Mobile phone and SIM deals – everything you need to know
By Dan Howdle | Friday, May 10th 2019
In this guide
- Types of mobile deal and how they work
- What to look for in a new mobile phone
- Popular phones and brands
- Popular mobile providers
- How to choose the right network
- About mobile phone contracts
- Frequently asked questions
Choosing the right mobile deal can be a complex business, especially so if you're trying to get hold of a new handset and a SIM at the same time. Even if you're buying your very first mobile contract, though, we have all the information you need. Read this page carefully and you will know everything you need to know to make the perfect choice.
Chances are, though, that you're down here in the info to check on a few specific things you're unsure about. And we're pretty sure you'll find all the information you need.
Types of mobile deal and how they work
There are five different types of mobile deal, some of which have variations on the same theme. A mobile contract with a handset, for example, may vary how much you pay up-front, which will alter the monthly cost. Let's take a quick overview, though, of the various types of deal available. Hopefully we can narrow things down a bit so you have a better idea of where to start.
- Contract phone deals – This is where you get both a SIM and an actual handset. Most contract phone deals spread the cost of the handset across the life of the contract, so each month there will be a portion of what you pay going towards the handset and a portion to cover your minutes, data and texts. Handsets can be very expensive, especially the latest and greatest, which is why contract phone deals tend to be the most expensive of all types. You will be tied into the contract for its entire length, and all contract phone deals require credit checks
- SIM only contract deals – This is where you get just the SIM card, but will still be tied into a contract for at least 12 months. SIM only contracts may tie you in, but they are also pretty much the best value you can get in terms of call, data and text allowance. For your commitment, mobile providers reward you in return with low monthly rates. They are ideal if you already have a handset you're happy with and just want the lowest monthly rate possible for the amounts you use. All contract SIM-only deals require credit checks
- SIM-only no-contract deals – A number of providers offer no-contract SIM deals. They are not pay as you go, but rather tie you in for just 30 days. At the end of each 30-day period, your minutes, text and data allowance will refresh and roll over into the next period, unless you tell your provider otherwise. The good thing about these sorts of deals is they allow you to leave quickly, should you want to. However, they tend not to offer as good value as 12-month SIM only contracts as you are making less of a commitment. Most 30-day rolling contracts still require a credit check, except for 30-day deals from SMARTY or giffgaff
- Pay as you go SIM deals – This is where your SIM comes with no minutes, data or texts, instead accessing your 'top-up' to pay amount whenever you use it. You can add top-up to a pooled amount either using a debit or credit card or in cash at any number of supermarkets, newsagents and petrol stations. Since you pay up front there are no credit checks with PAYG deals, however you also tend to get the worst value for your money in terms of minutes, data and texts. ASDA Mobile and one or two other providers offer a halfway house in the form of bundles. You buy a bundle with your top-up and get an amount of minutes, texts and data that lasts 30-days only, but provides much better value for money
- Pay as you go handset deals – Like PAYG SIMs, only you'll get a discounted (or free at the very budget end) handset, which you'll usually have to pay for upfront. Sometimes there is value to be found with these deals (mainly the ones with very low-end handsets that cost very little or are free), but in the case of the best handsets you're pretty much paying upfront what it would cost to just buy the handset on its own
What to look for in a new mobile phone
Choosing a specific phone can be hard. To be fair, it's probably a lot easier if you're crazy about one particular brand. If you have to have an Apple or a Samsung obsession specifically, it narrows the field and simplifies things considerably.
But what if you're completely undecided? All those shiny, rectangular things look much the same as one another to a layperson. So how do you decide? We reckon you should start by considering some of these factors.
- Operating system – An operating system is the foundation on which everything else is built. It is software in your phone (like Windows on PC or MacOS on your Apple computer) that acts as the platform for loading other programs and applications. There are technically only two operating systems found on mobile phones. One is called Android, which you will find on every phone that isn't made by Apple, and the other is called iOS, which you will only find on Apple phones. As a general rule, iOS is a little simpler to use, whereas Android is more flexible
- Price – How much do you want to spend? At the top end, mobile phones are reaching truly outlandish prices. Apple's best phone will set you back £1,500 or so. Samsung's troubled folding phone goes for over £2,000. The main thing to remember here is no one needs the best of the best. You can find a phone that will do everything you need for far, far less. It's also worth considering a refurbished phone – a phone that has been returned to the manufacturer to be traded or fixed. There are often great deals on these – you really are getting the same phone for less
- Screen size – Do you plan to use your phone mainly for calls? For photos? For instant messaging? For reading? Browsing the internet? Banking? All of the above and more? What you used your phone for, as well as how big your pockets are, will determine the best size phone. Generally speaking it's easier to do most things the bigger the screen is. However, some of the largest phones are harder to hold when making calls and are less likely to fit in your pocket
- Screen quality and resolution – Screens come in a number of different types, and at different resolutions. The resolution is how many 'pixels' (dots) make up the image. The more pixels the finer the image. Truth be told, most phones now have a resolution sharper than the human eye can detect. Any mid-range to top end phone will deliver pleasing images, then
- Quality of camera – Forget about megapixels (MP). We're at a stage where they mostly don't matter anymore, partly because the number is far higher than matters even on low-end phones, and partly because we view/consume photographs on our phones and tablets, rather than print them these days. If you're not planning to print your photos out to billboard size, megapixels won't matter. Differences in camera usually come down to the software. Samsung, Google and Apple offer some of the best
- Processor – This is the microchip at the core of your phone which determines how fast it can complete actions such as taking and saving a photo, switching between apps, playing a mobile game – anything really. It matters less than it used to, since most phones made after 2015 or so are pretty capable and remain so. Still, if you're going very low end, this is something that's likely to suffer and as a result, things will take longer to do
- Battery life – How long the battery lasts on one charge. Simple rule, really: Don't choose a phone where this is less than 10 hours. 10 hours is about what you'll need to run your phone while out of the house or away from a charger all day. Accepting less means you are more likely going to suffer a dead battery
- Storage – This is the amount of room you will have for storing the phone's operating system, any apps you download, and any media you create or save on your phone such as photos and video. Anything less than 32GB is probably too little these days, unless you barely use your phone for apps or media
- Available providers – Not every phone is available on every network. Generally, providers choose a selection of phones to offer, some as part of exclusive deals. That means you won't see exactly the same range of phones everywhere
Popular phones and brands
While there are a number of mostly budget brands that few of us have heard of as well as branded phones from the likes of EE and Vodafone out there, most of us will end up choosing one of the following brands. It's a good idea, then, for us to briefly explore what separates each from the rest, and list of few of the most popular, current models.
- Apple – Everyone's heard of Apple. It's one of the largest companies in the world, thanks in most part to the iPhone. All iPhones run on the iOS operating system and all are a good choice, especially if you have other products made by Apple, such as an iMac, Macbook or Apple Watch, as they all integrate seamlessly. Older iPhones going as far back as the iPhone 6 are still very capable devices even now. Current iPhone models include the iPhone X and iPhone XS. Very pricy, but also very good
- Samsung – The Korean tech giant's main aim has, for many years, been to outdo Apple. As such its handsets are very high quality, but also on the expensive side. A phone as old as a Galaxy S6 is still perfectly usable, while its Galaxy S10, Galaxy S10 Plus, Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus represent its latest, cutting edge offerings. Samsung is also in the midst of releasing the Samsung Galaxy Fold, a phone that folds out to the size of a tablet, but at the time of writing its release has been delayed due to problems with the folding screen
- Huawei – This Chinese manufacturer (pronounced w-way, in case you were wondering), offers what you might term 'budget-premium' phones. That is to say, phones that can match Apple and Samsung for features and power, but that cost significantly less. Popular Huawei models include the Huawei P30 and P30 Pro, the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro and the Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 X. Huawei is also planning to release its own
- Google – Not quite as pricey as top-end Apple or Samsung phones, nevertheless Google's 'Pixel' handset range should still be considered high end. Renowned for their excellent cameras and software, Google's current top phones include the Google Pixel 3 and Google Pixel 3 XL. Perhaps realising that not everyone can afford and £800 handset, Google is also set to release the Google Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL – budget versions of its flagship models with stripped-down features, selling for around half the price
- OnePlus – Offers near-premium quality phones for about half the price you'll pay for a similar phone from Apple or Samsung. It really is that simple. In the past, OnePlus has been somewhat mired in negative news coverage. Data leaks, issues with its handsets. But in 2019, the Chinese manufacturer is a very different company – one whose phones are worthy of your attention. Notable models include the excellent OnePlus 6T and the upcoming OnePlus 7
- Nokia – A company that used to rule the mobile market, Nokia is somewhat less prestigious these days, offering mainly budget phones. Its flagship model, the Nokia 8 Sirocco can be had for around £550, and while that's still a lot of money, it pales next to the insane cost of a flagship Apple or Samsung phone. Popular Nokia models include the Nokia 8, the aforementioned Sirocco, the Nokia 7 Plus, Nokia 7.1 and Nokia 5.1
- LG – LG produces some good phones, but it absolutely takes the cake when it comes to creating maximum confusion if you're in a mind to buy one. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy 8, followed by Galaxy 9 and Galaxy 10, where it's immediately apparent what the latest and greatest model is, LG produces phones such as the V30, Q6, K11, G7, G7 ThinQ, G7 Fit and so on. Absolutely impenetrable
- Motorola – Very much at the budget end of the market, you're likely to find Motorola phones offered with the cheapest with-handset contract deals. They're decent phones, however, if not exactly bleeding edge. Popular models include the Moto G7 and Moto G6
- Sony – A real 'brand' this. Sony has always seemed to rely on the faithfulness of its existing 'fans' than it has innovated to draw new ones. If you're a Sony fan, you probably already have your eye on Sony's latest model. In reality, though, Sony exists mostly in the mid-range and does little to really stand out. Popular models include the Sony Xperia XZ3, the Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium, and the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra
- Blackberry – 10-12 years ago, Blackberry was a market leader on account of its main selling point: The little clicky keyboard beneath every screen that allowed you to easily tap out the odd email. Despite the fact that on-screen keyboards of most modern smartphones arguably do a better job, Blackberry has stuck to its guns. Blackberry phones are unique – quirky you might say – and as such quite niche. Popular models include the Blackberry Key2 and Blackberry KEYone
Popular providers of mobile deals
Let's not confuse manufacturer or brand (above) with provider. While you can buy an Apple phone, you can't get an Apple mobile deal that offers minutes, data and texts. For that you need a mobile provider. Let's run through the most popular providers and offer a brief description of what each of them offers. Bear in mind that the links in this section will take you to the SIM only comparison tool for each individual provider. If you want to compare mobile phones you're already on the right page.
- ASDA Mobile – Offers only budget-end phones/handsets and PAYG SIMs. ASDA is a purely PAYG provider that also allows you to buy bundles of minutes, texts and data using your top-up amount. These bundles last for 30 days and offer better value than regular PAYG, which subtracts directly from your top-up amount with each use. ASDA Mobile operates on the EE network
- BT Mobile – Offers contract phones from Apple, Samsung, Sony, Nokia, Huawei and Motorola (and you can also buy these handsets outright from BT if you want), as well as a range of SIM-only contract SIMs on 12-month contracts. BT operates on the EE network
- EE – Offers pretty much everything. Contract phones from Apple, Samsung, Google, Huawei, Nokia, Motorola OnePlus, Sony and Land Rover – yes, Land Rover (it's for outdoorsy people apparently). EE also has a huge range of SIM-only contract deals, rolling 30-day SIM deals and PAYG SIMs. EE operates on its own network
- giffgaff – Is rather unique in that it runs its network with the help of its community. As such the money it saves is passed onto you via its cheap prices. Giffgaff offers contract phones from Alcatel, Apple, Google, Honor, Huawei, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus, Samsung and Sony. Giffgaff operates on the O2 network
- iD Mobile – Is the in-house mobile brand for the Carphone Warehouse. It offers a wide range of contract phone deals with handsets from Alcatel, Apple, Doro, Google, Honor, Huawei, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus, Oppo, Samsung and Sony. It also offers both SIM-only contract and PAYG deals. ID Mobile operates on the Three network
- O2 – Operates on its own network. It offers contract phones from Alcatel, Apple, Doro, Google, Honor, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Oneplus, Samsung and Sony. It also offers a wide variety of SIM-only contract plans as well as PAYG plans and phones
- Plusnet Mobile – Offers only SIM-only deals at knock-down prices. Definitely worth checking out if you're just after a cheap SIM with generous minutes, texts and data. Plusnet Mobile operates on the EE network
- Tesco Mobile – Offers contract phone deals (or good prices on buying outright) on handsets from Apple, Samsung, Alcatel, Doro, Honor, Huawei, IMO, Motorola, Nokia and Sony. It also has a wide range of SIM-only contract and PAYG deals. Tesco Mobile is on the Vodafone network
- Three – Runs its own network. Three's big selling point right now is it is currently the only provider to offer unlimited data deals without any proviso. Virgin Mobile and giffgaff offer unlimited data too, but the conditions are very restrictive. Three offers contract phones from Alcatel, Apple, Google, Honor, Huawei, Razer, Samsung, Xiaomi and ZTE. As with other network provider you will also find SIM-only contract and PAYG SIM deals
- Vodafone – Runs its own network. And like all of the true network providers here has just about anything and everything you can imagine on offer. Contract phone deals on handsets from Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Google, Xiaomi, OnePlus, Sony, Nokia, Motorola, Palm, Vodafone (own-brand) and Doro. It will also provide all manner of SIM-only contract deals and PAYG SIMs and phones
- Sky Mobile – Its range of phones is considerably smaller than many other providers. It offers contract mobiles from just Apple, Samsung, Google, Sony and Huawei. Still, that's the main bases covered, we'd argue. It also offers SIM-only deals, which to be honest aren't particularly good value, even if you're already a Sky customer. Sky Mobile operates on the O2 network
- Virgin Mobile – Offers contract phone deals only from Apple, Samsung, Sony and Huawei. Virgin Mobile also offers unlimited data deals on both mobile contract and SIM only, provided you are a Virgin Media broadband or TV customer. Virgin Mobile is on the EE network
How to choose the right mobile network for you
Ultimately, it's probably going to come down to the deal (and/or phone) available and whether or not you get a good signal where you live, work or generally spend a lot of time. The main ways the four networks differentiate themselves beyond coverage is in the speed of their 4G data. Let's take a look at each.
EE claims the best 4G coverage. But there's not much in it, with all four providers claiming 99% or greater coverage by population. According to crowdsourced speed data from insight organisation Tutela, in January 2019 EE provided the fastest average data speeds of the four network providers with average 4G download speeds of around 27Mbps.
Vodafone also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 21Mbps.
Three also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 11Mbps, the slowest of the four.
O2 also claims 99% 4G coverage by population. Tutela measured its average 4G download speed as around 16Mbps.
Frequently asked questions
Who has the best mobile phone deal?
How long is a piece of string? It really depends on what you're looking for. If you know what handset you're after and/or how many minutes, texts and data you need, then finding the right deal is only a few clicks away using the tools on this page. But there is never a 'best' deal – only one that suits you the most at a price you can afford. Unfortunately, to find that you're going to have to do a little of the work yourself.
What's the cheapest mobile phone deal?
Interesting question. If you're truly after the cheapest out there irrespective of any other factor, you need only sort the results on this page by price. Of course, cheapest doesn't always mean best value for money, so it's a good idea to know how much you're willing to spend before you start browsing and comparing.
Are PAYG phones cheaper than contract phones?
Yes. Most of the time. PAYG handsets are always at the budget end of the scale, so don't expect a great phone, unless you're willing to pay big bucks. However, most PAYG phones are perfectly serviceable so long as you don't absolutely need the shiny, deluxe experience of some of the top-end models.
What's the difference between PAYG and SIM only?
Both offer only a SIM, which you will need to put into an existing phone you already own. Some PAYG deals will come with a phone, but you will have to pay for it. SIM only is better value generally, but you will need to pass a credit check as it usually involves a 12-month contract. PAYG will get you less minutes, texts and data for your money, but there are no credit checks and you can switch any time you like.
Are there any upfront costs?
Depends on the specific deal. You will commonly find a portion of the price of the handset earmarked as an upfront cost, especially on deals involving the more expensive handsets. On SIM only deals there is usually no upfront cost – same with PAYG.
How much data do I need?
This is a hard question to answer. Many of us spend most of our time within range of a wifi router we have the password for, whether at work or at home. This means we only need a data allowance that covers the times when we're not, as your phone will automatically use wifi data where it is available. As a rule, then, most of us need less data than we think. 5GB is a good place to start. If you hit the limit in a month, you can always upgrade.
Are refurbished handsets any good?
Yes, they really are. Refurbished handsets are ones that have been sent back to the manufacturer either to repair a fault or simply to be resold. The manufacturer will then refurbish them so they are literally as good as new. Most refurbished handsets will arrive as new, in a new box, even with the protective clear plastic we love peeling off. You will not be able to tell the difference between a refurb and a new phone in most cases, and you will often save a substantial amount of money.