14 tips for getting the best mobile phone contract
There are so many mobile networks and contracts to choose from these days, it can be hard to know if you're getting the best deal. We'll make sure you do!
With so many different elements to consider with your phone contract - minutes, data, overseas tariffs and more - it's hard to know where to start. Finding the right contract to suit your needs can genuinely be a matter of saving £50 a month!
We're not here to tell you which contacts or networks you should be going for - that's for you to decide yourself once you've worked out what your needs are (but this mobile phone deal comparison tool might help you come to a final decision!).
We're here to tell you of all the things you should be considering when deciding which contract to go for, and how best to save cash in the process.
14 tips for saving on your phone contract
The cheapest deal isn't always the cheapest deal
We know, it looks like we're going crazy - but stick with us.
It can be tempting to just pick the cheapest deal you can find to save some money - and sometimes that is the best course of action. But thanks to hidden/penalty charges, it's often not the case with phone contracts.
If you use more than your allocated amount of data, minutes or texts, you could be stung by some seriously steep charges for anything you use over the amount.
Work out how much you need and how much you use, and go from there.
If you send 1,000 texts each month, get a contract with at least that much - even if it's a couple of quid more expensive than one with just 500 texts. Chances are that the penalty charges would amount to far, far more than a slightly more expensive contract.
Similarly, however, you shouldn't go for a contract with way more than you need. Although a large number of contracts nowadays come with unlimited texts and calls, not all do - and those that don't could be a great way to save money if you're not a big texter/caller.
I never usually call people, but one month during uni I had a couple of group projects on the go and had a few extended calls to sort some things out.
I only had 100 minutes on my contract, and as I'd never even gone close to the limit before, it didn't cross my mind that I could be maxing it out.
Come the end of the month, and my usage on a contract that usually charged £25/month amounted to a whopping £109.
Moral of the story: remember what is and isn't included in your contract!
Tom Allingham, Editor at Save the Student
Don't forget data allowances
Your data allowance is probably the worst one to exceed, as not only are the charges extortionate, but it's incredibly easy to use data without realising.
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp... in fact any app that uses the internet will use up your data when you're not on WiFi - even when you're not using them.
Use the settings on your phone to establish which apps tend to use up the most data and avoid using them as much as possible when you're out and about. You can also set apps to only work when connected to a WiFi network - this will save you a bucketload if you find your data is wasting away.
Some phones will even disconnect from WiFi after a period of inactivity, so if you have a small data allowance, consider turning your data off whenever you're connected to WiFi.
As for how much data to sign up for, most users will find 2-3GB is more than adequate. But if you plan on streaming content or watching TV on your phone, go for an unlimited data deal or one that offers at least 10GB per month.
Get mobile insurance, but read the fine print
When you're carrying a £500 smartphone around with you everywhere you go, it's nice to know that it's covered in case of an accident.
And once you've dropped your phone down the loo a couple of times, or smashed the screen to smithereens on a night out, you'll be glad you paid that extra bit more for insurance.
Many phone insurance companies will sell you what they call a 'comprehensive' insurance package for between £8 to £15 per month, but when it comes to the crunch, some firms will find all manner of excuses to avoid paying out.
Our advice? First of all, check whether your phone is covered under your parents' house or contents insurance before taking out a phone insurance policy.
If you're not covered, read our guide to finding the best mobile phone insurance.
Be wary of contracts with cashback
Increasingly, sites such as Mobiles.co.uk and e2save.com have started offering cashback deals with their contracts. These deals are legit, but how easy it is to get your cashback can depend on the type being offered.
'Cashback by redemption' (or anything with a similar name) is the one to watch out for, as this often means you'll have to send in monthly bill statements to claim your cashback
It's much easier to go for deals with 'instant cashback' or get your cashback as a lump-sum by going through a cashback website (see our guide to using cashback sites for more details).
In this instance, no action is needed from you, aside from clicking on the right link. You could get well over £100 in cashback if you're lucky - not to be sniffed at!
Think about the length of your contract
No one wants to be tied into a phone contract for the long haul, but in order to get a good deal, networks will expect you to sign up for a set number of months (normally at least a year).
It's true that you can get rolling contracts with no commitment, but unless these are SIM only, they're not a cost effective way of doing things.
Most networks will offer you the choice of 12, 18, 24 or 36 month contracts, with the monthly cost decreasing as the length of contract increases.
It's all about striking a balance. While cheaper is obviously more appealing, you don't want to tied in forever in case your circumstances change.
For example, if you decide to move abroad to do a postgrad for free in Europe, you'll have to continue paying for your phone contract each month you're away (or face a ridiculous contract cancellation fee).
Or what if a new software update renders your phone completely useless? (We're looking at you, Apple). You don't want to wait another 18 months to get a new phone, and buying one outright while you're still paying for one through a contract will cost you dearly.
Our advice is to stick to a 18 or 24 month contract, giving you the rewards of a slightly cheaper contract while limiting your contract term to give you that all important flexibility should it be necessary.
Check out the overseas tariffs
If you reckon you'll be going abroad at any point during your contract period (and even if you're not, 24 months is a long time - you might!), beware that data roaming can cost way more than your usual tariff.
While the EU have introduced new laws to ensure that using your phone in Europe costs no more than at home, using it outside of the EU can involve some hefty additional costs.
And with Brexit looming, there's no guarantee that we'll even enjoy these privileges in Europe for much longer!
These overseas tariffs apply if you make a lot of international calls too (for example, if you have friends or family who live abroad). Scout out each network's relevant charges before you commit.
Consider SIM only contracts
It's worth pointing out that while most phone contracts focus on you paying up for the shiny new phone in your pocket, there are ways around this.
If you've already got a decent phone and aren't that bothered about upgrading to the latest and greatest, there's nothing to stop you keeping it and switching to a SIM only deal. Just remember, you'll need to unlock your phone if you want to use it with a network other than the one you bought it with.
If you do need a new phone but don't want to pay through the nose for it, another option is to head to eBay, where you'll find iPhones in great nick being sold for as little as £100.
The trick is to wait until a new fancy model has just been released, as people will be desperately trying to flog their current phones for the newest model.
Anyway, as you're not paying for the phone itself with a SIM-only contract, you can net some serious savings - some contracts come in at under a tenner a month!
To work out what your cheapest option is, you'll need to consider the lifetime cost of a phone and the contract.
Say the best deal for a phone you wanted was £38/month for 24 months. At the end of the contract, you'd have spent £912. See how cheap you find the phone for by itself, and then find a SIM only deal with equivalent minutes/texts/data. Add together the cost of the phone and the SIM only contract and see how it compares to the bundle - it'll usually be cheaper!
Research each network carefully
Which network you choose may seem like much of a muchness, but there are a few things to look out for when assessing which network is best for you.
The most important thing to point out is that mobile phone signal varies hugely throughout the UK, and some networks offer much better signal than others in certain areas.
Ofcom have a mobile network coverage checker that you can use to see which networks are working best in your area, but you could just ask around locally to see how other customers find it.
While it's also good to do a bit of research on the customer service rating of each brand, we'd recommend steering clear of the likes of Trust Pilot on this one.
Although these sites are often a good barometer of the reliability of a brand, pretty much every mobile phone network has an awful rating! It seems as though in case, more than any other, people are only leaving reviews when they're seriously annoyed.
Haggle to get a better deal on your phone contract
If your contract is coming to an end, it's likely you've heard from your network offering you an upgrade to a new phone (although they might not get in touch about this - best get checking if you're due one!).
You have a few options at this stage: either upgrade, stick with your current phone model and ask to switch to a SIM only plan, or switch to a different network altogether.
Whatever you decide to do, it's time to get haggling. Assess your needs, do some research, find out what's on offer with other networks and tell your current network what you want (within reason!).
You may shy away at the thought of haggling with them (although we have this great guide on how to haggle that will help you master the art!) but in reality this is the prime time to make serious savings on your contract and you won't want to miss this chance!
From a network's point of view, having you pay slightly less on your contract is better than you paying money to another company, so they're very willing to listen to your demands.
BONUS TIP: We're not 100% sure how true this is, but rumour has it that calling up and haggling at the beginning of the month brings the biggest rewards.
Customer service staff apparently have a pot of money from which they can offer customers better deals, and by the end of the month this pot runs dry. By calling up early in the month, you'll be catching them when they have more money to play with.
Again, we're not entirely convinced with this one, but you've quite literally got nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying!
Go online for the best phone contract deals
It's always nice to be able to touch and feel your shiny new handset before you buy it. But if you've ever been into any mobile phone shop on the high street, it's likely that you've been targeted by commission-hungry sales staff.
Whether they call themselves 'advisers', 'helpers' or 'technicians', the fact is that these employees are trained to sell, and sell hard.
Shopping online can relieve you of any pressure to make quick (and sometimes wrong) decisions, and there are plenty of helpful websites out there to point you in the right direction (including Save the Student, of course!).
Occasionally our student deals page will have phone contract deals to check out too, so be sure to have a peek!
Use mobile phone comparison tools
As with pretty much anything you can buy online, there are comparison sites out there to help you try and find the best deal.
Of course you can easily do your own research (and we would highly recommend doing that as well, since not all networks will appear on comparison sites) but there is no harm in paying a visit to comparison sites to see what they have to offer.
Luckily, we also have our own mobile phone contract comparison tool for you to try!
Try apps that help reduce your phone bill
This doesn't strictly apply to finding the best contract, but there are loads of apps out there that help you reduce the amount of texts, minutes or data you use, meaning you could potentially commit to a smaller contract.
Go with lesser known phone networks
The mobile phone sector is filled with big players, but don't be afraid to step outside of the main players and go for a smaller network.
GiffGaff offers some great contract deals with the added benefit of not getting locked in, which can be good for students.
But it's not just GiffGaff crashing the party - the likes of iD Mobile (owned by Carphone Warehouse), VOXI, Plusnet and even established brands like Superdrug are getting in on the act with some great deals.
Best of all, these new networks almost always piggyback onto the service offered by one of the major players, so you know you'll have some half decent coverage (Superdrug, for example, uses Three's network).
The key is to do your research, and work out what's best for you!
Look out for network-exclusive deals and freebies
You've probably heard of O2 Priority, but did you know that it's not the only network offering exclusive deals to its customers?
Three now has Wuntu, which offers many of the same types of deals - we're talking free food, discounted/priority access to tickets and discount codes.
As long as the discounts are on the kinds of things you already buy, getting a contract with O2 or Three could save you some serious money over time!
Beyond this, you can sometimes get a 'freebie' thrown in when you take out your contract.
Sometimes the 'freebies' are genuinely high-value goods, like a PS4, but beware: often the contract will be disproportionately overpriced for what the phone and minutes/data/texts are. Ultimately, you could end up paying for the 'freebie' through your contract.
Check out our deals section for all the latest deals from O2 Priority, Wuntu and everywhere else!
Got any more mobile contract tips you think readers should know about? Share in the comments section below!