How to find a cheap sim-only or contract mobile deal

Last Updated on 14 July 2021 by Dan

Hello everyone! I originally published this article as part of a series encouraging people to think about the household bills that sometimes don’t get so much attention, like if you’ve got a cheap mobile sim-only deal or contract.

It’s amazing just how much the mobile phone has become part of our day-to-day lives – did you know that what you’ve got in your pocket is likely to be considerably more powerful than the computers that put Man on the Moon? Genuinely amazing.

How mobile contracts changed our spending.

Phones have stopped being just something you make calls on and become something of a “do-everything” device – but prices and contracts have both skyrocketed in the last couple of years as phones become both cutting edge but also use rather rare minerals in their manufacturing.

The market is an interesting one and definite ground for challenging our spending – most of us would not really consider going and buying a new PC or games console every 2 years. When the “contract model” of phones took off we became very used as consumers to always having the latest, and that mindset has never really gone away.

Check if you’re in a mobile contract deal period

The absolute first thing you should do is check what deal you’re on.

When you get a new phone the price of the handset is usually built in to your monthly deal, so you’re paying off the cost each month – but you only need to do the “buy the phone” bit for the minimum period, and after that you’re free to switch to a cheaper deal.

Astonishingly approximately 4m people in the UK in 2018 were still paying a high contract even when the phone was effectively “paid off”.

It’s easy (and very convenient for the mobile companies) to forget this is the case and let you carry on paying every after completion. Often switching to a SIM-only deal will get you much more data/minutes at a cheaper price.

Note that the majority of the networks have signed up to a voluntary code moving you on an “equivalent” SIM only deal, but….

a. This is voluntary and doesn’t apply to all networks

b. That deal they switch you to may not be best for you, so it’s still worth doing your own research.

Small networks offer cheap SIM-only mobile deals.

Some of the best deals to be found when going SIM only are with smaller providers and well worth considering. Whilst some of these don’t have quite the same brand name recognition, they simply rent space from the networks of the more well known providers and give you an identify service as a result.

So with SMARTY for instance you’re actually using O2’s network – but because SMARTY has much smaller running costs they’re able to keep things very reasonable.

I recommend taking a look at ID Mobile, SMARTY, TescoMobile, Lebara Mobile and GiffGaff for these deals.

In terms of the bigger providers, you can still find good deals but they rarely beat the names above.

I’d start with Three and Vodafone‘s SIM only section is always particularly worth a look. Personally I’m on a cheap SIM-only deal with O2 which I think it’s worth considering for the variety of extras which come with O2 priority and I wrote a review at that link.

The latest phone will likely be an expensive mobile contract

Working near a Westfield shopping centre, I was amazed at the amount of people queuing up outside the Apple Store for the iPhone 11 – I didn’t realise this was still a thing! I asked a few people in the queue why they wanted the phone and the answer generally focused around the newness – interestingly no-one mentioned the features.

People queuing for a cheap sim-only or contract mobile deal at Westfield.

Unless you can honestly say you work in an industry where “social proof” is important and people will actively judge you on having the latest tech (and this does not apply to 99% of you!) newness is not a good reason for spending a large amount here, especially given how quickly phones advance and how fast that new factor will wear off after a couple of weeks.

I suggest an effective approach is to total the lifetime contract of the phone – if you’re spending £48 a month on a two year contract, ask yourself if you’d rent a PC for 2 years for £1,152 with the same features? Do you already own a separate camera which takes better pictures? Do you need that slightly sharper screen? If not, go for a cheaper alternative.

I’m not saying don’t spend here – I’m saying just make sure whatever you’re buying is worth it for you.

Is buying the handset outright and a SIM only deal worth it?

Building on the “challenge if you need it by considering total cost” approach above, if you can afford it you can sometimes save money by buying the handset outright and getting a good SIM only deal.

It’s not always the case – when researching this article I found that often the bundled contracts were the ones offering more data – but occasionally I did find one as cheaper separate.

There’s simply no consistent answer to this – so it’s just a matter on doing the sums of the overall package.

Always compare and contrast contract and SIM only deals

Yes yes, who’d have thought that this would come up on a finance site? There really is so much variation between what mobile providers offer you though that this is an area that it really pays to do your homework.

Comparison sites are your friend here as they make it very easy to see the various packages. I got my deal with O2 at £8 a month through USwitch.

Despite high street stores frequently advertising one-off specials and “good deals” I have personally consistently found the best deals online, particularly with mobiles.co.uk and mobilephonesdirect.co.uk.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on Amazon if buying a handset directly – in recent sales they’ve had some quite steep discounting on handsets including Apple models. (On a related topic, I use the Iphone SE 2 which you can see my review of here.)

And that’s it!

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