Moving to the UK for almost a year, can I keep my USA cell phone number?
July 13, 2006 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I don't know anything about cellular providers in the UK, which is where I will be living for nine months starting this September. I need a phone in the UK, but I will also need one when I return to the US after nine months. I have a verizon cell phone right now, but I my two year agreement with them has expired, so I can cancel without being charged a termination fee. What are my best/least expensive options?

Ideally, I would like to:

1. Be able to get my current phone number back when I return to the US.
2. Only pay for one plan at a time (one while in the UK, and one after I return).

From the little I know about this kind of thing, I get the impression that I might have to choose either (1) or (2), e.g. pay for a U.S. plan that I won't be using just to keep my number, or lose the number. I'm looking for a solution to this problem, if one exists.

Also, I would appreciate general information about cellular service in the UK, specifically in Glasgow, Scotland. For example, what providers have the best coverage? Which are least expensive? Would a "pay-as-you-go" option be smart? Suggestions on phones?

I expect to use only about 200-300 minutes a month, both in the UK and the US.
posted by whataboutben to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The UK pretty much has comprehensive coverage, all networks, everywhere. The only one I ever see people having problems with in Glasgow is T-Mobile. Traditionally, however, the best network for Scottish cover, particularly in the highlands and islands where signals can be weak, is Orange.

If you're only coming for nine months you won't be able to get a contract phone: the minimum term is a year, and you'd have to pay the remaining time to buy your way out. You need to use pay as you go.

You'll need a handset. The new ones are subsidised slightly, but they're a waste of money: any unlocked GSM model from eBay will do -- and then buy a SIM card (£1) from the Orange Shop on either Buchanan Street or Sauchiehall Street. You then "top it up" with calling credit. You don't get talk plans as such, but you will get discounts for buying in bulk, and 1000 free texts/mo for every £10 top up. Calls are 20p a min to Orange and Landlines, 40p a min to other UK numbers.

(Don't call the US from the cellphone, that's insanely expensive. Instead buy a pre-paid calling card from the Post Office (branches everywhere) or newsagents and use a phonebox or other landline.)

If you don't want to buy a phone on eBay, there are plenty of second-hand mobile phone places in Glasgow, the most central of which is Cash Converters on Renfield Street. Nokias are by far the best selling, which is handy because almost everyone has a charger for them so you never go short.

I can think of no feasible way of tying your US and UK contracts together.
posted by bonaldi at 9:15 PM on July 13, 2006

Oh yes: it's free to recieve calls and texts.
posted by bonaldi at 9:18 PM on July 13, 2006

You're not going to be able to sign a contract worth a damn for only nine months in the UK, most of them are 18, although there are some 12 month deals.

If your phone is GSM and takes a SIM card you'll be able to pick among a number of companies and just pick up a SIM card (usally for 5 pounds if you're going pay as you go, or free with a plan) and pop it in, assuming your phone is unlocked.

If you don't have a GSM phone, you'll need to buy one. I doubt you're going to be able to get a discount or free phone on a contract if you're only going to be there for 9 months.

There's a company in the UK - carphone warehouse - that sells phones and contracts for all the major networks, you might want to try their website for more info.
posted by tiamat at 9:19 PM on July 13, 2006

Keeping your number for when you get back may not be a realistic option. I know T-Mobile is willing to put accounts 'on hold' for up to 90 days, but you're going to be gone much longer than that and it's a pretty safe assumption that Verizon isn't going to be more lenient than T-Mobile. Still, you may want to give them a call.

One possible work-around is you could port your number to BroadVoice's $6/month VoIP plan and just pay $60 for the pleasure of keeping your number. You could even set up a softphone like GizmoProject to receive calls, so people in the states could call you without paying ungodly rates.
posted by boaz at 10:00 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

You'll need a handset. The new ones are subsidised slightly, but they're a waste of money:

Not really. You can buy handsets that do SMS, calls, etc, for £10-£20 at places like Amazon and eBuyer (and probably
posted by wackybrit at 10:29 PM on July 13, 2006

When I first moved from New York to London in 1997, I had to take out what was called back then a line rental; basically paying for one years worth of service in advance. So as bonaldi has pointed out, pay-as-you-go is your best option considering how long you'll be here.

For calling back to the US I use Superline. You call a local number and when you hear the Superline dial tone you enter the international number you'd like to call, no need to enter additional codes as authorisation is tied to your phone number.

They bill to a credit / debit card every fortnight or when your bill exceeds twenty pounds (IIRC).
posted by Mutant at 11:31 PM on July 13, 2006

An extension to and (slight) disagreement with bonaldi:

The UK is so damn small that coverage isn't much of a problem. However, I have found that some networks are patchy in places, possibly due to hills and/or interference by buildings. When I was with O2, I had erratic and mostly unusable reception in my flat in West London, and workplaces in central London and rural Surrey. All of these locations were listed as "excellent coverage" on O2's maps. Since I changed to T-mobile, I've had no problems. While there are coverage maps on the provider websites, the ombudsman OFCOM has more useful information if you know where you are going to live and work.

While pay-as-you-go is used by a lot of people, I'm not persuaded that it's necessarily cheaper. Handset deals for 12 months can be found at very nice prices (i.e. free handset, you pay for the yearly contract) if you're not too fussy about getting the latest and greatest phone. However, as a visitor you may have trouble getting a contract. When I first came to the UK, I got turned away by several providers as I didn't (yet) have a credit history in the UK. In that context, pay-as-you-go may be less painful.

As far as shops go, I've good and bad expereinces with the Link and good experiences with Carphonewarehouse.
posted by outlier at 3:23 AM on July 14, 2006

Seconding the Orange suggestion - I quite often have to lend my Orange 'phone to T-Mobile and O2 users because they have no signal, even in the middle of Glasgow.
posted by jack_mo at 4:01 AM on July 14, 2006

To keep your US number, transfer your current one to a pre-paid line, using Cingular, T-Mobile, or some other GSM carrier. Purchase an unlocked quad-band phone on eBay. Then, give your US chip to a friend who also has an unlocked phone, and figure out the minumum needed to keep that chip active. (Your friend will probably have to use it periodically, and refill it before the minutes expire.) Leave your chip in the US, and take the phone with you to the UK, where you can purchase pre-paid service.
posted by bchaplin at 4:04 AM on July 14, 2006

I moved to the UK from the US for 9 months.

First I called Sprint and asked what to do. They put me on a vacation plan where I kept my number and phone for $5/month. Then when I came back for Christmas and then back again permanently, I could turn my phone back on.

If your Verizon phone is GSM (which it probably isn't), you can take it to a shady place and get it unlocked so that you can put a different company (in the UK or wherever)'s SIM card in it.

But more likely than not, your Verzion phone isn't GSM. So put it on Verizon's "vacation" plan, go to the UK and go to a Carphone Warehouse or any of the other bazillions of phone stores and get a "Pay-as-you-go" phone.

You'll have to get Pay as You Go if you don't have a UK bank account. Plus, the shortest contract you can get is for a year. A bunch of my American pals and I did the math of getting as a pay-as-you-go versus getting a 1 year contract and then cancelling it. Pay-as-you-go is just going to be easier and make more sense.

Get your UK phone unlocked before you return to the US.

A perk of buying a phone in the UK is that when you come back to the US because there is a huge market for cool GSM phones on eBay.
posted by k8t at 4:08 AM on July 14, 2006

Not really. You can buy handsets that do SMS, calls, etc, for £10-£20 at places like Amazon and eBuyer (and probably

Not new ones you can't. All the phones in that price range are turgid ancient models sold second hand. The cheapest new one is £22, but that's a rubbish Nokia and on the Virgin network, brr. The cheapest on Orange is a £89 Motorola Razr. (Which is, to be fair, about the going rate on eBay)
posted by bonaldi at 5:32 AM on July 14, 2006

Car phone warehouse has sturdy cheap Nokia phones for about £20 (with £10 simcard and credit from T-Mobile) - they just phone and text, no camera or ringtones, but they also don't ever seem to break. I've dropped mine hard enough to bounce the battery out, popped it back in, and the phone keeps going. It's worth buying one here and then taking it back to use in the US.

A general warning: all telephones (landline or mobile) will cost a lot more here than in the US. It's cultural - in North America, landline local calls are free, here landline local calls are charged by the minute. Because of that, mobile providers don't have the same push to provide a lot of minutes cheap - the plans here are less generous than in North America, because people just expect to pay a lot for phones and not to talk for very long on them.

Pay as you go is very nice and simple - and you can get good plans. I'm paying 5p/minute to call other T-Mobile people, 40p for other networks. The people I phone (aka my husband) is on T-Mobile (obviously). If you are going to Glascow to work or something, find out what network your contacts are using and whether that network has discounts for in-network.
posted by jb at 6:41 AM on July 14, 2006

Sorry - it looks like they no longer offer the model I have, not at that price. They have a better cheap nokia now (does polyphonic ring tones), but it's £30.
posted by jb at 6:47 AM on July 14, 2006

I had a T-Mobile account in America for the past couple of years, so I was out of contract. A few months ago, I phone them to cancel it and ask them to transfer me over to being a T-Mobile Pay As You Go customer. According to the rep, I keep the same SIM card and number, and just need to buy credit as I use it. Of course, I havent been back in the US since then to check, so I cant vouch for it.....
posted by Boobus Tuber at 8:41 AM on July 14, 2006

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