While most deliberate over which phone or contract may be best for them, the network that both handset and mobile plan are attached to often isn’t as high up on the list of considerations, which is surprising when it serves as the backbone to your mobile experience, day in and day out.
The quality and speed of your mobile network is essential to your ability to work and play on the move, so which is best? As with phones, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here but there are a range of worthwhile options, offering a myriad of different benefits, catering to different needs.
Connectivity can vary from place to place and day to day. Visit the websites of all the major players and they will tell you that they have great coverage, everywhere. The truth is more nuanced.
Interestingly, according to StatCounter, October 2016 was the first time that more people accessed the internet on a mobile phone or tablet than they did on a desktop or laptop PC.
It recorded 51.2% mobile against 48.7% desktop, and mobile’s lead has gradually been growing ever since; making it all the more important that you choose the best mobile network for your needs.
You might also be pleased to hear that text-to-switch makes it easier than ever to swap to a new network in the UK.
It’s important to make sure you know when your contract ends in order to ensure that you are not being overcharged. According to Citizens Advice, in 2017 more than six million people were still being charged for mobile phones they’ve already paid for.
How to get 5G
The hottest topic in the mobile space right now is 5G, which is rolling out across the UK. You may want to keep this in mind when choosing which network to switch to.
As well as a carrier that supports 5G (we cover which ones do, don’t and will down below) you also need to ensure that you’ve got a 5G-capable phone in order to access those faster data speeds.
First, let’s have a look at the options. There are actually only four major mobile networks in the UK, but there are several additional options that use branded services that piggyback off of the infrastructure laid out by the big four. The latter are actually classed as Mobile Virtual Network Operators or MVNOs and don’t have their own network space.
It’s worth keeping this in mind when considering which provider you’d like to use, as coverage for the network you use may differ depending on where you are in the UK. You can use Ofcom’s coverage checker to find out.
The problem with having just four networks is that, if one of those four suffers any sort of service outage, the chances are all of its piggybackers will too. For example, in December 2018, O2 customers and customers of all of the O2 piggybackers went without 4G for an entire day, causing chaos across the UK.
Below, we take a quick look at each operator and what they offer right now.
According to RootMetrics, EE is the provider of the best mobile coverage across the UK. Vodafone is the second-best option, while Three is third in Wales and England followed by O2, and vice versa for Northern Ireland and Scotland.
There’s also the caveat of Virgin Media and O2’s merger, which went public on 1 June 2021. As the two brands have started to rework their businesses in order to operate as a single entity (simply called Virgin Media O2), existing customers who already subscribe to both Virgin Media’s home broadband and an O2 mobile plan have already started to see a shift in what benefits are being made available to them.
The first true jointly-created Virgin Media O2 product – Volt – brings both double data on O2 mobile plans and free upgraded Virgin Media home broadband speeds. Those who already subscribe to services from just one of the two brands will also benefit from discounts and offers found with the other.
Finally, if you’ve got (or are about to get) an iPhone, read Best network for iPhone, which provides specific advice.
BT is one of the newer players in the market, using its branded services on EE’s UK network. It’s a good option if you already have BT Broadband as you can apply to benefit from a £5 monthly discount on your mobile plan.
What’s more, BT Halo customers (BT’s latest and most advanced home broadband offering) benefit from double data if they decide to pick up a BT Mobile plan too, not to mention a 20% (minimum) discount on any additional Family SIMs.
BT also offers SIM-only plans for pretty decent prices. As it’s on EE’s network (which itself is a combination of the old T-Mobile and Orange UK networks) you’re likely to get excellent coverage and good download speeds.
Launching alongside the Nokia X20 and G10, in early May 2021, HMD Global also pulled the wraps off its new MVNO – HMD Mobile – which turns the purchasing process on its head somewhat.
Rather than buying a phone and a plan from a carrier, those picking up a phone direct from Nokia’s website also have the opportunity to pair it with an HMD Mobile SIM.
HMD Mobile aims to offer short-term plans with the benefits of a long-term contract; with four tariffs currently available, offering unlimited calls and texts, along with 2GB, 10GB, 25GB or 50GB of data from £8.99 on a rolling 30-day contract.
Currently HMD Mobile is a 4G-only network but HMD Global has confirmed that its SIMs are 5G-ready and that 5G is on the way.
Piggybacking off EE’s network also guarantees great nationwide coverage too, and while EE has reintroduced a form of roaming charges, HMD Mobile hasn’t – within the EU, at least.
O2 is a brand that has been around since 2002 in the UK and operates as one of the most well-known operators around. The network boasts excellent coverage and the company offers users great flexibility; such as letting you pair phone and tariffs plans of varying length (up to 36 months), independently.
O2’s recent merger with Virgin Media (to make Virgin Media O2), hasn’t directly impacted O2 customers in any meaningful way, other than gaining access to new benefits, on top of existing perks, like O2 Priority, which offers customers access to unique perks, like gig tickets.
Plusnet, which was once LIFE Mobile, uses EE in the same way that BT Mobile does, meaning you can expect really reliable coverage. It hasn’t yet made the jump to 5G though, so it’s only using (part of) the carrier’s 4G infrastructure for the time being (which is still famously robust, fear not).
Perks include no extra charges for tethering and the ability to set a monthly price cap to stop any nasty surprises appearing on your bill. It’s a good SIM-only option with very reasonable pricing.
It won uSwitch’s ‘Best Network for Customer Service’ and ‘Best Value Pay Monthly Network’ awards in 2020.
One of the newest additions to the UK mobile market, Sky has become a ‘quad-play’ provider by adding mobile to its TV, broadband and landline offerings.
You just pay for how much data you want, on a plan that uses Virgin Media O2’s network. The company also appears to have removed the roadblock of exclusive benefits for existing Sky customers, meaning perks like free unlimited calls and texts are now standard on every plan, for everyone.
There’s also a fun feature called Piggybank Rewards, which means customers can cash in their unused data allowance for savings on phones, tablets and accessories. This is part of its ‘Roll’ plans, which also allow customers to tap into their unused data from previous months at any time for up to three years.
There are also good Swap contracts that allow customers to upgrade their phone every year and Mix, which lets customers change their data allowance each month.
Sky won Best Pay Monthly Network and Best Value Pay Monthly Network in uSwitch’s 2021 awards, as well as ‘Network of the Year’, ‘Best Network for Data’ and ‘Best Pay Monthly Network’ last year, as well.
SMARTY is a relatively unknown SIM-only network, powered by Three.
It’s designed with simplicity and transparency in mind, offering three data discount plans – which include money back for unused data, five competitive data plans – offering 4GB to 50GB allowances, and one unlimited plan. You can change or cancel your plan at any time.
This relative newbie won uSwitch’s: ‘Best Value SIM-only Network’ awards in 2019 and 2020, and ‘Best PAYG Network’ in 2021 and gained 5G at no extra cost in early 2022.
Tesco Mobile provides contracts, PAYG and SIM-only deals at decent prices. Because it uses Virgin Media O2’s network, coverage will be decent and often the subsidies for new handsets are good to boot.
SIM-only prices start at under £7.50 per month, so if you’ve got a handset you already love, you could save a lot of money.
Alternatively, there’s the offer of six months free Clubcard Plus, which doubles the data on your mobile contract, includes a 10% discount on two Tesco shops a month (up to £40 a month), gets you 10% off selected Tesco brands in-store – like F&F Clothing and double Clubcard points, nabbing you 2 points for every £1 on your Tesco Mobile bill – eligible on select pay monthly contracts on Anytime Upgrade and SIM-only plans.
Three offers reasonably priced ‘all-you-can-eat’ data bundles. That’s right, unlimited data. If you can afford it, you can get the best handsets in the land with unlimited internet access.
Plus, even if you don’t choose an all you can eat package, you’ll be able to stream shows from Netflix, TVPlayer, Dave and History Channel, as well as songs from Deezer, Apple Music and SoundCloud infinitely, without it counting towards your data allowance with the network’s ‘Go Binge’ feature.
Pay as you go rates are also pretty decent if you don’t need as much data, minutes or texts.
Once the king of roaming plans (before the effects of Brexit took hold), the carrier still offers decent rates within the EU.
uSwitch also awarded Three the ‘Best Network for Roaming’ and the ‘Most Popular Mobile Network’ in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Virgin Mobile was late to the party with 4G and 5G but has caught up and is an attractive option if you already get your broadband connection and TV from Virgin Media O2, cutting down the number of tech providers you have to deal with.
It offers data rollover features and lets you message on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter without eating into your allowance. There’s the ability to change your plan every month, too.
As an MVNO, Virgin Mobile customers are actually relying on EE’s and Vodafone’s networks at present but with the Virgin Media O2 merger, there’s every chance it’ll all switch to the O2 network, soon enough.