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5 August 2020
When you hear 'pay-as-you-go', you might think of the early days of mobiles, when it was common to pay upfront for each pricey call and text. But now it's possible to get great value PAYG 'bundles', giving a better value allowance and tighter control over your bill.
A Sim is the little chip that slots into your phone and gives you a set monthly allowance of minutes, texts and data. A pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deal, as the name suggests, means you pay upfront and are not tied in to any contract or commitment. You'll also have to have your own handset to put the Sim into already, or buy one separately.
There's no credit check, which most of our top pick Sim only deals require, though these often offer better value.
There are two main types, 'traditional PAYG' where you buy credit and pay for calls, texts and data as you use them and bundled PAYG which gets you an allowance for a set price, which usually lasts a month.
If that's what you're after – or even if you just want a backup Sim for occasional use – then here you'll find all you need to know about pay-as-you-go, including where to find the best deals and our own top picks.
If you have an existing handset which you originally bought on a traditional contract, it may be locked to the network that sold it to you (to check, just pop in another network's Sim). If so, you'll need to get it unlocked in order to make sure your new provider's Sim will work in it.
All the networks will now do this for free if your contract's minimum term has expired – however, if it hasn't, or you bought the phone on PAYG, they may charge up to £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.
Don't be sold on overly generous allowances that you'll never use. Do you really need unlimited minutes or 6GB of data? Most don't use anywhere near that – check your actual past usage with an online tool.
There is a tool accredited by regulator Ofcom that will analyse your bills from the last three months to determine your average usage and suggest deals based on this:
Billmonitor* is a tool that is accredited by Ofcom that will analyse your bills from the last three months to determine your average usage and suggest deals based on this.
It works for customers of EE, O2, Tesco Mobile, Three and Vodafone. It's not the most user-friendly site, but it gives a detailed bill analysis.
You can get an idea of signal strength in a particular area with Ofcom's Telecoms Coverage Checker. This'll show you results for the four main networks – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Don't just put your home address in either – check where you work and anywhere else you want to be sure of getting good reception.
Many other smaller mobile providers 'piggyback' off these networks, using their signal, and they can better offer better value – the signal's the same so you can still check in advance using Ofcom's tool. See a full list of which provider is on which network in our Mobile Piggybacking guide.
For a more accurate indication than Ofcom's checker can give you, it may be worth picking up a free pay-as-you-go Sim from the network you're considering, topping it up with a bit of credit and putting it to the test before committing.
Most contracts require at least 30 days' notice to cancel, meaning as a minimum you'll have to pay for this many days once you tell your provider you're leaving. Plans roll over at the same price, and if yours came with a handset this could be £50+/month – so you don't want to be paying for it any longer than necessary.
The first thing you want to do before even looking for a new deal is call up, tell 'em you want to leave and request your PAC (porting authorisation code) to keep your number. Then use the 30-day notice period to find yourself a new deal while the clock ticks down.
If you change your mind within that time you can always tell your network that you've decided to stay – plus it's more likely to get in touch with a better deal once it thinks you're serious about leaving (always do your homework before agreeing to anything it offers though).
Switching to a cheaper deal with another network has got a lot easier. Under new rules from regulator Ofcom, which came into effect on 1 July, 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 :
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.
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.
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.
If you want the absolute 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 four 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.
These deals still have no contract but come loaded with a bundle of minutes, texts and data with your credit each month.
For us, for general use it has to be the Lebara 2GB Sim for £5/mth, which comes with unlimited mins and texts. It's a one-month rolling contract and runs off the Vodafone network. You'll get a decent data allowance that's enough for most, plus you can cancel anytime if you find it's not for you.
If you know Vodafone isn't good in your area or you need more data, then there's the 30GB Sim from Smarty, which is powered by Three. You get 30GB of data and unlimited minutes and texts for just £10/mth on a one-month contract, so you can cancel at anytime.
|Lebara* (Vodafone) – top pick
|Smarty* (Three) – top pick||30GB||Unltd||Unltd||£10/mth|
|Asda Mobile* (EE)||7GB||600||Unltd||£10/mth|
|Voxi* (Vodafone)||15GB (2)||Unltd||Unltd||£15/mth|
|Smarty* (Three)||Unltd||Unltd||Unltd||£18/mth (3)|
|(1) Usually 3GB/mth but until Wed 16 Sep, if you choose to opt to auto renew each month, you'll get 15GB/mth. (2) All Voxi plans also offer unlimited data for social and chat apps as standard – so any data used by apps such as Instagram or Facebook won't be taken from your allowance – provided you have 'general use' data left. (3) Available until 11.59pm Thu 30 July.|
Networks have to allow you to use your UK allowance of minutes, texts and data in all European Union countries, and despite Britain leaving the EU on 31 January 2020, these rules will still apply during the transition period, which lasts until 31 December 2020. However, 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.
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 10p/min, 10p/text and 5p/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 gives 4GB 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.
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…
This tool helps you draft and manage your complaint. It's totally free to use, and it's offered by Resolver, a firm we work with to help people get complaints justice.