Pay as you go mobile deals – everything you need to know
By Dan Howdle |
In this guide
By picking up a handset and a pay as you go (PAYG) SIM at the same time through a provider, there are bargains to be had. After all, with any pay as you go phone deal, you are simply buying the handset outright, since there is no contract as such.
Technically, then, there is no such thing as a PAYG phone – any phone that you buy and put a PAYG SIM into qualifies. However, for the purposes of our comparison, and the information you'll find below, we are defining a PAYG phone as a cheap, cheap phone you purchase at the same time as a PAYG SIM.
What are PAYG mobile deals?
a PAYG mobile deal is a PAYG SIM deal where you also pay for an often-discounted handset up-front. It differs substantially, therefore, from a pay monthly mobile deal where the cost of the handset is spread across the length of the contract, usually allowing people to afford high-end handsets they perhaps could not otherwise.
PAYG handsets are usually a last resort for those who cannot pass the credit checks involved in a regular contract handset deal. Or perhaps you just don't feel the need for an expensive phone as you won't use it much. Either way, PAYG mobile deals are less than ideal. You'll end up either with an inferior handset or have to pay through the nose for a better one, and your calls, texts and data will cost you more. If you can avoid it and get a contract mobile deal, you should.
Otherwise, here's what makes up a PAYG mobile deal. Its core components, as it were.
- The phone itself – With a PAYG mobile deal you will always pay for the handset upfront. It won't necessarily cost you a lot – we've seen PAYG phones going for as little as £5, so long as you purchase a minimum amount of PAYG top-up. Obviously, though, the less you pay, the fewer features you're going to get, and true smartphones start at around the £100-£200 mark. Likewise, the more you pay, the closer to the top end you can go
- The PAYG SIM – As well as the phone, these deals will come with a SIM. You will usually be required to add a minimum amount of top-up (often £10) when taking out one of these deals. This top-up amounted is then usually discounted from the cost of the handset
- Top-up – You will usually be required to purchase an amount of 'top-up' with a PAYG mobile deal. This amount will then be drawn from every time you make a call, download data or send a text. You pay as you go, see?
Pros and cons of a PAYG mobile deal
We've covered this briefly in the description above, but here let's get down to the nitty gritty. What's good about a PAYG mobile deal – what are the advantages? And what's bad? What are the down sides?
- No credit checks
- Cheap handsets
- Handset must be bought upfront
- Allowances cost more than a contract deal
- Fewer features and perks
- No credit checks – Because you're not taking out any credit. A PAYG mobile deal is simply you buying a phone and adding a PAYG SIM, with the added benefit of a little money off if you buy them both as a deal. If you need to avoid credit checks, and you need a handset, a PAYG mobile deal is the way to go
- Cheap handsets – Take this with a pinch of salt: Yes, many PAYG-focused handsets are very cheap, but ultimately you get what you pay for. The cheaper the handset you choose, and for which you'll have to pay upfront, the less smart the smartphone becomes, with the very bottom end comprised of phones that can't really be called smart at all. Good for making calls and not much else
- Flexibility – The good thing about PAYG mobile deals is they allow you the flexibility to have a second phone, or to use one phone as little as you like. After all, not everyone feels the urge to lead a 24/7 connected life
- Handset must be bought upfront – This is the flipside of the coin to 'cheap handsets'. You get what you pay for can be a good thing, or a not-so-good thing. If you're going PAYG, you can forget about getting a top-end handset, unless of course you have £600+ lying about
- Allowances cost more than a contract deal – Once you're on a PAYG deal, your top-up is going to offer far less value than a pay monthly contract deal. Minutes, texts and data are much more expensive on PAYG, which is why we only recommend it to people who either barely ever use their phone or simply have no choice
- Fewer features and perks – You won't get anything fancy with a PAYG mobile deal. Some offer double data, for example, and other incentives if you top-up by a certain amount each month, but you won't get the unlimited Netflix and music streaming-type stuff you'll see being waved under the noses of those who are up for a pay-monthly contract phone
Which providers offer PAYG mobiles?
You can of course go to a high street retailer and buy a phone then order a free SIM. You can do that if you want. If you want a 'deal' though, you will have to get a PAYG phone from one of the UK's four mobile network providers.
- EE – At the time of writing, EE had 21 PAYG mobile deals available, costing up to £119.99 for the Sony Xperia L3, all the way down to as little as just 79p for the extremely humble MobiWire Pictor. Its PAYG mobiles are from Alcatel, Doro, EE, Huawei, MobiWire, Motorola, Nokia and Sony
- O2 – Actually had 92 'PAYG phones' on offer at the time of writing. But wait! A closer look and most of these are just regular contract phones, albeit with the entire price of the handset charged upfront, so not really a deal at all. In some cases, such as the top-end Apple phones, O2 is actually charging hundreds of pounds more for the phone than the recommended retail price – clearly to steer you towards a contract instead. At the lower end, though, there are proper PAYG mobile deals, denoted in the most part by the rock-bottom prices and somewhat low-end quality of the handsets
- Three – Had 33 PAYG phones on offer at the time of writing. However, like O2 many of these are just the same handsets you'll see in the contract section. Still, at least there isn't a 'we'd rather you got a contract' tax on the price of each handset, as there is on O2. Handsets on offer are from Alcatel, Apple, Google, Honor, Huawei, OnePlus, Razer, Samsung, Xiaomi and ZTE
- Vodafone – Like EE, Vodafone sticks with mid-range, budget and super-budget phones for its PAYG handset offering. Very sensible. It had 28 PAYG handsets at the time of writing, with iPhone 6 and iPhone 7 at the most expensive end at just a little under £500, and The MobiWire Ayasha at the cheapest end, costing just £1
Who makes PAYG handsets?
Technically any phone is a PAYG phone. For the purposes of this question, though, we will focus on those manufacturers with either a mainly or entirely PAYG offering, as sourced through the UK's four network providers.
- Alcatel – A French brand of mobile handsets, owned by Nokia and specialising in budget handsets, from simple dumb phones to basic smartphones
- Doro – Is a Swedish consumer electronics company. Is makes simple, budget phones with older people in mind
- EE – The provider has a single own-brand PAYG handset on offer, called the EE Hawk. It retails for just under sixty quid and is categorised as a basic smartphone
- Honor – Is a sub-brand of Huawei. Honor phones are Huawei phones, albeit cheaper, simpler and marketed more towards younger people than Huawei's bleeding edge top end. Currently, it is inadvisable to buy a Huawei phone, and so also inadvisable to buy an Honor. Huawei is, at the time of writing, in a dispute with Google over its Android operating system, making its future in the West unclear
- Huawei – See above for Honor. Huawei makes some great phones, but now is not a good time to buy
- MobiWire – Makes so-called 'ultra-budget' phones for the most part – where the price of the handset is almost irrelevant as it simply acts as the cheapest and easiest means to get you on the network. The cheapest MobiWire phone is just 79p
- Motorola – Was once a powerhouse in the mobile industry, with some of the best technology and phones in the world. Apple's iPhone changed that, inventing the smartphone and leaving Motorola in the dust. These days it sells budget-end, simple, functional handsets
- Nokia – See Motorola. Nokia suffered the same fate
- Samsung – Has literally every level of phone available. Unlike Apple, its number one competitor at the top end – which doesn't make budget phones – you'll find plenty at the affordable PAYG end with Samsung
- Sony – Makes phones from budget to mid-range. There are some decent contract phones with Sony, and some well priced PAYG offerings. Our own experiences with Sony phones, though, hasn't been altogether that positive
- Vodafone – Actually has a multitude of own-brand PAYG handsets, which we applaud. They start at £15 and go all the way up to £105, depending on how fully featured each handset is
Frequently asked questions
Can you pay monthly for a SIM-free phone?
Yes and no. Yes, you can go to an electronics retailer and buy a phone outright, and choose to pay for it on a hire-purchase basis. No, you cannot get a PAYG phone from a provider and pay for it in instalments as this requires a contract and is therefore no longer PAYG.
What is the best SIM-free mobile phone?
Any mobile phone can be bought SIM-free. Therefore this question simply becomes 'Which is the best phone?'. At the time of writing, the generally accepted 'best phone' is the Samsung Galaxy S10+. If you're reading this a year later, it will be something else so we suggest you do some more research.
Is pay as you go cheaper than contract?
No. Quite the opposite, in fact. You can certainly get very cheap handsets on PAYG, but you will pay more for services – for your minutes, texts and data – than you would pay if you received the allowances either through a contract phone deal, or a contract SIM-only deal.
Can I just buy a phone without a plan?
Yes. But from a retailer, rather than through a provider. Providers will always want to bundle a SIM to go with it.
Is it better to pay for phone upfront or monthly?
While it's true that you will pay a little more for the phone in most cases when you pay for it across 24 months than you would if you bought the handset outright, whatever you save will likely be inconsequential compared to the money you will save through the generous allowances pay-monthly mobile deals offer. Your minutes, data and texts, that is.
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