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Picking the best UK mobile carrier

All of the biggest U.K. 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.

More UK mobile content: Best Android phones you can buy in the UK | Where to buy phones in the UK: Unlocked and on-contract

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 U.K. to help you decide which one is the best U.K. mobile network for you.


Best UK mobile networks: The big four

EE

EE logo - best UK mobile network EE

EE was the leading U.K. mobile carrier during the rollout of the nation’s 4G LTE networks and has continued to be the biggest mobile network in the U.K. ever since. It was acquired by the BT Group in January 2016 following a merger between Orange U.K. and T-Mobile U.K. 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 U.K.’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 will also be the first UK mobile network to offer 5G plans when it begins its 5G rollout from May 2019. EE tops all of this off with Swappable Benefits including BT Sport access, and no charge 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. The PAYG options roll over every 30 days and range from £5 up to £30, depending on your data and calling needs. 12-month contracts give you more for your money but are more expensive, starting at £13 per month for 250MB, unlimited texts and unlimited minutes, up to £27 for 50GB of data, and unlimited texts and calls.

O2

O2 logo - Best UK mobile network

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 U.K.. 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. PAYG starts at £10 for 2GB, 500 mins, and 5,000 texts and reaching up to £30 for 20GB, 5,000 minutes, and 5,000 texts. SIM only contracts are offered in either 12- or 1-month lengths, with prices starting at £14 for 1GB, 1,000 minutes, and unlimited texts, and the most expensive option costing £47 for 50GB data and unlimited calls and texts.

Three

Three store - Best UK mobile networks

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 U.S., 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 U.K., 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. Three is unique among the biggest networks in the UK in that it offers unlimited data plans on phone and SIM only deals. Three’s SIM only contracts start at just £10 for 4GB, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts, and there’s even a SIM Only deal with unlimited data for just 20 pounds if you’re happy to sign up for 24 months.

Vodafone

Vodafone logo on a phone - Best UK mobile networks

Vodafone is another of the legacy U.K. 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.

Vodafone Global Roaming allows customers to take their U.K. 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. The 12-month contracts start at £11 for 500MB, 500 minutes, and unlimited texts, ramping up to 80GB of data at a cost of £42 per month. The standard PAYG options cost 20p per minute, text, or 5MB of data, and is capped at £1 per day. Alternatively, customers can pick up 30-day bundles starting at £5 for 100MB, 150 minutes, and 250 texts, up to £30 for 20GB, 3000 minutes, and unlimited texts.


Best UK mobile networks: Smaller players

SIM cards - best UK mobile networks

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 U.K. 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

BT Mobile SIM cards - best UK mobile networks

BT Mobile is one of the newer U.K. 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 £13 per month for 500MB of data and unlimited calls and texts. The top-tier “Unlimited SIM 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

Virgin Mobile logo - best UK mobile networks

Virgin Mobile may have been the first ever MVNO network in the U.K., 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

GiffGaff logo - best UK mobile networks

GiffGaff has been one of the more popular U.K. mobile carriers outside the big four owing to the flexibility and competitive prices of its SIM only plans. Unlike most other carriers in the U.K., 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.

Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile logo - Best UK mobile networks

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 250MB, 250 minutes, and 5000 text message, spread over a 12 month contract. Data lovers can opt for 30GB, 5000 minutes, and 5000 texts for the most expensive £30 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

iD Mobile logo on SIM - best UK mobile networks

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 U.K. at just £3.99 for 500MB of data, 150 minutes, and unlimited texts. Customers after more data may prefer the maximum 40GB 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.

Sky Mobile

Sky Mobile - best UK mobile networks

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 U.K.. 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

Smarty UK mobile network - best mobile network UK

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 Mobile

Plusnet logo - best mobile network UK

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 U.K. 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

Voxi logo - best mobile network UK

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.

Lycamobile and Lebara

Lycamobile and Lebara logos - best mobile network UK

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 U.K. international calling guide.


Best UK mobile networks: Picking the right carrier for you

Hopefully our overview of each major U.K. 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 U.K. 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.

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 will be the first network to offer 5G plans from May 2019.

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 will want to check out Three’s unlimited data packages.

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 U.K. mobile networks, along with some of the smaller options.

Which one do you use? Let us know in the comments!

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