Links on Android Authority may earn us a commission. Learn more.
The best UK mobile network: Picking the best UK mobile carrier
Selecting the perfect mobile carrier for your needs has never been easy in the UK. Lockdowns are lifting, and carriers are celebrating with heaps of new savings. That’s made picking the best UK mobile networks a little tougher, as there are plenty of bundles available to suit all data and calling needs.
More UK mobile content: Best Android phones you can buy in the UK
To make things even tougher, there’s 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 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, mobile broadband, and TV packages.
The carrier boasts 4G voice and data coverage across more than 90% of the UK’s geography and more than 99% 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 in May 2019. It still boasts the UK’s largest 5G network, covering nearly 40% of all connections. EE tops all of this off with Swappable Benefits, including Apple Music, 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.
O2 is an older player among UK mobile networks. Once known as Cellnet, the formerly BT Group-owned carrier is the second largest network in the UK. It offers plenty of fast 4G networking and has 99% of the population covered with its network. Thanks to a partnership with Virgin Mobile, the mobile network has further cemented its place among the UK’s leaders.
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. Recently, O2 has also started offering six months of free Disney Plus or Amazon Prime Video and a subscriber offer that takes £2 off your monthly bill.
O2 offers a variety of PAYG, monthly, international, and tablet SIM options for data plans. O2 also supports 5G in sixty towns and cities with flexible contracts on 5G phones with the option for unlimited data.
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 worldwide, including non-EU countries like the US, Australia, Brazil, and Singapore. Go Binge is similar to T-Mobile’s Binge On in the US — it doesn’t count several 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 phones and SIM-only deals. It still has some of the best value deals on the market, though, and claims it has the fastest 5G speeds in the country. Three boasts the second-most 5G connections across the UK, just ahead of O2 and Vodafone.
Vodafone is another of the legacy UK mobile networks and is available across much of Europe. It covers 99% of the population with a 4G LTE signal and is growing its 5G coverage by leaps and bounds after its success at Ofcom’s first 5G spectrum auction a few years back. It became the second network to roll out 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.
Best UK mobile networks: Smaller players
The big four offer the best deals, the widest range of the latest handsets, and direct access to the fastest and biggest 4G and 5G coverage. However, the UK is full of smaller virtual network operators that use the same networks but rely on collective bargaining for cheaper deals and more flexible packages.
We’re not listing all 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. It also benefits from EE’s 5G infrastructure with next-gen data speeds in 80 towns and cities.
BT Mobile uniquely offers Family SIM packages, which offer big discounts for multiple users, and everyone gets their own separate data allowance. Discounts are also offered to BT TV, landline, and broadband customers.
If you’re looking for a SIM-only deal, the lowest cost option starts at £10 per month for 1GB of data and unlimited calls and texts. The top-tier “Max Plan” bumps this up to 100GB of data for £25 per month on an 18-month plan, or you can grab a three SIM family pack on the same plan for £65 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.
While Virgin hasn’t rolled out its own 5G plans yet, the partnership with O2 should help raise the network’s profile overall. We don’t yet know the specifics, but we’ll be sure to update you as soon as we do.
In terms of prices, the cheapest SIM-only contract begins at just £7, offering unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of data. This ramps up to a plan with unlimited minutes, texts, and data for £30 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 due to its SIM-only plans’ flexibility and competitive prices. 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. GiffGaff has yet to announce 5G plans.
4G LTE data plans start from as little as £6 for 500MB of data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts. The top £25 package offers unlimited calls and texts and always-on data with a 384kbps 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.
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 £10 for 8GB, 3000 minutes, and 5000 text messages, spread over a 12-month contract. Data lovers can opt for 100GB, 5000 minutes, and 5000 texts for the most expensive £25 per month contract, with a selection of options in between. Tesco Mobile also has 5G plans starting at £15 for 5G data, 5000 minutes, and 5000 texts.
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 Dixons Carphone group’s retail juggernaut and runs on Three’s network. iD benefits from the popularity of the high street chain Carphone Warehouse which offers iD plans for SIM-only and pay monthly handset contracts. iD has finally announced its 5G plans — the carrier is slowly rolling its fastest coverage to select capable devices at no extra cost.
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 deal with unlimited data, 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 Sky will be no stranger to TV lovers in the UK. Sky Mobile takes 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 change at any time. 5G is also available for an extra £5 a month or for free for Sky VIP members.
Sky Mobile SIM-only plans range from 2GB and 25GB of 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 for unused data.
Smarty plans start at 30GB of data for £10. There’s also a fully unlimited plan for £25 if you want to go all out, though this doesn’t have data discounts.
Smarty piggybacks on Three’s network and only offers 30-day rolling contracts. Smarty has yet to announce 5G plans.
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 1GB of data, 250 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 5G support in 15 cities.
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 the best coverage statistics for population and geography and 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. You can choose just about any UK mobile network and get similar results.
Best for unlimited data
- Heavy data users and media consumers who want to tether will want to check out Three’s speedy unlimited data packages. Still, 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 contractual 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. Virgin Mobile is another solid choice as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter usage doesn’t count against your total.
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!