Best Pay-as-you-go Sim Deals
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.
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.
What is a Pay-as-you-go deal?
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 checks, 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.
- '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
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* 20p/min 20p
EE* 35p/min 15p N/A2 1. With Vodafone's 'Pay as you go 1' offering, if you spend £1 in a day, you then get unlimited mins, texts and 500MB of data to use until midnight. 2. Cannot pay for data as you go – must buy a 4G data add-on/pack. (Prices correct as of 19 Mar 2019)
- 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:
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 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.
- Billmonitor* works with customers of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. While it's not super user-friendly, it provides 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).
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.
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* or HandsetExpert.
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.
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, though make sure to send at least one text or make a call once every six months to keep it active.
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.
Cost: 3p/min, 2p/text, 1p/MB
Minimum top-up?: £10
Bonus features: 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*
In addition to calls within the UK to landlines and mobiles, calls from the following countries & territories will also cost 3p/min:
Austria, The Azores, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canary Islands, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French Guiana, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guadeloupe, Guernsey, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Martinique, Mayotte, Monaco, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Reunion, Romania, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Vatican City.So if you're on holiday in Italy and want to phone the restaurant down the road from your hotel, you'll only need to pay 3p/min.However, be aware that calls from the UK to numbers in these 'Europe Zone' countries will be charged as international calls and will cost you more than 3p/min - see the full list of charges.
Provided your account remains active, your credit will stay on your account permanently. To do this, you'll need to top up at least once or make a call/ send a text every six months, otherwise you will be disconnected and any remaining credit would be lost.
If, you're disconnected but you want to continue using O2's pay-as-you-go package, you’ll be given a new number.
While there's a standard charge of 2p/text within the UK and O2's 'Europe Zone' countries (see 'Included numbers' above), sending a message to multiple recipients will cost you 45p/text.
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): 19p/min, 19p/text, 9p/MB.
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. These are our current top picks...
This deal for new customers to Voxi* gives unlimited minutes, texts and 8GB of general use data for £10/mth.
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.
Allowance: Unlimited mins and texts + 8GB of 'general use' data. 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. Warning: There is a big catch though - the unlimited data is only available when you have general use data left
Network: Voxi (owned by and uses Vodafone's network)
Who can get it: New customers to Voxi
If you're switching from another network, you can 'port' over (transfer) your number to Voxi. First you need to ask your network for a porting authorisation code (or PAC code) , which gives Voxi permission to move your number over onto their network.
Then you need to sign into your online Voxi customer account and go to the 'transfer number' section. You'll then be asked to enter the PAC code and choose a date to move your number over to your new Sim.
If you run out of data you can pay £3 for 1GB. 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.
Numbers included in calls: Calls to UK mobiles, landlines and 0800/0808 are included – calls to numbers starting 084, 087, 09 or 118 cost extra.
This pay-upfront deal from Smarty* gives newbies 4GB of data, and you can add more if you need it – each extra 1GB costs £1.25/mth.
You're also credited for any data you don't use, paid at the same rate and used to discount your next month.
Allowance: 4GB data, unlimited mins & texts. Each plan lasts for 30 days
Network: Smarty (owned by and uses the Three network)
Minimum top-up?: You pay upfront each month. You're also credited for any data you haven't used at the end of the month, so you'll never pay for more than you use
There are four plans you can start on which provide more data as standard per month:
Though if you want more data, you can buy more online at a cost of £1.25 per GB - the same rate as if you'd have opted for an above bundle.
No matter your plan, if you don't end up using all the data for that month you'll get the value of it back (1p per 8MB/£1.25 per 1GB) applied as a credit against your next bill. . For example, use no data this month and your next month would cost £5, use 1GB and it's £6.25.
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.
Tethering is permitted.You can use your Smarty plan as normal when you're abroad in most of Europe, including any EU country, Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein & Iceland. A full list of included countries & territories in Europe is here. If you're travelling outside Europe you'll need to buy add-ons for data, calls and texts.
Your basic monthly price could change each year in line with inflation. You won't be credit-checked.
The best of the rest...
These are some other cheap tariffs on other networks:
Up to 2GB
- Asda Mobile*: (piggybacks on EE) 1GB data + 300 mins & unlimited texts - £7/mth.
- Giffgaff* (piggybacks on O2): 2GB data + 500 mins & unlimited texts – £8/mth.
- Lebara Mobile* (piggybacks on Vodafone): 3GB data + unlimited mins & 1,000 texts – £10/mth.
Up to 4GB
- Giffgaff* (piggybacks on O2): 3GB data + unlimited mins & texts - £10/mth.
- Asda Mobile* (piggybacks on EE): 4GB data + 800 mins & unlimited texts – £10/mth.
- Lebara Mobile* (piggybacks on Vodafone): 5GB data + unlimited mins & 5,000 texts – £15/mth.
Up to 8GB
Roaming abroad- inc US, Australia & Europe
Those on a Three contract 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 can get the same benefit by buying a bundle.
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.
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.
Cost: Between £10 and £35 a month - depending on the bundle you choose
Allowance: You can choose from a few Three add-ons* - including:
- 2GB data, unlimited minutes and texts for £10/mth
- 5GB data, unlimited minutes and texts for £15/mth
- 12GB data, unlimited minutes and texts for £20/mth
Your PAYG Sim should already be activated for international roaming, so Three's 'Go Roam' function 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.
To see if a country you wish to visit is covered by Three's Go Roam service, use the Go Roam destination search on Three's website. For more information about Go Roam and how it works, including its restrictions, see Cheap Mobile Roaming.
You can use tethering in any one of Three's 'Go Roam in Europe' destinations, but not in any other destinations.
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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