Purchasing “Prepaid SIM” service at the Airport

December 1, 2009 at 2:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments
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Purchasing “Prepaid SIM” service at the Airport
Example: London Heathrow

An easy way to obtain inexpensive cell phone service in a country is to obtain a prepaid card at your port of entry, such as the airport. At London Heathrow airport, Vodafone has an excellent retail shop in Terminal 5. Unfortunately, Heathrow is a sprawling airport and Terminal 5 can be a (short) train ride away from your arrival terminal. For example, if you arrive from the US in Terminal 1, you can take a free train to Terminal 5 by following the signs to the Heathrow Express and taking the free leg to Terminal 5.

Vodafone Shop at London Heathrow: Terminal 5

Location: Terminal 5, Before Security
Opening Hours: 07:00 – 22:00
Telephone: +44 (0)7826 952 062

The store is situated between the UK side of departures and customs and is therefore open to both air-side passengers and land-side airport staff and visitors. The Terminal 5 Vodafone store at Heathrow airport replaces the Vodafone store in Terminal 1 with an even more comprehensive line up of products and services.

Within Heathrow airport, the location of Terminal 5 is shown in the following diagram:



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  1. Arriving at Terminal 5 I wish to pick up a sim card for my Vodafone. Can I then use a phone card to put in some airtime?
    IMCellular: the SIM card already is loaded with air time. You can add air time (“top up”) at any time using standard methods, such as calling an automated service (free) and providing a Credit Card, etc.

    How do I know the cost per minute for the places I ring? Would this sim card + phone cards for top ups, allow me to ring a lot more cheaply within the U.K. and back to New Zealand than e.g. roaming?
    IMCellular: Yes, exactly! Purchasing service from the destination country is typically a lot less expensive than roaming.

    How much is a sim card from the airport? When I go to Austria would I have to buy another sim card which works from there to ring new Zealand?
    IMCellular: No, the Vodafone service includes all of Western Europe, including Austria. You can use the same PrePaid SIM in a very wide footprint. Check their website for details fo their coverage footprint–it’s HUGE.

    Many thanks

  2. I purchased my phone at VODAPHONE Auckland NZ (airport) October 2010, used it there for a month. I am going to the UK in May. I understand I can use this phone in the UK? Can I add/buy time for it in Canada before I go – if so where – or do I need to do this in the UK? (I am not technical, please make your reply simple!)
    Thanks, D. Horsey

    • Probably, you are good to go. Only reason that you would be unable to use your existing phone there is if you your phone has a SIM lock that prevents it from accepting a SIM card from another service provider – inquire of the place where you purchased the phone. If a SIM lock exists, ask for it to be “unlocked” and explan that you are traveling internationally and plan to use a SIM card only on your travels.

  3. I have a BlackBerry Torch using Vodacom in South Africa & will be visiting the UK for 2 weeks. I plan to purchase a Vodafone sim card in UK. Will I have access to the BlackBerry Services eg unlimited internet. What are the cost implications?.

    • YES, to lower your cost when traveling internationally, your best value is to buy services from the local (in-country) provider (unfortunately, as this is inconvenient). This is especially true for mobile data. Roaming costs for mobile data can be 1000X higher than the cost of obtaining them from the local provider. To determine which plan is best for you, review the plans before you get there and select the one that best fits your needs. For example, if you need occasional Internet access (to download a book or check your email), then buy a plan with a small amount of data. Alternatively, if you will be working furiously and need ongoing Internet access, then you may wish to buy a plan with a large allocation of data (e.g., 2 GB) for a fixed cost.

  4. My friend will come to UK in next week. She has already had a SIM of T-mobile. Could you show me where she can top-up her credit in Heathrow airport?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Although there is no T-Mobile store in Heathrow (see Heathrow Store Finder), she can Top Up at many other location, including a nearby T-Mobile store. Find a store using the T-Mobile Store Finder (for the UK) at http://www.t-mobile.co.uk/store-finder/ You may also top up at Tobacconist or other stores that sell Top Up (scratch off) cards.

  5. Hi, I am flying into heathrow and have a short layover before flying to Lux, I would like to obtain a sim for my blackberry bold out of the US and am more concerned with data messenger, email etc than talk and text.. can i get a sim in Heathrow for UK< LUX, france etc.. that will be good for a couple of weeks??

    • Yes! Just purchase the SIM from a major carrier that serves the locations where you will be travelling.

  6. Good morning, I will be in Heathrow in 3 weeks time and seek your advices as to making phone calls both international and domestically from / within the UK, Scotland, Ireland,France, Belgium,Switzerland, Germany,The Nederlands areas. I need to be sure that say in Belgium I can ring a Belgium number as well as ringing number say in Switzerland or Australia.

    Can I bring over my own mobile phone-( I admit I am not a Vodafone customer here -your competitor in Australia has recommended me to you.) and place your SIM card in it ?

    What pre-paid plans do you have and.can I purchase a plan / simcard for cash ?

    I believe I will need say a pre-paid amount in the vicinity of say $300 Australian.
    Your advices would be greatly appreciated.

    • > Can I bring over my own mobile phone?

      Yes, you can bring over your own phone if (a) it is UNLOCKED (contact your current Carrier to inquire and get the unlock code before you travel), and (b) it is a “World Phone” that supports the European Bands (this is typical these days, unless you have a phone that is many years old). Bringing over your own phone is ideal, as you know how to use it, it contains all of your frequently-called phone numbers, and have the charger handy.

      To avoid costly International calls to the wrong number: When making a call and you are roaming outside of your normal coverage, even if it is a “local call, you need to always prefix the dialed number with the Country Code. This makes the destination unambiguous.

      Example: You have stored a 7-digit local number for your friend in your mobile phone. You travel to Belgium, and dial that number from your phone’s Address Book. Because you are in Belgium, using a Belgium mobile network, your number will be interpreted as dialing a local number in Belgium … unless you prefix the number with the Country Code.

      > What pre-paid plans do you have?

      I’m not a rep of any Mobile carrier. I recommended Vodafone since, when I last looked, they had the best coverage across Europe with a single PrePaid account, for reasonable rates. Check out the plans before you travel so that you know what you want to buy before you get off of the plane, exhausted.

      > can I purchase a plan / simcard for cash ?

      Yes. Please see my post on the Vodafone office in the airport (just outside of Security, so it is accessible by all).

      Bon voyage!

      • Thanks mate, That’s what I call a bloody good answer-well done. Can I buy you a beer ?

        One less thing to worry about.

  7. We shall be flying into Heathrow on the 27th March until the 19th April.Shall need two pre paid Sim’s.Just checking the following: Does Vodafone UK offer free calls between Vodafone accounts ie NZ Vodafone Add On (Best Mates),also we will have Vodafone NZ Mobile Internet Modems,I presume it is just a matter of changing sims with data pack and away we go

    • By all means, get a PrePaid SIM for your European travels. You can top up if and when you need.

      > Does Vodafone UK offer free calls between Vodafone accounts?

      For specific features (free calls between accounts), please review the Operator’s service description (I’m happy to describe the method of using PrePaid to reduce roaming costs, but do not plan to answer specific questions about current offers).

      > we will have Vodafone NZ Mobile Internet Modems

      Just as with a mobile phone, be sure that your mobile internet modem is unlocked to permit you to use another Operator’s SIM card. Best to call Customer Service and tell then what you plan to do.

      • Thanks, I had forgotten about the Modem being possibly locked.

  8. Can i buy a SIM to my IPhone And a Sim that
    I can use in England and France ? Or, did
    You have SIM card To use in England And another To use in France ?
    I have To use SIM by internet !
    I have To by SIM To use internet inEngland And France.

    I am from Brasil And arive in london 15 june

  9. Yes, you can use a PrePaid SIM with your iPhone (or any GSM phone) for Voice and Data service in Europe. To allow your phone to use a PrePaid SIM from another Mobile Operator, be sure to UNLOCK your phone (typically this requires a call to your current Mobile service provider, and they will provide you with an unlock code if you have completed your contract period).

    A single SIM can be used in Europe if you purchase it from an Operator that serves all of the countries that you will visit. Vodafone and Orange, for example, serve both England and France.

  10. Hello, I’m from Uruguay and I’m going to UK on july. Iwould like to buy a sim in UK because i understand is cheaper than use my local one.
    UK compañies provides phones with sim or only the sim are available?
    Which kind of plan are ofered in UK?
    Thank you

    • Both options are available to you: SIM-only and SIM with phone.
      If you have an unlocked GSM phone (see my article on this) that supports standard 900 and 1800 MHz bands, then you can use your existing phone and simply buy the (less expensive) SIM. This will minimize your costs.

      • thanks a lot, specially for band informations,

  11. Hello I am flying into Heathrow July 22nd – and have a blackberry bold 9320- flying in from the US.
    Where can I purchase the sim card for this? – which is the best plan ?

    • I do not keep up to date on the latest plans – that part is up to you, as they change frequently.


  12. You really make it appear really easy with your presentation but I to find this matter to be actually one thing which I believe I would never understand. It kind of feels too complex and very broad for me. I am taking a look forward in your next put up, I’ll try to get the cling of it!

    • You can do it; you probably have already done this – it is as easy as buying PrePaid mobile service.

  13. I will be arriving at Heathrow Airport and want to pick up a prepaid cell phone but want to use it almost immediately. I understand that there is a charging time required that will be difficult for me to accommodate since I will be travelling by train for the rest of the day once I leave the airport. I need a phone to alert my destination hosts as to my arrival time. Is it possible to purchase a phone already charged? My travel itinerary means I will be using th ephone for the following three weeks.

    • You’ll probably get a partial charge with your purchase, and then you can charge and use your phone on the train (they often have power outlets in modern cars). Re use of phones on the train: I recall that some cars are marked “Quiet” which means no cell phone use – choose appropriately.
      Bon voyage,

  14. Is there a way to hv temporary mobile internet access whilst on holiday in UK? I will be there 2 weeks in July, sometimes on bicycle, and want to check maps & email. My US smartphone won’t work there & I don’t want to bring a laptop

    • If you want temporary Mobile Internet access on the go, but your US smartphone will not work and a laptop is too big, I presume that you would prefer to have mobile internet on your smartphone but you fear that it will not work in Europe. I’d recommend two options: (a) double check to see if you can use your existing smartphone (only if it is a CDMA phone are you out of luck) or (b) purchase a smartphone for use in Europe before (eBay) or during your visit, at the airport when you arrive. Operators provide fairly capable handsets for low prices, and also offer Mobile Internet packages that allow you to do just what you desire: obtain internet access only for a limited amount during your visit. Bon voyage!

      P.S. If you buy your phone used before you depart, just ensure that the phone is “unlocked” so that it can be used with another Service Provider. See my article on this topic for more info at http://imcellular.org/2009/12/01/reducing-your-mobile-phone-bill-when-travelling-abroad/.

  15. I’m coming to London in two weeks’ time from Japan. I have a samsung galaxy phone with Docomo. If I buy a sim card will it work on my phone? If I come to your store will somone help me with the sim card? I don’t know anything about my phone other than making and receiving calls/texts. Thanks

    • Phone compatibility: Probably your phone will work in Europe. Just check the specs for your phone to see if it supports the common European GSM frequencies: 900 and 1800 MHz. If your phone supports these bands, then your phone will work throughout Western Europe.

      Use of Prepaid SIM: Additionally, you must ensure that the phone is “unlocked” so that it can be used with another Service Provider’s SIM. You are smart to recognize this potential hurdle. See my article on this topic for more info at http://imcellular.org/2009/12/01/reducing-your-mobile-phone-bill-when-travelling-abroad/. Basically, you need to ask your current Service Provider to “unlock” your phone to allow you to use it with another Service Provider during your travels. Typically, they are supportive of this request and will help you to unlock your phone to allow you to use it with a SIM card from a different Service Provider.

      • Phones in Europe and the US use GSM technology while phones in Japan use CDMA. It is unlikely that your phone will work in Europe. But I guess you know that now. Sorry, I did not read your post until today.

      • It’s not quite that simple, but that was a fair characterization of 10 years ago. Now, all of the leading CDMA Operators (including those in Japan) have largely migrated to GSM/LTE, so a Japanese subscriber may also have a phone capable of roaming in Europe’s standard GSM bands. Also, many phones in the US are CDMA (Verizon, US Cellular, others), so those subscribers would likely not be able to roam to a GSM market (e.g., Europe) without obtaining a new phone (a cheap, prepaid phone). There are a limited number of “World phones” that are CDMA phones at home and GSM phones when roaming, but those are more costly and not often found.

      • I ended up using my cousin’s old phone and just bought a SIM card when I got to London. Was fine. Turns out this particular mobile phone company in Japan, has a policy of not unlocking models that were made prior to April 2011. Whatever that means. Not sure if they can’t or they won’t. Anyway was a great trip! London’s an amazing city! Thanks for the info.

      • I ended up using my cousin’s old phone and just bought a SIM card when I got to London. Was fine. Turns out this particular mobile phone company in Japan, has a policy of not unlocking models that were made prior to April 2011. Whatever that means. Not sure if they can’t or they won’t.

        A mobile carrier typically “locks” the phone so that the Subscriber can not use it on a different carrier, because they subsidize the cost of the phone for the Subscriber. Only after the Subscriber completes their contract has the Subscriber paid off the subsidy, and typically only then will the Carrier “unlock” the phone, allowing you to use it with a different Carrier (e.g., by purchasing a PrePaid SIM in the country that you are visiting), such as when you are on vacation in Europe.

        In recent days, Carriers have become far more flexible and all you need to do is, before you leave for vacation, is to ask your current Carrier to “unlock” your phone.

  16. I have an iPad2 from Canada and looking for a pay-as-you-go Vodafone SIM card for data only for a short stay in London area this September. About 250MB should be fine. Did this in Iceland last year with Vodafone and worked great across the island. Can I get one at Heathrow Terminal 5 store when I arrive?

    • Yes, you should be able to get one there. Good plan!!

  17. I read that SIM cards obtained at kiosks at LHR are about 10 GBP more costly than they would be if purchased off-airport. Is this also true at the Vodaphone store?

    Thank you for your great blog!

    • Thanks for that observation, and please do contribute further if you see useful price variances that others can use!. I suspect that prices may vary among different retailers and their locations (e.g., purchasing a SIM from a Vodaphone store and a tobacconist on the street). However, it doesn’t seem fair that you should pay more to the Voda shop than you would pay to a reseller of the same Voda SIM outside of the airport. I simply do not try to follow prices, as it changes monthly and the goal of my site is to provide general rules that you can use to significantly reduce your roaming bill.

      • Thank you for the information. I called the Vodafone store at LHR, Terminal 5 and they were able to confirm that they charge no more for a SIM than a Vodafone store in town. Kiosks may be a different matter. Sadly, there appears to be no way to buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card stateside and have it mailed from the UK. During our trip, we really only need voice for emergencies and a few necessary convenience calls. Vodafone offers a 30-day 10-GBP plan which gives about 40 minutes of airtime and that will work fine for the week we need to have it. Not the cheapest plan, but coverage and reliability are good. You can’t get much cheaper than a one-time expenditure of 10-GBP!

  18. Hi I will be flying into Heathrow in about 2 weeks for 1 month. Where can I buy a data roaming sim card for my iphone 5 and my son’s iphone 4, so we can receive emails, whatsapp etc? What are the procedures?

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