How to compare mobile phone deals
Our comparison (above) pulls in almost every deal from almost every provider and retailer in the UK, but crikey that does mean there's an awful lot of them. Here's a short guide which will hopefully help you narrow it down a bit.
Using the mobile comparison tools on this page
As long as you have some sort of idea of what you're looking for, the various buttons and filters on this page will get you the rest of the way. If you really don't know what you want – only that you need a phone or a SIM – there is loads of advice on how to choose the right provider, tariff, handset or SIM below.
The pay monthly and SIM-only buttons
Starting at the top of the page, then, there are the 'pay monthly' and 'SIM-only' buttons. Pay monthly is the somewhat awkward term for bundling a handset in with the deal. You also tend to 'pay monthly' for SIM-only (no handset) deals, making that a somewhat confusing way to describe it. This is common across the industry, however, so when making your selection there just remember that 'pay monthly' means 'with a handset' and 'SIM-only' means you've already got a handset and are just looking for a SIM with data, texts and calls.
The various filters on the left of the list
To the left of the main list you'll see a small selection of filters to help you narrow your available choices. When you first come to this page, there will be lists from which you can select a make and model if you know what you're looking for, and further down you can put in the amount of minutes, texts and data you need.
Clicking on the 'view all filters' button further expands those available, allowing you to choose by a specific provider, arranged by how much you want to spend, contract length, upfront cost, whether or not you would like some sort of cashback or free gift for signing up, and whether or not you'd be happy with a second-hand (refurbished) phone.
Don't forget you can also use the drop-down at the top-right of the list to sort your results by price, popularity and available amount of monthly data.
Pay monthly or SIM-only?
As briefly explained above, pay monthly simply means you'll get a handset, SIM-only means you have a handset and are looking for a new contract or provider. It's very confusing, as most SIM-only deals also require you to pay monthly. Anyway, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each to help sway you one way or the other.
Pay monthly pros and cons
- Pros: Pay monthly handset deals let you spread the cost of the handset across a long period of time, bringing otherwise unreachable flagship handsets such as the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X within reach of the average user. They're also ideal if your old phone has had it or, if this is the first time you've ever considered having a mobile phone
- Cons: The main downside is the same as the upside: because the cost of the handset is folded into your monthly payments, pay monthly is always going to be more expensive than SIM-only; and with the top-end phones, a lot more expensive. Plus, because providers want to help you spread the cost as widely as possible – as well as for their own selfish reasons – you will usually find pay monthly handset contracts are longer. Up to three years in some cases. Think carefully before committing
SIM-only pros and cons
- Pros: Just because Samsung or whoever puts out a brand new handset every year doesn't mean you need it. If you're fed up with your existing provider, want a new deal, but have a handset that's really not all that old, a SIM-only deal can bring fresh life to the phone you already have, and at a considerably cheaper cost than if you went pay monthly with a new handset
- Cons: Well, you don't get a new handset do you? And as we all know, almost everyone loves a shiny, new plastic, metal and glass rectangle every now and then
Choosing the right tariff – minutes, data and texts
It wasn't all that long ago that minutes were the currency of choice for ramping up the numbers in an effort to outdo the competition. That's how we have arrived at the common standard where most phone contracts come with either several thousand minutes of just shrug and offer both unlimited minutes and texts.
Likewise the value of 'texts' as a selling point for your mobile contract has diminished significantly with the rise of app-based messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage. The new battleground is data.
The amount of data offered on a mobile contract varied from a measly 250MB – about enough in a month to watch a couple of YouTube videos or send a few dozen picture messages – through to silly numbers like 100GB (400 times as much), or in some cases totally unlimited.
How much data you need is probably not as much as your new provider would ideally like to sell you. These days most of us spend a lot of our time within range of free wi-fi, so as long as you ensure your phone is always ready to connect, you probably don't need as much as you think you do. Huge data allowances like 30GB, 50GB, 100GB and unlimited are really only going to be useful if you spend a lot of time outdoors and have lots of time to kill with Netflix, Youtube and so on.
Most providers will let you upgrade your monthly data allowance with a simple phone call or via their own app. Moreover, if you go over your allowance and receive an inflated bill, most providers will lop off the extra cost the first time it happens so long as you upgrade your data plan so it doesn't happen again.
Networks and providers: Is there a difference and how do you choose?
First off, yes, there is a difference between network and provider, but they can also be one in the same. There are four actual networks in the UK: Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three, all four of which are also providers – they provide phones, SIMs and contracts directly to customers.
All other providers are what's known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs. They essentially lease network capacity from the network owners and supply SIMs and contracts on the host network, albeit under their own brand, directly to customers. Notable MVNOs include giffgaff, BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, iD Mobile, Virgin Mobile and many, many more.
To understand what sort of coverage you're going to get, the coverage maps offered by any of the MVNOs will match those of one of the four network providers – whichever network the provider happens to be on. Virgin Mobile and BT Mobile are on EE, for example, where giffgaff is on O2 and iD Mobile is on Three.
Why should you concern yourself with such things? Well, if you're with EE, say, and you're not getting a great reception in your house or where you work, switching to Virgin Mobile isn't going to do you a lot of good. In some cases then, it's vital that you know where you're going and why.
Choosing the right handset
If we were advising you on buying new car, assuming your budget wasn't unlimited, it would run something along the lines of: first, ask yourself what you're going to use it for, number of passengers, trip length, what you do in the car, where you drive it, kids? Dogs? And on. And that would be similar to the ideal advice we could offer about choosing a handset.
But with handsets that doesn't really apply because smartphone handsets checked off all the really useful features years ago. You literally won't find one that doesn't let you surf the web, engage in video chats, take pictures, download apps, use maps, make calls, play Angry Birds and so on.
The reality then is that choosing a handset really comes down to what you like the look of. Flagship handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and iPhone X have the best screens and security features. They look amazing and do lots of things you probably don't need. It's really going to come down to whether you feel you can justify the expense or if you'd prefer something cheaper and simpler. They all do the job, so the primary consideration is really how much you want to spend.
Look out for mobile deals with cashback and free gifts
Everyone likes a freebie, and mobile phone contracts often have some if the best cashback and gifts out there. In the table above, anything that comes with some kind of additional discount, cashback, free gift or limited time offer is labelled accordingly in the listings above.
Finding a deal that gives you something extra will obviously be a lot easier if you've decided on a handset first. Remember, the deals shown aren't just those available directly from the providers, but also through UK retailers, which will often tempt you in with new-customer freebies or discounts.
When skimming through the available deals this way, though, remember to sort by price using the sorting drop-down at the top right of the comparison table. You quite often find that the deals offering the best cashback or gifts are also the ones that are the most expensive. Be careful, then, as choosing the most generous reward without paying close attention to the monthly price and how it compares could mean you end up paying more than you get back.