Best iPhone SIM card approach for travel to the UK

Tonya and Tristan and I are going to London soon for a tech friend’s wedding, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to have our iPhones have full data access there. We don’t care about getting voice calls or texts from the U.S., and AT&T charges $10 per day per phone for international usage, which would add up to a lot for the three of us. My understanding is that there are shops that sell SIMs in the airports, but I’d prefer to have the SIMs in hand before we leave.

I’ve seen recommendations for giffgaff, which runs on the O2 network and will ship us SIMs with 1 GB of data for £7.50. Does that seem like a good price, or are there any gotchas I should be aware of?

We’ve also heard that Apple Pay works really well for the London Tube, although another company, City-Go, sells packages that include a SIM card and an Oyster card. For those who live in London or have traveled there recently, any thoughts about how the Oyster card compares to using Apple Pay?



Giffgaff has a very good reputation. £7.50 for a gig sounds perhaps a little steep but not wildly unreasonable.

I don’t live in London but I go there several times a year.

Oyster cards are preloaded and you’d need one each, I think: certainly, the last time I tried using one for my wife and me, we ran into trouble. I don’t know what the arrangements are for getting refunds of unused credit but you’ll probably find it tedioius. When I got mine, several years ago, there was a deposit of £10 per card as well, refundable (in theory, at least) on the return of the card.

Any contactless credit card will work on the Tube without doing any setup in advance, and that includes ApplePay. The system is intelligent enough to work out how many trips you’ve taken in a day/week/month and to bill you for the cheapest single or season ticket as appropriate: at least, the PR says it is and I’ve not heard otherwise. The only reason I tend to use a card is that I don’t much like flashing an iPhone around in public, but that’s probably just me being paranoid. Again, I think, you’ll need one for each member of the family.


Jeremy Roussak


Notes from an 8 day visit to London in Janaury 2018:

  1. I purchased SIM in London—so that experience probably wouldn’t work for you. I couldn’t use the AT&T international plan because I was on a legacy plan and had no access to it. However, it might still work for you. If you folks are together most of the time, you can have the plan on one phone and use it as a hotspot for the others. As I understand it, the International Plan charges the $10/device only on days for which it is used. So, with some care, it might still work for you.

  2. Apple Pay works great under certain conditions:

a) Your credit card is authorized for it in Britain. In 2016, my Chase British Airways card was not authorized, but in 2018 it was.

b) As long as you use the same ‘card’ on the same device, daily capping rules apply, so it is a cheap as getting an Oyster card day pass for the furthest zone you’ll be traveling to.

c) The weekly situation is bit different. The weekly capping rule for contactless (including Apple Pay) applies only to a Monday-Sunday week. On the Oyster card version, it starts when first used (or maybe when purchased). On my trip, I started using the Underground on a Wednesday and used it through the following Wednesday. I added a weekly pass to my Oyster Card (saved from previous trips) that ran from Wednesday through the following Tuesday and then used Apple Pay on my Apple Watch for the final day. It worked well. Since i wear my watch on my left wrist and the touch sensor (works for both contactless and Oyster) is on the right, I would do a little dance step through the gate.

d) If you can, you should register yourself and the cards you intend to use for Apple pay on the Transport for London site at That should let you test to see if your cards will work and also provide travel histories when you travel. When I just tried to access it, it was down, but that may be transitory.

Alan Forkosh Oakland, CA

I would pick up a Pay as you go SIM from a Three store (or have them mail a Sim to your hotel in advance). There are Three stores all over the UK and the network is fast and widespread

Prepay depending on what suits you.

I’ve used giffgaff for years, and would recommend it. The £7.50 goodybag is what I use as my standard monthly ‘plan’, and I never get through all my data, so I imagine it will be enough for you for a visit. One nice thing is that if you find you do need to phone the US, giffgaff’s rates are low, only 2p/min.

City-Go seems expensive, since you’re essentially paying for things that are free (SIM & Oyster cards). If you want to get Oyster cards, it’s simple to do at any Tube station from one of the machines. There is a deposit (£5?), but it’s also simple to return the card at the end of your stay. The larger machines at stations have this facility and will refund you in cash for the deposit and any remaining balance.

Saying that, I’ve been using my Oyster card a lot less on trips to London as, like others have said, a contactless debit card works just as well. Since my bank card is contactless, it’s one less thing to remember or top-up. Similarly, Apple Pay works well. As @aforkosh says, make sure to use the same card in Apple Pay each time to take advantage of daily/weekly capping. So if you all have Apple Pay and you get a good exchange rate on the card you use it with, then just use that. However, if the exchange rate charged by your US bank for foreign transactions isn’t good, you’ll be better off converting money and loading it onto an Oyster card when you arrive.

TfL provides an overview of using non-UK contactless cards. From that it sounds like there can be issues with using some US cards directly at the gates, even though they can be used to top-up Oyster cards at the machine. As long as you have a bit of time (10-15 minutes), you can try this out when you arrive. If your preference is Apple Pay or your bank/credit card, just try it and see if it works. If not, you can easily go to a machine and buy an Oyster card. Whatever you do, don’t buy individual tickets from the machine, as they cost a lot more than using Oyster or contactless. It’s all a lot simpler than I’m making it sound, and in my experience the staff at stations are very helpful (they ‘mill about’ so you can approach one and ask for help if needed).

Regarding registering your card with TfL, this is not necessary, and I’m not confident that registering a card will guarantee that it works. For instance, you could probably register a non-contactless card, but you won’t be able to use it at the gates. The good news is that you can register your card at any time, even after you’ve started using it, and you should still get historical journey data (I believe). With Oyster cards, you can also get a list of historic journeys at the machines at stations (even if the card isn’t registered), I’ve never tried this with a bank card, so not sure if it works with them.

I can’t answer the SIM questions as we simply used our T-mobile phones in Europe without issue. The phones even worked in Russia! (sort of)

As for Apple Pay, it works brilliantly in Europe even in many places were they say, “Yeah, that won’t work.” but not generally in restaurants and not anywhere that says “no tap”. That said, we had more places that didn’t work in London than in Europe, including the ticket kiosks for the Underground, so despite being in London only 3 ½ days, we ended up having to use more GBP than we used Euros/Krone for three weeks in Europe (I’m talking actually currency). However, what we discovered too late was that, at least for the Underground, we could have simply used ApplePay the entire time and bypassed the tickets.

You don’t need (and probably can’t get) an Oyster card unless you’re going to be there weeks.

Our Chase card and our Credit Union Debit card worked in ApplePay everywhere. The Square Cash debit card worked nowhere. I’ve heard that an ApplePay Cash card also does not work, but we were in Europe last June before the ApplePay Cash card was available.

We have more issues with Appel Pay in Canada, honestly, and I think it works really well in Canada. In Europe and the UK it’s seamless nearly every time. Sometimes you’ve paid (with a watch, especially) before the person even realizes it.

At places like coffee shops, convenience stores, or grocery stores it makes a big difference in the processing time since your cards will not work with tap-to-pay and if you insert your card you will almost always have to sign, which means finding a pen since this is entirely alien to anyone outside the US. The difference can be between basically zero time to well more than a minute. You can see the relieve on the cashier’s face when a contactless payment works if you’re in a touristy spot, as they are dreading the US Cards.

We used a specific card because of the low international fees, but used our Credit Union card if we needed cash because its fees were much lower for that, so check your cards for not only the processing fees and exchange fees, but also what they base the rate on.

Lovely advice and details — thanks, everyone!

One final question: I can’t use Apple Pay all that often here, but in the times I have used it, I’ve found the iPhone to be more reliable than the Apple Watch, perhaps because I can’t always get the watch right next to the NFC reader. Does anyone who uses Apple Pay in the Tube have an opinion on which device works best, assuming both are available? I know you need to stick with one card on one device (at least per day?).

You can just buy an Oyster card at any station at either a ticket vending machine or a ticket office. £5 deposit and some cash on the card, any balance left over at the end of the trip can be reclaimed at any TfL ticket office (Transport for London). You can’t reclaim the balance and return the card at a DLR (Docklands Light Railway) ticket office although the Oyster card will work there.

I would use Oyster cards rather than ApplePay as you can only need a single transaction to fund the cards rather than everyone needing ApplePay on their phone with a suitable card. If you are flying in to Heathrow in the morning the prices will be a lot cheaper if you can delay your travel into the city till after 9:30am, you can then get an all day pass for all zones. Gatwick is not reachable with an Oyster card, you need to buy a train ticket, don’t get the Gatwick Express, take a local train it will be a little slower and a lot cheaper. FWIW it worth I usually find myself buying an oyster card every other time I go to London as I have forgotten to bring one with me.

I would go for EE or 3 SIM cards as they will be easier to buy top ups for in stores rather than fighting with their in phone top up via a card. Both have decent LTE/4G networks in the London area and ok pricing. Your phones are unlocked I hope :slight_smile:

It is worth studying a tube map showing the accessibility of the underground as there are some stations that can have you hauling suitcases up and down multiple flights of stairs and long corridors, eg Bank, usually an alternative route can be found that avoids 10 minutes of cardiac exercise in the bowels of London.



This is definitely not the case! You can easily get and return an Oyster card from the machines at every Underground station. And if you’re not using Apple Pay or a contactless card, even for a single journey it makes sense to get an Oyster card, use it, then return it. The fares for non-Oyster tickets are much higher (£4.90 for a single journey in zones 1-2, versus £2.40 on Oyster/contactless).

You need to stick to one Apple Pay device per person (per day) so you need 3x devices, I don’t think that also mean 3x cards on the back end as it tries to track you in or out, but don’t quote me on that.

It is not like a stored value card which is only debited when you enter the system, it also debits on the way out depending on distance traveled.

The readers are on top of the gates, so there is no problems getting the watch close; just remember to use the one on your right.

The only time I had a problem with using a watch for a transaction was when I tried to use the watch version of my British Airways boarding pass at the departure gate at Heathrow. The gate reader required the boarding pass be placed in a slot too narrow for my wrist. So I had to pull my phone out and use it instead.

Thanks. We all have iPhones and Apple Watches, so that should work. I have heard it’s problematic to share devices.

I use Apple Pay a lot, and 99% of the time I use my watch. However, on the Underground the reader is on the right side, so if you wear your watch on the left, it’s awkward.

Just a half turn and moving your left arm across your chest as you twist your wrist. No worse than grabbing the Oyster Card in my pocket.

Alan Forkosh Oakland, CA

Yep. I didn’t say difficult. I think in that case a phone might be easier, but the trade-off for getting the phone out versus the twisting reach… I dunno, six of one, same difference of the other?

Another thing to keep in mind that Apple Pay (or contactless or Oyster) is also necessary for the buses, as they don’t accept cash.

And in terms of travelling around London, get Citymapper. Really excellent app, and will even give routes that mix bus and Underground, or other combinations. One of my favourite features is that it tells you which part of the train to get on in the Underground so that you are positioned closest to the exit at your destination, or the place to transfer to a different line.

Downloading now, thanks! :-)

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Adam – Like you, I travelled to a country with friends… Iceland. We all had iPhones. We did not need to receive phone calls from the U.S.A.

I suggest buying the SIM card after you arrive. A tech in the store can help you set it up and test it to make sure it is working properly.

My friends (my wife and another couple) and I purchased DATA ONLY 1GB SIM cards. We found out we couldn’t use iMessage to text each other. The tech in the store where we purchased the cards was stumped. After a half hour I figured it out… our phones no longer worked with iMessage because the SIM cards from the USA had phone numbers that were registered to our Apple IDs. So we had to log into our Apple ID accounts to add the new SIM phone numbers. After we did that all was well and our texts were blue.

Since that trip my wife and I have switched to T-mobile. We’re seniors so we have the Over 55 plan. Two lines for $60 (for both) with unlimited texts, unlimited calls, unlimited data. When we travel internationally we don’t have to mess with SIM cards… everything just works and it’s unlimited texts and unlimited data (at a slower 2G speed). Voice calls are 20 cents/minute. Works in about 120 countries. It’s great.

Thanks for the tip about adding the new phone number to Messages—we’ll keep that in mind once we can test for real.

If you use someone’s email address in iMessage instead of phone number, then they get through regardless of which SIM is in their phone. I wish Apple allowed you to keep a phone number linked even when switching SIMs.