The UK Mobile Network Guide
If you've got a mobile phone, then rather obviously you need service. And with so many operators on the UK market, choosing which network to go with can be complicated. You want the best deal to get the best service, and given that, just which of the many options should you go for? Not to worry, we're here to help with our guide to all the major UK networks.
Warning: We're about to make some sweeping generalisations here! We can't possibly evaluate every contract from every operator, so be aware that we are generalising a little. If you want to know how to specifically choose the right operator, scroll down to the bottom!
UK Operators: The Big Four
In reality, there are really only four mobile operators in the UK. Yes, we know, you see way more than that advertised, and we'll get to those other familiar names in a moment. But for now, let's learn a little about the big four.
EE is the largest UK network. Established in 2010, the company was formed through a merger of the old T-Mobile and Orange networks, and in 2016 was sold to British Telecom. One of the first networks to offer 4G coverage, EE are probably best known for their fast mobile data plans (though that 4G can get pricey, so watch out!).
O2 are the second largest operator for the UK, as well as one of the oldest. Founded in 1985, O2 was bought out in 2006 by Spanish company Telefonica. With tons of plans and options, O2 has something for everyone, however, they are reputed to have the best plans for business and freelancer use.
Coming in at number three, we have Vodafone. Vodafone made the first ever cell phone call back in 1985, and later that year founded the country's first mobile phone network. These days, Vodafone tends to be the place to get the best bargains, since they have plenty of small contracts as well as budget handsets.
Finally, Three is the smallest of the four UK networks, as well as the newest. Founded in 2005, the company initially focussed on online selling, meaning lower overheads and therefore cheaper prices for customers. These days Three does have physical stores, though prices are still competitive. In general, Three offers the best deals on contracts that have large amounts of mobile data attached.
But What About All the Others?
So, if there are only four operators, what about all those other companies that you see? These other companies are what we call MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) or “piggybacking” operators. This means that these companies don't have their own network, or their own infrastructure, though they do have their own phone plans and contracts. They rent their networks from one of the major UK operators, then sell the contract to you. Simple, right? Here are some of the biggest of these MVNO companies:
- Using EE's Network: ASDA Mobile, Axis Mobile, BT Mobile, Delight Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, The Phone Coop, Vectone Mobile, Virgin Mobile
- Using O2's Network: Giffgaff, LycaMobile, Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile
- Using Vodafone's Network: Glemnet, Lebara Mobile, Ownfone, Talk Mobile, TalkTalk Mobile
- Using Three's Network: iD Mobile, The People's Operator
What You Should Know About MVNOs
There are a couple of things that you should know about these secondary or piggybacking operators before we continue. The first is that the service and reception you get should be exactly the same as that of the parent operator. So, for example, reception and service speeds with Giffgaff are exactly the same as with O2. This will become important in a moment.
Secondly, prices with MVNOs are often cheaper than with the major operators. This is not always true, but since the MVNOs don't have to build and maintain infrastructure, they can pass those savings on to you, meaning cheaper contract prices.
Finally, know that customer service issues will be dealt with by the MVNO, NOT the parent operator. Before signing up with an MVNO you might want to do a quick internet search to find reviews from other customers to ensure that customer service and billing issues are all handled in a satisfactory way!
So Which Operator is for Me?
Choosing an operator is really a three-step process, but it's quite simple and should only take you a little time. Finding the best contract is obviously to your benefit since this will mean savings for you!
Step One: Who Gives You Service?
Your first step should be to find out which operators get service in your local area. The good news here is that all major operators get around 99% reception for 2G (normal phone service), and 3G coverage is between 90% and 98% for all the major networks. 4G is a different story since networks are still being expanded, so you'll need to check 4G coverage carefully if this is what you want.
Finding out which operators will give you the best service in your area is simple. Just check out the OFCOM Mobile Coverage Map by downloading the free app, put in your postcode, and check the results. Most people will find that any of the four major networks are suitable (as well as all the MVNOs which use that network), but it's always best to check first!
Step Two: What Do I Need?
Next, you need to figure out what exactly you're shopping for. A mobile contract has three parts: number of calling minutes, number of text messages, amount of mobile data. You want a contract that will give you the appropriate limits to fit your needs.
A contract that's too big will mean you're paying for minutes/texts/data that you don't need. A contract that's too small will mean you go over your monthly limits, and then you'll need to pay premium prices on any extra minutes/texts/data.
Check out some of your old mobile bills, or set your phone to track your usage for a week or so (nearly all modern smartphones can do this, just dig around in your settings menu), so that you get a good idea of what kind of limits you need.
Step Three: Comparison Shop
Finally, taking what you already know, you'll need to comparison shop. This can be a little time consuming, but remember that you should save money by the end of this process! You can visit each operator's website to find out which will offer you the best deal on what you need, or use a contract phone comparison tool that will do the work for you!
Getting a mobile service in the UK can be confusing since there are just so many different companies to choose from. However, that choice does mean that you're more likely to find a phone plan that fits your needs, and a competitive market means better prices for consumers. Choosing a mobile operator doesn't have to be that complicated though. Put in a little time, do your research, and you should find the perfect phone plan!