Best pay as you go data SIM deals
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- Flexible PAYG data SIMs with no monthly contracts
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Pay as you go SIM only deals explained
In this guide
- What is a PAYG data SIM?
- PAYG data SIMs versus contract data SIMs
- Who should get a PAYG data SIM?
- PAYG data SIM providers
- Frequently asked questions
Pretty much any network will be happy to supply you with a PAYG SIM for your mobile, but when it comes to data-only SIMs for tablets and SIM-equipped laptops, the number of providers is substantially narrower – only the four main network providers, in fact: Three, O2, EE and Vodafone.
And then there are a few different ways these are offered and not every provider offers them all. And unlike regular PAYG mobile deals, some of these means of acquiring a PAYG data SIM deal do come with credit checks. It's a bit of a minefield, all told.
What is a pay as you go data SIM?
Here's how we're defining it: A PAYG data-only SIM deal is a SIM from a provider which you can use in a tablet or a laptop that has a SIM slot, and where no formal contract exists that lasts longer than 30 days. Take a look at the different types available and it will make a lot more sense.
Preloaded PAYG data SIMs
This is where you buy a SIM outright. None of the money you will pay goes on the SIM itself (which is essentially free) but on the amount of data that comes pre-loaded onto the SIM. You can, rather wastefully, buy a SIM with preloaded data, use up the data and throw it away, or more sensibly you can top up the amount of data as required.
Only EE and Vodafone provide preloaded data SIMs. Perhaps the best thing about them is that they don't require any credit checks. Just be somewhat cautious with these, however. It's important to understand that if you buy a preloaded 30-day SIM or 90-day SIM your data expires at the end of the stated period. Gone forever.
Free PAYG data SIMs
A free PAYG data SIM is exactly the same as a preloaded PAYG data SIM except for one important difference: There's no data on the SIM when you get it. Popping one of these into your tablet will allow you access to the provider's online top-up page where you will be able to add data as required.
Just like a preloaded PAYG data SIM, there are no credit checks and your data will expire at the end of the stated period. Again, only Vodafone and EE offer a free data SIM ready for you to top up yourself.
30-day contract data SIMs
This is how everyone else does it. Rather than offering you a SIM preloaded with data, you buy a SIM on a 30-day contract with a specific data limit. This differs from the above in a couple of important ways. For one thing you will need to enter a contract which will renew your data limit every 30 days unless you state otherwise. For another, because it's a contract there will be credit checks.
This type of SIM deal barely scrapes in as a PAYG data SIM, but since you're free to change your data limit every 30 days and you're free to walk away whenever you feel like it, it does belong in the same category.
PAYG data SIMs versus contract data SIMS
Here we'll take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of both PAYG data-only SIMs versus those of the regular data-only SIMs that are available on 12-month contracts. Maybe you're not yet 100% certain which type is right for you? If not, you will be after reading this.
PAYG data SIMs – pros and cons
- No commitment – Depending whether you choose a preloaded or 30-day rolling contract PAYG data-SIM, you can ditch it whenever you feel like it. Just remember that if you're on a 30-day contract, you will need to tell your provider you're leaving
- Only pay for what you use – If you buy a 90-day preloaded SIM from EE, for example, preloaded with 12GB and provided you use all of that data in 90 days time, there is literally no waste
- SIM is usually free – Getting hold of the SIM, whether preloaded with data or not won't cost you a bean
- You'll pay more for your data – As with PAYG on a regular mobile SIM it's a trade-off. Sure, you'll only pay for what you use, but on the other hand the cost per GB of data is going to be substantially higher if you don't take out a contract. Getting your data for less is the reason to have a contract, in fact, and why most people choose to do it that way
- Your data might expire – The problem with PAYG data SIMs is the data you load has an expiry date. Once that expiry is passed any data you haven't used is gone forever
- More hassle to keep topped up – TEXT
Contract data SIMs – pros and cons
- Data is cheaper on the whole – This is why most people choose to get a contract over PAYG more generally – you save money. Your promise to stay with your provider for 12 months is paid in kind with lower rates for your monthly data
- Less hassle – set it up and forget – Use our comparison tools at the top of this page, choose a provider and a SIM, click through, sign up and that's all you need do for the next 12 months. With a PAYG data only SIM you're going to be fiddling about with it every month in some fashion
- Take advantage of special offers and benefits – 12-month contracts on anything sometimes come with little extras to entice you to sign up. Free gifts, reward cards and cashback are not unheard of. You will see no such offers on pay as you go
- There will be credit checks – All 12-month contracts involve up-front credit checks. Granted, on a SIM deal those checks are 'light' (the criteria isn't very strict) but you will still need to have at least an average credit history to pass
- Less flexibility – In terms of altering your data limits when you want, these days you usually can, even on 12-month contracts. However, you do not have the flexibility to simply walk away – doing so will incur hefty early-exit fees
- You may find yourself paying for data you don't use – If you choose a deal with a decent amount of wiggle room on your monthly data cap, most months you're going to be leaving unused data on the table
Who should get a PAYG data-only SIM deal?
Let's determine whether or not a PAYG data-only SIM is right for you. Here are two examples where we feel that it may the right choice. Bear in mind there are no doubt more, and ultimately only you are going to know what you will ultimately be using it for.
- Low-usage tablet users – If you have a tablet and you want it to be able to connect to the internet when there's not wifi available a PAYG data-only SIM deal may be the right choice. Just remember to factor all of the pros and cons we've listed above
- Business users with a compatible laptop – Some laptops have a SIM slot and if you don't find yourself outside wifi range very often but need to be connected 100% of the time, a PAYG data-only SIM might be the right choice
Which providers offer pay as you go data SIM deals?
- EE – Offers preloaded data-only SIMs with expiries of either 30 or 90 days and in various data limit sizes. EE will also provide you a data-only SIM on a rolling 30-day contract if that is your preferred choice
- Vodafone – Offers preloaded data-only PAYG SIMs, but they are hard to find on Vodafone's own website. You can buy them easily from Argos, Amazon and other retailers if you have no luck there. Vodafone will also provide you a rolling 30-day contract if that is your preferred choice
- Three – Does not supply preloaded PAYG data-only SIMs, but will provide you with a 30-day rolling contract data-only SIM
- O2 – Does not supply preloaded PAYG data-only SIMs, but will provide you with a 30-day rolling contract data-only SIM
Frequently asked questions
How much data do I need?
This is a very tough question to answer without knowing your habits, what you do online and how much of the time on the device in question you do those things out of range of free wifi. General rule of thumb is get a SIM with your lowest estimated data requirements, then if you hit that limit up it a bit. Testing and adjusting is always going to beat plain guess work, even if it's guesswork with a calculator.
What SIM card do I need?
Any SIM card you order these days will be a multi-SIM. This means that every size of SIM comed on a single card and you just pop the size you need out from its frame.
What is the best PAYG data-only SIM?
EE offers the most options in terms of prepaid and rolling contracts for data-only PAYG SIMs, but the other three main network providers – Three, O2 and Vodafone – also offer some good alternatives. As for the rest? No one else offers them.
Which network offers the cheapest data?
This changes all the time and since a lot of network providers are offering unlimited data SIMs these days, this can be terrifically tricky to quantify. Our best advice is to use comparison tools like ours to find the best deal on the day.