Cheapest way to get UK cell service with US phone
June 10, 2013 8:22 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I are traveling to London later this week for a 10-day trip (yay!). For part of the trip I'm going to be at a conference, and he will be doing some work things, so we need to be able to get in touch with each other, either via voice calls or text. I'm trying to figure out the cheapest way to accomplish this.

Here's what we have:
Two new T-Mobile US iPhone 5s. My best guess from what I've read online is that these are not unlocked, and that T-Mobile won't unlock them until they are paid off.

Two old AT&T US iPhones (a 3G and a 4). I just filled out the AT&T unlock forms for these phones, since they are out of contract and I am no longer an AT&T customer.

I know T-Mobile does international roaming, etc., but their rates are pretty steep ($.50 for one text message!). I don't even what to contemplate what our phone bill will look like if we use any data while we're there! T-Mobile UK appears to sell prepaid smartphone sims for a very reasonable price (£10), but I can't tell if a) they will work with an iPhone 5 at all, much less one from the US. Are US T-Mobile phones locked to only the US network?

If I can't use the new iPhones, is there any way (assuming I get them unlocked) to use my old AT&T iPhones with a UK carrier and a prepaid sim? I don't mind paying £10-15 per person for a sim card, but I'd like to avoid buying whole new phones just for this trip.

Bottom line: I want to avoid paying international roaming on my current phones, so I need suggestions for the cheapest ways to get text/voice (data is a plus but not a dealbreaker) for a 10-day trip to England.
posted by DiscourseMarker to Travel & Transportation around London, England (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your best bet is to use your unlocked AT&T iPhones and prepaid SIM cards. Your T-Mobile iPhone 5s are (almost certainly) locked to the US T-Mobile network and I would be very surprised if you got them to unlock them (even for T-Mobile UK).

Your unlocked 3G and 4 should work fine in the UK with any number of prepaid SIM cards. Maybe UK users will chime in with the "best" prepaid carriers (I've only done this in Ireland), but my expectation is that you should easily be able to do this for under £15 per person.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:35 AM on June 10, 2013

Unless the convenience of keeping your US number is important, it's almost certainly way, way cheaper to use a UK SIM with unlocked iPhones. Unlock the old phones and order a giffgaff SIM. If you want the SIM before you set off, order it on eBay and have it shipped to you in the US, otherwise have it sent to your address in the UK. When it arrives, activate the card and chose the £5, £10 or £12 package. Disable recurring billing.
posted by caek at 8:38 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Specklet at 8:41 AM on June 10, 2013

I suppose a useful piece of information as you Google is that what we (in the US) call "prepaid" plans are called "pay as you go" plans in the UK.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:41 AM on June 10, 2013

Best answer: Yeah, agreed with the above. Carphone Warehouse shops will sell you SIMs from any of the major carriers. They are called "pay as you go" and the SIM is usually free. Each carrier has slightly different rates but whats important is what is included with your "top-up". You only pay their rates after you've exceeded that.

This table from Carphone Warehouse shows what I mean. Scroll down to "Extras" - thats the important part in many ways.

Adding more money to your phone later is easy. You can walk into most convenience stores, hand them cash and a card that comes with your SIM and it will get added to your SIM card balance.

It really is worth it to shop around and see what SIM plan is best for you. If you want to make calls to the US as well, there are SIM card plans for that too.
posted by vacapinta at 9:05 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, if you're sure of the size and plan you want, there are vending machines selling prepaid sim cards in the arrivals areas of Gatwick and Heathrow airports.
posted by penguinicity at 9:16 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The last time I had to do this, I just walked into the various network shops and asked what they had. Cost me £30 for a month's unlimited SMS/data with 500 minutes voice and about 30 minutes of international calls.

You can get much cheaper now, and I'm probably going to take the giffgaff route on my next trip at the end of the month.

Leave the new iPhones at home; the old ones will be fine.
posted by holgate at 9:59 AM on June 10, 2013

It won't hurt to call T-Mobile and ask if they'll unlock your phones for international travel purposes. But they probably won't.

Anyway, last time I was in the UK I walked into an Orange shop (because they seemed like they had good PAYG options) and said I was visiting and needed a SIM and the guy gave me a couple of options and I was good to go. I paid £10 and got more SMS and minutes than I ended up using in the two weeks I was there (I was on my very old unlocked phone so data was not an issue). Very easy! You kind of have to balance how much effort you want to spend shopping around against how much money you will actually save - even if you get the wrong type of plan for your usage, it's unlikely to cost you more than an extra £20 over the course of 10 days, unless you're voracious phone users.
posted by mskyle at 12:32 PM on June 10, 2013

Best answer: Get both unlocked. When you arrive, get two prepaid SIMs (£20 from Vodafone lasts our guests about 7 days with mild / moderate texting and heavy GPS use. Vodafone has a daily data rate as well, so you're not paying per MB).

Whoever uses the device more should take the 4, whoever uses the device less should take the 3.

Bring your US iPhones and turn data roaming off. It's free to receive text messages overseas. And if someone calls with an emergency, you'll want to answer. Also, there's a lot of free WiFi in the UK, so you don't have to set up email on the UK phones if you don't want to. And you may well want to carry the 5 for the camera. Especially if you have the iPhone 3.
posted by nickrussell at 4:30 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! My old iPhones are successfully unlocked, and it turns out there is a Carphone Warehouse right near our hotel (next door to a Krispy Kreme of all things), so I think that is what we'll do. It looks like there are several good sim options for what we need.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:12 PM on June 10, 2013

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