Mobile data coverage for a visit to the UK
July 17, 2017 3:23 PM   Subscribe

It's been over a year since my last attempt to see London, which didn't work out after all. So now I have another trip planned for Manchester in the fall, and I'm definitely, definitely going to see London: I fly into Heathrow and take a train out of Euston station later that day. I'll ask about a plan for the day later on, when the trip is closer. First, though, I need to make sure I have mobile coverage for the week. Help?

Phone: unlocked iPhone 7 Plus, currently on Cricket/AT&T. I want access to cellular data, possibly enough to allow some tethering of my laptop for email - so maybe 2-4 GB for the week? I don't plan to use voice calls or SMS, because I expect to be able to use iMessage / Facetime / Skype / WhatsApp.

I would like to have data access as soon as possible after I land in the UK, with minimal faffing around, so that I can use Maps etc. I'm happy to pay a bit extra for that.

For coverage where I'm going (Jodrell Bank) it looks like British Telecom (EE) is my best bet. (4G? Not LTE?)

Questions: Should I buy something off of EBay? Or try to order through some other official channels? Should I get it with data pre-loaded, or just a bare SIM to buy data afterwards? There was one warning about mobile SIMs being sold with parental restrictions turned on by default, and needing to deal with humans in a store to get them removed - do I need to worry about this?

Is there some other option I'm not thinking of? What would you recommend for a week's worth of mobile data access in the UK?
posted by RedOrGreen to Technology (10 answers total)
I'd pop into a Three shop when you land and buy a pay-as-you-go SIM for your phone.

You know Manchester is realllly far from London, right?
posted by iamkimiam at 3:35 PM on July 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Three SIM. I bought mine on Ebay and was able to set it all up before I arrived (despite the instructions saying it needed to be activated in the UK first).

And lol, only a Brit would classify Manchester as "reallllly far" from London. For an American, you will think nothing of the distance.
posted by ryanbryan at 3:45 PM on July 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I bought a Three SIM from a vending machine in Heathrow while I was waiting for my luggage. They should be easy to find.
posted by GuyZero at 3:49 PM on July 17, 2017

"And lol, only a Brit would classify Manchester as "reallllly far" from London. For an American, you will think nothing of the distance."

I'm an American living in the UK. By American standards it's not far (200 miles), but it can be expensive and time-consuming to travel to/from there if you've not planned for it in advance.

Sorry for the derail (heh, pun) — it seemed worthwhile to point out since Manchester and London seemed like important parts of the journey as stated in the question.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:33 PM on July 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

British Telecom (EE)

BT is not EE, but it uses the same network, so you could get a BT Mobile SIM or an EE SIM and the coverage would be identical. Virgin Mobile also uses the EE network.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:56 PM on July 17, 2017

Heathrow is totally set up for this. You don't need to worry about this again until after you land =)

One of the last times I visited London, it was only for a day. I recall a ridiculously convenient path from immigration to an ATM to the SIM-card vending machines to the tube station. My memory could be embellishing, but they definitely know what tourists need and it's RIGHT THERE.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:00 PM on July 17, 2017

London to Manchester - I already have train reservations, thanks. (£11 each way!)

And I want to maximize my time in London - so I'd really prefer to be able to turn on my phone after I land, and have service immediately. Unless there's a catch (like a parental restrictions lock) that is better resolved in-store?
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:08 PM on July 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might find this recent entry from Ken's Tech Tips on SIM-only deals useful:
posted by davemack at 2:58 AM on July 18, 2017

For an American, you will think nothing of the distance.

Travelling by car in the UK is an order of magnitude more stressful than travelling the same distance in the US IMX, though I've never travelled by train in the US.

so I'd really prefer to be able to turn on my phone after I land

Within Heathrow there will be WiFi, there are also shops at the airport which will sell you a SIM (not to mention the vending machines Metasyntactic mentioned).

If you really want a SIM before you travel then GiffGaff apparently now do international delivery. You can order the SIM for free and buy a package later so I guess there's no harm in giving it a go?

GiffGaff is on the O2 network, they do have coverage around Jodrell Bank (in the car park anyway, I was required to put my phone into flight mode once I entered the visitor centre).
posted by robertc at 9:12 AM on July 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I posted a trip report follow-up elsewhere, but just wanted to add here that the Giffgaff SIM worked perfectly. They sent it to me for free, I added £10 to my account while sitting in Philadelphia airport, and had no trouble throughout the London / Manchester / Jodrell Bank / London travel. Having Maps and Citymapper and the internet at my fingertips makes a new city so much easier to tackle!
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:16 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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