In the UK there are currently only four networks that actually own and operate their infrastructure:
The remaining networks in the UK are known as ‘mobile virtual network operators’ (MVNO) and rent space from the names above to run services over the same infrastructure:
|ASDA Mobile||Lebara||iD Mobile||giffgaff|
|BT||Talk Mobile||SMARTY||Sky Mobile|
No, not even if a virtual network is powered by a huge name – iD Mobile is, for example, powered by Three, the UK’s fastest growing 5G provider. But bear in mind that even if your chosen network is powered by a big name, you won’t necessarily get all the benefits of that big name.
This all depends on what you’re looking for. Consider all the following when you start searching for your next mobile provider:
Roaming coverage (especially now because of Brexit)
Price (will it rise due to inflation after a year?)
Contract length and flexibility
All the four main networks post 95%+ coverage for the UK, meaning you’ll get good coverage no matter which network you use. It’s unrealistic to expect 100% coverage all the time, but you’re entitled to expect reliable connection from your network at any time. Learn more about mobile coverage in our handy mobile coverage guide, or use Ofcom’s coverage checker to see how your provider fares.
If you’re a frequent traveller, then getting good roaming coverage is key. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a network that doesn’t support roaming in some capacity, but the price you pay can vary. The major providers will have allowances for the EU at the very least as free-to-roam destinations, but smaller mobile phone providers may set limits on your use. Currently, as of February 2021, the main networks are all still offering the same EU roaming options as before but this is subject to change now the UK is out.
Premium or bargain? Whatever your dream phone looks like, you’ll need to make sure your provider stocks it. The main four networks will have a full suite of premium phones and also stock some great bargain deals. Smaller suppliers like giffgaff often have the edge when it comes to cheap mobile deals thanks to refurbished phones. Others may gain an advantage by offering bundles that let you take advantage of home broadband options too.
Pricing across mobile networks is generally very similar – savings can definitely be found, especially with smaller providers, but this often comes at the loss of other perks. You should also check your contract to see if your price is likely to be adjusted for inflation. Read the small print before you sign up, as you could face price hitches of 2-3% every year. If your contract is 24 months, that’s 4% more you’ll be paying. It is worth checking to see if any deals are happening on a particular network, especially when it comes to data bundles, and do keep an eye on phone rumours - as you may not want to spend on a phone that could be usurped soon after purchase.
Pay monthly prices can vary hugely depending on your exact phone model, amount of data, added extras and any accessories you add to your deal. When comparing plans, make sure you factor all that in – an iPhone 12 deal with 5GB of data is going to be significantly cheaper than one that comes with 20GB of data. Similarly, a two-year plan will offer a lower monthly cost than a one-year plan. With 5G and faster download speeds, it’s likely you will want to opt for a greater amount of data so do consider this a factor when looking for a new network.
Pay as you go plans get their added perks from having bundles you can opt for. Bundles last for 30 days and give you more bang for your buck compared to standard pay as you go. Just as not all phone providers offer handsets, not all of them offer pay as you go. Not all networks use pay as you go in terms of top-ups and credit, but have you pay for one-month SIM-only deals that come with some great perks like data-free social media like VOXI.
Contract lengths vary from network to network and also between pay monthly SIM and phone plans. A SIM plan will almost always come in 12-month or 30-day options, though 24-months is also available. Phone contracts will usually come at a minimum of 24 months. Some suppliers, like Three, let you extend the handset portion of this by 12 months so you have a total of 36 months to pay it off.
If it’s important to you to be flexible with your plan, consider options like O2 or Tesco Mobile which let you set your own upfront cost and contract length to best suit your situation. The more up front cost you pay for a handset the more likely it will lead to a cheaper monthly price on your contract.
Data allowances on pay monthly plans will usually aim to cover a wide spectrum of needs, from a mere 1GB to unlimited options. You also want to look out for any extras like those offered by EE that let you use entertainment apps without eating into your data. If you want better peace of mind, look for suppliers that let you set a data cap, so you’re never in danger of running over your limit.
It’s important to correctly calculate your data needs - if you overestimate, it’s very hard to downgrade your plan. The reverse is much easier, though, so it’s better to underestimate your use and then adjust your plan in the coming months than go for a higher price than you need to be paying. Remember: data doesn’t just mean what you download. If you stream Netflix this will chip away at your data, as will using social networks that are rich in media, such as TikTok and Facebook.
Extras can come in the form of rewards programs like Vodafone’s VeryMe Rewards, advanced ticket access like O2 Priority or entertainment app passes. Other extras include boosts to pay as you go customers in the form of free data as offered by EE. Many suppliers also run a recommend-to-a-friend scheme which lets you earn credit, gift cards or cash if you convince new customers to sign up. One of the most popular right now is getting a subscription to the likes of Spotify. Disney Plus and Netflix ‘free’ for a certain period of time, usually a year. These do mean that you will be effectively paying for the services through your phone contract when the deal runs out.
Everyone likes to know their issues can be fixed quickly and easily, so keep an eye on Ofcom reports and (with a certain degree of wariness) TrustPilot reviews which can give good insight into what current customers think. TrustPilot can be good for this, but you should remember that disgruntled customers are always going to be more motivated to leave a review than those who had positive experience.
You should also look into which networks maintain an online community. This is where networks like giffgaff are really making headway, giving power back to the customer and letting users help other users. There are also opportunities for customers to have direct input in what changes the company should implement next. You can also head over to our mobile network review pages above.
The best mobile network for you will always be the one that can best suit your needs. For example, if you struggle with bad credit, look for ‘no credit check’ mobile networks. If you are looking for a phone for a young person or elderly relative, look for providers that stock Doro or Alcatel. Plus, if you just want to get some money back when your phone has come to the end of its life span, see which suppliers will be happy to let you trade it in.
Most providers now offer 5G but this doesn’t mean that your town or city has coverage yet. If this is a key issue for you, then stick to the main four providers who are currently really pushing 5G in the UK.
You might also like to create an informed decision based on the awards a network has won. The Uswitch awards run yearly and are a reliable sign of quality, with giffgaff crowned Mobile Network of the Year in 2021.
It does if you’re looking for the best deal and want to get the most for your money. If you’re wondering if there is any difference in overall performance then no - unless you are using 5G, you shouldn’t notice a massive drop in performance just because you went for one provider over another. It would be worth checking the coverage in your area, however, just in case one network seems to favour where you live.
There is a point of overlap with providers where value for money starts evening out the playing field. For example, the following networks all offer very low-cost options:
This value-for-money image is part of their overall marketing, but they’re also no-frills networks. If you already plan to pay £20 a month on extras like entertainment access or £300 on a new handset, you may find you get better overall value from one of the bigger names.
The following networks do not supply handsets:
Yes, if you have completed your contract or are on a pay as you go handset, you can change networks whenever you like. If you are still in contact, you may have to pay early cancellation fees. Also, if your phone is locked to your current provider, you will need to apply for phone unlocking to be able to use another network SIM. This will change in December 2021, however, as the courts have ruled that all networks will have to stop locking phones to their network. This will make it much easier for mobile phone users to swap their contracts.
Yes, you can, though you might be limited to one SIM per network. VOXI will allow you to have up to eight SIMs but only one under your name for your personal use – the others can be distributed to friends and family. Check to see if you can use these SIMs interchangeably - some networks allow for their virtual network SIMs to be used without unlocking the phone.