Whether you want the best 4G speeds, the most data, or the cheapest monthly deal, these are the best mobile networks for users of every type
Choosing a mobile network is a daunting challenge. In the UK we have four major 4G mobile networks, plus dozens of virtual networks, each offering a bevy of different plans at different prices. What’s more, speeds and coverage can vary dramatically depending on where you live and work – so even if you find what looks like the perfect package, you may not get what you pay for.
We’ve combed through the different networks and plans to find the very best options for a range of different needs. We’ve compared features, costs and services – and also factored in RootMetrics’ comprehensive tests of coverage and performance across the whole of the UK.
So whether you want maximum data, the best roaming rates or just a good-value plan for lighter usage, read on for the best deal. And if you need a little more help deciding which is the right network, and the best tariff for you, then you’ll find a bite-size guide once you’ve scrolled past the networks listed below.
The best mobile networks in 2018
iD: The best mobile network for budget users
Price when reviewed: From £3.99 to £20 SIM-only from www.idmobile.co.uk
iD is a no-frills budget network, offering cheap tariffs on a rolling one-month contract. It’s particularly competitive for packages offering up to 5GB of data, which makes it perfect for users who primarily just want to browse and chat.
iD’s data rollover feature means that data left unused in one month can be used the next, while low price plans and spending caps make it a great option if you’re supplying a phone and contract for your kids. ID runs its services over Three’s mobile network, so coverage and performance are generally good across most of the UK. With a 4GB plan costing just £8, it’s hard to go wrong.
Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (Three); Minimum plan: £3.99 per month, 500MB, 500 minutes, 5000 texts; Maximum plan: £20 per month, 20GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Discount options: No; Data rollover: Yes; Additional features:Spending cap
Three: The best mobile network for streamers and travellers
Price when reviewed: From £5 to £30 SIM-only from www.three.co.uk
Three has some very attractive deals on both Pay Monthly phones and SIM-only plans. Coverage and performance aren’t quite up there with EE, but Three comes ahead of O2 and Vodafone, delivering a fast, reliable service across most of the UK. You also get 4G and Wi-Fi calling, so you can make and receive voice calls in situations where you’d otherwise struggle to get a signal.
Three has some epic high-data plans, including a new All-You-Can-Eat option, while its premium Advanced plans include a personal hotspot allowance. Video addicts meanwhile will love the Go Binge feature, which allows you to use Netflix, Deezer, Apple Music and Snapchat as much as you like without touching your data allowance.
Three is also great for travellers, thanks to its Feel Like Home roaming service, which lets you use your inclusive minutes and data in a wide range of destinations, including Australia and the USA.
Key specs – Network type: Primary network operator; Minimum plan: £5 per month, 500MB, 200 minutes, unlimited texts; Maximum plan: £30 per month, unlimited data, texts and minutes; Discount options: No; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Go Binge streaming
BT Mobile: The best network for families
Price when reviewed: From £7.50 to £30 SIM-only from www.bt.com/mobile
BT owns and runs both EE and BT Mobile; the former offers higher speeds, but BT Mobile has cheaper deals on both Pay Monthly mobiles and SIM-only tariffs, with sizable discounts if you’re already a BT Infinity or Broadband customer. And coverage is excellent, although standard tariffs don’t include EE’s fastest 60Mbits/sec 4G service.
The best reason to get BT, however, is its excellent family plans. You can have up to five SIMs on a single contract, for monthly savings of up to £61. The primary SIM is tied into a minimum 12-month contract, but you can change the other plans at a month’s notice. It’s hands-down the best family deal, though Sky customers might want to look at the similar Sky Mobile network instead.
Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (EE); Minimum plan: £12.50 per month (£7.50 for BT customers), 500MB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan:£30 per month (£25 for BT customers), 25GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Discount options: BT customer discount, family plans; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Free BT hotspots, spending cap
EE: The best network for hardcore internet users
Price when reviewed: From £11 to £30 SIM-only from www.ee.co.uk
EE isn’t the cheapest network, but if you’re after raw speed, it’s your best option, with mid-priced tariffs offering huge amounts of data over the UK’s fastest network (as measured by RootMetrics). Coverage is excellent across the British Isles, and EE is a pioneer of new technologies like 4G+/LTE Advanced, which takes speeds beyond 60MBits/sec.
If you’re worried about getting carried away, you can cap your spending, and EE throws in some tempting extras like six months of free Apple Music or 24 months of BT Sports – plus a data boost for EE Home broadband customers. It’s a premium option at a premium price, but if you’re married to your phone it’s worth paying for.
Key specs – Network type: Primary network operator; Minimum plan: £11 per month, 250MB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan: £30 per month, 40GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Discount options: No; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Apple Music (six months), BT Sports (24 months), spending cap
Giffgaff: The best network for cheap, flexible data
Price when reviewed: From £5 to £20 SIM-only from www.giffgaff.com
If you don’t like to be tied down then Giffgaff could suit you down very nicely. You pay for a rolling monthly contract which you can upgrade or downgrade at any time, and cancel whenever you like after the first year.
Giffgaff’s offering is easy to understand too: the eight available tariffs simply scale up in data and text allowances, from the miserly 100MB of the £5 service up to the unlimited £20 package. The latter is subject to some speed throttling, but only once you’ve burnt through 9GB in a month.
Giffgaff uses the O2 network, which to be honest doesn’t offer the fastest speeds, nor the best coverage in remote or rural areas. Still, it’s fine across most of the UK, and RootMetrics reports that the network is growing and improving. Giffgaff also offers impressively cheap roaming outside of the EU; if you’re looking to keep a lid on costs, it’s an excellent alternative to iD.
Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (O2); Minimum plan: £5 per month, 100MB, 150 minutes, 500 texts; Maximum plan: £20 per month, unlimited internet, calls and texts; Discount options: No; Data rollover: No; Additional features: No
How to choose the right mobile network for you
Mobile phone costs can range hugely, from £5 per month for a basic SIM-only contract up to £60 a month or more – so it’s best to start by working out a budget, even before you think about your wishlist.
How much data do I need?
With that done, your first concern will probably be data. Unfortunately, the cheapest deals come with miserable allowances, leaving you at risk of going over and adding to your monthly bill. Unless you’re an extremely light user, we suggest you go no lower than 1GB; for average use, between 2GB and 6GB is safer. You only need more than 6GB if you regularly stream music and video to your phone, play a lot of online games or if you plan to use your phone as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. (Just check that this is included in your data allowance: it normally is, but it’s not something you can take for granted.)
When it comes to included minutes and texts, be realistic. There’s no point paying for an allowance you won’t use, and in many cases you can use internet services like Facebook Messenger, FaceTime or WhatsApp, instead of relying on traditional voice calls and SMS messages.
How long should you tie yourself in for?
Most SIM-only contracts last a year, while Pay Monthly phone contracts tend to last two years, or even longer. Make sure you can afford the monthly payments, as once you sign up, you’re locked in until your contract comes to an end.
When it does, review your options. If you’ve fully paid off the cost of your phone, you can now save money by switching to a SIM-only contract, or take advantage of an upgrade. Some networks offer split contracts, where you pay one monthly payment for your plan and another for the phone, so you can save money by simply letting the latter expire.
You’ll also see SIM-only deals that work on a rolling a monthly basis; this gives you the flexibility to buy lots of data when you need it, then switch down to a cheaper plan when you don’t.
Family plans and spending caps
A few virtual networks, like BT Mobile and Sky Mobile, offer family SIM bundles, where you can pay for multiple SIMs under one overall contract. This is cheaper than taking out separate contracts, and also gives you more control over spending, as you can decide which plan different family members need. Some plans even allow you to share unused allowances between family members.
Another way to keep costs under control is by setting spending caps. Not all providers support these, but they’re a good thing – they ensure that, should you accidentally burn through your usage allowances, you won’t get a horrific shock when you open up the bill at the end of the month.
Roaming and rollover features
All UK networks allow you to use your call, text and data allowances while travelling within the EU, and a few allow you to use them in other popular destinations, such as the US and Australia. If you frequently travel to one country, it’s worth checking to see how different networks charge for roaming in that country. Even if it’s not included in the standard tariff, you may be able to buy an international roaming add-on that slashes the price.
Look too for rollover features, where unused minutes or megabytes can be rolled over into the next month, or streaming features, which allow you to use certain music or video-streaming services without cutting into your data allowance. Some networks also offer additional extras on top, like a free NowTV subscription or early access to tickets for live events.
What else should you consider?
There are three final things you should think about before signing up: coverage, coverage and coverage. If the network is weak in your area, this will be a constant source of aggravation. All mobile networks offer an online coverage checker, so you can enter your postcode and find out what services are available where you are. Ofcom also has its own coverage checker which can tell you which of the four networks will give you data and enhanced data services.
It’s also worth specifically checking what data speeds are available in your area. The networks may publish details of which advanced data services, like 4G+/LTE Advanced or Gigabit LTE they are rolling out in your area, or you can use RootMetrics’ coverage map to see whether you can get a 4G signal where you need it.