London life? There’s an app for that.
(Am I dating myself with that reference? Am I really old enough to be using the phrase “dating myself” yet?)
While it is appealing to disconnect from social media/your phone for a while, the reality is you can’t move abroad without an action plan for your phone. When I studied abroad, Kenyon provided us with pay-as-you-go phones for keeping in touch, and carrying around 2 phones quickly became the bane of my existence. I didn’t have international data on my American phone, so it kind of just served as a camera, iPod, and social media browser for the year. Some of my most dominant memories of Kenyon-Exeter, embarrassingly, are queueing up Snapchat stories to post later whenever I found a Costa or Wetherspoons WiFi network.
I knew this time around I needed to make my existing phone work in the UK, and though I didn’t see myself making phone calls often, I needed something that would supply the option. I also wanted to have a reliable UK phone number to use in job searching, etc. Probably the most popular option is getting a UK SIM card and loading it into your phone–but this only works if your current phone is unlocked. This may take some advance planning. You will find stores advertising that they’ll unlock your phone for you, but it’s all at your own risk.
If you want to buy a new UK-enabled phone, there are lots of networks with physical shops, like Vodafone, EE, and Carphone Warehouse (yes, it’s really still called that.) But, as this routine from Jack Whitehall explains, that’s also at your own risk!
The network I’m currently using is Giffgaff, which is in fact my first app recommendation as well! They offer totally free UK SIM cards and the setup process is incredibly easy. Once your SIM is set up you buy a “goodybag” of data and minutes that works best for your needs. Their plans start at £5 per month, and you can “top up” every month and switch the plan if you need to. Their app is a great resource for seeing how much data you have left for the month. There are lots of networks with pay-as-you-go SIM options, but the particular reason I recommend Giffgaff is because they ship their free SIMs worldwide, so I was able to order my SIM before leaving for London and I popped it in within a few hours of arriving.
WiFi is usually easy to find in the UK, available for free at most restaurants, museums, and the like, so you don’t have to worry about draining your data if you get a leaner plan.
So now that you have a UK phone, what apps do you download?
For getting around, there’s no better option than Citymapper. It gives clear instructions on how to get from point A to point B via public transportation across all services, from the Tube to the bus to rail services, all with fare prices. It even gives approximate times and fares for Ubers along the same route. It’s an invaluable tool for planning your day and commute, and it provides live updates on any delays you may face. Citymapper has already saved me time and kept me from getting lost in one of the harder-to-navigate cities in the world (New York coddled me with that grid system, honestly).
Citymapper also works in other cities around the UK and Europe if you’re traveling. They have little mascots for each city they serve, and I just don’t want anyone to leave this site without knowing the mascot for Birmingham is Ozzy Osbourne holding a balti. You’re welcome.
London is an expensive city, and one of the best apps to help you save money is MySupermarket. There are lots of grocery chains across the UK, and MySupermarket does the work of scouring all the chains to find the best prices for whatever it is you want to buy. You can search by specific item (like “oats” or “PG Tips tea” or “curry paste” or whatever you’re shopping for) to find what store is currently selling it for the lowest price, or browse the best sales at each store. At the very least, it’s an easy way to tell at a glance which stores line up best with your budget.
(I’d like to know what vegan commune Ocado is running with that bulk-buy offer.)
There’s so much to do in London that it genuinely feels overwhelming at times. Good thing Time Out can help guide you through all that’s happening in the city. The app is basically an online version of the magazine that comes out every Wednesday, but I prefer having the app because you can easily filter by what you’re interested in and even book tickets in the app, rather than having to page past all the ads in the magazine. You can also read reviews from other users and get some insider advice you may have not found elsewhere.
But you don’t have to plan every minute of your free time! Sometimes the best things are found just by exploring. At least, armed with these apps and a working UK phone, you’re never really going to get lost.