Is it better to buy a mobile phone outright? NimbleFins explores.

Buying pricy items on credit helps spread the cost, but thanks to interest, it usually means paying more overall. Here, we look at the cost of buying a mobile phone outright and whether or not it’s better to pay upfront or commit to a pay-monthly phone contract.

What mobile phone deals are there?

To find the best mobile phone contract and SIM deals for you, we've partnered with Uswitch.

One way to buy a mobile phone with data, minutes and texts (your ‘airtime’) is to take out a contract. Contracts typically last between 12 months and three years depending on the package and provider you choose. Plus, because it’s a credit agreement, you’ll undergo a credit check. At the end of the contract, you’ll own your phone outright, leaving you free to upgrade your handset or switch to a new provider.

If you’re looking for something more flexible, you could consider a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) deal which comes contract free. You can find PAYG packages with or without a handset but if you’re a very light user and only buy the airtime you need, this could work out as the cheapest option.

Alternatively, a SIM-only arrangement supplies you with just the SIM card. You can buy these without a contract from providers such as Lebara or (more typically) with a rolling 30-day contract. Providers also offer SIM deals as 12-month contracts and these can work out cheaper over the course of the year based on cost per GB of data.

If you’re weighing up the pros and cons of what type of mobile phone deal is right for you, our guide to phone contracts can help.

Do mobile phones cost more with a contract?

Surprisingly, the answer isn’t actually as straightforward as you think it might be. It’s also worth bearing in mind that as contract deals include both the handset and the airtime, it can be difficult to work out what each element costs. To make this clearer, some providers now separate the cost of the phone and airtime plan in your monthly statement.

As most of us know, buying things on credit will generally mean you pay more overall, as interest will be added. However, with the types of deals currently available, a pay-monthly contract could actually be marginally cheaper compared to buying a phone outright, and then buying airtime with a SIM-only deal. Let’s take a look at these examples for a brand-new iPhone 14 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S23+ (both with 128GB storage):

iPhone 14 Pro MaxSamsung Galaxy S23+
Cost to buy outright£1,199£1,049
Pay monthly deal with unlimited data£1,387 (£37 per month for 24 months with £499 deposit) £1,344 (£56 per month over 24 months, no deposit)
SIM-only deal with unlimited data (no contract) £15 per month, over 24 months totalling £360£1,559 (handset plus £360 SIM-only)£1,409 (handset plus £360 SIM-only)

In both examples, the pay-monthly deal works out cheaper but it’s important to remember that contract deals will vary considerably, depending on the handset you want along with the data you choose. You’ll also need to factor in promotional offers and other discounts that might apply at the time you buy the phone.

Should I buy a mobile phone outright?

All in all, the lesson here is that it’s important to compare costs and deals. While it might have been cheaper to buy a handset outright in the past, it’s not always the case now, so it’ll pay to shop around.

When you search for mobile phone deals, remember to think about what you actually need rather than what would be nice to have, for example:

  • Data – only the heaviest users are likely to benefit from unlimited data packages. To put usage into perspective, industry regulator Ofcom, calculated that the average person uses 5.6GB of mobile data each month.
  • Flexibility – contract plans mean you’re tied down for at least 12-months, so you’ll need to keep budgeting for this. Missing payments or defaulting altogether could damage your credit rating. If your financial situation is unpredictable, consider whether a contract commitment is right for you.
  • Budget – think about the phone features you actually need rather than automatically opting for the latest models. There are plenty of budget smartphones from less well-known brands that score highly for all-round performance, including Xiaomi, Motorola, and Oppo.

Where can I compare mobile phone deals?

To find the best mobile phone contract and SIM deals for you, we've partnered with Uswitch.

To make it easier to find the right mobile phone deal for you, you can search for contract or SIM-only plans at Uswitch. If you know what you need, you can filter by network, budget and data allowance or just explore what’s on offer.

And read more in our related article Is a mobile phone contract better than PAYG?


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