As of 2020, 13% of the UK population aged 16+ does not own a smartphone. For those aged 55+, the figure rises to a whopping 30%.
In today’s world, having access to a smartphone device can do wonders for your digital connectivity.
With a modern mobile phone, you can make video calls with friends and family, helping you stay connected during lockdowns, without having to worry about per-minute call charges. Plus, smartphones can also be a helpful safety device. For example, Apple iPhones can be programmed to dial 999 when you click the side button five times, and will also send an alert to your emergency contacts when this occurs.
Below, we’ve looked at how to find a smartphone for a reasonable cost. We’ve also explained what to look for in a mobile device, in case you’re buying for a first-time smartphone user.
- Buying a phone in-contract versus buying SIM free
- New versus refurbished smartphones
- Where to buy a cheap smartphone
- What are the best cheap smartphones?
- Can I keep my number when transferring to a smartphone?
Buying a phone on a contract versus buying SIM free
The first thing to think about when buying a smartphone is whether you want to buy a phone on a contract, or buy the handset SIM free and then buy a data plan separately.
Here are the pros and cons of each option.
Buying on a contract
|Simple, easy solution - no need to buy a phone and SIM card separately||You're locked into the contract for a fixed period - normally 24 months|
|Save your money upfront - most contracts have no upfront cost unless you buy a very expensive phone||Higher monthly bill, because you're paying off the phone|
|Possible to get contracts with low data - not necessarily expensive||Generally requires a credit check|
Buying SIM free
|Can get a pay as you go SIM - no minimum commitment each month||Generally more expensive in terms of cost per megabyte of data consumed|
|You will pay less per month, because you already own the phone and aren't paying it off||Requires that you buy the phone upfront, which may be expensive|
|Gives you more choice in the range of SIM and phone pairings available||SIM will need topping up occasionally (although you can set up automatic topups)|
Which option should I choose?
This decision really comes down to how you plan to use your new smartphone device:
- If you plan to use the smartphone on a consistent basis, with some usage each month, then a contract will be a simpler, cheaper option overall.
- If you may not use the device much in a given month, you don’t want to pay for data you’re not going to use, so being on a pay as you go plan makes more sense.
The big benefit of buying SIM free and using a pay as you go SIM is this second point. In a given month, you might not need to use the phone much, for a number of different reasons. For example, if you’re in lockdown, you can make calls over your home WiFi using WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, provided you have a home broadband connection.
One other thing to note: all mobile data plans these days come with unlimited texts and calling minutes to UK numbers. No matter whether you buy a pay monthly phone deal or a pay as you go SIM, you shouldn’t have to worry about calling or text message limits, at least domestically.
How much does each option cost?
- Phone contract: about £18-£30 per month for 24 months, including a small amount of data and a good-value handset.
- SIM free phone: about £150-£300 for a good value refurbished handset, or £300-£400 for a good value new handset.
- Pay as you go SIM (to be paired with a SIM free phone): about £15 per 20GB of data, including unlimited UK texts and calling minutes.
You can also buy a SIM only contract, which typically lasts 12 months – prices vary depending on the amount of monthly data. Typically, if you want to enter a contract, buying a phone and data deal is the best option. However, SIM contracts are worth looking at if you only want to commit for 12 months, rather than 24.
New vs refurbished smartphones
The next thing to consider is whether to buy a new or a refurbished smartphone. You can buy refurbished phones either on a contract, or SIM free.
By buying refurbished, you can save quite a lot of money. Many older, cheaper phones are only available on refurbished plans. However, there are some things you need to be aware of:
- A refurbished phone means that the device has previously been used by someone else. This could mean that someone has bought a phone on a contract, and returned it within the 14-day return period. Or, it could be someone that has owned the device for years and is trading it in. Depending on its condition, the refurbisher may do some work on the phone, but you may still see signs of wear when you receive the device.
- If buying refurbished, you need to buy from a reputable seller – avoid sites such as eBay at all costs. You can buy some refurbished phones direct from the manufacturer (only SIM free), or from mobile phone resellers, such as Carphone Warehouse, Metrofone, or buymobiles.net (either SIM free or on a contract).
- When buying from a reputable refurbisher, you will typically get a 12 month warranty on the phone. Most new smartphones come with a 24 month warranty (except Apple, which only has a one-year warranty).
- Some refurbished phones come with condition ratings, such as “Good”, “Very good”, or “Excellent”. The seller will provide a specific description of what each condition rating means.
- A refurbished phone will not come in the original box. The seller should include a charger, however.
Provided you buy from a reputable seller, refurbished phones can be a good way to save money on a smartphone device. However, if you’d prefer to have a brand new phone, it’s still possible to pick up a new handset for a reasonable price – it will just cost a bit more.
Where to buy a cheap smartphone
After deciding whether to buy a phone in a contract, and whether or not to buy a refurbished phone, the next thing to work out is where you will buy from.
In general, the best place to buy a smartphone if you’re looking to save money is a mobile reseller, such as Carphone Warehouse, Fonehouse, or Mobiles.co.uk. These companies offer a wide range of phones you can buy online, paired with contracts from leading UK carriers, such as Three, Vodafone, EE, and O2.
These companies work by buying handsets and data in bulk from major carriers, and reselling them to consumers. Mobile resellers allow you to get a new smartphone on a data plan for much cheaper than you’d pay if you went to a company like Three or Vodafone directly. You still get the same level of customer service from the carrier, plus the same manufacturer’s warranty on the phone, provided the company is an authorised mobile reseller. Plus, if you’re afraid of buying a phone without trying it in-person first, these resellers typically offer a 14-day return policy.
While you may find cheap SIM free handsets on websites like eBay, they’re generally best avoided. If you buy a phone from a random online seller, you don’t know what’s happened to it, or where it’s come from. The phone could be secretly refurbished, the warranty could have been voided, or it might not even be compatible with the UK phone network if the phone is sourced from overseas.
What are the best cheap smartphones?
It’s also worth considering what phone to buy in order to save money.
The most expensive phones will be “flagship” devices. These are the leading high-end phones that brands such as Apple and Samsung produce. For example, the iPhone X, iPhone 11, and iPhone 12 were all flagship devices.
The cheapest phones to buy are:
- Flagship devices that have since been superseded by at least two new models. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S10 has been superseded by the S20 and S21 (plus maybe more models, depending on when you’re reading this), making it cheap to buy, despite having great performance.
- Non-flagship devices, especially those that are at least a year old. Phone manufacturers often release lower-spec phones that are cheaper to buy than their flagship models. For example, the iPhone XR, and Samsung A series phones, such as the A51.
Phones for the elderly and new smartphone users
For new smartphone users, there are some additional factors you might like to consider when choosing a suitable phone to buy.
- Screen size: a larger screen makes it easier to read text on a smartphone, but it also makes the phone heavier, and harder to hold in one hand. If you want a relatively small, lightweight phone, look for something with a 5.4-5.8 inch screen size. On the other hand, if you want to make it as easy as possible to read text, look for a smartphone with a bigger screen, at least 6 inches across.
- Easy mode: most phones have a setting that makes text and buttons larger, and makes the phone easier to navigate. Fortunately, nearly all smartphones (including iOS and Android) made since 2016 have this feature, so you don’t have to look for it specifically.
- Toughness: this applies to everyone, but the last thing you want is to spend hundreds of pounds on a smartphone only for it to break if you drop it. While you can get protective cases for smartphones, which are great to have, it’s also good to consider the toughness of the actual device. Luckily, cheaper phones tend to be more drop-resistant than expensive devices, because of the materials they use. If a phone has a plastic rather than a glass backing, it’s much less likely to crack if dropped on a hard surface from waist height.
If you’re a new smartphone user, you might want to read our smartphone basics guide to learn how to get the most from your new handset.
Can I keep my number when transferring to a smartphone?
Yes – it’s generally a simple process of requesting your “Porting Authorisation Code” (PAC) via text message in order to transfer your number to a new network.
Read our guide to transferring your number to learn more.
About the author
Tom is the founder of Smartphone Savvy. He’s a diehard Android user, currently rocking a Pixel 4a in black.
In his spare time, you’ll find Tom playing videos games or watching Manchester United.