Many have only ever bought a mobile phone on a traditional contract – where you pay monthly, and the cost of the handset is bundled in with minutes, texts and data. Sadly, this is rarely the cheapest option – though they offer a low upfront cost and some can be cracking value, if you know what you're doing.
This guide is here to help you navigate the sticky world of mobile phone contracts, including how to choose the right tariff, where to find the best deals and tips for making the process go smoothly.
14 mobile contract tips, including...
Contracts usually aren't the cheapest way
Traditional mobile contracts – deals that bundle in the cost of a handset with the monthly payment for service – are the default way many pay for their phone. But sadly, the cost of these is often massively inflated. In fact, when we crunched the numbers in May 2016, we found in some cases it was cheaper to get a 30% APR loan than a handset on a contract.
So if you want a new phone, consider carefully whether a contract's really right for you. In most cases you're better off buying the phone yourself and pairing it with a cheap Sim-only or PAYG deal (where you just pay for your allowance). Many shy away from forking out £100s upfront, but it's possible to get specific mobile financing – this can often undercut buying via a contract, and in some cases is at 0%.
For your options in full and the pros and cons, see Buying a new mobile. But if you're dead set on a contract, there are some good deals out there – read on.
If you already pay for your mobile on a contract and you're outside your minimum term, STOP! You're effectively repaying for a handset you've already bought.
Once your contract's up, then you've a choice. If you're happy with your existing handset, you can switch to a cheap Sim-only deal or a pay-as-you-go tariff, or haggle a better deal. Either way, you should be able to slash your monthly bill.
Use a tool to work out what allowance you 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 three 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, Tesco Mobile, Three and Vodafone. It's not quite as user-friendly as MobilePhoneChecker (below), though it gives a more detailed bill analysis.
- MobilePhoneChecker*, though not as thorough as Billmonitor, works with more networks – the big four (bar Vodafone), plus BT Mobile, Giffgaff, iD Mobile, TalkMobile, Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile.
- Ctrlio will handily remind you when better deals at your usage become available (either monthly or just at the end of your contract), though currently it can only read the bills of Three, EE, O2 and Giffgaff.
MobilePhoneChecker and Ctrlio are also our top pick comparison sites, for when you're ready to locate the best deal.
Don't fall for the hard sell in-store – scour the top deals with a comparison site
Mobile tariffs are fiendishly difficult to compare, what with the combination of varying upfront and monthly costs, different allowances and the wide range of handsets to choose from.
Never feel pressured into signing a contract by a pushy salesman – always do your research online first. The easiest way is to use a comparison site. These list a wide range of deals both direct from the networks, and those on resellers' sites (middlemen who sell on networks' plans at reduced rates – think Carphone Warehouse).
Check comparison sites in the following order (and if you have time, check 'em all)::
Ctrlio also covers deals that include cashback, though doesn't show this in its calculations, which is less useful. It also doesn't have as many filters, but sometimes throws up the best tariffs.
- Occasionally the reseller sites may offer slightly different tariffs not available elsewhere, so if you want to be really thorough it's worth checking these too.
Avoid the upgrade trap – do your homework
As your mobile phone contract comes to the end of its minimum term, you'll usually be hounded by your provider, who'll try every trick in the book to get you to upgrade to a new handset – and lock in to a new tariff to pay for it.
It's easy to be lured by the promise of a 'great deal', free of the 'hassle' involved in finding a new contract and switching network. The sad fact is though that for most, you'll be paying over the odds if you fall into this trap. Instead, you're better off seeing what else is out there.
That's not to say you can't get a competitive offer out of your current network though, particularly if you're happy to stick with your existing handset. Swot up on the best rival deals out there using a comparison site and then get haggling.
Do you really need the latest handset?
If you're choosing a new handset, don't be sucked in by the hype. There are lots of options out there other than the (very pricey) latest iPhone or Samsung.
If you do want an iPhone or Samsung, consider going for an older iteration – these tend to go for much. You can see a roundup of the specs of popular iPhone and Samsung handsets in our guides, including the previous years' models. Or consider another make entirely – carry out your own in-depth research on review sites like CNET with its in-depth smartphone buying guide.
It's also worth considering a refurbished model. These are often handsets that have been returned by customers and have put back into full working order, often by the manufacturer, but go for a good chunk less than brand new. See full info and top picks in the Refurbished Mobiles guide.
Prices on many tariffs can rise each year – even mid-contract
Mobile networks are permitted to increase your monthly tariff price by up to the rate of inflation each year, but only if their T&Cs state so before you sign up. Sadly all the major networks bar Tesco Mobile have such terms – EE, O2, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.
Changes are made in accordance with the Retail Prices Index (a measure of inflation) in February/March each year, though occasionally some firms will choose not to exercise this right. See Inflationary costs help for more.
If a provider hikes your monthly bill by more than RPI though – or hikes it at all if its T&Cs don't allow it – then you can leave your contract penalty-free.
Make a note to call when your contract ends
Because they bundle in a handset, mobile contracts typically have high monthly costs going up to as much as £50 or £60 a month. Yet once you reach your 'minimum term' (the end of your contract) the payments don't necessarily stop automatically – you may find the contract rolls over and you're effectively paying again for a phone you already own.
Even though you're free to leave your contract or switch to a Sim-only deal at that point, in many cases unless you call to let your network know you want to do this, you'll keep getting charged.
So as soon as you sign up, diarise to do this one month before the contract ends (you still have to give 30 days' notice even if you're out of contract), to make sure you're not paying the high monthly cost for any longer than necessary.
You'll be credit-checked
Given the high value of smartphones and the fact that a contract is effectively a loan over two years, all providers will carry out a credit check if you're taking out a mobile contract. So if you tend to struggle getting credit you may want to check your credit score before applying.
The new free MoneySavingExpert.com Credit Club offers a brand new way to keep track of your credit record. While it won't tell you whether or not you'll pass a credit check for a contract, it will give you a general idea of how a network might view you when applying for one.
If you think you're unlikely to pass a credit-check – or tried and were declined – your best bet is to get a pay-as-you-go deal for your service, as most Sim-only deals also tend to be credit-checked.
Some deals are for 'new customers' only
Some particularly strong promo contract deals may not be available to existing customers of the network, even if you're outside your minimum contract term.
Of course, you can always call up and ask them to match it, so this should be your first port of call (see our Mobile Haggling guide for help on this).
If they won't play ball, then you may not technically be able to get the deal. However in many cases there's a way round this – you can temporarily port your number to a different network, then come back to your previous network as a 'new customer'. It's not as complicated as it sounds – see full number porting trick help.
You may be able to save more with cashback – but watch out for the catch...
It's possible to nab extra savings through cashback on some deals, though never think of this as guaranteed. There are three types of cashback available, and they all work a little differently:
- Redemption cashback. The biggest discounts are on 'cashback redemption' deals through reseller sites. These require you to send off your bills at several points throughout your contract and get paid in instalments – miss one and you'll lose out. See more on how to beat the cashback trap.
Reclaiming usually involves filling in a form and sending it off up to five times during the contract period. Fail to do exactly this every time and you'll miss out on the remainder of the cashback. The main things to watch out for are:
- Always read the small print. It's important to discover every hoop they'll force you through. Does each time you send a form trigger some payment? Or, as usual, is it a "send all or get nothing" scenario, so if you miss sending one form, the whole thing's invalidated?
- Call and check the timings needed. Never assume a cashback deal is simple. If it says "send your bill after three months", this may mean three months from application, three months from activating the phone or after you've received your third monthly bill. Call the cashback company and check.
- Be careful with addresses. The address you send claims from needs to be the address used to order with, otherwise the claim may be invalidated. So if you move house, let them know immediately.
- Are you keeping your old mobile number? If you port – ie, move – your existing number to the new contract then you might be asked to send, in addition, the very first bill you received showing the original mobile number you were allocated.
- Use the Tart Alert as a reminder. The Tart Alert is this site's free text message/email reminder service; it's mainly to remind people before their credit card 0% period ends, but you can use it as a reminder to fill in your rebate form. Enter the rebate date and you'll be sent a free text message or email (it's your choice) six weeks beforehand.
- The cashback deal's with the retailer, the tariff with the network. Even if things go wrong, your contract won't be disrupted. But sadly cashback retailers can and do go bust; if yours does, it'll be tough to recoup. Yet don't forget the networks encourage these deals, and if you believe you've been unfairly treated, a strong letter to the network asking it to step in may help.
If you do have cashback problems, always report the company to Trading Standards. If you've been treated unfairly, consider a small claims court action.
- Automatic cashback. These deals, also via resellers, are where you're sent a cheque automatically within a few months without having to claim, though usually don't offer as big a discount. Some deals can also be part manual, part automatic cashback.
- Cashback via cashback sites. It's possible to sometimes beat the deals above with some powerhouse offers via dedicated cashback websites. However, don't think of this type of cashback as guaranteed – there are often problems. Read the Top Cashback Sites guide for full info.
Usefully the comparison site MobilePhoneChecker lets you filter deals by whether they offer redemption or automatic cashback (or neither), though you'll have to check third party cashback sites yourself.
Operators have different coverage – check signal where you live/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 one of the four main networks – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. But don't think your options are limited to one of the biggies – 'piggyback' networks use the signal of of one of the big four, eg, Tesco Mobile uses O2's signal. 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.
Take your old number with you
If you wanted to take your number to your new deal you should be given your PAC by your old provider when you hand in your notice. If you aren't, then as long as your pre-existing contract hasn't been terminated yet, you should still be able to call up and get it.
Though the process varies by provider, once you've got your new (temporary) number from your new network you'll then need to fill in an online form
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 – call customer services and they should be able to sort it.
Moving from another contract? Hand your notice in 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 to do before even looking for a new deal is to call up a month before your minimum term is up and request your PAC (port authorisation code) to keep your number. Use those 30 days to find yourself a new deal while running down the clock.
If you change your mind 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.
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 just let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org as that's usually quicker.
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