Mobile networks

When it comes to picking a phone, there are two decisions you need to make – which phone and which network do you want? It’s easy to think all networks are the same, but it’s important to research them so you can find the one that matches your needs.

Mobile networks

giffgaff logo

giffgaff deals

giffgaff is a mobile network provider which is known for its customer service and flexible plans. Find out all you need to know about it in our comprehensive guide.

EE logo

EE deals

Although it's had a storied history, being formed out of the merging of various mobile providers, EE remains one of the most popular mobile companies in the UK. Find out more about it.

O2 logo

O2

O2 needs no introduction when it comes to mobile services, but if you need to find out more about the provider and its services, you've come to the right place. Click here to find the answers you're looking for.

Sky Mobile logo

Sky Mobile

Sky is best-known for its television services, but it also provides mobile phone network services to customers throughout the UK. Find out more about Sky Mobile here.

Vodafone logo

Vodafone

Vodafone is one of the UK's best-known mobile network providers, but why? Find out more about it in our comprehensive guide.

What are the UK’s mobile networks?

In the UK there are currently only four networks that actually own and operate their infrastructure:

  • O2

  • EE

  • Three

  • Vodafone

The remaining networks in the UK are known as ‘virtual network providers’ and rent space from the names above to run services over the same infrastructure:

EEVodafoneThreeO2
ASDA MobileLebaraiD Mobilegiffgaff
BTTalk MobileSMARTYSky Mobile
PlusnetVOXITesco Mobile
Virgin
Utility Warehouse

Are mobile networks all the same?

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.

What is the best mobile network in the UK?

This all depends on what you’re looking for. Consider all the following when you start searching for your next mobile provider:

  • Mobile coverage

  • Roaming coverage

  • Phone selection

  • Price (will it rise due to inflation after a year?)

  • Contract length and flexibility

  • Data allowances 

  • Extras

  • Customer service

Mobile coverage by network

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. 

Roaming coverage by network

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.  

Phone selection

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. 

Mobile networks and pricing

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.

Pay monthly

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 11 deal with 1GB 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. 

Pay as you go

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 length and flexibility

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. 

Data allowances

Data allowances on pay monthly plans will usually aim to cover a wide spectrum of needs, from a mere 500MB 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. 

Extras

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. 

Customer service

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.

Other

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. 

5G

Not all providers currently offer 5G, and depending on their general business model, they may not get it soon either. If this is a key issue for you, then stick to the main four providers who are currently really pushing towards 5G in the UK. 

Awards

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 Sky Mobile crowned Mobile Network of the Year in 2020 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Does my network really matter?

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. 

Which is the cheapest network provider?

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:

  • Asda Mobile

  • PlusNet

  • giffgaff

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. 

Which providers are SIM-only?

The following networks do not supply handsets:

  • Asda Mobile

  • Lebara

  • SMARTY

  • Plusnet

Can I change networks anytime?

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.

Can I have a SIM from a major network and from one of its piggybacking virtual networks?

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