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Best SIM-only deals: A buying guide

Expert Reviews logo Expert Reviews 18/01/2021 Thomas McMullan
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If you’re in the market for a new contract, one of the biggest initial decisions you’ll have to make is whether you opt for a plan with a phone or a SIM-only deal. Whether it’s because you already own a phone, or because you’d rather pay for the cost of a handset outright, a SIM-only deal can be a great way to spend less.

Of course, that relies on you signing up to a SIM-only plan that actually saves you money in the long run. There are some contracts out there that appear to be a good deal on the surface, but once you dig into the details you might find that the lifetime cost isn’t as cheap as you were expecting.

We’re here to help. In this buying guide, we’ll cover the basics of what to look for – and what to avoid – when considering a SIM-only deal. From freebies to data restrictions, we’ll sift the promises from the financial reality.

Read next: How far will 1GB of data stretch?

How to choose the best SIM-only deal for you

What is a SIM-only deal?

A SIM card is the small chip that you insert into your phone to tell it who you are and what mobile phone plan you are on. It stands for Subscriber Identity Module and is used to authenticate the user’s information, including a special number that identifies the phone on the network.

As the name suggests, a SIM-only plan covers the cost of the SIM – and therefore the cost of being on the network – but not the phone it slots into. That means you’ll need to provide your own handset, whether that’s a case of buying it outright or using a previously owned smartphone.

Because you’re only paying for the SIM, these contracts tend to be substantially less expensive than their phone counterparts. This makes sense, given that you’re not paying off the price of the handset in addition to the network costs.

Pay monthly or Pay As You Go?

In this guide, we’ll be covering monthly SIM-only contracts, but it’s worth mentioning the alternative: Pay As You Go. With these plans, there’s generally no contract and therefore you’re not tied into a given time period with the network provider. Instead, you get a certain amount of minutes, texts and data, and when you run out you can ‘top up’ your SIM card by choosing to pay a set fee.

We’d recommend a Pay As You Go Plan if you don’t think you’ll be using your phone much, at least not so much that you’ll regularly go through the allotted minutes, text and data within a month. If you do, you won’t necessarily be saving any money over a monthly plan. Essentially, the benefit of a Pay As You Go plan is flexibility; not being tied to monthly payments for 12 or 24 months. But that benefit falls away if you end up making monthly payments anyway, probably for a smaller data allowance.

Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from EE Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from iD Mobile Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from Three

What to look out for when buying a SIM-only deal

Data offerings

There are SIM-only deals with limits on minutes and texts, but these days many plans tend to be unlimited in these regards. Instead, the crux of a contract is in its data offering. How much data do you get access to each month? Does the plan have a limit on its data speed? 

With the first question, one key thing to consider is how much data you actually need on a monthly basis. An ‘unlimited’ data plan might bring peace of mind that you won’t run out of internet juice, but it might not be the most cost effective choice if you actually use less than 30GB.

We have some tips on judging the amount of data you need, but a good starting point is to see how much data you currently use, which can be easily done either via your network provider or your phone. You can do this on an iPhone by going to Settings | Cellular or Settings | Mobile Data. On Android, go to Settings | Network and Internet | Data Usage. See what you currently burn through in a month and use this as a yardstick for judging what your future data needs might be.

In terms of data speeds, this is an easy-to-miss factor that can have a big impact on your overall experience. Vodafone, for example, has a trio of ‘unlimited’ data plans, but the lowest tier (Unlimited Lite) has a maximum download speed of only 2Mbps. So while it might not have a cap on overall data usage, this is essentially a cap on the speed you can hope to achieve when using your phone. As a point of reference, Netflix recommends a minimum download speed of 3Mbps for HD streaming.

Contract length and lifetime cost

Besides data, the next thing you’ll be keeping an eye on is the length of the contract you’re signing up to. Some last 24 months, some last only 12 months. If you think you’ve found a good deal, you may want to consider locking it in for a longer period of time. Alternatively, if you like the flexibility of being able to change providers, a shorter plan may be for you. Remember, since you’re not paying off the cost of a handset, your contract will only be paying for the minutes, text and data plan you’ve picked.

The lifetime cost is the total amount you’d spend over the contract length, and it can be a great way to judge the brutal reality of whether or not you’re saving money. Take a few minutes to plot out the amount you’d spend across the 12 or 24 months for different plans, and compare the results. Some SIM-only contracts might be half price for the first six months, for example. That’s great, except for when the monthly cost skyrockets after that period. Does it even out in the end, or do you actually end up spending more?

Another important thing to consider is the cost of the handset. This will very much depend on your particular situation, but if you’re buying a phone outright you’ll want to factor in that cost when calculating the lifetime total. In a nutshell: is the cost of the handset plus the lifetime cost of the SIM-only contract cheaper or more expensive than the lifetime cost of a monthly phone contract?

Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from EE Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from iD Mobile Check out Pay As You Go SIM-only deals from Three

Benefits and freebies

Finally, some providers will dangle bonuses to try and tempt you into certain contracts. Sometimes these can be good deals, often they will be a tactic to convince you into a more expensive contract. That’s not to say you should avoid a tantalising freebie, only to look at it through the lens of your lifetime cost. 

EE, for example, offers a number of ‘smart benefits’ as part of select contracts. These range from access to Apple TV+ or BT Sports Ultimate, to bonus ‘free’ roaming destinations. Are these things you would actually want to buy otherwise? Taking the freebies out of the picture, would you opt for the contract without them? Added extras might sweeten an already good deal, but just remember to look at them critically as part of an overall balance of costs.  

Best current SIM-only deals

EE January sale: 120GB 5G data plan with unlimited texts and minutes for £20 a month

Buy now from EE

iD Mobile flash sale: 20GB data plan with unlimited texts and minutes for £6 a month, rising to £12 after three months

Buy now from iD Mobile

Vodafone big winter sale: 40GB data plan with unlimited texts and minutes for £18 a month

Buy now from Vodafone

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