1. Do a coverage check at your campus and accommodation
There are four mobile network operators in the UK, each of which has its own mobile infrastructure:
There are also a range of smaller companies that utilise one of these four providers’ networks, rather than having their own infrastructure. No matter who you buy a data plan from, your service will be delivered through one of these four mobile networks.
Although you’re likely to get good 4G or 5G signal in most urban areas with any of these mobile carriers, it’s still worth checking to make sure that you’ll get good speeds at home and at school before buying a SIM plan.
To do this, you can use the following network coverage checker links. Put in your postcode on a network’s website, and look for good 4G and 5G coverage at your university, and your student accommodation.
Based on what you find, you might like to include or exclude certain networks from your search. For example, if Vodafone only has outdoor 4G coverage where you live, but the other networks have good indoor and outdoor 4G signal, you might like to exclude SIM plans that use the Vodafone network.
2. Search for cheap SIM-only deals
If you already own a smartphone, the best way to get data, calls and texts is to buy a SIM-only tariff.
You can expect to pay about £5-£15 per month for a SIM-only deal, depending on how much data you need.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re looking for a SIM-only plan as a student:
- Unlimited calls and texts to UK numbers are normally included for free.
- Calls and texts to international numbers usually incur an additional charge, so it’s best to use WhatsApp, Messenger or WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family back home if possible.
- Be careful of long-term contracts on SIM-only deals. You might want to look for a month-to-month plan in case you ever need to cancel.
- Rather than buying from a major network directly, like Three, try to buy from one of their resellers, as their prices are often much more competitive. For example, Smarty, which is a reseller that uses the Three network, generally offers cheaper SIM-only deals than Three itself does.
- Most SIM plans include 5G free of charge, giving you the fastest possible internet speeds, although some providers like Vodafone do have different speed tiers. Some of Vodafone’s SIM plans are limited to a 150 megabit maximum download speed, for example.
3. Look for student discounts
Some mobile networks have special discounted deals available only for students.
- Vodafone offers students 10% off certain pay monthly phone plans, as well as certain 12 or 24 month SIM-only plans.
- EE offers 20% off their phone and SIM-only plans.
- O2 offers 20% off certain pay monthly phone plans.
These discounts can normally be accessed through student discount portals such as Student Beans or Unidays.
Keep in mind, even with these discounts, you may find that other smaller mobile networks like Smarty or GiffGaff are cheaper than Vodafone, EE, or O2. It pays to shop around for the cheapest deal, whether or not you’re eligible for a student discount.
4. Think carefully about how much data you really need
To avoid spending too much on a phone plan, think carefully about how much mobile data you really need each month.
If you connect to university Wi-Fi when on campus, and use Wi-FI at home, it might be that you can save money by getting a plan with a relatively low data limit.
- If you’re only on your phone occasionally, and just want some data for essentials such as navigation, as well as occasional social media use, a 10GB monthly limit should be plenty.
- If you’re on social media more often, and like to watch videos on the go, you might consider a 20-30GB data plan.
Although 100GB+ and unlimited data plans exist, these are only really necessary if you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection at home, and want to use your phone’s mobile hotspot to get online on other devices.
5. Shop for a refurbished phone, rather than a new handset
If you need a new phone, you might be worried about how much you’re going to have to spend.
Fortunately, the UK has a thriving refurbished phone market. These refurbished handsets have been professionally inspected and repaired, and if you buy from a reputable seller, they normally come with a 12-month warranty.
Often, these refurbished phones are devices that have been traded in by people upgrading to the latest iPhone or Samsung device. The refurbisher wipes the phone’s data, checks that it’s working and performing as expected, and repairs any superficial damage to the device.
By buying a refurbished handset, you can save a significant amount of money when compared to buying a brand-new phone. Plus, you’re helping to prevent a smartphone from becoming e-waste.
Just be careful to buy your phone from a reputable seller. Do not buy refurbished phones from eBay or Facebook marketplace, as they may not come with a warranty, and you do not know whether or not they have been inspected properly.
The following retailers are reputable sellers of refurbished smartphones in the UK:
- Carphone Warehouse
- Music Magpie