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Help with cell phone confusion in UK?

My daughter will be studying abroad near Liverpool. I brought an unlocked phone but am confused about the sims & prepaid minutes. If I buy a Virgin Mobile sim, does this mean my daughter will need to buy Virgin top up minutes or can she get any carrier's sim and another carrier's top up minutes. Also what about the service or network? Such as, we live in a rural area and Verizon has the best coverage. Is this the case in the UK? Thank you!

Posted by
32156 posts


It would help to have some further details on the "unlocked" phone that you bought? Where did you buy it, is it a GSM phone and which frequency bands is it equipped with???

Just to clarify, Verizon phones will NOT work in the U.K. As far as network coverage and reliability, IN MY experience O2 and Orange are the most reliable (even though Orange is a "single frequency" network, they seem to have good coverage). A family member had some "issues" with Virgin Mobile in the U.K., so based on that I won't be using them (Virgin is considered a "MVNO" and as such they don't actually operate their own cell network, they use the infrastructure of one of the other networks).

Regarding the SIM & top-up issue, AFAIK you have to use top-up minutes from whichever network the SIM is attached to.

If you could provide some further details, I'll try to offer other suggestions.

Posted by
9091 posts

Have you considered using Skype? If your daughter is bringing along a laptop, you can install the free software ( make free computer to computer calls. In addition you can make very cheap computer to land line/mobile calls for about .05 cents a minute.

Posted by
3 posts

I bought the phone from E-bay. It is a Motorola Razr, quad band. From what I understand it should have the frequency needed for UK. Now I am trying to decide what carrier to use. I thought on this message board someone said they brought the sim from Mobile World but the top-up minutes from Virgin Mobile. I was confused and wanted to get the best rate & service for her. If we can't talk on the phone, it is going to be a long 3 months. Thanks!

Posted by
505 posts


If your daughter is going to be living in the UK for 3 months, you don't want her calling home on a mobile. UK-US calls on mobile phone are very, very expensive - think $2 or more a minute, as compared to less than 20 cents per minute on a BT landline. It's cheaper for me to call my parents back in the States than it is for them to call across the US.

Mobiles are best for local and within UK calls. I would let your daughter buy the SIM card once she gets to the UK. Firstly, one of the companies might have a deal going, also companies tend to charge more for calls to mobile #s from other companies, so she should see which company is most popular with her schoolmates.

Sim Cards etc are really easy to buy - Carphone Warehouse and Phone4U are two of the big companies, but every corner shop has them.

I also suggest Skype - my mom and use it almost all the time since it's free and easy. She should have a landline and/or internet in a school flat/hall.

Posted by
505 posts


I don't think you will be able to buy one of the regular SIM cards until you are in the UK anyway. And it's probably cheaper just to get it here where you aren't paying shipping or getting dinged on the exchange rate.

As to companies.
I have Vodafone, which is fine and gets the best reception in the less populated parts of Scotland.

Orange is very popular because they offer good deals, such as 2 for 1 tickets to the cinema on Wednesdays.

The company here makes no difference as far as your company back in the US. Mobile technology is more advanced here and phones are independent of the company - any phone works with any company, you just pop in a new Sim Card - I have separate Danish and Aussie Sim Cards for my phone to use when travelling.

In anycase, AVOID the mobile for UK-US calls and let your daughter make the company choice here in the UK - she should get plenty of advice. And you can always slip her some extra $$ and/or a BT calling card to pay for things.

Posted by
1455 posts

I have the virgin mobile sim on a phone I got off ebay. The cost isn't bad if you use it occassionally, and virgin has multiple packages, even for the pay as you go one.

If your daughter is studying abroad, she may want to get a contract. They have excellent phone rates to call the US, as low as 20p a minute. And, they have a package where you top off on the incoming calls.

She can top off at any convenience store or some selected ATMs. I linked mine to my AMEX and can top up on my cell phone, even from California.

I've been happy with Virgin's service, but I hear that O2 and Orange have more competitive rates. If you get the pay as you go SIM, she can drop the carrier at any time without any guilt or penalty.

Go online and check out their rates and packages.

Posted by
32156 posts

Tami, thanks, that clears things up a bit. Your statement that it's a "quad-band Razr" would seem to indicate that it's a GSM Phone (the Razr line is also offered in CDMA versions, so that's an important distinction).

The others have provided some excellent advice. Of course, Kate will be the most familiar with the UK cell networks and quality of service issues.

One solution that might work for you, is something like this.

Prior to travelling to the UK, it might be prudent for you and your daughter to check the websites from several of the UK networks. There are a number of different PAYG plans offered, depending on time of day majority of calls are made, whether calls are made to the same network or others, etc. That way you would have an idea which plan would best meet your needs and your budget. When your daughter arrives in the UK, she will just need to find a shop from that network and buy the SIM.

continuued (this goofy message board is TOO restrictive!!!)

Posted by
32156 posts

Part 2

I doubt that a contract plan would be a good idea, regardless of the fact that your daughter will be living there. This will depend of course on how long she'll be there, but the shortest plan is probably one year, and of course there will be penalties to exit the plan before it's term is up.

As Kate mentioned, the Euro & UK networks are much further advanced than what we use here, so it's not difficult to top-up Phones. I believe this can even be done at the check-out at Tesco or other shops?

ONE IMPORTANT POINT - as previously mentioned, it will likely be very expensive to place long voice calls from a mobile / cell to a US number. I suggested the Cell Phone for "emergency" use and for the safety of your daughter. Her incoming calls will likely be "free", so it won't be a problem for you to call her, but you'll be paying the long distance to a UK number.

It WILL be easy and inexpensive to keep in touch with her via text / SMS however. That's the most cost effective way!

Posted by
32156 posts

When I'm travelling in Europe or the UK, I use SMS to keep in touch with family back home on a daily basis. That eliminates some degree of "uncertainty", and they don't worry about me and I don't worry about them. I normally use roaming with my home GSM network, so don't have any need to buy SIM cards in the UK. It's a much less complicated solution, as I keep the same number regardless of which country I'm in. The cost for voice calls is a bit "steep" but since I use SMS most of the time, that's not a big deal (SMS messages are only about 40¢ each).

One other point to mention is that the Razr is probably equipped with a "world" charger that will operate on the 220V / 50 Hz. electrical system in the UK. However, she WILL need a Plug Adapter (UK model has large rectangular pins).

If your daughter wishes to call you for "routine" matters, she could use a long distance Phone card (the cost is quite reasonable - I don't know what the current cost is?).


Posted by
32156 posts

One final point to make, is that some functions on the Razr phone might not work properly, as some of the programming will have been configured for the network it was first sold on. Which network it was originally used on will probably be apparent by the "start up screen" when the phone is first switched on.

Hopefully the seller gave you accurate informtion and the phone is in fact "unlocked"?

I found this to be the case when one of my relatives bought a GSM phone off E-Bay. Some of the network IP addresses and so on had been configured for Cingular, so had to be changed. This shouldn't make any difference for voice or SMS calls (AFAIK).

Again, good luck!

Posted by
505 posts

Contracts usually have a year minimum and are best if you are using the phone a lot. I have one, but am regretting it because I don't use nearly all the minutes. Also, not all companies will permit foreigners to have contracts because of some security issue. I think TMobile and O2 are the ones that don't.

It's easiest just to buy the Sim Card and then top the phone up with minutes. You can do that anywhere - ATM, shop, supermarket etc. Generally, you buy a card with scratch off strip that reveals a number which you input to your phone to add the minutes. Or get the number from the ATM. Very easy.

I really don't think there's that much difference between the various companies as far as reception - it's probably a matter of which company has the good deal at the time, who has good deals on texts and what her friends have. Orange, O2 and Vodafone are popular up here.