Looks Closer: The best SIM-only deals on the market

In this episode of the Looks Closer podcast series we're joined by Daragh Cassidy, Head of Communications at to discuss SIM-only deals.

The new style of mobile plan, made popular in recent years by the likes of GoMo, can be one of the most cost-effective ways to save money on your mobile bills, and all without having to sacrifice any calls, texts or data. In this podcast we take a look at SIM-only plans in detail and where consumers can find the best value.

Here are the main points discussed by Daragh and Rob in this episode.

What does SIM stand for?

SIM stands for ‘subscriber identity module’ and was invented in 1991. 

Most listeners will know it as that tiny card that you insert into your phone that enables you to make calls and texts.

What are SIM-only plans?

A SIM-only deal is where you’re paying for just the SIM card, and that card gives you access to a certain number of calls, texts and data. 

Up until three or four years ago, most people would be more used to billpay or pay as you go phones. Particularly with billpay phones, where you’d pay €40-80 a month for a certain amount of calls and texts, but you’d get a phone with it.

One of the reasons the package would be so expensive is because you’re paying for the phone, too.

We’re trying to keep phones longer, as they’ve become more expensive.

Some of the telecommunications companies now provide packages where all you get is a SIM card. They assume you have the phone and you just buy the SIM by itself.

While the advertising can be quite youth-oriented, these SIM-only plans are open to everyone, no matter what age. 

What’s SIM-free then?

SIM-free is where you have the phone, but the phone is unlocked and it can accept any SIM card.

They’re not tied to any network. You can put in any SIM card, as long as it’s the right size. Nowadays, SIM cards come in many sizes. There’s standard, micro, nano, etc.

Who offers SIM-only plans?

One that would be familiar to a lot of listeners is GoMo. GoMo shook up the market when it launched in Ireland around 2 years ago.

It’s a subsidiary of Eir, although it’s trying to differentiate itself slightly from Eir by having a different price point, different customer service channels.

When GoMo first came in, it had a deal of €9.99 per month for life. GoMo has increased the price twice since then. Firstly to €12.99 a month and then more recently to €14.99 a month, but it’s still excellent value.

For this price, you can get unlimited calls, texts and data. If you’re on a billpay phone, you could be paying a lot more per month, or if you’re topping up your phone on pay as you go.

Usually with billpay deals, the contract can last for 2 years and it can be quite expensive because you’re paying off the subsidised phone.

But when you get to the end of that 2-year contract, you’re crazy to still be spending the same amount per month. You could switch to a SIM-only plan easily.

With GoMo is there a cap on the services?

On most SIM-only plans there is a cap.

When telecommunications companies use the word ‘unlimited’, it can be quite misleading. They shouldn’t really use it unless it genuinely is unlimited, but companies can get away with it.

ComReg seems to have no issue with it, but usually unlimited deals come with some sort of fair usage package. With GoMo, you get 120GB of data per month, 45,000 minutes of calls and 10,000 texts. You’re unlikely to go over the calls and texts limit, but some people might go over the data.

If you go over the 120GB of data, GoMo reserves the right to slow down your connection but you won’t actually be charged, which is good. You could end up getting 3G speeds, instead of 4G speeds.

Who has the cheapest SIM-only deal?

48’s price point is quite competitive at the moment.

48 was launched a good few years ago and was very much a youth-focused brand, but it kind of disappeared for a while.

After GoMo shook up the market, Three relaunched 48 to everyone. 48 is offering 10,000 calls, 10,000 texts and 100GB of data for €10.99 a month. This is a very competitive offer. Again, like Virgin Mobile, 48 reserves the right to charge you.

With 48, when you sign up you get a free 1GB of data to test out before committing to the plan, which is different and 48 should be commended for this. It’s a good way of trying without commitment. Try before you buy.

What other SIM-only plans are out there?

Another popular one is from Virgin Mobile. Virgin has lots of different deals, but there’s a €15 a month deal for a trial period and then it reverts to the normal price of €25 a month.

At the moment, it’s €15 a month for 12 months but sometimes Virgin Mobile will come out with a new deal. There are 10,000 minutes of calls, 10,000 texts and 80GB of data. With Virgin, if you go over the data limit you can be charged.

If you’re using your phone for hotspot, you could go over the data limits easily, so keep this in mind.

Another company offering SIM-only is Clear Mobile. This is a subsidiary of Vodafone. Clear Mobile has done something similar to GoMo. Vodafone is positioning Clear Mobile as a separate entity.

Clear Mobile’s deal is €12.99 a month, but this deal isn’t for life. It could go up or down. There is no cap at all on the data with Clear Mobile, but there is a cap on the speed of 5MG.

5MG isn’t that fast and is closer to 3G speeds. Vodafone has its own SIM-only plans, which are a lot more expensive, at around €35-45 a month. People on these plans can avail of 5G.

What’s an MVNO?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. It’s basically where a business just piggybacks off another network operator.

We have three main network operators in Ireland, which are Three, Vodafone and Eir. They built their own infrastructure and their masts, but sometimes they’ll do deals with other companies.

Virgin Mobile and 48 use the Three network, GoMo uses the Eir network, and Clear Mobile uses Vodafone’s network.

It’s important when you’re signing up for a mobile phone deal, to find out what the network is.

In the Dublin region, all the networks are pretty similar, but if you’re living somewhere more rural, the signal might be patchy with certain networks.

Can the main providers make speeds for MVNOs slower?

It’s controversial. Some people think that the Three network can suffer because Three has several providers using its network. Tesco mobile also uses the Three network. 

Other people think that the MVNOs don’t get the best bandwidth and that Three will reserve the best signal for Three’s primary customers.

ComReg has its own coverage maps as well, which can show you what providers have good coverage in your area. Certainly with 3G and 4G signals, they’re all pretty equal, but in more rural areas, one provider may have better coverage than others.

EU roaming data allowances

Unfortunately not many of us are travelling at the moment but not so long ago, the EU brought in new rules to get rid of roaming charges. 

Basically you have to be able to use your phone in other EU countries the same way you can use it in Ireland. For various reasons though, it doesn’t quite apply to data as of yet. 

All of the minutes of the calls and texts can be used in Ireland or roaming in Europe, but when it comes to data, it’s not quite the same. With most providers, you’ll get a limit of maybe 10-13GB of data that you can use roaming each month.

The thing to highlight is that this data is not in addition to the data you get in Ireland, it’s actually part of it.

Do SIM-only plans allow for international calls?

Some do, but the cheaper ones don’t. 

Tesco Mobile offers this in their €20 a month SIM-only deal. Although Tesco Mobile only offers 60GB of data, so a lot less than the others. It also offers 10,000 minutes of calls and 10,000 texts. You can use 10.8GB in the EU.

This package does come with 300 international minutes, which is good.

What about 5G?

With Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Clear Mobile, GoMo and 48, it’s just 4G speeds. If you have a 5G capable phone, you won’t get the 5G speeds with these providers.

Vodafone’s SIM-only deal which starts at €35 and goes up to €45 does give 5G speeds, provided you’re in an area with 5G coverage and you have a 5G handset.

Eir also has a deal where customers can avail of 5G. It’s €19.99 a month for 12 months, and then rises to €34.99. This also includes unlimited calls and texts, and 200 international minutes.

Eir has a slightly cheaper package of €14.99 a month for 12 months, but that only gets you 4G and no international minutes. 

The difference we’ll see between 5G and 4G won’t be as big of a difference as we saw with 2G moving to 3G, and 3G moving to 4G. The speeds will be faster, but it’s unlikely to be life-changing.

People using 5G will see a difference in latency. For example, if you’re using Google Maps, your location will be updated much quicker. 5G will also help with the advent of automated cars.

When should people use a SIM-only plan?

Usually when people sign up for a billpay plan, it’s a 24-month contract. When you’re out of contract and you’ve paid off the handset if you don’t need or want a brand new phone consider a SIM-only plan. You should be able to get three years out of your smartphone, maybe even a little bit more. You could make significant savings.

If you don’t need the latest phone and you’re willing to buy a cheaper smartphone, you could buy one outright and then sign up for a SIM-only plan. 

With billpay, the more money you can pay upfront for the phone itself, the better.

Sometimes if you want to move to a SIM-only plan, you might not have to move network. You could be with Eir on billpay and then move to Eir’s SIM-only plan for €14.99 a month. 

Can you keep your number if you change to SIM-only?

You can. The switching process is actually quite simple. ComReg brought out a facility called Mobile Number Portability that allows you to retain your mobile number when moving between mobile networks.

If you’re changing to a SIM-only plan, you can always keep your phone number. Usually, the whole switch can only take an hour.

If you’re signing up for a SIM-only deal, you need to make sure that your phone can accept the SIM. If you have come to the end of a billpay contract, you should be given an unlocking code, as the phone is yours at that stage.

Are there any sign-up incentives?

GoMo did offer a second SIM card for free and Virgin Mobile has a similar deal where you can add a few SIM cards to the same account.

In general though, the frills and extra benefits don’t tend to be so great because it’s cheap.

Online customer service

With 48, GoMo and Clear Mobile customer service is online. You won’t be serviced if you go into a Vodafone, Eir or Three stores.

They’re being managed as separate entities, so you’ll have to go online or through Twitter. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea and might not suit you.

In general, some of the telecommunications providers haven’t been great from a customer service point of view. There are a lot of complaints about them, but the feedback so far about GoMo and 48 has been pretty positive.

Contract lengths with SIM-only plans

Tesco Mobile, GoMo, Virgin Mobile, Clear Mobile and 48 are all on a 30-day rolling contract. You can cancel at any time.  There’s a lot of flexibility and if you don’t like it, you can switch. 

Not all SIM-only deals are like this. Vodafone’s SIM-only plans for example would be year-long contracts and Eir is similar. If you leave these early, you could be charged an early exit fee.

Key considerations when choosing a SIM-only plan

To summarise, here’s what you should consider when choosing a SIM-only plan:

  • Price will be the major one. 48 seems to have the best price at the moment, at €10.99 per month.
  • The next biggest consideration would be data. If you’re going to use your phone for hot-spotting or tethering, you’ll want a plan that offers more data. 
  • Network and speed are also important to consider. If you want 5G, you’ll have to opt for a more expensive SIM-only plan, not to mention have a 5G compatible handset.
  • The contract length is also something to consider. Most SIM-only plans work on a 30-day rolling contract basis, but some are 12-month contracts. This is something to be mindful of.
  • If you do a lot of travelling, you might want to keep in mind how much roaming data you can get.

Explore all of your options

There are plenty of options out there for people who are looking for new phone plans, so make sure you evaluate all choices.

To ensure that you’re fully informed before deciding on a new phone plan, check out the following:

Use our free comparison tool to compare mobile phone, broadband and TV deals in your local area to find a deal that best suits your needs.  

If you have any questions about SIM-only phone plans, let us know. You can contact us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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