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Sim free means exactly that, you are simply buying the handset only. No sim card, no network commitment, it is completely unlocked to be used with any provider. The handset will not be branded by the network and will retain the original manufacturer software, menus, settings and accessories.
Many people choose a sim free phone for the freedom and no ties of a long term contract. Having an unlocked sim free handset allows you to decide which mobile network provider sim card to stick in your phone giving you the opportunity to jump from network to network as your please. Great if you want to test the water for their signal coverage and quality of customer support.
When you sign up to a contract with a particular network they usually lock the handset to only be used with their network unless you use specialised services at a cost to unlock it. Buying unlocked means you are in complete control of your phone.
Long term the handset may also be cheaper than being subsidised by a network contract and it will also retain some value to sell and part fund your upgrade to another device. Many consumers use this to buy and sell while a phone is still popular so they can change their phone more often that the usual 24 month contracts some consumers are stuck with before getting a new handset. Great if you want the latest handsets all the time or cannot quite decide which handset is best for you yet.
Obviously this means a reasonable payment upfront to buy the handset. Depending on the handset, prices do vary from £30-£500, but in some circumstances it can be cost effective to purchase the handset outright. It really does depend on how long you intend to keep the handset and your monthly usage/cost. It would also be wise to insure your device if you own it outright.
You can keep your current mobile number, once you have decided on a tariff/sim provider simply provide them your PAC code to transfer the number in.
Checklist of helpful questions to consider before comparing deals and completing your Sim Free handset order