that wasn't before.

    The cheapest prepaid tariff is £270/yr more expensive than the cheapest billed tariff on the same usage, so here are the two things you need to know once you've a billed meter:

    - There are massive price differences, so do a comparison.
    You'll be put on a standard tariff when you move to a billed meter which is still costly, so do a Cheap Energy Club quick & easy comparison to find and switch to your cheapest. Even if you don't want to switch firm, ask your new company to put you on its cheapest tariff.
    - Pay by monthly direct debit. The cheapest way to pay is monthly direct debit, so ensure you select that. You'll have to give your supplier regular meter readings (every few months) to keep it accurate though.

  • What if you're unlikely to be able to switch to a credit meter?

    Don't just give up – there are still things you can do, both to save now and to help switch in future.

    - Move to the cheapest prepayment tariff.
    Savings aren't as big here, but the cheapest deals will still save you over £100/yr on typical usage. So do a quick prepay energy comparison and switch to your cheapest. See below for our top picks and how to compare tariffs.
    - (Re)build your credit history. With many providers, the key is ensuring you're free of energy debt. After that, it's also important to make your credit score look as good as possible – see the 35 ways to boost your credit score guide for more help.

How to switch to a credit meter if you're with a supplier that charges you to do so

SwitchSome smaller suppliers, including Extra Energy and Green Star, do still charge for a credit meter to be installed – it can be as much as £140. And even if some don't charge you to get a meter, they may do if you get one then switch away after that. So here's what you do...

  • If it's likely you can move, switch to a prepay provider that'll give you a free billed meter

    Why pay when you can get it for free? The first thing to do is switch to a provider that will let you move to a billed meter for free when you ask.

    The main ones that do this are British Gas, EDF, E.on, First Utility, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE. However, if you're doing it you may as well do a prepay energy comparison to find the cheapest of those, plus you can also earn up to £30 cashback for switching.

    Once the tariff switch is complete, you may need to wait a few months to build up your payment history (another reason doing a prepay comparison first is important), then follow the Switching to a free billed meter info above.

  • What if you're unlikely to be able to switch to a credit meter?

    Don't just give up – there are still things you can do, both to save now and to help switch in future.

    - Move to the cheapest prepayment tariff.
    Savings aren't as big here, but the cheapest deals will still save you over £100/yr on typical usage. So do a quick prepay energy comparison and switch to your cheapest – see below for our top picks and how to compare tariffs.
    - (Re)build your credit history. With many providers, the key is ensuring you're free of energy debt. After that, it's also important to make your credit score look as good as possible – see the 35 ways to boost your credit score guide for more help.

Quick questions

Will I have to pay for the meter if I change supplier after getting a credit meter?

What's to stop me getting into debt on a credit meter?

Is it worth paying for a credit meter?

Receive benefits or have a medical condition? You may be able to switch via alternative methods

Never had a credit meter before? Quick tips

Credit meters are usually cheaper than prepayment meters, but it takes more effort to stay on top of bills. When you switch over, make sure you do the following:

Once you've switched, ensure you're on the cheapest tariff

Every time you receive a bill, do a meter reading

Paying by direct debit is much cheaper

If you're struggling to pay, speak to your provider

Renting? You'll need your landlord's permission to switch meter

If you want to change from a prepay to a credit meter, then it's best to get written permission from your landlord first.

This is because it could be seen as changing the property from its original condition, unless you arrange to change the meter back at the end of the tenancy. The supplier may charge to do this so check first.

But you can still (probably) switch energy supplier...

You should check your tenancy agreement to see what it says about switching utility suppliers. But even if your contract bans it, Ofgem's guidance states that if you pay the energy bill, you're still entitled to change supplier (check your tenancy agreement too – though if it says you can't switch, challenge it).

You don't need to get permission from your landlord to do this, but it's a good idea to let them know in writing so they're aware as it will impact future tenants.

If you move in to a new home and want to know 'who supplies my gas?', check with your landlord. The property may already be supplied on a more expensive, standard tariff. You can still compare on Cheap Energy Club, even without the former occupants' bills.

Moving in to a new home? Check with the landlord

We'd love to hear your experiences of switching as a renter on the Switching when renting forum discussion, especially if you've challenged your landlord.

Tenants can also print out our factsheet to give to landlords. It explains the rights that renters have to switch energy supplier, but in the meantime here are some pointers...

My tenancy agreement says I can't switch, help!

Landlord says you can't ditch supplier? Try a cheaper tariff

You may be eligible for free insulation or a free boiler

Can't get a credit meter? You can still switch supplier and save £100+

Just switching prepay tariffs won't be as lucrative as switching to a credit meter, but if getting one isn't an option for you, many can still cut £100+/yr off their energy bills.

A recent report from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) confirmed plans to introduce a temporary price cap on prepaid tariffs for 2017 to 2020. This cap – a maximum rate suppliers will be able to charge – is expected to reduce the bills of 4 million households by an average of around £75 a year.

But there's no need to wait – do a quick prepay comparison now (for a full how-to, see below) and as long as your energy debt isn't over £500 you'll be allowed to change tariffs and save some money on your annual bills.

OUR TOP PICKS (based on typical usage)
Remember! These are average prices. Always do a comparison.
  Supplier Fixed for/until Exit fee Cost/year Service feedback (1)
Typical big six standard prepay tariff - - - £1,137 -
One-year prepay fix iSupply 1 year fixed 1 year None £1,018 Limited - only 28 votes
17-month fix with decent customer service EDF Blue+ Fixed Oct 2017 Oct 17 None £1,037 63% great
13% poor
Cheap with good service BUT not fixed Ovo Energy Smart PAYG* Variable None £1,047 88% great
4% poor
Cheap non-prepay tariff (2) Sainsbury's Energy 1yr fix June 17 £30/fuel £750 (3) 43% great
20% poor
Correct June 2016. All tariffs assume Ofgem medium usage. Varies by region. (1) For each firm, not tariff, based on MSE poll of 4,872 people, May 2016. (2) Full options in Cheap Gas & Elec. (3) Monthly direct debit.

In addition to being one of the cheapest prepay tariffs on the market right now, Ovo's Smart PAYG tariff comes with a smart meter and access to its free Smart PAYG app (iPhone and Android), which allows top-ups via it.

You can also top-up online and by text, and it allows you to set automatic top-ups if your credit falls below a certain limit. See the Ovo Energy PAYG app MSE news story for details.

How to compare prepay tariffs (and also grab cashback)

You can switch and save on prepaid gas or electric meters. Our Cheap Energy Club tool makes switching as easy as possible and helps you get constantly cheap gas and electricity.

Cheap Energy Club

All you need to do is tell it where you live and how much energy you use. Then we'll tell you if you're overpaying on your current deal or if there's a cheaper alternative.

But the best bit is we'll keep monitoring your tariff for you every month to ensure you're always on the best deal. Plus if we can switch you, you'll usually get £30 cashback.

It's also worth checking out the comparisons below – they offer cashback options too.

The limitations of comparison sites – they don't always show all tariffs

Bear in mind that some comparison sites by default only show you tariffs you can switch to via them (ie, where they're paid commission). This filters out some results unlike Cheap Energy Club which shows you ALL those available by default and always has done.

If you do use a comparison site always check you're seeing all available tariffs to get the full picture before making a decision. Since March 2015, comparison sites covered by Ofgem's Confidence Code must show all available tariffs by default, making this much easier – you can check what sites are covered.

  • EnergyHelpline Overall top comparison service. £34 cashback per switch.

    Energyhelpline* has a history of good reliability and good feedback on our forum. It pays £17 cashback per fuel per switch if you do it online.

  • Alternative top picks for freebies. £30 cash, £35-40 wine.

    For a dual fuel switch – getting gas and electricity from one provider – you can get bigger freebies (one per household). Yet don't assume dual fuel is always cheapest. Check whether getting separate gas and electricity can undercut it, as it often can.

    - £30 cashback: MoneySupermarket*
    - 6 bottles of wine (worth c. £40): uSwitch*

By specifically clicking via these special MoneySavingExpert.com links to get to the comparison sites and not going direct, you also get paid the cashback or freebies on top, provided they can switch you (see why they pay). It's usually paid in 45-90 days.

If you've less than £500 debt per fuel, you can still switch supplier. This debt will follow you to the new supplier.

Latest price changes

Last year suppliers hiked prices, then subsequently trimmed them – and this year providers are further cutting prices.

See full info on recent energy hikes and cuts

Use your prepay meter the right way

If you can't switch away from a prepay meter to save cash, then these tips will help you make sure you use your prepay meter in the right way. Here are a few top tips:

  • RadiatorUse less energy

    It's not just who you pay, but how much you use. Cutting energy is a mix of big and little things.

    Turn down the thermostat and wear jumpers, turn lights off when you leave a room, use energy-saving light bulbs, defrost the fridge and check it's not on too high, don't leave electrical goods on standby.

    For more info, read the Energy Saving Hunt discussion and see the Energy Saving Trust website.

  • Don't use emergency credit too often

    Most suppliers provide around £6-10 emergency credit after your top-up runs out. But when you dip into the emergency credit it doesn't charge you the standing charge (the fixed charge you pay daily just to be connected), so the next time you top up you have to play catch-up, which can throw your budgeting out.

  • Going away? Make sure you top up enough

    If you're going away, you need to leave enough credit on the meter to cover the daily standing charge, even if usage will be low. Otherwise you may find your credit runs out and appliances switch off while you're gone.

  • Moved house? Tell your supplier immediately

    If you've moved into a home with a prepayment meter, tell the existing supplier immediately and don't use the old tenant's top-up card.

    Otherwise you may end up having to pay someone else's debt just to get an energy supply. The supplier must, under a code of conduct, reset the meter as soon as reasonably possible.

  • Ignore doorstep sellers

    There have been previous scams involving doorstep sellers selling fraudulent top-up cards. The cards were normally sold in £50 denominations for the price of £25. They didn't work so it was totally wasted cash.

  • Top up before price hikes

    This depends on your provider. But when British Gas, for example, last hiked prices, the price charged by the meter didn't increase until the first time you topped up after the hike. Anything used before that first top-up was charged at the old rate. As there is usually a maximum top-up, the benefit of this will be limited.

  • Keep your card safe

    Lose your card and you'll usually be charged around £10 for a replacement. Any top-ups you've already made should be transferred to the new card (though EDF doesn't do this).

Check if you can get a £140 discount

Energy suppliers are obliged to help those in hardship. One way they do it is by providing the Warm Home Discount. Essentially it's a £140 discount on your electricity bill, although the deadline has passed for this winter so it won't be available until winter 2016/17.

Warm Home Discount - GovUk

The overall scheme requires suppliers, by law, to help vulnerable customers pay for energy. It's available for customers who receive pension credit, so if this applies to you and you've a prepay meter, you can get it too. The final decision rests with suppliers – so call up and find out what your supplier will offer you.

For full help on getting free cash to help pay utility arrears, or freebies to cut energy bills, see our Housing and Energy Grants guide.

How to complain about your energy provider

The energy industry isn't known for having great customer service across the board, and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common prepay problems include faulty cards, incorrect bills 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 to help people get complaints justice.

If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will escalate it to the free Ombudsman Services.