If you’re suddenly facing the prospect of trying to home-school your kids during the latest UK lockdown but can’t afford a home internet plan, or are burning through your mobile data to stay connected, then you may be able to claim free data from your provider. 

Mobile internet providers including EE, Three, and Virgin Mobile are providing free data to customers in need, with potentially unlimited data up for grabs – though it varies by provider, and you’ll need to be a pre-existing customer to take part. 

If you’re eligible and want to claim extra data, you’ll have to do so through your child’s school. Here's how, and what you might be eligible for. You can also check out the free kids TV channels available from Virgin across lockdown. 

How to claim free data for home-schooling

You can’t get the extra data simply by contacting your internet or mobile service provider. Instead, they’re processing requests via schools, so if you think you’re eligible and want to try and get more data you’ll simply have to contact the office at your child’s school. 

You’ll need to be able to tell them which mobile network you (or your child) is on, whether it’s pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go, and provide the relevant mobile phone number. 

It's also worth noting that the operators say it can take up to 14 days to register you into the scheme, so don't count on getting the free data immediately.

Who’s eligible for support 

Not everyone is eligible. At the time of writing, government guidelines say that the scheme is limited to the families of children who: 

  • do not have fixed broadband at home 
  • cannot afford additional data for their devices 
  • are experiencing disruption to their face-to-face education 

Because the extra data is being provided by mobile networks, you’ll also need access to a mobile device (most likely a phone) that’s on one of the participating networks. 

Which mobile operators support the scheme? 

At the time of writing the following UK networks are taking part: 

  • Three (Pay Monthly and Pay-As-You-Go) 
  • Smarty (Pay Monthly and Pay-As-You-Go) 
  • Virgin Mobile (Pay Monthly only) 
  • EE (Pay Monthly and Pay-As-You-Go) 
  • Tesco Mobile (Pay Monthly only) 
  • Sky Mobile (Pay Monthly only) 
  • O2 (Pay Monthly and Pay-As-You-Go)
  • Vodafone (Pay Monthly and Pay-As-You-Go) 

As you’ll see, in some cases the support is available to all customers, but in others it’s only available if you’re on a monthly contract.  

If you don’t have an account with any of the above, or you’re not on a monthly contract with one of the three that require it, you might be able to get a cheap PAYG SIM card with one of the others, and thus make yourself eligible through them – though we’d recommend checking for availability of each plan with your school office before you spend any money, just in case. 

Alternatively, a cheap SIM-only monthly plan would make you eligible for the Virgin, Sky, or Tesco plans if necessary too.

How to use the free data 

The free data provided will be applied to the SIM card tied to that network. That means that the easiest way to use it will be on that mobile phone – great if it’s the student’s own phone, but no so useful if it belongs to a parent. 

If that’s the case, the best bet is to use the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot to share the data with other devices in the house, like other phones, or tablets or PCs.  

One word of caution: some of the networks are only offering 20GB per month. That may sound like a lot, but a student on Zoom all day could get through that much in less than a week, so if this is the only internet access that you can afford then you may still need to ration it out in order to cover the whole month. 

You can save data by limiting video time, and turning off your child’s webcam and microphone unless they’re required. We have advice on limiting data usage on Android and iPhone that may also help you stretch it a little further.

Some operators - including BT Mobile, EE, and Plusnet Mobile - are also 'zero-rating' some educational sites and apps including BBC Bitesize. This means that if you access these sites from your mobile it won't count against your data usage, essentially meaning that you can access some educational resources for free - though this won't help if your child's school requires them to take part in Zoom calls too.

Check with your mobile provider to find out which, if any, mobile sites are zero-rated and so won't use up your data.

What is each network offering? 

Check out the official government portal for the latest info, but at the time of writing here’s the offering from each of the six networks taking part in the scheme: 

Three 

  • Unlimited data until 31 July 2021. 
  • Available to both Pay Monthly and Pay-as-you-go customers. 

Smarty 

  • Unlimited data until 31 July 2021. 
  • Available to both Pay Monthly and Pay-as-you-go customers. 

Virgin Mobile 

  • 20GB of additional data per month until 31 July 2021. 
  • Only available to Pay Monthly customers identified as needing this support. It’s not available to Pay-as-you-go customers. 
  • Wi-Fi hotspots are open to all existing customers, including those on Pay-as-you-go. Customers on Pay-as-you-go will need to have a minimum of £5 credit. Instructions to download the app and find their nearest hotspot can be found by going to www.virginmedia.com/wifiapp.

EE 

  • 20GB of additional data per month until 31 July 2021. 
  • Available to both Pay Monthly and Pay-as-you-go customers. 

Tesco Mobile 

  • 20GB of additional data per month until 31 July 2021. 
  • Only available to Pay Monthly customers identified as needing this support. It’s not available to Pay-as-you-go customers. 

Sky Mobile 

  • 100GB of additional data. 
  • Only available to Pay Monthly customers identified as needing this support. It’s not available to Pay-as-you-go customers. 

O2

  • 40GB of additional data per month until 31 July 2021.
  • Available to both Pay Monthly and Pay-as-you-go customers. 

Vodafone

  • Unlimited data until 31 July 2021.
  • Available to both Pay Monthly and Pay-as-you-go customers, but the latter must have a Big Value Bundle worth £10 or above to be eligible.