You don’t have to go into one of those cool red boxes to make a call.
I tried to plan ahead for my semester abroad, so I stressed out over phones and phone plans. But it’s kind of confusing to figure it out from a different country, so I recommend waiting until you arrive for the most part.
About cell companies in the UK
There are a number of cell services in the UK that you can use. 3 is a big one. The one that I used is called Vodafone, and it was okay. Sometimes I had an awful customer service experience at the Vodafone store, and sometimes I had a great one. It was easy to use, if a little clunky, so I halfheartedly recommend it. My friends who used 3 had issues with service occasionally, so it seemed like a “pick your poison” situation.
One good thing about phone service in the UK is that it’s a lot cheaper than it is in America. Like, £5 for 100 MB of data, 100 talking minutes, and 250 texts for a month.
If you’re studying abroad, you will probably never use the minutes or texts anyway. You have to call your mom over Facetime or Messenger. I had a friend who downloaded maps and WhatsApp and never bought phone service at all. (I don’t have a good enough sense of direction for that and need my Google Maps to be connectable to the internet at all times, but it is an option.)
Before you go
All you need to do before you go abroad is make sure you have an internationally unlocked phone. This means that you can use a SIM card from another country in your phone. I bought an internationally unlocked Samsung Galaxy J5 on Amazon—the description specified that it was unlocked. If you already have a phone that you want to use, check with your provider to see if they can unlock it. Here is some information on finding out if you can unlock your phone.
When you arrive
Assuming you are entering in London or another large city, there will be places for you to get a SIM card. There is a general SIM store at the Heathrow airport, though if you know which service you want to use, I prefer to wait until I can get to an actual store for that service and talk to the representatives there.
On my most recent trip to England, I went to the Vodafone store in London Paddington station. Phone service stores are all over the place; there’s at least one in every city, and way more than that in London, so you are sure to find one. If you don’t know where it is in your city, try the mall.
When you’re in the store, find a service representative and tell them how long you’ll be in the UK, and they can help you get what you need. They will put a new SIM in your phone right then and there and set you up with a plan, and you are good to go (though the service might take a few minutes to kick in).
Your new phone number will be listed on your receipt when you check out; the representative will point it out to you.
I kept my American SIM and popped it right back into my phone when I returned home. Vodafone SIMs are different in that they expire after a couple of months of disuse, so if you go back to the UK later, you have to get a new SIM with a new number.
Issues I had with Vodafone
The biggest problem I ran into with Vodafone when I was living in England for several months was that their website struggles with foreign credit cards. “Pay monthly” plans were not available to me as I did not have a British bank account for the plan to draw money out of each month. I went with the “Pay as you go” Big Value Bundles, which are very cheap. They last for 30 days, and then you have to buy a new one.
I could check my balance online, but I couldn’t pay for a new plan online because the website wouldn’t accept my American card most of the time. So I had to walk to Norwich city center to buy a new plan from the store. This was more of a hassle than I wanted.
I found Vodafone when I was looking for a phone service that would work when I traveled around Europe and not cost me a ton of money every day.
Vodafone’s Big Value Bundles apply to many different countries in Europe, so using your phone there works exactly the same way as it does when you’re in the UK, without extra costs.
If you use up your minutes or data while you’re in another country, in theory you can top up online, but I would be wary in case your credit card is not accepted. Before I started my trip around Europe, I added money to my account at the Vodafone store so that when I ran out, it would start to draw from the extra money in my account to pay for the data I was using.