Best pay-as-you-go Sim deals

Including the top data bundles, from '£3.45/month' for 5GB

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

  • Concerned about a credit check or want a tighter control over your bill? A pay-as-you-go bundle is a good bet. Read on...
  • Happy to commit to a contract? Sim only generally offers better value.
  • Want a new phone? See our Cheap Mobile Finder tool.

What is a pay-as-you-go deal?

A pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deal, as the name suggests, means you pay upfront and are not tied into any contract or commitment. You'll also have to have your own handset to put the Sim (the little chip that slots into your phone and gives you your allowance of minutes, texts and data) into already, or buy one separately.

There's no credit check, which most of the top pick contract Sim only deals require, though these often offer better value.

  • How do you pay for a pay-as-you-go sim?

    Paying for a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) Sim is straightforward. With networks that offer them, you can usually request a free Sim via its website and once received, you simply top up the credit as needed. You can usually do this online, via phone, at a store, or through automatic top-up options.

    Remember, with PAYG, you're only paying for what you use, making it a flexible option.

  • What happens to any unused data you have left on your pay-as-you-go Sim?

    Your data allowance won’t refresh each month, you’ll just have a credit balance which you can use for calls, texts and data. When you run out, you'll need to buy more credit.

  • Can you get a free pay-as-you-go sim card?

    There are lots of options to get a PAYG Sim card with no upfront cost. You don’t need to buy the actual card, you just pay to add credit to it, and pay for top ups as and when you need them.

  • Can you get a pay-as-you-go sim with unlimited data?

    Unlimited data plans are more commonly associated with contract or monthly Sim deals, but some providers do offer pay-as-you-go options with unlimited data. These are usually called 'bundles' or 'data packs' and tend to only last 30 days or a month once purchased. Some examples include iD Mobile*, Three* and Vodafone*.

    However, these are less common and may come with certain restrictions or fair usage policies. It's essential to carefully read the terms and conditions to understand any limitations or additional charges that may apply.

    If unlimited data is a priority for you, and you need it for more than a month, it's worth shopping around and considering one-month rolling contracts which could be cheaper. With these, there's also no contract so you can cancel at any time.

Best PAYG bundles

These deals still have no contract but come loaded with a bundle of minutes, texts and data with your credit each month. 

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PAYG bundles – what we'd go for

For us, for general use, our blagged deal for a Lebara Sim (which uses the Vodafone network) with 5GB/month of data, unlimited minutes and texts stands out. It's equivalent to £3.45/month over 12-months, but it's a one-month contract, so you can cancel at any time.

Lebara* (Vodafone) 5GB Unltd Unltd Equivalent to £3.45/month over 12 months - it's £2/month for the first six months, then £4.90/month thereafter (1)
Spusu* (EE)  5GB Unltd Unltd Equivalent to £3.67/month over 12 months - it's £1/month for the first six months, then £5/month thereafter (1)
Smarty* (Three)
5GB Unltd Unltd £5/mth
Asda Mobile* (Vodafone) 3GB Unltd Unltd £5/mth
iD Mobile* (Three)
8GB Unltd Unltd £6/mth
Giffgaff* (O2)
2GB Unltd Unltd £6/mth
(1) It's a one-month Sim, but to help you compare, we calculate the equivalent cost over a 12-month period.

Best Sims for occasional/backup use

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

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For occasional/backup use – what we'd go for

If you want the cheapest PAYG Sim, then it's 1pMobile. It piggybacks off EE's network and it's 1p for each minute, every text and for each MB of data you use. However, you have to top up at least £10 every three months in order to keep it active, so if you only use your phone very rarely, it's probably not for you.

For those who just need a phone for temporary/emergency use or if EE isn't great in your area, then Three's PAYG Sim might be better for you. It's slightly more expensive than 1pMobile for each text and minute, but there's no minimum top-up requirement – though you do need to use it at least once every six months – so it could work out cheaper in the long run.

PROVIDER (network it uses) DATA
1pMobile* (EE)
Top pick
1p/MB 1p/min 1p Top up £10 every three months or you'll be disconnected.
iD Mobile* (Three) 1p/MB 3p/min 2p Top up £10 every two months or you might be disconnected.
RWG Mobile (EE) 1p/MB 5p/min 5p  
Lebara Mobile* (Vodafone) 9p/MB 25p/min 19p  
Three* 10p/MB 35p/min 15p It'll only work in 3G-compatible or later handsets.
Asda Mobile* (Vodafone) 10p/MB 15p/min 10p

Best for roaming abroad – incl the USA & Australia

Networks no longer have to guarantee free roaming in the European Union. However, some networks will let you use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data in all European Union countries (plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), although they could always change their approach in the future. Outside of the EU, some providers charge an eye-watering amount to use your phone and if you're not careful, your mobile bill could set you back more than your trip. So it's important you plan ahead of your trip.

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For roaming abroad – what we'd go for

Three is the standout when it comes to roaming. Get any PAYG Sim from Three and you'll be able to use your standard allowance in 71 destinations – 42 additional countries outside of the EU – including Australia and the USA.

You can either top-up and pay its standard rates of 35p/min, 15p/text and 10p/Mb, or if you plan to use your phone a lot while abroad, it might be worth getting a bundle. Its cheapest is £10 and currently gives 10GB data and unlimited minutes and texts for 30 days.

The beauty of this PAYG Three Sim is as you're not tied into a contract, you can keep your existing UK contract if you want and just use this Sim for use abroad – which is what we think it's best for. Just make sure you use the Sim in the UK at least once before you travel to fully activate it.

It's also worth checking if you can get an overseas bundle from your current network, as these can often work out cheaper than its standard rates and could be a good option if you don't want the hassle of another Sim just for your holiday – see our Cheap Roaming guide for more.

PAYG need-to-knows

Before you take out a pay-as-you-go deal, here are the key things to consider:

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

    Traditional PAYG – where you really do pay as you go. 

    This is the traditional model where you top up with credit and are then charged for each minute, text and MB of data as you use it. Though a couple of providers do this cheaply, it's generally only better as an emergency-use or backup Sim as it will get more expensive the more you use it. These are the top providers' rates:

    Traditional PAYG rates compared

    1pMobile* (EE) 1p/min 1p 1p/MB
    iD Mobile* (Three) 3p/min 2p 1p/MB
    Asda Mobile (Vodafone) 15p/min 10p 10p/MB
    Now Mobile (EE) 10p/min (1) 5p 1p/MB
    Three* 35p/min
    15p 10p/MB
    Giffgaff* (O2) 25p/min 10p 10p/MB
    Prices correct as of 14 February 2024. (1) 10p/min applies when calling a landline. If calling a mobile, it's 15p/min.

    PAYG 'bundles' – where you pay before you go, for a bundle of minutes, texts and data

    These bundles are best for those who use their phone a bit more regularly and nearly always last for a month, after which you'll need to buy another, or you can choose to automatically renew them each month. There are many bundles to choose from (see our top picks below or use our Cheap Mobile Finder tool).

    As a rough guide, here's what a tenner will get you:

    £10/mth PAYG bundles compared

    Giffgaff* Unltd Unltd 15GB
    Asda Mobile* Unltd Unltd 15GB
    Three (incl roaming) Unltd Unltd 10GB
    Vodafone* Unltd Unltd 8GB (1)
    O2* Unltd Unltd 8GB
    EE 500 mins Unltd
    Prices correct as of 14 February 2024. (1) You have to set it to auto-renew each month.

    Not sure how much data you use?

    It's important to understand how much you use on average each month so you don't overpay. In our last MSE data usage poll, 76% of the 3,500 respondents said they use less than 3GB of data a month, while only 9% of people use more than 10GB a month. Our handy Data Calculator in our Cheap Mobile Finder tool can help you calculate your use.

  • Our Cheap Mobile Finder allows you to compare traditional PAYG Sims against PAYG bundles, as well as contract Sim-only deals if you want, to help you find the best tariff for you.

    To do that, you need to know your average monthly usage and enter this into the filters that can be found on the results page.

    For example, if you entered into the filters that you use 50 minutes and 25 texts each month with no data, our tool calculates that 1pMobile would be the cheapest option, working out at 75p/mth on a traditional PAYG deal for that use.

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

    All the networks will now do this for free if your contract's minimum term has expired – however, if it hasn't, or you bought the phone on PAYG, they may charge up to £15. Unlocking usually takes up to 10 days – see the Mobile Unlocking guide for a full list of providers' unlocking policies and how to do it.

    Thankfully, by the end of this year mobile companies will be banned from selling locked phones which only work with their network. See our MSE news story for more details.

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

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

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

  • Switching to a cheaper deal with another network is really easy. Under rules from regulator Ofcom, which came into effect on 1 July 2019, you no longer have to call your current provider to ditch it, so you avoid the hard sell of it trying to make you stay. Here's how to switch providers and keep your number:

    • Request a switching code by text. Simply text 'PAC' for free to 65075 on any network and you'll be sent your 'porting authorisation code' (PAC) immediately via text so you can keep your number. To get a new number, text 'STAC' to 75075.

      Its text must include important info such as any exit penalties, outstanding handset costs or credit balances.

    • You need to give the switching code to your new provider within 30 days. You'll then be switched within one working day. You won't need to contact your old provider again.

    What's more, if you're out of your minimum contract period, mobile providers are now banned from charging you for the remainder of your notice period after you've switched (which is typically 30 days), putting an end to paying for your old and new contract at the same time. 

    If you're still in contract you could be charged early termination fees for leaving – check how much you'd be charged by sending a text with the word 'INFO' to 85075.

    Martin explains how to check if you're out of contract on your mobile and other mobile money saving tips
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    • Though the process varies by provider and you may be able to do it on the phone, once you've got your new (temporary) number from your new network, you'll usually then need to fill in an online form. If you're switching from another provider, the links below tell you each network's process for porting.

      The number switch takes place the next working day after you give your PAC to the new provider.

      It's a different process if you're swapping within the same provider.

      If you're switching to a new tariff on the same network, for example if you're on pay-as-you-go and upgrading to a contract, you shouldn't need to carry out this process – just call your mobile provider's customer service helpline and they should be able to sort it.

How to complain about your network

The mobile industry doesn't have the best customer service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include limited network coverage, slow data speeds, unexpected charges and more.

It's always worth trying to call your provider to sort the issue first, but if not then you can use free complaints tool Resolver. The tool helps you manage your complaint, and if the company doesn't play ball, it also helps you escalate your complaint to the free Ombudsman (or CISAS if you're complaining about Virgin Mobile or Sky Mobile).

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