Best UK mobile network: Picking the best UK mobile carrier
All of the biggest UK mobile networks offer increasingly-fast data speeds and coverage reaching the vast majority of the population. That’s made picking the best deal a little tougher, as there are plenty of bundles available to suit all data and calling needs.
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There’s also a growing market outside of the big four, offering some excellent value for money data packages, especially if you already have an unlocked handset ready to go. Here’s our rundown of the biggest mobile networks in the UK to help you decide which one is the best UK mobile network for you.
Best UK mobile networks: The big four
EE was the leading UK mobile carrier during the rollout of the nation’s 4G LTE networks and has continued to be the biggest mobile network in the UK ever since. It was acquired by the BT Group in January 2016 following a merger between Orange UK and T-Mobile UK in 2010, and boasts a large retail store presence up and down the country. The company has also branched out into home and mobile broadband, as well as TV packages.
The carrier boasts 4G voice and data coverage across more than 90 percent of the UK’s geography and more than 99 percent of its population, giving it excellent coverage up and down the country. EE also supports 4G Calling (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi Calling for top notch sounding calls. EE was also the first UK mobile network to offer 5G plans, starting its 5G rollout from May 2019. EE tops all of this off with Swappable Benefits including BT Sport access, and no extra charges for using your minutes, texts, and data across the EU.
As well as contract options for the latest smartphones, EE offers Pay as you go and SIM only packages for phones and tablets. You can find out more about EE’s plans and deals in our EE network review.
O2 is an older player among the UK mobile networks. Once known as Cellnet, the formerly BT Group-owned carrier is the second largest network in the UK. It offers plenty fast 4G networking and has 99 percent of the population covered with its network.
O2 also offers some unique propositions for customers with its flexible tariffs on device contracts that make upgrading early much cheaper and easier. But the carrier really aims to differentiate itself with a bag of perks for its customers. This includes priority access to O2-sponsored venues and events, discounts on a rotating selection of products, the helpful O2 Guru service, and free access to the 15,000 O2 Wi-Fi hotspots dotted around the country.
For data plans, O2 offers a variety of PAYG, monthly, international, and tablet SIM options. O2 also supports 5G in six major cities with flexible contracts on 5G phones with the option for unlimited data. You can find out more about O2’s plans and deals in our O2 network review.
As the youngest of the biggest networks, Three historically hasn’t had the fastest or broadest coverage. However, Three has rapidly gained ground in recent years and offers a couple of major benefits on some of its packages.
Three’s Go Roam initiative allows customers to use call, text, and data allowances in over 70 destinations around the world, including non-EU countries like the US, Australia, Brazil, and Singapore. Go Binge is similar to T-Mobile’s Binge On in the U.S. — it doesn’t count a number of media streaming services against your data allowance. Services include Netflix, Apple Music, Snapchat, and more. The carrier also offers some of the cheapest PAYG rates in the UK, at 3p a minute for calls, 2p per text, and 1p for each MB of data.
Three offers some of the best value, no-nonsense deals for those looking for a contract with one of the big four infrastructure carriers. Until Vodafone revised its plans in mid-2019, Three was unique among the biggest networks in the UK in that it offers unlimited data plans on phone and SIM only deals. It still has some of the best value deals on the market though. You can find out more about Three’s plans and deals in our Three network review.
Vodafone is another of the legacy UK mobile networks and across much of Europe. It covers 99 percent of the population with a 4G LTE signal and looks primed to lead the pack on 5G after winning big during Ofcom’s first 5G spectrum auction. It became the second network to rollout 5G in selected cities in mid-2019 and is currently the only carrier to make all of its contract plans 5G ready as standard and offer unlimited 5G data.
Vodafone Global Roaming allows customers to take their UK data, minutes, and texts across to over 40 destinations (mostly across Europe) for all pay monthly plans. Vodafone also offers subscriptions to either Amazon Prime Video, Spotify Premium, Now TV, or Sky Sports Mobile TV on selected contract deals.
Vodafone offers a selection of SIM only options on 12-month or 30-day plans, as well as a traditional PAYG option with monthly rollover. You can find out more about Vodafone’s plans and deals in our Vodafone network review.
Best UK mobile networks: Smaller players
The big four offer a competitive selection of deals, a wide range of the latest handsets, direct access to the fastest and biggest 4G coverage, and will soon serve up super-fast 5G data speeds. However, the UK is also full of smaller virtual network operators that piggyback on these same networks, yet can use collective bargaining power to work out some cheaper deals and more flexible packages.
We’re not listing all of the Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) here because there are just so many. Instead, these are the best virtual networks out there that you should check out if you want to shop around for a deal that perfectly suits you.
BT Mobile is one of the newer UK carriers and unsurprisingly piggybacks off the BT Group-owned EE. One of the big draws of BT Mobile is unlimited access to the network’s BT Wi-Fi hotspots dotted around the country. BT Mobile also uniquely offers Family SIM packages, which offer big discounts for multiple users, and everyone gets their own separate data allowance.
Discounts are offered to BT TV, landline, and broadband customers, which will save you £5 per month on monthly plans. If you’re just looking for a SIM only deal the lowest cost option starts at £14 per month for 1GB of data and unlimited calls and texts. The top-tier “Max Plan” bumps this up to 40GB of 4G data for £40 per month, or you can grab a 3 SIM family pack on the same plan for £80 per month.
Virgin Mobile may have been the first ever MVNO network in the UK, but it was slow to offer its customers 4G LTE data. That’s all changed in more recent years as it has benefitted from EE’s growth to give its mobile customers a wide coverage net. Virgin has positioned itself as one of the more flexible carriers, allowing users to roll-over their unused data, and switch between different packages each month. Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and WhatsApp data usage also doesn’t count against your data allowance, which might be something to consider if you’re a prolific GIF sender or video caller.
In terms of prices, the cheapest SIM only contract begins at just £7 offering 1,500 minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of data. This ramps up to a plan with unlimited minutes, texts, and data for £27 per month — though this is exclusive to Virgin Media broadband or TV customers.
GiffGaff has been one of the more popular UK mobile carriers outside the big four owing to the flexibility and competitive prices of its SIM only plans. Unlike most other carriers in the UK, GiffGaff customers can cancel or switch between different payment plans every month or renew early to top up their allowance.
4G LTE data plans start from as little as £6 for 500MB of data, 300 call minutes, and 500 texts. The top £20 package offers unlimited calls and texts, and always-on data with a 384 Kbps data cap after the first 20GB. Customers looking to purchase new phones can either buy unlocked models upfront or through monthly payment options at comparable prices to other carriers. The carrier is owned by O2 and piggybacks on its network.
Just like GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile also runs on the O2 network, and is a popular UK mobile choice for low-cost 4G data packages. However, it offers more traditional 12-month fixed term contracts. Its cheapest SIM only deals start at £7.50 for 2GB, 500 minutes, and 5000 text message, spread over a 12 month contract. Data lovers can opt for 50GB, 5000 minutes, and 5000 texts for the most expensive £35 per month contract, with a selection of options in between.
The company also offers a range of the latest smartphones online and in stores with flexible tariffs similar to O2. Customers also receive ClubCard points on their purchases and contracts, which might be handy if you’re a regular supermarket shopper.
iD Mobile comes from the retail juggernaut that is the Dixons Carphone group and runs on Three’s network. iD benefits from the popularity of high street chain Carphone Warehouse which offers iD plans on SIM only and pay monthly handset contracts.
iD Mobile offers the cheapest SIM only plan in the UK at just £6 for 1GB of data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts. Customers after more data may prefer the maximum 20GB deal with unlimited minutes and texts. All iD Mobile sim contracts are 30 day rolling plans and let you keep any unused data for the following month.
Another O2 MVNO, Sky Mobile is a relatively new name in the network space, but the name Sky will be no stranger to TV lovers in the UK. Sky Mobile plans take full advantage of the Sky TV connection, offering unlimited streaming on all Sky apps like Sky Go and Sky Sports without using any data. Sky Mobile also has a neat Sky Piggybank system for keeping any unused data for up to three years, and offers flexible contract tariffs that can be changed at any time.
Sky Mobile SIM only plans range from 2GB and 25GB data with unlimited calls and texts. The virtual carrier also offers phone and tablet deals.
Smarty has quickly grown in reputation thanks to its unique SIM only plans that discount your bills if you don’t use your data.
All Smarty plans have a baseline of £5 for unlimited calls and texts with the remaining bundle cost for data. This goes up to £15 for 8GB of data, but any data you don’t use will come off your next bill for up to £10. In short, Smarty guarantees incredible value for money no matter your usage. There’s even a fully unlimited plan for £25 if you want to go all out, though this doesn’t have data discounts.
Smarty piggybacks on the Three network and only offers 30 day rolling contracts.
PlusNet is better known for its broadband, but its EE-based virtual mobile network has picked up a few awards. The carrier provides a smart cap system and simple bolt ons, but its main perk is guaranteed UK customer service call centers.
Existing PlusNet broadband subscribers get slightly better deals overall, but new customers can still join with SIM only plans from £7 a month for 500MB of data, 500 minutes, and unlimited texts.
Voxi is a Vodafone-owned, youth-focused virtual network that offers “endless” data for social apps. No matter what Voxi plan you have, you can use Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Pinterest, and Viber without ever eating into your data allowance. There are also additional passes for endless streaming of music and video apps like YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify for an extra charge.
All Voxi tariff allowances can also be changed at any time, whether on a handset or SIM only deal. All plans also come with unlimited calls and texts. SIM only pricing starts at £10 a month for 6GB of data. Voxi also has a 5G plan currently priced at £30 a month with unlimited calls, text, and data.
Find out more about Voxi deals and plans in our Voxi network review.
Lycamobile and Lebara
If calling abroad is your priority then Lycamobile and Lebara are by far your best options. You can read more about both MVNO carriers in our UK international calling guide.
Best UK mobile networks: Picking the right carrier for you
Hopefully our overview of each major UK mobile network has helped you find the right package, but just in case, here’s a quick rundown of all the key plans and offers available.
Best overall UK network
- All things considered, there’s a reason EE is the biggest UK mobile network. While others are better in unique areas like unlimited data, flexible tariffs, and more, EE has the widest coverage, great perks, speedy 4G, and a strong foundation for 5G.
Best for Pay as you go
- Three has the cheapest PAYG SIM at 3p per minute for calls, 2p per text, and 1p for each MB of data.
Best value SIM only and pay monthly handsets
- Smarty’s unique data discount tariffs guarantee the best value for money on SIM only. Three’s no-nonsense handset plans are the best value from the big four if you don’t care about additional perks or 5G.
Best for 4G
- EE offers marginally the best 4G network across the country, based on best coverage statistics for both population and geography, as well as overall average data speeds.
Best for 5G
- EE may have been the first to offer 5G plans, but affordable SIM only and phone plans with options for unlimited 5G make Vodafone the best UK network for 5G.
Best for coverage
- EE technically has the best coverage, but there’s not much in it.
Best for unlimited data
- Heavy data users and media consumers that also want to tether will want to check out Three’s speedy unlimited data packages, but if you’re in a 5G area Vodafone’s unlimited plans are also worth a look.
Best for flexible pay monthly handset deals
- O2 flexible tariffs ensure that you won’t pay too much if you keep your phone past your contract length and offers flexible upgrades.
Best for flexible SIM only deals
- GiffGaff offers great flexibility and no contract obligations with its 30-day rolling plans.
Best for international calling
- Lebara or Lycamobile packages offer the best rates of calling abroad.
Best for social media lovers
- Want “endless” social media? Try out Voxi from Vodafone.
That does it for our rundown of the best UK mobile networks, along with some of the smaller options.
Which one do you use? Let us know in the comments!