How to use your Android phone to get on the internet in the UK

Posted: August 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Chitchat | 10 Comments »

Here is the simple process for getting your Android device online with a data SIM in the UK.  It’s terribly fun, I recommend it to everyone.

  1. Before leaving, turn off your phone and do not turn it on again.  Some carriers reportedly will charge you roaming rates when people leave you voicemail if you turn on your phone out of the US, even if you never make or receive a call, because it’s “registered” there.
  2. Pick up a SIM card from the local mobile store, wireless stand, fast food chain, gas station, vending machine, cabbage shop, or hobo.  I opted for the “Orange 3G card”.
  3. Put card in phone.
  4. Hope your phone is unlocked. If not, find a way to make international calls without your phone, and call the *international* support line for the carrier that sold you the phone.  Tell them you need the SIM unlock code and explain why.  Note that only the international support line will give it out (not the usual one), and then only sometimes.  If this fails, you’ll be exploring the seamy underbelly of the internet for the keywords “unlock phone”.  Been there, done that, don’t recommend it.  Other alternatives: travel without data, fly home.
  5. Enter SIM unlock code.  Carefully.  5 or so wrong answers and your phone is a useless brick.
  6. Get on the internet!
  7. Just kidding.  Follow directions in booklet; go to  Fill out forms to load card with money.  Stare blankly at “postal code” section of credit card info and realize that they don’t support foreign cards.
  8. Call 450.  Navigate phone tree.  Get stuck again when they need post code.
  9. Curse at phone creatively until connected with an operator.
  10. Explain situation.  Provide card info, including US address, which they will accept as your billing code.
  11. Have operator ask you for UK post code “for your current location”.  Argue for a while.  Give up, google “UK post code”, and choose a result at random.
  12. Provide a witty retort when your clever operator with a perfect Pakistani British accent observes that your post code is the same as that of Buckingham Palace.  Stand firm in your assertion.  Share a chuckle.
  13. Put 10 pounds on the card.
  14. Choose an oddly named bonus plan (e.g. “Dolphin”), which is mostly irrelevant, since it takes up to 72 hours to take effect, and you’re leaving in 72 hours.  Note that they won’t mention this detail until the transaction is done.
  15. Tell them you want the 5 pound “250 megabyte” data package.
  16. Get on the internet!
  17. Ha ha, fooled you.  Still joking.   Find your APN settings.  Restore default. If this doesn’t give you something like “orangeweb” or “orangeinternet”, enter a new APN setting, name=orangeinternet, apn=orangeinternet, everything else blank.
  18. Reboot.
  19. Call back because internet isn’t working.
  20. Discover that you need to pay 25 pence for tech support, which you can’t do, since you ignored my advice previously and only put 5 pounds on the card so you have nothing left.
  21. Go through the “top up” thing, get a sales person, vent.
  22. Kindly sales person explains that your internet stops working when you have 0-balance, a fact no one mentioned, and you couldn’t find out because if you have 0-balance you can’t call tech support.  Kindly sales person puts an extra quid on the account so it should work.
  23. Get text message that everything’s working, which awakens spouse since it’s now past midnight local time and you’ve been at this 2 hours.  Disable text message sound.
  24. Reboot.
  25. Get on the internet!  For real this time!
  26. Get text message that your credit card has been declined.  Get booted from the internet.
  27. Get new text message that you have been inexplicably been granted 10 megabytes of internet, and please get the credit card thing sorted.
  28. Get urgent email from amex saying that they declined your ten pound charge just in case you’re not you, despite the fact that you called them yesterday and told them you’d be getting a phone in England so please turn off the fraud alerts.
  29. Use Google Voice to make a free call to Amex to give them a piece of your mind.  Have credit card reinstated.
  30. Call up and have them re-charge the 5 pounds.
  31. Get new URGENT VOICEMAIL from American Express fraud alert, waking wife again, explaining that your card may have been stolen.  Again.
  32. Write bitter and vitriolic blog post.
  33. Raid minibar.  Go to bed. (this step has not yet been tested)

(You might want to subscribe or follow me on Twitter so you don’t miss new articles)

  • Arg, that’s rough. It can be a real pain in the ass getting a phone live in the UK. The best option at short notice is to walk into a high street store from one of the mobile networks with an hour or two to spare and get it done in-store. Typically you can buy top-up vouchers with a foreign card at a terminal, but not online. Once you have the voucher code, no option for amex to reject the transaction, you have the number already and the code is good to go. :-)

    With forewarning, the best deal you can get is to get a giffgaff sim pre-ordered. They don’t have retail locations, but you activate the sim online (I see the irony there!) and it’ll work with a £10 voucher you bought in a shop, pricing is simple, and for £10 you’ll get unlimited data for a month (no fair use policy, but no tethering allowed). Order your giffgaff sim with this link and when you activate you’ll get a £5 bonus and so will I for referring you!

    Sorry it was such a hassle, if you’re coming back, let me know and I’ll activate and mail the sim to you in the US before your trip.

  • You take the runaway prize for “Most helpful self-interested comment”. :)

  • Hahaha, I switched to giffgaff because it’s the best deal out there. The trouble is, knowing about the £5 bonus, I can’t reasonably send you to their homepage, you’ll lose out and so would I. I’m still working on how to put it across without it sounding like a shameless plug!

  • Pete Griffiths

    Dan – you must be some kind of genius.  Your experience was so much more straightforward than mine.  Good job!

  • Jamie

    Unlike the US however (after having had 1st hand experience of this last week in NY) at least you can just walk in and buy a SIM in the UK.

  • Yes, here we have the courtesy to just tell you its hopeless from the start and not try and pretend like it might be possible.

  • Jamie

    >>Yes, here we have the courtesy to just tell you its hopeless<<

    I wish that were the case, but for me it wasn't.  As i tried every different supplier i came across in Manhattan i was given information which was contracted by the next retailer i visited.  In the end i just had to give in.

  • Tmendoza

    Dan, I recommend testing the experience in Spain or Italy :) 

    I founded Tep,, a service to precisely cater to this problem. We started with Europe and we are soon rolling out the USA.

    One option is our pocket wifi service – take a look:

    Next time you travel contact us.


  • Sound familiar :) Did this in Ukraine, Russia and Israel. I think that Lonely Planet should include local APN settings in the offline guides for Android, that would be the most helpful peace of information. They could also include them in the iPhone guides, but that would just be a teaser :)
    Israel was the toughest one, although getting the SIM card was simple. In Jerusalem, you can buy a SIM card in a cigarette kiosk. After getting a SIM card, it turned out that I cannot turn on 3G neither over the air nor in a store, because for 3G you need a special SIM card which they don’t sell in cigarette kiosks. I had to go to the Orange Israel service center, which happened to be open only twice a week for 3 hours, stand in line, and get a replacement SIM card, which supported 3G. The whole process took three days. Once everything was figured out though, it was like the Promised Land. I had some insane amount of prepaid bandwidth for just 80 shekels. Orange already (probably unofficially) supported HSDPA, so the speed was fast enough for VOIP calls for checking out code and for music (hear that AT&T?). Ukraine was the easiest, just like in Israel, you get a SIM card in a cigarette kiosk or grocery store, except that it also worked for 3G right out of the box, and I don’t think they required any documents at all, and all. You do have to find APN settings on the internet though, and it is unlikely to be in English.Not sure how hard it would be to get a SIM card in Russia with an American passport. My guess is – pretty hard, because they require documents and sales associates in stores usually do not speak English.

  • Here’s an update two years later: your suggestion of going to a high street shop worked just fine. Carfone Warehouse had me set straight in about 30 min.