Where to buy phones in the UK: Unlock and on-contract
Buying a new phone can be a minefield. Whether you’re in for a budget bargain or a high-end flagship, a hoard of brands and network carriers are all vying for your hard-earned cash.
With so many decisions to make already, you’d be forgiven for not thinking beyond the basic questions. Where’s the best place to buy a phone in the UK? Is it better to buy unlocked or to buy on-contract? How much will all this going cost you? Is this the right phone?
Picking out the best smartphone to buy is only half the battle, the next major decision to make is who and where to purchase it from. Fortunately in the U.K. there are a selection of high street and online retailers offering a wide range of contract and unlocked handsets at reasonable prices. This guide walks through all of the major options and discusses the pros and cons of each.
In Part 1, we’re taking a look at unlocked phones in the UK – the benefits, the caveats, and where to buy phones from.
In Part 2, we’re checking out on-contract options for buying phones in the UK – the top carriers, the smaller MVNOs and other things to consider.
Without further ado, here are the best places to buy phones in the UK.
Part 1. Buying unlocked phones in the UK
With rising monthly costs and ever-higher price-tags, U.K. buyers are getting more and more market savvy, chopping and changing contracts and, crucially, carriers with increasing frequency. To get involved in the price war you’ll need one thing, however: an unlocked phone.
But where can you buy an unlocked phone in the U.K.? Let’s find out.
Why buy unlocked phones?
Before we delve into where you can pick up an unlocked smartphone, let’s first look at why you’d want one.
The best answer is freedom. Having the option to switch out your SIM card for another tiny bit of plastic with a chip in it from a different provider opens up a lot of possibilities, even if you’re quite happy with your current network of choice.
For those travelling outside of the EU zone for long periods of time, it’s usually infinitely cheaper to pick up a local deal. Maybe you want to keep your phone free from bloatware and avoid inbuilt carrier apps. Maybe you just don’t want the hassle of unlocking your phone in a year or so to resell it for the maximum value.
These are just a few of the many scenarios where an unlocked device can be a lifesaver, and it’s why consumer group Which? is pushing mobile providers to unlock all handsets automatically either at point of purchase or the end of a contract.
We’ll get into how to unlock a locked phone in another post soon, but for now, here are a few things to watch out for when shopping for an unlocked device:
- Always read the fine print – Make sure you check with the sales representative or the store FAQ before handing over your cash and always read the small print! Every retailer listed below claims to sell unlocked or “SIM free” devices, but you’re still better off knowing the store’s return policies just in case. Speaking of SIM free devices…
- Be careful when buying an iPhone – Some “SIM free” iPhones, like those bought from Carphone Warehouse, will lock to the first network it comes into contact with, despite initially being open to all carriers. Obviously we would recommend buying an Android phone over one of Apple’s flagships (there are a few reasons why), but if you’re looking specifically for an unlocked iPhone, your best bet is to go directly to Apple. All of the store recommendations below are based on buying Android devices.
- If you’re buying third-party, make sure to check the seller’s ratings – If you’ve ever used eBay for more than a small handful of purchases, you’ve probably already encountered a disreputable seller or two. Checking a seller’s ratings on auction or classified-style websites should be your first step when buying third-party. Don’t risk buying a 500-plus pound phone from a poorly reviewed source. It’s not worth the risk.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the best places to buy unlocked phones in the U.K..
Unlocked phone retailers: High street and online
Walk down any busy high street or through any major shopping centres in the U.K. and you’ll probably see a Carphone Warehouse, every one of which sells unlocked phones.
With over 1,100 stores across the U.K. (and Ireland), a simple-to-use online store with options for click and collect or home delivery, frequent sales, and devices ranging from 50-pound feature phones to 800-plus-pound flagships from almost every OEM imaginable, there’s a reason so many people choose to spend their cash at this mobile giant.
Currys PC World
These two are grouped together, as both are part of the Dixons Carphone group. They even share a website. Unlike Carphone Warehouse, which also offers pay monthly plans, Currys PC World exclusively sells SIM-free phones, primarily from big name brands like Samsung, Google, LG, Sony, and more.
Pricewise, Currys PC World tends to echo its sister supplier, but you can pick up different bundles than Carphone Warehouse from time to time.
While you’ll find plenty of Currys PC World stores around the U.K., they don’t typically hold too much stock of mobile devices. Basically, take advantage of the click and collect feature online if you can, but don’t expect availability to be as widespread as other options on this list.
That’s right, one of the four major networks in the U.K. is also a superb source for buying unlocked devices. Whether on contract or bought SIM free, all phones purchased from Three via its retail or online store will work with any network straight away.
The CK Hutchinson subsidiary made the decision to sell all devices unlocked standard back in early 2014 and is still the only non-MVNO network to do so.
While it doesn’t always bring the best SIM free offers to the table, there’s no doubting Three is one of the best places to buy an unlocked phone on the high street — especially if you’re after the Three-exclusive Razer Phone.
Surprised to see John Lewis on the list? You shouldn’t be. It offers something you won’t find elsewhere.
Ask any savvy buyer where to buy an ultra-expensive TV and you’re likely to hear John Lewis mentioned thanks to its unmatched five-year warranty guarantees. What most don’t know is that John Lewis also offers a two-year warranty on essentially all items in its electronics department, including every single one of its fully-unlocked mobile phones.
Combine that peace of mind with 49 store locations across the U.K. and a stellar online service, and you’ll see why so many people go to John Lewis for their tech purchases.
Most shoppers will already have a love-hate relationship with Argos. The wait-for-your-number catalogue system felt ridiculously outdated over a decade ago and in-store stock levels are inconsistent at best.
That said, if you get lucky with stock, Argos is a great place to pick up pretty much anything you can think of on a whim, including unlocked mobiles.
The Fast Track collection service is a ridiculously speedy way of picking up a brand new device in a nearby store and helps avoid delivery fees.
Another potential positive is the “buy now, pay later” Argos Card which lets you spread the cost of a new phone over three to twelve months. Just be careful of the hefty APR hike and interest charges for any missed payments.
Is it “see ee ex,” “kecks,” or “sex”? Who knows. What we do know is CeX stores sell plenty of unlocked phones. Everyday customers can head to one of over 300 CeX stores to trade-in DVDs, video games, consoles, and, crucially, locked and unlocked smartphones.
As these are second-hand devices, you usually won’t have to pay anywhere near as much as for a brand new phone. That’s especially true if you opt to buy a device with a lower condition grade.
For buyers that can live with a few scratches or marks, buying a “B” or even “C” graded phone can knock as much as 100 pounds off the overall price of a handset. It’s worth noting all devices are covered by a two-year warranty regardless of the grade.
The downside to buying phones from CeX is it doesn’t guarantee the phone you want will be available. You can check online, but CeX’s online store is incredibly rough around the edges.
Tesco Mobile is one of the most popular MVNO networks in the U.K., but unfortunately all of its devices are sold locked. However, that’s not true of the grocery chain’s online service, Tesco Direct.
At Tesco Direct, you can pick up hundreds of different unlocked phones from popular brands like Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, and many more, as well as relatively obscure brands in the U.K. like WileyFox, Xiaomi, ZTE, Meizu, and STK. As an added bonus, you can also collect and spend Clubcard Points on every purchase.
The U.K.’s largest high street video games retailer has offered smartphone trade-in and reselling services for a few years now. Most stores have a cabinet full of phones, many unlocked, in the front window.
Much of what we said about CeX applies here, too, although in our experience Game sometimes won’t accept trade-ins on lesser-known manufacturers. As a result, your buying options may also be somewhat limited.
Game’s online store is also a complete mess. It includes “Game fulfilled” listings with click and collect or home delivery options, as well as offers from third-party sellers. Make sure you’ve double-checked who you’re buying from, and remember Game will only give you a one-year warranty.
While Virgin Mobile technically sells unlocked phones, the unlocked part only applies to devices bought on contract. Pay as you go customers aren’t so lucky. If you’re after a contract phone anyway then the EE-supported MVNO may be worth a look.
Unlocked phone retailers: Online only
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. As the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon should require no introduction.
All of the usual Amazon perks apply here, especially for Prime members who get access to one day delivery as part of their membership.
With regular discounts, thousands of well-reviewed resellers, and arguably the widest selection of available handsets, there is no shortage of reasons why so many people all over the world choose Amazon when buying a new, SIM-free phone.
Dorset-based e-retailer Clove stocks a huge variety of unlocked devices, including those from more niche names in the U.K. like OnePlus, Alcatel, Honor, Asus, and more. It also sells Android tablets, refurbished phones, and plenty of accessories to go with your new purchase.
Giffgaff prides itself on offering a consumer-friendly MVNO carrier service with freedom from lengthy contracts, so it shouldn’t be surprising that all of its phones come unlocked.
As well as bonuses like free next day delivery, O2’s sister network also sells refurbished and pre-owned devices far cheaper than their brand-new counterparts. You can also pay in one lump sum or in installments over a two year period.
Mobiles.co.uk / E2Save
We’re lumping these two together as they are both owned by Dixons Carphone. E2Save tends to stick to mid-range or entry-level devices, but Mobiles.co.uk has a much broader scope. Best to check both if you’re shopping around for the best deal.
Any buying experience you might have on eBay is solely defined by the reliability of the seller. If a deal seems too good to be true, it may well be just that.
If you find a top-tier seller with a solid track record, there are certainly bargains to be found either in auctions or “Buy It Now” listings. Our big tip: always use PayPal for extra protection.
It’s worth noting some of the companies we’ve already mentioned, like Argos and Tesco, sell unlocked devices (with exclusive offers) through eBay outlets which tend to come with extra guarantees.
If you’re after an unlocked phone immediately and don’t fancy walking down your local high street, you could always take a gander at Gumtree’s classifieds and find a nearby seller.
Much like eBay, if you get a good seller you’ll have a great experience. If the seller is bad it can be even worse, as Gumtree doesn’t offer any kind of support for buyers. Think of it like a car boot sale: you might snag an absolute bargain, but there’s a chance you might end up with a load of old rubbish.
There are plenty of electrical appliance retailers that also sell SIM-free phones, but very few are as well regarded as AO. On top of free 30 day returns, next day delivery, and finance offers, AO also offers an excellent price match service that can be applied before purchase or up to seven days after delivery.
Another O2 MVNO! While Sky doesn’t sell devices outright, you can sign-up for a pay monthly plan safely knowing the phone you’re getting is unlocked. Just don’t expect to see a wide variety. Sky Mobile currently only stocks Apple, Samsung, and Sony devices on its website.
If you’re looking for Android accessories, there are very few U.K.-based sites that can match MobileFun. What you might not know — it’s very well hidden on its website — is MobileFun also sells SIM-free phones and quite often has some great deals.
While you should always be wary of heavy interest rates and late payment fees for finance deals, Very offers a fairly decent range of unlocked phones from major OEMs and less-known brands, like STK and even CAT.
As you can see, there are plenty of retailers to choose from when shopping for an unlocked phone in the UK. They all offer a variety of deals and perks.
Part 2. Buying on-contract phones in the UK
Contract options are still the most popular way to buy phones in the UK, bundling handset and data costs into a single monthly payment plan. Although there’s still a strong market for SIM-free handset for customers looking to stick with their existing data plan. In this rundown we’re going to be looking at the UK carriers and retail chains that also offer contract and/or SIMs along with their handsets.
The big four
Your first stop for the latest and greatest handsets is likely to be directly at one of the U.K.’s big four carriers. EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone all have their own online and physical retails stores dotted up and down the country, making them arguably the best places to visit to try out the latest and greatest models as soon as they hit the market. Not only that, but it’s also the best way to directly check out all of the contract and SIM offers from the country’s network operators, to make sure you’re getting the latest deals. The drawback here is that some phones will be locked to the network you buy them from, making it difficult to switch to a different service.
Of course, picking the right network for you is another topic in and of itself. As a general rule of thumb, EE offers the fastest and broadest 4G LTE coverage in the U.K. but charges a little more than others. Three is a good choice is you’re after all you can eat data, Vodafone offers some interesting roaming deals and bundles, while O2 Refresh is worth a look at for more flexible upgrade routes.
For the best deal when looking where to buy phones in the UK, it’s a good idea to browse through all these available options online first, so you can discuss exactly what you’re after if you pop into a store. And it never hurts to play the networks off against each other for your custom.
Outside of the big four, the Carphone Warehouse is the single largest high street presence for smartphones and other mobile gadgets, with over 1,100 stores across the U.K. (and Ireland). The company also has its own online store featuring the same selection of handsets and deals.
The benefit of visiting the Carphone Warehouse is that it’s the fastest way to compare a selection of contract and SIM-only offers from across the four major network operators. Simply pick out a phone you like, and then have the Carphone Warehouse help pick out the best or most affordable contract option to suit your needs. The Carphone Warehouse also occasionally grabs exclusive contract options and offers for its customers, such as limited time exclusivity on the stylish Moroccan Blue colour option of the LG V30.
If you’re more interested in SIM-free handsets from some of the industry’s leading brands, then you might want to check out the other half of the Dixons Carphone retail group – Currys PC World. Again, there are numerous stores up and down the country, but stock mostly the deals tend to mirror the Carphone Warehouse, so instead it’s a handy way to pickup online purchases locally. Although occasionally you might find the old unique offer.
When it comes to places where you can buy phones in the UK, the country has a vibrant marketplace for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), some of which offer physical store presences and many more which operate exclusively online. Contract and SIM options tend to be more flexible with MVNOs, and prices can often be a little cheaper too, especially if you bring your own handset. If you’re keen to get your hands on some smartphones for a physical browse before committing to a purchase, the options are a little more limited but certainly not hard to come by.
Supermarket chain Tesco runs it own MVNO on the Vodafone network, and you’ll often find a selection of handsets from popular manufacturers in its larger stores, including Samsung, HTC, LG, and others. Flagships, mid-tier, and budget handsets are all usually on offer. However, it’s worth considering that the handsets sold in its stores are are locked to the Tesco Mobile network, but they’re aren’t when buying from its Tesco Direct online service.
Virgin Mobile, by comparison, doesn’t have anywhere near the nationwide store presence, but if you’re located in a city there’s a good chance there’s a Virgin Media store somewhere nearby. While also showcasing the company’s range of TV and broadband packages, the company’s stores showcase a range of smartphones available on its network.
Virgin Mobile piggybacks on EE’s network, offering customers excellent 4G LTE coverage and speeds. It’s a rather good option if you’re looking for flexibility too, as it’s free to shift up and down tariff bands each month and unused data rolls over every 30 days.
Other MVNO’s in the U.K. only offer online purchases, with the exception of the iD Mobile which is operated by the Carphone Warehouse and so can be picked up in their stores too. A number of the county’s broadband and TV providers have moved into the carrier space over the years, with BT, PlusNet, and Sky all offering SIM-only options and payment plans for handsets. You don’t have to be a broadband customer to buy a SIM from these companies, but there are often notable discounts for those who are.
Outside of the broadband race, GiffGaff, which runs on the O2 network, has gained a considerable following, offering low cost data SIMs and monthly payment options for many of the latest flagship and mid-tier handsets. GiffGaff has become a popular choice for those who prefer flexible month-to-month contracts, as the carrier allows customers to switch plans at will and cancel at any time.
Here’s where to find deals from the U.K.’s most popular MVNOs.
UK carriers overview – Choose yours below!
- O2 UK network review: Everything you need to know
- Vodafone UK review: Everything you need to know
- Three UK network review: Everything you need to know
- EE network review: Everything you need to know
And that’s a wrap! We’ll keep our guide on where to buy phones in the UK up to date. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have a store recommendation for your fellow phone buyers, let us know in the comments!