SIMs, Mobile Phones and Laptops
As a Ukrainian refugee, it may not have been possible to bring over electronic equipment such as laptops and tablets, which may be more useful than mobile phones for performing administration, work and education related activities over here. You will also find you need to set up a UK mobile number on arrival.
UK mobile number
Getting a UK mobile number is one of the first things to do – many other tasks require you to provide a contact number, and many processes are designed to only accept UK numbers.
If you cannot get a free SIM straightaway, buy a cheap SIM with a month’s worth of data and calls in order to set up a UK mobile number, while you wait for the Vodafone free SIM to arrive. You can keep the mobile number you start with when you change SIMs again.
It’s worth noting that without a bank account, you will need to take Pay as You Go SIM tariffs which are generally more expensive than contract SIM tariffs.
If you can choose a contract SIM, make sure the mobile company knows you may wish to return early if circumstances permit; they should be willing to let you break your contract should this be a possibility.
Free UK SIMs for Ukrainian refugees
Vodafone are offering 6 months’ free SIM (with 20 GB data in total) but depending on your options, it can take several weeks to get one, so it may be worth starting with a cheap SIM from another company for a month and then switching over (you are allowed to keep your UK mobile number when changing SIMs, if you request a PAC code from your previous provider). Free calls to Ukraine are not included. You can apply for a Vodafone SIM via a charity only. The list of charities partnering with Vodafone is not available, which does make it hard to source the SIM.
You may be best off finding a local charity or organisation with physical supplies, such as a local refugee support group, or trying the organisations listed below.
[Information last updated: 10/03/23]
Barnardo’s provide free Vodafone SIMs, limited to one per household. These can be ordered before your guest arrives in the UK, so this could be a really efficient option.
Call 0800 148 8586 (you can ask for a translator and they will call you back with an interpreter) or email email@example.com.
[Information last updated: 10/03/23]
Wavelength can provide free Vodafone SIMs although applications may take some time to be processed at the moment. They can be pre-ordered before your guest arrives in the UK. See https://wavelength.org.uk/apply-for-help/free-sims-for-ukrainian-refugees/ for more details on how to apply:
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them how many SIM cards you require and your UK postal address
- Attach ONE of the following to your email: Ukrainian passport OR Permission to Travel letter
You will be sent Part 1 of a PDF feedback form to complete and send back before you receive the SIM, and Part 2 to complete after you have received the SIM and are using it. This is so they can track the effectiveness of issuing free SIMs to reduce people’s loneliness and isolation (their mission as a charity).
British Red Cross
[Information last updated: 10/03/23]
British Red Cross will provide free SIMs from Vodafone or similar providers, with a minimum free period of 3 months, including international calls (there will be a limit on the total number of minutes). Always double check the allowances of the actual SIM you are given, as it may vary depending on the provider they have in stock at the time. Call them on 0808 196 3651 and follow the options, one of them will ask if you want to apply for a SIM (option 1, then option 1 again). You can ask for an interpreter. It can take up to 15 working days and they can only be ordered once you are in the UK.
The National Databank is an initiative that has been set up to enable those on low incomes to receive free mobile data (it’s like a ‘food bank’). They say:
“The UK National Databank, powered by Good Things Foundation and its partners Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three, will provide free mobile data to those escaping war and persecution, and who are seeking refuge in the UK.”
They offer data through community organisations. You may be able to find one near you using this link.
SIM only Pay As You Go and contracts
If you have come to the end of your free SIM, you can consider staying with Vodafone or moving SIM providers. You can get a ‘pay as you go’ (no contract) or a contract SIM. Be sure to compare the prices of calls, texts and data on each type of option.
In the UK, there are 4 physical network providers: EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. You can go with them directly, or you can go with a virtual network provider that uses one of these physical networks to provide the actual service. So for example, Tesco Mobile is actually running on the O2 network. See below for common virtual providers and the physical providers they use.
- EE: BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, Utility Warehouse
- O2: GiffGaff, Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Lycamobile, Virgin Mobile
- Vodafone: Asda Mobile, Lebara, Talkmobile, Voxi
- Three: ID Mobile, Smarty
It’s very competitive and there are many providers out there. You can use comparison websites such as https://www.moneysupermarket.com/mobile-phones/sim-only/ to compare deals and prices.
Providers such as Lebara, GiffGaff, VOXI, Plusnet and Lycamobile provide SIM only deals but do not have high street stores (which is how they can be cheaper). The physical network providers, Three, O2, Vodafone, and EE have branches where you can go in and speak to someone if you are having issues, which can be useful, and they’re not always much more expensive.
Two organisations, VOXI and EE, also offer social tariffs for those on benefits: https://greensmartphones.com/blog/how-to-save-money-on-your-phone-or-sim-plan/. (This website has other useful tips for saving money.)
Shop around; for example, it’s possible to get a decent online SIM only deal for under £10 a month, and also, some of the deals may only be available online, not in branch. You can still go into a branch even so, as you’re an overall customer of the service provider.
Using a PAC code to keep your mobile number when changing provider
If you start off with one mobile phone network provider, and want to change to another one, you can easily do this without having to change your mobile number as well.
You simply need to ask your old provider for what is known as a PAC code, and you tell your new provider this code, which they will use to transfer your mobile number across to your new SIM.
Cheap calls abroad
Companies such as Lebara or Lycamobile charge around 15p per minute to call Ukraine landlines, and 30p per minute to call mobiles. This isn’t particularly cheap, and most people will use messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram to call instead.
Mobile phone handsets
If you need to have two SIMs (e.g. Ukrainian SIM and UK SIM), then some handsets (e.g. iPhones) do not have dual SIM capability. If your phone model does not support a physical dual SIM, check if it allows you to set up an eSIM, which is a virtual SIM, instead.
If you need to source a mobile phone, a second-hand refurbished handset may be an economical option. These can be bought from places such as eBay, Amazon, 4Gadgets or Backmarket. Always shop around and compare prices for the same model and condition of handset but we have found from personal experience that these particular sites are quite competitively priced.
Barnardo’s charity sometimes have secondhand phones, which they can send out; email them on email@example.com or call them on 0800 148 8586 to check availability.
You can also ask your contacts and British friends if they can source such things for you, as they may have spare ones lying around.
Laptops and devices
As a result of the pandemic, many local charities started to source secondhand laptops to provide to schoolkids who needed these to learn from home. These local charities (such as the Dons Local Action Group in SW London) can potentially also help refugees who need laptops and devices to stay connected, write CVs, apply for jobs etc.
Your local refugee support group may be able to source a secondhand laptop for you, using such charities or their network of friends and contacts.
Schools may have laptops from the pandemic that they can lend to schoolkids; it’s worth asking your local school.
Installing mobile apps
In order to access both Ukrainian and UK Google Play Stores, it seems necessary to have two separate Google accounts, one for Ukraine and one for the UK, and switch between the two.