Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 28 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals
Giffgaff and Apple Pay in London

UK Travel Tips: Giffgaff for Cellular and Apple Pay for Transit

We recently spent 10 days in the UK for a friend’s wedding, starting with a visit to longtime TidBITS and Take Control author Kirk McElhearn in Stratford-Upon-Avon (yes, we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear while there) and then moving on to London. It was a vacation studded with and improved by technology, including a public Qi-enabled charging station in the Newark airport, a rental VW Golf that gave us our first real-world experience with CarPlay (we immediately wanted iOS 12’s promised support for third-party navigation apps like Google Maps), and renting a large shared Airbnb apartment with other wedding-bound friends from Australia. We quickly set up a huge Messages conversation that included everyone we were with, complete with shared locations, and used it for coordinating five families through the visit.

Qi-enabled charging station in the Newark airport
Setting my iPhone X down on a charging pad in a public space was a little unnerving.

Two other bits of technology made the trip significantly easier and cheaper: Giffgaff and Apple Pay. The oddly named Giffgaff is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, or MVNO, that uses the widespread O2 network in the UK and provides a useful way of getting inexpensive cellular data there. Apple Pay was helpful because it’s supported as a contactless payment system by Transport for London (TfL)—the authority overseeing the Tube, buses, London Overground, River Bus, and other forms of public transportation.

Giffgaff for Cellular

It’s almost hard to remember how we coped with travel in pre-iPhone days, what with paper maps, questionable guidebooks, fussy traveler’s checks, and inscrutable public transit systems. Internet services and iPhone apps have largely eliminated these problems, but for them to work, cellular data is necessary. I put some research into the best way of ensuring that our iPhones would be able to get Internet access as soon as we cleared customs.

One option was AT&T’s International Day Pass, which charges $10 per day and gives you unlimited calls and unlimited texts, and uses data from your existing plan. That might be fine for a day or two, but it would have cost us $300 for the three of us for the duration of the trip, and in retrospect, 3 GB wasn’t enough for the three of us anyway due to all the necessary mapping. Others recommended buying a SIM for a local carrier once we landed, but I disliked not knowing exactly where or how I’d do that, particularly while fuzzy after a red-eye flight. Ironically, I never saw a way of buying a SIM in the London Gatwick airport, but when we returned to the Newark airport in the US, we saw multiple SIM vending machines. And of course, if you have a carrier other than AT&T, the international options may be better.

Thanks, then, to TidBITS reader Jolin Warren, who suggested I use Giffgaff. Although Giffgaff is focused on providing service to UK residents, it has a service that works well for international visitors with unlocked iPhones. (Make sure to unlock your iPhone with your carrier well before you leave since it supposedly can take some time. AT&T’s unlocking process took just an hour or so for us.) You can order a SIM for free and receive it anywhere in the world. Then, before you leave for the UK, set up your Giffgaff account and purchase a “goodybag” that’s basically a bucket of minutes, texts, and data for a month.Giffgaff Web site banner

We encountered some confusion, such as the activation page’s claim that a UK address was necessary and no way of knowing which of our credit cards would work in advance. Happily, no address was actually required, and I sidestepped the credit card issue by using PayPal. We were able to activate our SIMs and get our accounts working at home, and we even tested to make sure we could install the SIMs in our iPhones. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Giffgaff SIM activation page

The trickiest part turned out to be dealing with the SIMs themselves since they’re so tiny, and we had three that looked identical. We ended up marking them with a Sharpie to keep them straight and marking our original AT&T SIMs for when we returned. We ended up carrying the SIMs in a contact lens case, and I put the SIM extraction tool in my wallet. That was dumb since it disappeared under the car seat when I pulled out a credit card while getting gas on the way to the airport. Luckily, a paperclip worked and could be bent to fit in the other side of the lens case.

All that preparation was worthwhile since we were able to swap the SIMs as soon as we cleared customs, and that gave us full Internet access while picking up the rental car and navigating out of the airport.

One unexpected event was that our iPhones noticed the new phone numbers and asked repeatedly if we wanted to update our “trusted numbers,” eventually settling on one of those red-badged nags at the top of the Settings app. Apparently, a “trusted number” would be used if I needed to sign in from a new device, and since the chances and consequences of damaging an iPhone while traveling are both higher, it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. Although we were initially hesitant to switch the numbers, as the middle screen below implied would be necessary, the screen on the right gave us the choice of using both numbers, which seemed sensible.

Screenshots showing the request to update the trusted phone number.

The only mistake we made was in underestimating how much data we’d need. At home, we share an AT&T family plan with 3 GB of data with no problems. So we each purchased a £7.50 goodybag that came with 1 GB of data, and each of us ran out before the end of the trip. Had we each purchased the £10 goodybag with 3 GB of data, we would have spent £30. Because you can only get more data before the end of a month by buying another goodybag and activating it early (once you have less than 50 MB of data remaining), we spent a total of £47.50 on the initial purchase plus extra data. At about $64, that was still way cheaper than AT&T’s $300.

Our error came in failing to realize that we’d be relying on our iPhones much more often throughout the day when we weren’t on Wi-Fi, as we are at home, and when Tristan is on the Cornell campus during the school year. Much of that data usage was due to non-stop mapping, but it’s worth going into Settings > Cellular and disabling access for any apps that you think might use a lot of data.

It’s also worth remembering that any services, like Twitter, that use SMS-based two-factor authentication, won’t be able to send you a text message to your new phone number. You may be able to work around that by signing in before you leave, or by switching to an authentication app like 1Password, Authy, Google Authenticator, or LastPass.

Apple Pay for Transit

The challenge of driving on the opposite side of the road was one thing when we were out on the motorways and around Stratford-Upon-Avon, but driving in London was insane, what with the traffic, squirrely little roads, trying to match Google Maps directions with difficult to find street signs, and more. We were happy to return our rental car right after arriving and planned to use London’s famed public transit system—the London Tube!—for the rest of the trip.

Relying on public transit systems as a tourist is often quite stressful, between the confusion of trying to figure out routes and figuring out the local payment systems and policies. Luckily, both Google Maps and Apple’s Maps did a good job of providing detailed directions that included walking routes when switching from a bus to the Tube, for instance. But payments were still a worry because there are all sorts of variables based on zones, time of day, age, and more.

The advice we’d been given by tech-savvy friends who had been to London recently was to just use Apple Pay. When you do that, TfL’s system tracks your usage throughout the day and charges you the lowest appropriate fare—taking into account daily caps that make the final amounts cheaper than day or week passes. (An alternative would have been to buy one of TfL’s contactless Oyster cards, add money to it, and then get it refunded when we left the country. Our friends did that for their young children, who didn’t have iPhones. Also, we could have used contactless credit cards, which are still rare in the US, if we’d had them.)

Transport for London poster encouraging the use of contactless credit cards.

The physical process of paying with Apple Pay is brilliant—most of the time. There’s a yellow payment pad on gates in the Tube stations and at the front of buses. You invoke Apple Pay, authenticate, and then touch your device to the pad. (You’re supposed to be able to touch your device to the pad to invoke Apple Pay and then authenticate, but that didn’t work the one time I tried it.) The gates then open, or a light turns green, indicating you can proceed. For the Tube, you have to touch in when you enter the station and touch out when you leave; for buses, you just touch in when you board and don’t need to touch out.

Using Apple Pay at a Transport for London contactless reader

If you want to use Apple Pay for public transit in London, there are a few quirks to keep in mind:

  • Use a supported credit card. Our debit cards from our local credit union had no currency conversion fees, so we thought we’d use them with Apple Pay. However, it turned out that US debit cards generally aren’t accepted in the UK, so we had to set Apple Pay to use a different credit card. Make sure you have a few credit cards loaded into Apple Pay to be safe.
  • Use the same device each time. To avoid higher fares for seemingly incomplete journeys and to take advantage of the daily capping, you have to touch in and touch out with the same device for all your trips in a day. In other words, settle on your iPhone or your Apple Watch, and don’t switch. We only used our iPhones because I’ve had more trouble in general with Apple Pay payments registering from the Apple Watch. (Although I’m sad that I didn’t try it one day when we had little travel planned.)
  • Be patient and try again if necessary. We had a non-trivial number of failures, where Tristan and I would get through the gates, for instance, but the system would reject Tonya’s payment. Some of that was user error, as we all figured out how to use Apple Pay more fluidly, but other failures had no obvious cause. It might have been related to all three of us using the same credit card in too quick succession, but sometimes everything worked as expected. Apart from suffering dirty looks from other commuters who we were blocking, there was no problem with waiting briefly or trying another gate—it always worked in the end.

Saunorch International Travel Power Adapter

Finally, as international travelers, we needed a plug adapter so we could charge our various devices with US plugs in UK sockets. There are many such devices, but I wanted to share the adapter I ended up buying since it worked extremely well.

The Saunorch International Travel Power Adapter is a colorful cube that combines a single universal AC socket with four USB charging ports that can be used simultaneously. It claims to have a smart IC chip that automatically recognizes devices to provide the right current output—I can’t speak to that, but all our devices (a collection of iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and a Garmin Forerunner 620) charged in what seemed like reasonable times.

Saunorch International Power Adapter showing plug configurations

The best part is that sliders on one side of the cube let you extend plugs for four different styles (US, UK, Europe, and Australia) to provide coverage for more than 150 countries. When not in use, they retract into the cube, making it easy to toss in a laptop bag without worrying about it poking anything. And it comes in bright green, which should make it less likely that it will be forgotten in a hotel room. (A bright blue model is similar, except for swapping one of the standard USB ports for a USB-C port.)

To protect your devices against power surges, Saunorch’s power adapter has a 6.3A fuse and comes with a spare fuse, although you’ll have to keep track of that separately. Note that it’s not a power converter, so it can’t convert voltage, though that doesn’t come up much with electronics. And it’s also not intended for high-power appliances like hair dryers or tea kettles. But for ensuring that you can charge your iPhone, MacBook, and other electronics wherever you are, it’s a steal at less than $20.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For 28 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

Comments About UK Travel Tips: Giffgaff for Cellular and Apple Pay for Transit

Notable Replies

    • Use the same device each time.

    Also, use the same payment card each time! If you switch among payment cards and you don’t use the same card across a day (or week), you don’t get the benefit of the automatic Transport for London caps. While you can get this with an Oyster Card, too, you don’t have to worry about it with the Oyster Card as long as you use the same one.

    Another tip: Tristan has aged out of this, but TfL has a variety of confusing discounts for anyone under 17 as of August 31 on a given year. (That is, if you turned 18 on September, you can still qualify as 17 until your next birthday.)

    I did a lot of research, as it’s geared for Londoners, but finally figured out that for a short trip, it’s optimal to get a Visitor Oyster Card (which TfL will ship to you in advance), and then on arrival at any Tube stop with a counter (and other locations as well), you can have the card converted to an 11-15 Youth Card for 14 days. Kids under 11 ride free on a lot of transport, and 16 & 17 y.o.'s have what I found to be more confusing options. We’ll be in London for 10 days soon, so that’s the option we chose. For longer visitors, kids can get photo ID cards, which can be applied for online and in advance, and then picked up on arrival at a place you choose from a number of locations.

  1. Bonus for T-Mobile customers: Using the standard T-Mobile One and Simple Choice North America plans allow for:

    • Unlimited Data
    • Unlimited Text
    • Phone calls at 20 cents per minute

    This is simply part of the plan, and involves no extra cost or activation.

    We used this in Israel, and it was cheaper than buying a SIM and much easier than trying to set up my phone and my Apple account to use a new phone number. You can’t beat practically free.

    Not all countries are included, and some countries have limited areas where this works. You can check the T-Mobile Website for information on a particular country.

    If you have voIP home service, you can see if there’s an iPhone app that will allow you to use your home phone number. I was able to answer my phone while in Israel. You can also see if your service will allow you to buy a local number in the country where you’re visiting. The only issue we had was that someone in Israel calling me in Israel was charged for an International call to the U.S. The next time we go, I’ll get an Israeli number from my home service provider for $5 per month.

  2. A few comments:

    1. If you are an AT&T unlimited data and call plan and taking a short trip, you should be able to still use all your devices for $10/day. The trick is to enable the plan for only your phone and use it as a hotspot for your other devices.

    2. If you data limited by your cell plan and using your phone for navigation, consider downloading Google Maps for the area in which you are traveling in advance (or when you have a WiFi connection) and turning off Google Map cell access. You won’t get traffic updates, but you should still get decent directions. When I have had limits, I kept a list of apps on Notes where I had pulled cell access. This also became a great checklist for future trips.

    3. I have found a paper clip (or at least ones I have tried) to be unreliable SIM removal tools. They have tended to bend before I could apply sufficient force to push the unlock pin. I was pleasantly surprised that the kit Apple provided for returning a phone as part of the iPhone Upgrade Program provided a SIM tool which provides a better grip and resists bending.

    4. Not being a contact lens users, I have used SD card cases in which the card is initially sold for storing extra SIMs. I include a scrap of paper with a note about the SIM. The SIM removal tool also fits there.

    5. For plug conversion, I have been using a Powercube adapter and bringing the US and appropriate foreign adapter inserts in my carryon bag. In my luggage, I also carry a 6-outlet Anker USB charger with a detachable power cord. One problem that plug adapters pose is that anything heavy plugged into them will tend to pull the plug out of the outlet. That is why I like the corded USB adapter, even though the cord is only more item to pack (I keep it with the adapter in a plastic bag). Ideally, I’d like to use a US plug travel power strip plugged into the adapter, but most of them are not certified for 240 volts. I’ve had a hotel room circuit breaker trigger when plugging one in that wasn’t so certified.

  3. Excellent advice, David. I used this on various trips to Europe and it worked very well. When I actually made calls I usually used FaceTime audio anyway, so I only ended up paying very little for the few cases where somebody called me on my US phone number.

    That said, never try the reverse. Without their international calls add-on ($20/month I believe) calling to Europe is ridiculous, like $3/min. It reminded me of the early 80s when you’d call Europe through an operator and then get billed about a day’s wage for a 10-min call. :wink:

  4. One more piece of advice for international travelers with Apple gear. If you have any Apple charger (except the compact 5W iPhone charger), you don’t need to fuss around with adapters (although the one Adam shows with built-in USB ports seems nice). All you need is a two-pronged power cord for about $5 on Amazon. This one here’s obviously for the US, but they have the same for Europe, the UK, and Australia. One thing I like about that is it works really well in hotels where there’s sometime not a lot of outlets and the few there are often don’t make it easy to reliably insert a big bulky converter. Plus, there’s no ground pin which makes finding the right outlet a lot easier.

    Added bonus, this kind of cord will also usually work on all aircraft. Some of the outlets there, especially the smaller ones between economy seats won’t allow inserting a bulky adapter. And many aren’t compatible with ground pins. The cord works just fine though. If your cord has a 2-prong US (sometimes also EU) plug you should be good to go on pretty much any Airbus/Boeing with in-seat power.

  5. Good article Adam. Having been there twice on long rural vacations 5 and 9 years ago, I wish I’d had this article then. Apple maps was vital.

    Look right, drive left, and stop when in doubt at busy roundabouts. :slight_smile:

  6. You don’t need a special visitor card - any Oyster Card can be converted into an 11-15 Youth Card at a train station (or other places).

    Also, you can, I believe, get the card to refund you all the remaining balance on it at a Pay Station. In the end we didn’t do this and will just ship our Oyster Cards back to our friends in England to use up, but it does mean if you double check that that you can dump a lot of cash into the card and not have to keep topping it up every few days or worry that you will lose all the money trapped in the card.

  7. I don’t understand why a company which prides itself on being reasonable and simple charges so dang much for international calls. Is it really that big a profit center? So big that it’s worth antagonizing your customers.

    I use my voip service from my iPhone to make these calls. They bill me 2¢ per minute (to land lines) with an hours worth of free calls. Due to Europeans rules, cell phones are around 10¢ to 15¢ per minute.

  8. Adam - Lots of useful information in your article. Thanks. I’m headed to the UK in a few weeks and wish you’d published this a few weeks ago, before I went SIM-shopping.

    Another good choice for UK (and Euro) travellers is a SIM from Three. It’s an odd name for a wireless company, but it’s part of Hutchison, a major international telecom based in Hong Kong. Three has a £15 ‘Feel at Home’ bundle (they call it an “add-on”) which gets 5GB of data, 3000 minutes and 3000 texts. The bundle is good for data/calls/texts in the UK and anywhere in the EU. Calls from the UK back home (in my case, to Canada) are a mere 1p per minute! Calls to USA are 3p/min.

    My plan for upcoming trip is a Three SIM (free) with £20 on it: £15 for the bundle with £5 left over for pay-as-you-go calls to NA.

    Based on discussion with a UK native last night, I can confirm what peternlewis posted about the Oyster card. A regular Oyster can be ‘cashed-in’ prior to departure from the UK. A Pay Station machine will refund the balance still on the card (up to £10) plus the £5 deposit paid for the card.

  9. Yes, but! I didn’t want to have to fuss with both buying two Oysters Cards and getting them converted to Youth. I figured having the Visitor card on hand when we arrive means if we’re too knackered to deal with it, we just get on the trains and cope the next day.

  10. I emailed Giffgaff about obtaining multiple SIMs at once and a pooled plan, and they don’t offer that—it’s one account per card, one plan per card. Which makes sense given their model, and it is cheap.

    However, I have a Tesco SIM from my last trip that included the card, 2 GB of data, several hundred minutes of calls and texts, and just £10 ($13.35 at today’s exchange rates). That compares to £18 for the Giffgaff 9 GB plan + lots of calls/minutes.

    I used only 1.5 GB with heavy photography and map use over 7 days in London late last fall, and we are staying in a home with Wi-Fi, so I think I may opt for saving ~$40. We’ll see if I come out ahead!

  11. Absolutely, if you can manage it beforehand, it is well worth doing.

  12. Speaking of Tesco, if you are planing on driving around England looking at the sites, then I have three more tips:

    • Get an English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. You can buy them when you enter the first English Heritage location (for us, it was Stone Henge), and then you have free entry in to all the other English Heritage sites. We must have visited about 20 over the 9 days we were driving around England.
    • If you’re going to do the above, spend some time looking at possibilities beforehand, because the English Heritage sucks rocks and is particularly painful to use on a mobile. Also, use the Wikipedia page List of English Heritage properties as much or more than the site. Our favourite places included: Stone Henge, Goodrich Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Bolsover Castle, and Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, but there were many many more.
    • If you are driving around England, staying in B&Bs, then a visit to Tesco in the morning to grab a Sandwich/Drink/Snack £3 meal-deal can save you a lot on lunch time cafe visits, as well as a lot of time looking for places to eat when you could be reading about what happened in 1266.
  13. FWIW this trick will also work in Scotland, Wales & N Ireland :slight_smile: Other supermarkets are available…

    Note that Scotland has a separate National Heritage and National Trust so you although membership will get you into the other ones’ properties season passes are unlikely to.


  14. Another +1 for the 3 SIMs for your phone. Unlimited data, tons of minutes and texts and roaming in the EU. At least until Brexit hits, still unclear what happens after that. American visitors, long used to barriers and lousy deals from US carriers, might find it difficult to accept how easy it is to pop into an EU store and pick up a SIM. They are on every high street and will swap it out for you. As long as your phone is unlocked of course…

  15. I have been travelling with a Satechi travel adapter for several years. It has multiple plugs, usb-charging plus becomes a wifi station if your hotel has an ethernet outlet (which I believe is more secure than most hotel wifis).

    I also have an Apple SIM for my iPad Air2 and subscribe to Gigsky data service for most countries/regions that I visit. It is not the best value data service but is reliable and saves having to preorder SIMs or queue up at airport arrivals. It allows hotspotting so our family can connect their iOS devices at any time they are nearby
    Finally, does anyone know if the Apple Watch S3 works with London Transport (using Applepay).

  16. I live in Stratford-upon-Avon about 15 minutes walk from the RSC. The first email I got after buying my first Mac, an LC I think, and connecting to the web was from Adam when I signed up to Tidbits many years ago. To think the great man was just a few minutes away. I’d have bought you a pint in the Dirty Duck if I’d known. Stratford has over 3 million tourists a year and on public holidays the traffic in this small town is gridlocked. I always use Apple Pay on the tube in London. It’s the most effective way to travel. I try not to take my car there if I can help it.

  17. Thanks for running this down, Glenn! Our friends did have kids in that age range, and I think they were generally using the Visitor Oyster Card approach too. I’ll work that in briefly.

    Seriously! I love the roundabouts, but the first few times through are scary. I also really like how London tends to write “Look Right” or “Look Left” or “Look Both Ways” on the ground at pedestrian crossings.

    Giffgaff’s £10 plan is unlimited minutes and texts and 3 GB of data, which seems pretty hard to beat.

    Oh man, I’m sorry we didn’t know! You should connect with Kirk McElhearn sometime since he’s just a few miles away.

  18. Oh, that’s weird: I didn’t notice a more plans option, and only saw three options on the main page. Great tip!!

  19. I may be the only one in this group in this situation, but I wanted to mention the absolutely best way of visiting the U.S. from Japan (where I live) with your iPhone.

    If you are a SoftBank (one of the major carriers here) user, then with no extra charge at all during your trip you can use “America Houdai” (unlimited America) on Sprint, which SoftBank owns.

    And it really is unlimited. Believe me, I asked a lot of questions prior to my first U.S. trip on this. They don’t slow you down no matter how much data you use. I used my iPhone as a mobile hotspot with my MBP during my last two trips to the U.S. and used 30+ GB each trip and there were no problems.

    In addition, you have unlimited calling to phones in the U.S., and unlimited calling to and from Japan.

    The only thing you have to be careful of is you are using your Japan phone number the whole time. So people in the U.S. would need to make an international phone call to meet you at your regular number. My solution to that is to use my Skype-in number for the U.S. calls, which usually turns out to be easier.

    Anyway, this method is super simple. No SIM cards to fiddle with. You just turn on your phone when you land and you are using Sprint. And it also applies to your cellular-equipped iPad.

  20. That’s excellent Doug.

    The best option coming from here in Ireland (and I think the UK) when visiting the US is Vodafone with their RED roaming, it’s €3 a day, unlimited calls and texts. Only 200Mb per day though. It only counts the days you use it and not the others, there’s no need to opt in or out. My wife’s over and back six times a year or more and she’s found it the best option.

  21. What are your recommendations for travelers to Japan? My husband has T-Mobil and I have Verizon. We can get by with only the T-Mobil if we have to.

  22. Lynda, if you have T-Mobile ONE you’ll have unlimited data and texting in Japan. Data is of course not LTE speeds as in the US, but when I used it a few months ago on a business trip throughout several European countries (same deal as for Japan) it worked very well. I’d say it was comparable to what I see here in the Bay Area when it displays 4G. Voice calls are $0.20/min unless of course you use VoIP apps like FaceTime, Skype, etc. in which case that’s free too.

    I was able to tether too. So since you get free data through your husband’s T-Mobile ONE you could just tether your Verizon phone off his for data.

  23. Thanks. That’s what we’ve found in Europe, but wanted to confirm for Japan.

Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum