How to get a better mobile phone deal in the UK

With above-inflation increases, tips and tricks to find the right plan are even more important

There’s a dizzying array of mobile phone tariffs, and with many providers recently imposing above-inflation increases, it is even more important to choose the right deal. So how can you navigate the networks to get a plan that is right for you? What are the top tips for saving money?

Get ready to switch once your contract ends

Most phone users (78%) had a monthly subscription, or contract, for their phone in mid-2022, according to the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom. There are usually charges for leaving contracts midway through but, thanks to changes to the rules, providers are now obliged to tell you when you are reaching the end of a contract. Then you can make a swift change to a cheaper deal without incurring costs.

“Normally what [your existing provider] will do is recommend some deals to you but they are often not the best options,” Catherine Hiley, a mobiles expert at the comparison site Uswitch, says. “It’s such a competitive market that you’ll almost certainly find a deal that’s better. In some cases, even if you swapped your existing handset for the latest smartphone, you could still save £83 a year, and you’d have a new, better phone and probably more data as well.”

Rob Baillie, a mobiles expert at the comparison site MoneySuperMarket, agrees.

“Upgrading directly through your current network can work out more expensive, and it’s often cheaper to switch to a different provider. Ask your current provider what deal they can offer you, then compare it with offers on comparison websites.”

And if you have good coverage in your area with the network you are on, but want to benefit from lower costs, there are ways to make that work. “If you’d prefer to stay on the same network, you can switch to a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that uses the same network that you’re already on,” he says. “For example, if you have a contract with Three, you could switch to iD Mobile (which uses the Three network) and get a new customer deal.”

Change providers

To move to a new provider, you need a porting authorisation code (Pac), and under the “text to switch” rules, your existing provider must hand this over quickly.

Text “PAC” to 65075, and you should receive the Pac code within one minute – along with any other important information such as fees to pay if you are still signed up to a contract. You can then give the Pac to the new provider, and the switch should be made within one working day.

Mobile phone sim cards held between the fingers of a man
If you have a working phone and it is paid for in full, you can use it with a new, cheaper provider’s sim-only deal. Photograph: Massimo Dallaglio/Alamy

Consider sim-only

Most people who had a contract in 2022 chose one that included a handset, according to Ofcom. It’s a convenient way to buy a phone but it is often not the cheapest. Ofcom’s research showed that users could make an average saving of about £120 over the duration of a typical 24-month mobile contract by buying a sim-free phone, where you only receive the handset, and using it with a sim-only deal instead. (The study didn’t take into account any extra benefits that might be included.)

If you have a working handset, it is far cheaper to keep it. Since 2021, providers have been banned from locking phones to their networks, so as long as you have paid for your phone in full, you can use it with a new – cheaper – provider’s sim-only deal.

If your phone needs repairing, check whether it is still in warranty and whether any faults are covered. If not, you could still save by having it repaired. A spokesperson at EE says: “Repairing devices rather than buying new can help shave some money off your bills, and taking good care of your mobile and gadgets will reward you in the long run. We recommend investing in a good-quality case.”

Go for a less fancy phone

“If you need a new handset and you’re not too bothered about owning the latest model with the newest features, check out deals for older models and mid-range phones – they’ll often save you a significant amount on the latest releases,” Baillie says.

And you might be able to get some money for the old one. Sites such as show you how much you could get for your old phone. Simply follow the steps to sell it.

A person films their favourite band with a cameraphone.
Do you really need the latest handset? Photograph: Images

Know how much data you need

People often misjudge the amount of data they really use, and this has a big impact on bills, Hiley says. “Generally, people tend to overspend and pay for more data than they need. But if you don’t pay for enough data, it can work out really expensive.”

Baillie says: “Check your phone settings or bill to see how much data you really use and then pick a deal – either sim-only or a contract – that gives you enough without overpaying. As a guide, if you only use your phone to check your emails occasionally or browse social media from time to time, then 1 or 2GB will most likely do the job. If you listen to lots of podcasts or stream music or videos regularly, think about getting 10GB, 20GB or an unlimited data package.”

Check the amount of data you use on your phone settings, or look on network provider account pages. Calculators such as Tesco Mobile’s will also allow you to get a ballpark figure for the amount of data you need.

Keep data usage low

While lower data deals are often cheaper, going over your data allowance can incur big bills. EE says: “Use your provider’s app to keep tabs on your data usage to make sure you’re not left short at the end of the month. Buying extra data can be costly, so managing your usage can save money by avoiding extra add-ons.” Cut your data use by checking your phone’s settings to see which apps are using data in the background (when you are not actively using them), make use of wifi hotspots, and prepare for journeys by downloading music or podcasts using your home wifi.

A happy young woman in Paris, France, using a mobile phone and waving
If you travel a lot, choose a provider that does not impose extra charges on roaming calls. Photograph: Alliance/Alamy

Beware roaming charges

As a result of Brexit, the rules that ban EU network providers from imposing roaming charges for phone use within the EU and European Economic Area no longer apply to British providers. This means they can choose how much they charge for overseas use. “We have all heard horror stories of people coming back from holiday to massive phone bills,” Hiley says. “And while that became less of a problem while we were in the EU, roaming charges are being reinstated on many – though not all – networks.”

If you travel often, choose a provider that does not impose extra charges on roaming calls. With iD Mobile, for example, customers pay the same for their phone use when travelling in one of 50 (mostly European) countries as they would in the UK.

Otherwise, find out how – and how much – your provider charges before you travel and, crucially, make sure you switch off data roaming on your phone when you are away. Always turn off roaming and turn on flight mode when you board a plane – forgetting to do so could really spoil your holiday.

Take advantage of family plans

Many networks offer group or family plans that offer a discount on second and subsequent lines, and allow you to transfer data between different members of the group. “If your kids run out of data, you can give them more from your own allowance,” Hiley says.

Group deals vary. At EE, for example, at the time of writing, when you add additional plans to your account, or sync plans, you can get up to 20% off the new plan. Only the person who runs the account can transfer data through the My EE app but they can transfer it from any plan within the account. EE’s spokesperson says: “Data gifting isn’t just for families, so any individual with a mobile or connected device can move data between those products if they’re on the same account.”

Set a spending cap

“You can set a spending cap on the provider site when you buy and set up your phone. If you’re not on an unlimited deal, this will help prevent unexpected costs while you’re in your contract,” Baillie says.


Sandra Haurant

The GuardianTramp

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