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The essential guide to pay-as-you-go phone tariffs

Hannah Ricci
Friday, February 9th 2018

If you just need a mobile phone for the occasional call or text, or to have on hand in case of emergency, a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) plan is a useful option.

There’s no lengthy contract or nasty surprise bills, you simply ‘top-up’ with credit and pay for what you use, although if you use your phone a lot, PAYG will work out more expensive than pay monthly in the long run.

How does PAYG work?

Most providers now offer a choice for PAYG customers. You can either buy a bundle of minutes, texts and data that will be available for you to use for one month, or you can simply top-up credit on your SIM card as and when you need to. You can then use this credit on minutes, texts or data as you wish - there is no pre-allocated allowance for each. Once it runs down you will have to top up again.

Whichever option you choose, you remain in control of how much you spend. The average PAYG spend is around £15 per month, but exceptionally light users could get away on just £5 to £10 per month.

The top-up system means you can control expenditure

Top-up vouchers are generally available in denominations of £5, £10, £15, £20 and £30. For the cheapest £5 vouchers, usage is usually charged at a set rate per minute, per text and per MB by each provider.

A one-month bundle works out cheaper

A PAYG bundle will offer better value for money than paying as you go if you intend to use your phone frequently. It is still more expensive than a one-month contract, but on the up side there is no requirement for a credit check with any PAYG options.

Providers that offer pay-as-you-go

Most UK phone providers offer pay-as-you-go plans; click on the links below to visit a provider and see what PAYG deals are on offer from each one. Note that BT Mobile does not currently offer pay-as-you-go deals.

Reasons to choose PAYG

Pay-as-you-go plans present a more flexible alternative to traditional pay monthly phone contracts – you can pay as little or as much as you want.

Anyone can get a PAYG deal

PAYG deals are available to everyone. Since the tariffs require you to pre-pay, there’s no risk of defaulting on bills and therefore no need for a credit check. This opens the door for many customers exempt from regular phone contracts.

So if you’re under 18, have a sketchy credit history or perhaps recently moved to the UK and don’t yet have a bank account, a PAYG plan will you allow to call, text and surf the net on the move.

PAYG is simple and effective

PAYG is particularly useful if you want a no-frills phone for occasional use, and don’t plan to use it everyday or as your main means of contact. You just top-up with the amount of credit you need, rather than paying a monthly fee for a call allowance you might not use.

Compare SIM-only deals →

Other factors to consider

If you need a new phone, you’ll usually have to pay the full price of a handset upfront on PAYG. This compares to pay monthly, where handsets are subsidised, or even free in some cases.

Coverage varies according to location

Before you settle on a network, it's worth checking what the coverage is like. If you’re specifically after 3G or 4G coverage, check that your area is covered to avoid future frustration and disappointment. All the mobile providers have coverage checkers on their websites, which will show you what the signal is like where you live.

You can run down your credit quickly

If you like to talk, text and use the internet a lot you will quickly eat through your credit and find yourself spending quite a lot on top-ups. Pay monthly or SIM-only deals with a bundle of inclusive calls, texts and data provide better value for money if you intend to use your phone a lot.

Inactive accounts may be deactivated

Conversely, if you are an occasional phone user, you need to be aware that if you don’t use your PAYG mobile for a prolonged period, the provider may consider it dormant and deactivate the number.

Watch out for validity dates on top-up vouchers too, where your allowance of inclusive calls, texts and data can expire if it is not used anywhere between seven and 30 days from the date of purchase.

Your phone may need to be unlocked

If you already have a phone and just want a new PAYG SIM card, you may need to unlock your handset to accept a SIM from a different network. Unlocking your phone is entirely legal and can often be done for a small fee by contacting your existing network provider. If your network can’t help, an expert should be able to do it, but there is usually a charge.


Regular phone users who can apply for credit might find a SIM-only deal or pay monthly contract better value. However, PAYG does offer a flexible option to stay connected on the move.

Whether you’ve struggled to get a pay monthly deal due to your age, credit score or financial status, or are simply on a budget and want to keep tight control of your spending, a PAYG deal could suit your needs.

Compare SIM-only deals →

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