UK phone service

Taking our iPhone Xs’s to the UK next month and the AT&T international data plan will cost us $200 total for the trip (3.5 weeks)…so looking at other options. Airalo eSIMs would be $45 total for 10GB each and can be topped up if needed but 10GB should be enough anyway. Physical Vodaphone SIM from Amazon is $70 total for 40GB each. Other than cost…is there any reason to choose the physical over the eSIM? We will just disable the US SIM while we are there and forward both US numbers to google voice just in case since google provides email notifications of voice mails.

Just returned from the U.K. Our phones are SE and 13mini. We purchased giffgaff sims, they don’t offer eSims, and service ( for less than $14/25GB/month each + unlimited calls and text and 5GB for roaming in the EU in case you hop over to Paris for the weekend! giffgaff uses the O2 network.

We were walking through the Cotswolds and wanted to be sure to have access to map data throughout the trip. We used less than 1 GB each as it turns out.

I’m pretty sure I learned about giffgaff through TidBITS-TALK 7-8 years ago. This is the third time we’ve used giffgaff in Europe (U.K., Ireland, Spain) and we’ve been very satisfied with performance and service. (Before Brexit they worked everywhere in the EU for no additional cost.)

They’ll mail you the sims in a timely manner before you even pick a plan and pay them. We received ours in a week or so.

Hope that helps.


PAYG sims can be picked up in any local store / supermarket and pick your package.
Often Lebara have stands at the airport selling their sims.

In advance of a trip, you can download Google Maps to cover the area.

We were using hiking trail apps with tracks of our routes to help us navigate. Google Maps are not, in my experience, good at displaying walking trails/paths.

Upon arrival in U.K. we did see kiosks with sims for local service. The prices were much higher than giffgaff.

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Yup, giffgaff or Smarty, a PAYG MVNO with web-only support. If it weren’t for luxuries like Apple Watch support, then honestly I’d be perfectly content using these full-time not just for my iPhone, but also for my backup Internet connection.

I was pleased to note Friday, when I landed in the UK, that AT&T has changed their plan (at least from the last time I used it):

  • Pay $10/day for your first line
  • Get additional lines for $5/day each if used in the same day
  • Only pay for the days you use, no extra charge after 10 days per line, per bill

That’s AT&T’s “International Day Pass”. It’s great for a short trip, but for 25 days (@neil1 said 3.5 weeks), that could become very expensive. Consider a trip with two lines where you cross-over into a new billing period halfway through the trip. That’s a maximum of 10 days ($15 each for the two lines, or $150) for each of the two billing periods.

For a long trip, you may want to contact your carrier’s customer service to see if there are other international calling plans that might be more affordable.

I don’t have AT&T, but with Verizon (my carrier), they offer a “Travel Pass”, which is similar to AT&T’s plan - $10 per line per day. But you can also get an international monthly plan, which is $100 per month per line for unlimited data, text and 250 minutes of voice calls.

Or you may want to do what I did on a trip to Italy several years ago - disable international roaming on the phone and stick with Wi-Fi for everything (good when in hotels and many tourist attractions). I did this successfully without any international calling plan. We used Wi-Fi calling from our hotel (due to the time difference, that was the best time to call home anyway) and only needed to turn on roaming for phone calls once or twice. We paid $3/min for a couple of voice calls, but each was only about a minute, so it overall didn’t cost much. The downside to this, of course, is that you can’t access any network resources when you’re away from a Wi-Fi access point, which you may consider unacceptable.

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Good point. The billing period is less than @neil1’s trip length, but isn’t necessarily aligned with it.

I hadn’t noticed that…but it will still be $150 total for the two of us…with our billing date and trip schedule the whole thing is in the same billing period…but that’s still more than the $45 that Airalo would cost us. True…we would have our regular numbers if we used the AT&T plan (which I’ve enabled for both phones but if we get the eSIM we’ll just disable the physical one while we’re there)…but forwarding those numbers to our google voice line means we still get voice mails and texts there with email notification so no real loss of AT&T is disabled. The phone companies really overcharge for international service…but then they overcharge for everything really. I’ll take a look at giffgaff as well…ordered a pair of the free SIMs and will activate before we go unless my bride decides she wants the eSIM instead…never switched SIMs before but I presume once activated it will have a UK number associated with it. We’ll have wifi in the hotels and such obviously…but the first 10 days of the trip we’ll be apart a lot so need to be able to text to coordinate meeting after her rehearsals for the concerts…I’ll be out and about taking photos while she’s doing that.

And, more than the ~$20 giffgaff would cost.

Yep, we wrote about Giffgaff a few years ago.

FWIW as a Londoner, and spending most of my time abroad in Turkey, I use GlocalMe for data. There are advantages: a hotspot is instantly shareable and doesn’t impose silly restrictions on Apple devices, the internal SIM can be easily provisioned and still costs less than roaming fees, and it still has the SIM slot for when you’re there and can actually be bothered to find and activate a SIM (in Turkey, this requires the production of your passport, because reasons).

Well…I have to admit I’m not impressed with giffgaff’s website or app at this point. I was able to order a couple of SIMs the other day and downloaded the app today on my iPhone to setup an account so that I can activate them later on.

Clicked Create a new account, clicked the boxes on captcha, put in my email and hit Next…and nothing happens on either the app on the iPhone, Safari on the iPhone, or Safari on my Ventura M1 MBP. And Arc and Firefox on the MBP result in the same thing.

Gonna be hard to do anything if I can’t create an account…guess I’ll try again tomorrow in case they’re having issues.

We just came back from a month in Portugal, where my girlfriend used an Airalo eSIM in her SE. She paid $30 for 30 days, 20GB. But though she used the phone a lot for walking and driving directions and for messages, and did send some small videos back to the US to friends, she only used around 1GB. We didn’t stream videos on her phone or do anything data-intensive, but it was surprising how little she used.

The coverage, through Portugal’s MEO network, was OK, but it dropped out a fair amount, and inconsistently too; sometimes good in an area, later in the same area not so good.