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 pay-as-you-go 'bundles', giving a better value allowance and tighter control over your bill.
If that's what you're after – or even if you just want a back-up 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.
Best Pay-as-you-go deals
Is pay-as-you-go right for you? Before reading this guide...
- Concerned about a credit check or want a tighter control over your bill? A pay-as-you-go bundle is probably a good bet. Read on...
- Happy to commit to a contract? Sim only generally offers better value.
- Want a new phone but can't afford to buy it upfront? Traditional mobile contracts usually cost more – for other options, see Buying a new mobile.
'Traditional' PAYG or bundled PAYG?
While pay-upfront mobile deals which don't require a credit check 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 as you use it. Though a couple of providers do this cheaply, it's generally worse value so is better for an emergency-use or back-up Sim. These are the top providers' rates:
'Traditional' PAYG rates compared
Calls Texts Data O2* 3p/min 2p 1p/MB Three* 3p/min 2p 1p/MB Asda Mobile* 8p/min 4p 5p/MB Giffgaff* 15p/min 5p 5p/MB Vodafone* 30p/min 14p
EE* 35p/min 15p N/A2 1. For the first 50MB, 10p/MB thereafter. 2. Cannot pay for data as you go – must buy a 4G data add-on/pack. (Prices correct as of 28 Aug 2018)
PAYG 'bundles' – where you pay before you go, for a bundle. What tends to give better value is buying a bundle of minutes, texts and data with your credit once you've topped up. These bundles nearly always last for a month, after which you'll need to buy another. There are many to choose from (see our top picks below). As a rough guide, here's what a tenner will get you:
You'll need to have an unlocked phone – it's usually free to get it done
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.
Get the allowance you actually need
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 are two sites accredited by regulator Ofcom to choose from. Each will analyse your bills from the last three months to determine your average usage and suggest deals based on this.
- Billmonitor* works with customers of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. While it's not super user-friendly, it provides detailed bill analysis.
- Ctrlio will handily remind you when better deals at your usage become available (either monthly or just at the end of your contract). Currently it reads the bills of EE, Giffgaff, O2, Tesco Mobile, Three, TPO, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.
Signal strength can vary – check it in advance at home and work
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.
Switching from a contract? Serve your notice to leave ASAP
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).
You can keep your number – here's how
When you called up to hand in your notice, you should have been offered your PAC, which you'll need to keep your number when you move to a new network. But if you didn't get it then, you should still be able to call up and get it as long as your pre-existing contract hasn't been terminated yet.
Though the process varies depending on which firm you're moving to, once you've got your new (temporary) number from your new network you'll then need to fill in an online form. See full provider-by-provider help.
Follow the links below for info on how to port your number to each network:
The switch usually takes place the next working day after submitting your PAC.
If you're switching to a new tariff on the SAME network, you shouldn't need to carry out this process – simply call customer services and they should be able to sort it.
Pay-as-you-go top-pick Sims
Once you know which network(s) you're happy to go with and what allowance you need, find the best deal you can that fits with this.
Below we've listed our top-pick pay-as-you-go deals for different categories - occasional use, best PAYG bundles, and best for roaming. Because for some signal is the overriding factor, we've also listed the top alternatives for each of the other three main networks (or a network that piggybacks on it).
In all but the occasional use category, we've listed PAYG bundles rather than traditional PAYG tariffs, which tend to be more expensive – see Traditional vs bundled PAYG for more. If you can't find one of our top picks that matches your criteria, try using a comparison site such as MobilePhoneChecker*, HandsetExpert or Ctrlio.
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.
'True' pay-as-you-go: 3p/min, 2p/text, 1p/MB*
BEST FOR INFREQUENT OR EMERGENCY USE
The Classic Pay As You Go tariff from O2* does what it says on the tin – it's a simple and cheap tariff, charging on a purely pay-as-you-go basis - it's a good deal for occasional mobile users.
This tariff has the same rates as Three for UK minutes, UK texts and per MB data, however the O2 Sim can also be used in 2G-compatible phones - so the most basic of phones.
O2 also gives 5% credit per top-up back for the first three months, increasing to 10% after six months via its Rewards scheme - but you must opt in.
How much is it? Top up online with £10 minimum and it costs 3p/min for calls, 2p/text and 1p/MB for data (Plus 5-10% credit back after each top-up).
You'll lose credit after six months if you don't use it – but use your phone occasionally and it'll stay on permanently.
If you can't get O2 signal where you live...
These are the best of the rest:
- 1pMobile (piggybacks on EE): 1p/min, 1p/text, 1p/MB. However you must top up at least £10 every four months or you will be disconnected, so this is only suited if you'll top up by a minimum of £30/year.
- Three*: 3p/min, 2p/text, 1p/MB. It'll only work in 3G-compatible or later handsets, so older non-smartphones are a no-no.
- Lebara Mobile* (piggybacks on Vodafone): 12p/min, 19p/min mobiles, 19p/text, 9p/MB, 3G-only.
These deals still have no contract but come loaded with a bundle of minutes, texts and data with your credit each month. These are our current top picks...
Unltd mins, texts: £5/mth + data at £1.25/GB*
CREDIT FOR UNUSED DATA
These pay-upfront deals from Smarty* (owned by and uses the Three network) gives you unlimited minutes and texts for £5/mth and charges £1.25 per GB on top. It has three plans which you can move between, plus you can add more you're refunded for any data you haven't used at the end of the month anyway, so you'll never pay for more than you use. It's applied as a credit to discount your next plan - paid at 1p per 8MB/ £1.25 per 1GB.
For example, use no data this month and your next month would cost £5, use 1GB and it's £6.25. Equally if you want to buy more data, it again charges the same rates - so £1.25 per GB - which you can add on via your online account.
- Runs off the Three network.
- Bundles last 30-days.
- Out-of-bundle charges are £1.25/GB - you can add this on via your online account.
- No credit check.
- Tethering is permitted.
- Calls to UK mobiles, landlines and 0800/0808 are included – 09 numbers are blocked.
- You'll need to buy a cash add-on (from £5) for roaming, calling international numbers or those starting 084, 087, 118 and 101.
- If you're switching from another network, here's how to port (ie, move) your number to Smarty.
If you can't get Three signal where you live...
These are some other cheap tariffs on other networks:
Up to 2GB
- Asda Mobile*: (piggybacks on EE) 300 mins, unltd texts, 1GB - £7/mth.
- Giffgaff* (piggybacks on O2): 250 mins, unltd texts, 2GB – £7.50/mth.
- Lebara Mobile* (piggybacks on Vodafone): 1,000 mins, 100 texts, 2GB (3G) – £10/mth.
Up to 4GB
- Giffgaff* (piggybacks off O2): 500 mins, unltd texts, 3GB - £10/mth.
- Asda Mobile*: (piggybacks on EE) 800 mins, unltd texts, 3GB - £12/mth.
- Lebara Mobile* (piggybacks on Vodafone): Unltd mins, 100 texts, 4GB (3G) – £15/mth.
Up to 8GB
- Giffgaff*: (Piggybacks on O2) 1000 mins, unltd texts, 8GB - £15/mth.
- Vodafone*: 1,000 mins, unltd texts, 6GB – £20/mth.
- Asda Mobile* (Piggybacks on EE): 1,000 mins, unltd texts, 5GB – £15/mth.
Unltd mins, texts and 6GB: £10/mth*
UNDER 30 ONLY
Until Sat 17 Nov, this deal for new customers to Voxi* (owned by and uses Vodafone's network) gives unlimited minutes, texts and 6GB of general use data for £10/mth - for anyone 30 or under.
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.
You can add on a video pass for an additional £7/mth and/or a music pass for £5/mth. This gives you unlimited data to stream or download using additional apps such as Netflix, Spotify and Apple Music. Full list of included apps here. Note: Only the data is covered for each app - you still need to pay to access any apps where a subscription is required, i.e Netflix.
Warning: There is a big catch though - the unlimited data is only available when you have general use data left.
- Read our full analysis here.
- Runs off the Vodafone network.
- Out-of-bundle charges are 30p/min, 14p/text. If you run out of data you can pay £3 for 1GB.
- No credit check.
- Tethering is permitted on some devices - full info here.
- Use up your monthly allowance and the endless data ends.
- At the end of the 30 days you will lose any unused allowances.
Those on Three's 'Advanced' contracts get to use their allowance for free in 71 countries and territories including the US, Australia and most of Europe. However, pay-as-you-go users who convert their credit into a bundle can get the same benefit.
This is the perfect trick for the occasional trip abroad, if you're heading to one of the covered countries. Alternatively, if you go away often enough it might be worth getting a more generous bundle and paying for it every month.
Roam for free in 71 destinations*
FOR THE ODD TRIP ABROAD
Here's how to get yourself free roaming in 71 countries and territories without tying yourself into a contract with Three:
Order a free PAYG Sim from the Three* website – it'll work in any unlocked 3G or 4G phone. You can also buy one in store – it normally costs £1, but the fee's waived if you top up at the same time (£10 minimum).
You'll then need to use your credit to buy a Three add-on* bundle of calls, texts and data. To do this, log in to your 'My 3' account or call 333 using your new Sim. Bundles range from £5 to £25 – here are a few examples:
- 3,000 'Three to Three' mins only OR 3,000 texts only OR 500MB data only, for £5/mth
- 3,000 mins, 3,000 texts, 1GB data for £10/mth
- 3,000 mins, 3,000 texts, 12GB data for £20/mth
- Your Sim should already be activated for international roaming, so Feel At Home should work automatically when you arrive in any of the countries covered. You'll be able to use the allowance in your add-on in the same way as in the UK.
Add-ons and their allowances last 30 days. Any leftover credit not used towards a bundle expires after six months if you don't use it.
For more information about Feel At Home and how it works, including its restrictions, see Cheap Mobile Roaming.
Other roaming Sim deals
It's possible to get Sims with other networks that include roaming allowances, but they're generally not very competitive. For more tips on how to cut the cost of using your mobile abroad, see our Cheap Mobile and Data Roaming guide.
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 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.
Important: if your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org as that's usually quicker.
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Before you take out a pay-as-you-go deal, here are the key things to consider: