The Complete Guide to Switching Operators

by - Last Updated on August 2, 2018

There are plenty of mobile operators to choose from on the UK market. But a lot of us are still using the same operator that we originally signed up with. For the most part, there’s nothing tying you to just one operator, and there are plenty of reasons why you might want to change. Can you switch? How do you go about doing so? That’s what we’re here to help you with.

Why Should I Switch Operators?

There are lots of reasons that you might want to switch your operator. Maybe you’re unhappy with your current operator, perhaps coverage is bad or prices are high. Perhaps you’re looking for something (like a family plan) that your current operator doesn’t offer, or want a new phone that your operator doesn’t carry. Or maybe another operator is offering a better deal or a phone plan that better suits your needs.

There’s nothing wrong with switching operators every now and again, and it could end up saving you money in the long run. And don’t worry, you don’t even have to give up your current phone number (we’ll get to that in a while). Of course, your current operator may be the best choice for you. But it’s definitely worth checking out the other options.

Can I Switch Operators?

The first question that you need to ask yourself (or your operator), is whether you’re actually eligible to switch operators. If you are currently under contract to an operator then switching could be tough (and pricey) though it is possible (again, we’ll get to that in a moment).

In the UK an operator is NOT required to tell you when your contract has ended, so you’ll need to check for yourself. Signing into your mobile account either through your operator’s website or on your operator’s app through your phone should tell you when your contract ends. Alternatively, you can always call your operator to find out (you’ll find operator contact info in the “what are my operator options?” section below). If your contract has already ended then you’re free and clear and can switch operators whenever you feel like it.

What If I’m Still Under Contract?

If you’re still under contract then you can cancel that contract and switch operators. But that could take more time and money than it’s worth. In order to cancel a contract, you’ll need to pay a penalty fee, which varies by operator. In general that fee will be made up of two parts. Firstly, you’ll need to pay off the balance on and hardware the operator has given you (such as a mobile phone or dongle). Secondly, you’ll need to pay a fixed amount per month left in your contract (the amount varies by operator).

If you still have several months left in your contract, those fees can add up. It’s up to you to decide whether you’re willing to pay the price or just wait things out for a few months. How do you find out how much contract cancellation will cost? You’ll need to contact your operator to ask them. You’ll find operator contact info in the “what are my operator options?” section below. However, if you want a brief idea of what this costs with major operators then:

  • O2 charges the full amount for contract cancellation. You’ll need to pay any outstanding balance on a handset, plus the full monthly phone plan payment multiplied by however many months are left in the contract.
  • Three charges any outstanding balance left on a handset plus 97% of the monthly payment multiplied by the number of months left in the contract (this goes down to 90% if you have renewed your contract at least once before)
  • EE charges any outstanding balance left on a handset plus 96% of the monthly payment multiplied by the number of months left in the contract. But if you have been on the contract for less then six months then EE requires you to return any handset included in the contract
  • Vodafone allows you to leave a contract for free within the first 30 days. After that, you will pay the outstanding balance on any handset (if you haven’t paid at least the first six bills, however, you’ll be required to return the phone), as well as 81.7% of the monthly payment multiplied by the remaining number of months left in the contract

How to Cancel a Mobile Contract

If you do decide to cancel a current contract then the good news is that it’s actually quite easy to do. All you need to do is contact your operator and tell them you’re cancelling. You’ll be informed of any fees. Pay those fees, pay the monthly bill at the end of the billing cycle you’re currently in, and you should be free and clear. Just as added security it’s a good idea to ask for an email or letter confirming cancellation when you’re speaking to a customer service representative. This should help prevent any problems later.

What Are My Operator Options?

As we said, there are plenty of operator options in the UK. Below you’ll find the main choices, along with links to their websites and additional contact information where available.

The Main UK Operators

Technically, there are only four actual mobile operators in the UK (though obviously you have more options than that in total). These four operators all run their own mobile networks and own the infrastructure used to provide service. The four major operators are:

  • O2 (can also be contacted by calling 034 4809 0222, or by calling 202 from an O2 phone)
  • Vodafone (can also be contacted by calling 033 3304 0191, or by calling 191 from a Vodafone phone)
  • EE (can also be contacted by calling 079 5396 6250, or by calling 150 from an EE phone)
  • Three (can also be contacted by calling 033 3338 1001, or by calling 333 from a Three phone)

The Other UK Operators

There are plenty of secondary operators to choose from though. These operators are known as MVNO (mobile virtual network) operators. Basically, they rent infrastructure from one of the major operators in order to provide service. Usually, MVNO operators are cheaper than major operators because they have lower overheads (they don’t need to build or maintain infrastructure). The downside is that customer service might not always be fantastic, and many have a limited selection of phone models or none at all. The most popular MVNO choices are:

How Do I Choose a New Operator?

Before you do anything else, you’ll need to choose a new operator that offers you what you’re looking for. There are several things that you’ll need to think about here.

Coverage

Although most of the UK gets great mobile coverage, not all operator offer the same coverage in all areas of the country. You want an operator that’s going to give you good reception both in your home and wherever else you spend plenty of time. You can check out coverage by putting your postcode into the OFCOM coverage checker.

Alternatively, most operators have coverage checkers on their websites. You’ll find links to these below. If you’re thinking of using a MVOP, then simply use the coverage checker for the major operator that provides the network for the smaller operator.

Phone Plans

Of course, you’ll want your operator to give you a phone plan, or a monthly (or PAYG) allotment of calling minutes, texts, and mobile data. Different operators offer different packages, and you’ll need to find an operator that offers the kind of package that you’re looking for at the right price. How do you know what kind of phone plan you need? Take a look at your phone bills for the last couple of months to get an idea of how many minutes and texts you use, and how much mobile data you require. Alternatively, you can just track your usage for a month or so. Most modern smartphones have the ability to track monthly usage if you dig around in the settings menu.

Of course, finding out what you need is the easy part. How are you supposed to compare what every operator has to offer in terms of packages? The simplest solution here is to use on online comparison tool. You can find decide between SIM Only and Contract with our calculator and then compare deals here.

Phones

If you’re looking to get a new phone with your contract then that has to be taken into consideration as well. Not all operators offer the same choice of contract phones, so you’ll need to check if the phone you want is on sale. Again, an online comparison checker makes this process easier.

Contract Length

You’ll also need to think about contract length. Again, different operators offer different conditions. A 24-month contract is fairly standard, but many operators also offer 12 month or 18 month contracts too. Some operators offer 30-day rolling contracts, though these are generally more expensive than longer contract options. Or perhaps you don’t want a contract at all, in which case a Pay As You Go plan might be the choice for you.

It’s really up to you how long you want to sign a contract for. But as a general rule, a longer contract ends up being cheaper in the long run. Do remember though that it costs money to end a contract early, so be realistic about how long you’re willing to commit for.

Extras

Finally, there are some extra things that could factor into your decision. Here are a few other things to think about:

  • Does the operator offer fast 4G data speeds?
  • Does the operator offer any gifts or perks for signing up?
  • Does the operator offer special plans, like family plans or plans for freelancers?
  • Does the operator have perks, like cheap cinema tickets?
  • Does the operator have WiFi hotspots that you can connect to when away from home?

Switching Mobile Operators WITHOUT Keeping Your Phone Number

If you don’t want to keep your current phone number, then the process of switching operators is pretty simple. You’ll need to call your current operator and tell them you want to cancel. If there are any fees involved (if you need to break your contract, for example) you’ll need to pay those. You’ll also need to pay the final bill for the current monthly billing cycle. How long it takes for your service to be cut off really depends on the operator, though generally, you’ll keep service until the current monthly billing cycle has finished.

Pro Tip: When cancelling do make sure that you request confirmation of cancellation from the operator. This could be an email or a letter. This will ensure that there are no misunderstandings or unexpected bills later.

Once you’ve arranged for your old service to be cancelled, you simply sign up with your new operator. You can always do this online, or go into a physical store. How long it takes for your new SIM card to work again depends on the operator. Usually, it’s only a couple of hours, but it could be as long as a day.

And that’s really it, you’re finished. You have a new phone contract, perhaps a new phone, and a new mobile operator!

Switching Mobile Operators and Keeping Your Current Phone Number

If you want to keep the phone number that you have then the process of switching operators is a little more complicated and time-consuming. In order to keep your mobile number, you’ll need something called a PAC (Porting Authorisation Code). A PAC is usually a nine-digit code that uniquely identifies you and your phone number. You’ll need to be careful with the timing here, so follow the below steps carefully!

Step 1: Get Your PAC

Your first step is to call customer service for your current operator and request your PAC. Legally, the operator is required to give you your PAC within two hours of your request. Often, they’ll read it out over the phone or send you an SMS with it. Sometimes you may also get an email or letter with the PAC written down.

Now, something that’s important to remember is that a PAC is only valid for thirty days. If you do not use that PAC within thirty days it will no longer work and you’ll need to get a new one. If you happen to have already cancelled your contract with your old operator by this point, you almost certainly won’t be able to get a new PAC. So, like we said, timing is important!

Step 2: Cancel Your Contract

Once you have your PAC in hand, you can then cancel your contract with your current operator. This is simple. Call customer service (or go into a store), tell them you’re cancelling, and they’ll tell you of any outstanding fees. Pay those fees, and you should be good to go. You will probably need to pay the last bill at the end of the current monthly billing cycle. You may retain service until the end of the current monthly billing cycle. But be careful! Time’s ticking on that PAC code, so you might want to sign up with your new operator even if you still have service with your old operator for a few days more.

Step 3: Sign a New Contract

Once you’ve cancelled your old contract, you can then sign your new one. When you’re signing up with your new operator you’ll need to tell them that you want to keep your old number, and then provide them with your PAC. If you’re signing up online there’s usually an option to add a PAC. If you don’t see this option, then call customer service for your new operator and ask about it. Do NOT sign a new contract without giving your new operator the PAC. If you do you will NOT be able to keep your number.

The good news is that once your new operator has your PAC they’ll take care of everything else. Your old number will be ported to your new SIM card, and you should be good to go.

Wait, I Don’t Have Service!

So, you’ve got your new contract, your new SIM card, and you still don’t have service? It’s not an unusual problem. It can take operators quite some time to begin service. However, if you’ve been waiting more than 24 hours then you should definitely call customer service. It’s always possible that the SIM card has not been activated by the operator. If you’ve only been waiting a couple of hours, then the best advice is to be patient, these things can take time!

Enjoy Your New Mobile Operator!

And that should be everything you need to know about switching operators in the UK. The process isn’t difficult, though it could take some time. But it’s important that you take that time to research all your options so that you don’t get tied to a phone contract that’s too expensive, or otherwise unsuited to what you need.

Researching tons of different operators might not be fun, but there is an advantage. So much competition on the market does mean that mobile plan prices are pretty affordable. And with so many options there’s sure to be something that fits you perfectly!