Sim-only, roaming, new contracts – How can you lower the cost of your mobile phone?

Irish Independent Business

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I got to thinking about my mobile phone twice this week. Normally glued to my hand, like most people, I’m happy to pay for it, but intolerant of poor service.

have an all-you-can-eat data plan costing around €60 per month with Eir. I pay by direct debit every month, and although they can get a little over zealous if I miss a payment, which happened during a bank transition, I’m generally happy enough.

But my contract is up. I know this, because I’ve received two phone calls and an email telling me, with exhortations to claim my new upgrade which bears features I don’t really understand, and when I didn’t bite, they offered to throw in a free gadget, but only if I agree today.

What they really want me to do, of course, is sign up for another two years. What they want to avoid me doing is switching provider or going sim-only.

The second mindful moment pre-empts a trip out of the EU zone next month. I’m worried about limiting myself to wifi zones – and crikey, what if I’m lost and need Google maps in a hurry or an urgent phone call? – or whether to buy a bundle or sim card with limited data and calls, and if so, how will I know it’s enough, or too much?

So, if you’ll forgive the indulgence, this week’s column looks at options for mobile phone contracts.


Keeping the existing handset and swapping out the sim card is a great way to keep costs down. You’re out of contract, and have already paid for the phone, so if it’s in good nick, a sim-only plan includes minutes, texts and data but “you’re only paying for airtime”, rather than a handset, according to comparison website

You can opt for bill pay or prepay – the former typically renews every month on a rolling basis. If you see a better offer, you can take it. There may be an initial discount period, and the fee goes up afterwards, but you can always switch elsewhere.

Prepay means you pay upfront, but you could end up paying more if you over-use.

You may need to unlock your phone to accept the sim-only deal, so bear that in mind. You can typically ‘port’ your or transfer existing phone number.

You may need to unlock your phone to accept the sim-only deal

Prepay is ideal for someone with poor credit, or who doesn’t have a bank account, or for under-18s who are not permitted to sign contracts in their own name.

Finally, if you’re almost out of contract, make sure you cancel the existing direct debit or you could still be charged.

Special offers

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free phone. The fancy handset is being fully paid for within a two-year contract. You can save by not opting for the very latest model, but a recent one. I do this every time, because I’m not precious about looking good, but do want up-to-date features.

If you’re accepting freebies by way of “buy now and we’ll offer…”, then make sure the freebie doesn’t come with conditions. And don’t get bounced into agreeing without checking out the competition.


When roaming, it’s important to say that usage is not standardised and each mobile phone company has different rules


Roam-like-at-home legislation was introduced in 2017 and means people travelling within EU member states can only be charged the same as in their home country for calls, texts and data. However, there is usually a fair usage policy with providers, and many contracts will limit extensive streaming, so check it out before your trip.

It’s important to say that usage is not standardised and each mobile phone company has different rules, even where you have ‘unlimited’ data purchased. So, it’s really roam-almost-like-at-home.

Bear in mind, ships and ferries are in international waters, unless they are close enough to shore to be tethered to a land signal. You will be charged international rates, although most ferries have a paid-wifi service you can purchase. In any event, providers must notify you when you have spent €61.50 and you can decide to pay for further use.

Bear in mind, ships and ferries are in international waters. You will be charged international rates

Likewise, at the edges of the EU – for example near Switzerland or along the Turkish border – you can inadvertently roam outside your allowance, and rack up a bill. Phones are designed to attach to the nearest mast, not the nearest one in the EU.

There are bundles available for travelling to countries like the USA or Australia, but these are both limited in capacity and expensive. Although not as expensive as roaming without realising.

Contact your provider before travel to check out the best option. In Eir’s case, the mobile add-on for the USA is €19.99 for 200 MB. Its GoMo brand has a world app with 15GB for the same price. For Vodafone customers, it’s €3.99 per day with an additional 6c/MB on all plans. With Three, it’s €3.24 plus Vat per day for 1GB.

It’s confusing, so best find out before you go.

You can also purchase a local sim card abroad at the airport or in kiosks, but it’s best to buy from an authentic network shop.

You will probably need ID such as a passport, a local address and an unlocked phone to operate, but it can be cheaper. Some countries don’t allow foreigners do this, while others limit your data.


Switching to sim-only can save money each month

Sim-only deals

If you’re happy with your handset, switching (once you’re out of contract) to sim-only can save money each month. Contracts only run for 30 days leaving you to switch when you see a better offer.

Based on unlimited data, and bill pay, says the following are the cheapest offers at present.

Clear Mobile is €14.99 per month (uses Vodafone network), with first month free if you join Clear mobile. There’s an additional €14.99 activation fee.

Eir connect has a 30-day plan for €14.99 for 12 months, hopping to €29.99 thereafter. There’s also a €9.99 activation fee. If you’re an existing Eir broadband customer, you can buy the card for a discounted €9.99 per month.

Tesco Mobile charges €20 per month for it’s sim, with 300 free international minutes.

Virgin Media is also €20 per month for 12 months, rising to €25 thereafter.

The downside of sim-only is that you won’t get a new phone

All have even cheaper plans, from €10, but your data will be limited, and are only worthwhile if you know you will never use more than is permitted.

The pros of sim-only are cheaper deals, shorter contracts, no tie-ins or penalties for going elsewhere and no topping up. You keep your phone number too.

The downside of sim-only is that you won’t get a new phone and if you can’t unlock your phone because it’s not permitted by your provider, you’ll have to buy a sim-enabled phone.

You could save by choosing a refurbished phone from an authorised seller or