Picking the best UK mobile carrier
The U.K.’s 4G market is nice and mature now. 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.
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 companies to help you decide which one is the best UK mobile carrier for you. We’ve summarized some of the key plans available below, but you’ll probably want to check out the details about each carrier if you’re after a more bespoke package.
- Three has the cheapest PAYG SIM at 3p per minute for calls, 2p per text, and 1p for each MB of data.
- EE offers marginally the best 4G network across the country, based on population coverage.
- O2 Refresh ensures that you won’t pay too much if you keep your phone past your contract length and offers flexible upgrades.
- Heavy data users and media consumers will want to check out Three’s all-you-can-eat data package or Vodafone’s Music and Video Passes.
- GiffGaff offers great flexibility and no contract obligations with its 30 day rolling plans.
EE was the leading U.K. mobile carrier during the rollout of the nation’s 4G LTE networks. 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 VoLTE on its 800 MHz spectrum and Wi-Fi calling for top notch sounding calls. EE tops all of this off with six months of free Apple Music with a new contract 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 tick 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 £10.99 per month for 250 MB, unlimited texts and 250 minutes, up to £44.99 for 40 GB of data, and unlimited texts and data.
O2 is an older player among the UK mobile networks. It offers plenty fast 4G networking and has 97 percent of the population covered with its network — slightly behind EE. The company doesn’t offer comprehensive free EU roaming to the same extent as EE either. However, the carrier supports VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling on smartphones with using O2 firmware.
O2 also offers some unique flexibility with its Yearly Upgrade Program and flexible O2 Refresh tariffs. 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, and free access to the 15,000 O2 Wi-Fi hotspots dotted around the country.
For data plans, O2 offers an almost indecipherable selection of PAYG, monthly, international, and tablet SIM options. PAYG starts at £10 for 2 GB, 250 mins, and 1000 texts, reaching up to £30 for 20 GB, 3000 minutes, and 3000 texts. Contracts are offered in either 12- or 30-month lengths, with prices for the more reasonable period starting at £10.50 for 250 MB, 250 minutes, and unlimited texts, and the most expensive option costing £42 for 30 GB data and unlimited calls and texts.
Three certainly isn’t the biggest of the networks, nor does it have the fastest or broadest coverage, but it offers a couple of major benefits on some of its packages. It’s Go Roam initiative allows customers to use call, text, and data allowances in 71 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, TVPlayer, Apple Music, and Deezer. The carrier also offers some of the cheapest PAYG rates in the U.K., at 3 pence a minute for calls, 2 pence per text, and 1 pence for each MB of data.
Three U.K. offers some of the lowest entry level price points for those looking for a contract with one of the big four infrastructure carriers. 12-month contracts start at just £5 for 500 MB, 200 minutes, and unlimited texts. However, that plan prevents the use of hotspots, doesn’t benefit from Go Roam, and isn’t part of Go Binge either.
The cheapest entry point to qualify for these perks is £13 for 4 GB data and all-you-can-eat calls and texts. The most expensive contract, at £35 per month, offers unlimited everything and a 30 GB hotspot cap. Three’s PAYG all-in-one options don’t start as cheap, at £10 for 1 GB, 3000 minutes, and 3000 texts, but you can grab unlimited data for £35. All of these quality for Go Roam.
Vodafone is another of the legacy UK mobile networks and across much of Europe. It covers 98 percent of the population with a 4G LTE signal, having branched out from an initial London-centric rollout. Vodafone is technically third by exact metrics, but essentially neck and neck with O2 and EE.
The Vodafone Global Roaming allows customers to take their U.K. data, minutes, and texts across to 50 destinations (mostly across Europe) for PAYG, and 110 destinations for all pay-monthly plans. Flexible upgrades allow customers to upgrade to a new phone plan after just 3 months if you decide you want a new handset.
Vodafone offers a selection of 12-month and 30-day contract options, as well as a traditional PAYG option with monthly rollover. The 12-month contracts start at £10.50 for 250 MB, 250 minutes, and unlimited texts, ramping up to 50 GB of data at a cost of £30 per month. The standard PAYG options cost 20 pence per minute, text, or 5 MB of data, and is capped at £1 per day. Alternatively, customers can pick up 30-day bundles starting at £5 for 100 MB, 100 minutes, and 250 texts, up to £30 for 20 GB, 3000 minutes, and unlimited texts.
The big four offer a competitive selection of price points, a wide range of the latest handsets, and direct access to the fastest and biggest 4G coverage. However, the country 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 haven’t managed to list all of the Mobile Virtual Network Operators here, just some of the bigger players. It could still be worth checking out other operators like FreedomPop, Sky Mobile, iD Mobile, Plusnet, and Lebara too.
BT Mobile is one of the newer UK carriers, as the media giant looks to complete its portfolio. One of the big draws of BT Mobile is unlimited access to the network’s BT Wi-Fi hotspots dotted around the country, and free roaming in 47 countries. 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 off the following prices. If you’re just looking for a SIM-only deal the lowest cost option starts at £12 per month for 500 MB of data and unlimited calls and texts. The “unlimited plus” SIM bumps this up to 18 GB of 4G data for £25 per month, or you can grab a 5 SIM family pack for £74 per month.
Virgin Mobile was slower to offer its customers 4G LTE data, but now runs on the EE network, giving its customers a wide coverage net. The company 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 12-month contract begins at just £6 offering 300 minutes, unlimited texts, and 300 MB of data. This ramps up to 5000 minutes, unlimited texts, and 20 GB of data for £25 per month. If you’re a Virgin Media TV or broadband customer, you’ll also get unlimited free calls to other Virgin Mobile users.
GiffGaff has become one of the popular UK mobile carriers owing to the flexibility and competitive prices of its SIM-only pay monthly 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 £5 for 100 MB of data, 150 call minutes, and 500 texts. The £20 package offers unlimited calls and texts, and always-on data with a 384 Kbps data cap after the first 9 GB. 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 choice for low-cost 4G data packages. However, it offers more traditional 12-month fixed term contracts. Its cheapest SIM-only deals start at £6 for 100 MB, 100 minutes, and 5000 text message, spread over a 12 month contract. Data lovers can opt for 30 GB, 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. Customers also receive ClubCard points on their purchases and contracts, which might be handy if you’re a regular supermarket shopper.
Best UK mobile networks – Conclusion
That does it for our rundown of the biggest UK mobile carriers, along with some of the smaller options
Which one do you use? Let us know in the comments!