How To Check & Compare UK Mobile Coverage: Networks & MVNOs

March 1st, 2016

Coverage should be your top consideration when choosing a new mobile network. Find out how to choose the mobile phone network offering the best coverage in your area.

Mobile phone coverage is provided by mastsIf you’re choosing a new mobile phone network, the level and quality of coverage should be the most important thing to consider. You’ll need to have good mobile coverage to get a satisfactory experience when using your phone. Poor coverage can mean missed phone calls, text messages being delayed and web pages failing to load. Coverage will also affect the battery life of your handset (weak coverage will very quickly drain the battery life from your phone).

On the face of it, it can seem daunting to choose the network with the best coverage. This is because the UK has more than 20 mobile networks to choose from. In reality, things are much simpler than this, as many mobile networks share the same underlying coverage provider.

In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about mobile phone coverage in the UK. We’ll show you how to check and compare coverage on different networks. We’ll also discuss the UK’s system of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – understanding this will make it much easier to find the network with the best coverage. Finally, we’ll discuss the factors that can influence quality of coverage and what you can do to make sure you get the best coverage on your phone.

Check & Compare Mobile Coverage

UK Mobile Coverage is provided by four providersIn the UK, only four companies hold a license to build their own mobile network: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Each of the four companies has licensed some spectrum from the Government and they’ve each built their own network of mobile phone masts to cover the UK. The four companies maintain their own infrastructure and also sell mobile services directly to the consumer.

In addition to the four network providers, there are also a number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs for short). A MVNO doesn’t maintain their own network of masts: instead they lease spare capacity from one of the four network providers.

The result is that the mobile signal you receive from a MVNO will actually still be provided by one of the four coverage providers. For instance, BT Mobile uses the EE network, giffgaff uses the O2 network and iD Mobile uses the Three network. Although you might receive a BT, giffgaff or iD-branded service, the underlying coverage will still come from either EE, O2 or Three-owned masts.

It’s therefore hugely important to know which company provides the underlying signal for your mobile network. This will allow you to use the relevant online coverage checker and to easily compare the coverage with other networks (MVNOs with the same coverage provider will give you identical levels of coverage).

Table: UK Mobile Networks & Actual Network Providers

The table below provides a list of UK mobile networks. For each network, we’ve shown the actual network provider (this is the company that provides the underlying mobile signal). We’ve also shown the types of coverage available on each network (read on to find out more about the different types of coverage). For each network, we’ve also provided a link where you’re able to access the relevant online coverage map.

Brand of Mobile NetworkActual Coverage Provider2G3G4GCoverage Checker
ASDA MobileEE Check ASDA Mobile Coverage
BT MobileEE Check BT Mobile Coverage
Co-operative MobileEE Check Co-operative Mobile Coverage
Delight MobileEE Check Delight Mobile Coverage
EEEE Check EE Coverage
FreedomPopThree Check FreedomPop Coverage
giffgaffO2 Check giffgaff Coverage
iD MobileThree Check iD Mobile Coverage
Lebara MobileVodafone Check Lebara Mobile Coverage
LIFE MobileEE Check LIFE Mobile Coverage
LycamobileO2 Check Lycamobile Coverage
O2O2 Check O2 Coverage
OrangeEE Check Orange Coverage
Post Office MobileEE* Check Post Office Mobile Coverage
ROK MobileThree Check ROK Mobile Coverage
T-MobileEE Check T-Mobile Coverage
TalkmobileVodafone Check Talkmobile Coverage
TalkTalk MobileVodafone** Check TalkTalk Mobile Coverage
TelloThree Check Tello Coverage
Tesco MobileO2 Check Tesco Mobile Coverage
ThreeThree Check Three Coverage
TPO MobileEE*** Check TPO Mobile Coverage
Vectone MobileEE Check Vectone Mobile Coverage
Virgin MobileEE Check Virgin Mobile Coverage
VodafoneVodafone Check Vodafone Coverage

* The Post Office Mobile is shutting down on the 8th August 2016.
** At present, TalkTalk Mobile uses Vodafone as their network coverage provider. In November 2014, TalkTalk announced plans to change their network coverage provider to O2. No exact date has been given for the move to O2.
*** At present, TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) uses EE as their network coverage provider. They’ve announced plans to change their network coverage provider to Three in 2016.

The mobile networks highlighted in bold maintain their own network infrastructure. Mobile networks that aren’t in bold are considered to be MVNOs. MVNOs lease their capacity from the actual network provider listed in the table.

How To Assess Mobile Coverage

The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the relevant online coverage map applicable to your network. In the table above, select the relevant link to access the coverage map for the network you’re planning to join. You’ll normally be able to enter your postcode: this will take you directly to the results for where you live. It’s also worth checking the other places where you regularly spend time (e.g. at your school, university or workplace). You’ll ideally want to choose a network with good, reliable coverage at all of the places where you regularly spend time.

When checking the online coverage maps, there are two important things you should be looking out for. The first is indoor coverage: being able to use your phone when inside of a building. The second is the type of coverage you’ll receive: you’ll want 3G or 4G coverage for a good smartphone experience.

Indoor & Outdoor Coverage

Coverage is weaker in buildings

Mobile coverage is weakened by buildings. Look for a network with good indoor mobile coverage.

If possible, choose a mobile network that offers you both indoor and outdoor coverage. This is vital if you want to use your phone inside of a building (e.g. in your home or in your office). If your mobile network has only outdoor coverage, you’re likely to get a poor smartphone experience. There’s also a high likelihood that incoming phone calls could be missed.

Note: Like all types of radio-based communication, mobile phone signals are weakened when passing through building materials. The strength of your indoor mobile signal will depend on building materials and also on the proximity of nearby buildings. In reality, your actual indoor coverage can differ from predictions given (e.g. when using your phone in a basement flat). If you aren’t able to get indoor coverage on any network, consider using one of the apps or accessories listed here.

Types of Coverage: 2G, 3G & 4G

When studying an online coverage map, you’ll normally be shown the levels of 2G, 3G and 4G coverage:

Types of Coverage: 2G, 3G and 4G

2G, 3G and 4G relate to the download speeds you can obtain on your smartphone.

  • 2G is the oldest type of mobile network still in use today. It’s mainly designed for calling and texting, but you can also browse the internet at dial-up speeds. If you’re just looking to call and text, 2G coverage should suffice for your needs. However, if you’re a smartphone owner, we would strongly recommend choosing a network with at least 3G or 4G coverage.
  • 3G (recommended minimum) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It will allow you to call, text and browse the internet on your smartphone. A decent 3G connection should be fast enough for almost any activity on your smartphone (this includes online radio and video).
  • 4G is the latest generation of mobile phone network. It has faster download speeds and provides a better online experience compared to 3G. Not all mobile networks will provide access to 4G (some lower-cost MVNOs are restricted to 3G). In our opinion, 4G coverage is a nice-to-have but most users will find 3G coverage sufficient for their needs.

Where possible, we strongly recommend choosing a mobile network with either 3G or 4G coverage.

Real World Experimentation

Finally, it’s worth noting that the data shown in online coverage maps is only a prediction. It gives the network provider’s expectation of your coverage, based on geography and where their masts are located. As discussed earlier in this article, the actual level of coverage may depend on other factors (e.g. the materials used to construct your home).

SIM Card

You can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card to test the level of coverage on each network provider.

Before signing up to a 24-month contract, you may wish to carry out a real world experiment. For instance, you can ask your family members about their experience of a certain network provider. They don’t need to be a customer of the exact network you’re joining: they just need to be on a mobile network that shares the same underlying coverage provider. Is their mobile service reliable at home? Do they ever experience problems with coverage?

A further way to test this out is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the network you’re planning to join. You can place the SIM card into any unlocked smartphone and you can check to see whether the coverage is reliable. How many bars of signal are you able to get on the phone? If you like, you can test the level of coverage once for each network provider (this will allow you to easily compare the coverage on different providers).

Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK

In the UK, we have four network coverage providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Please refer to the detailed coverage maps (linked below) for an overview of the service available where you live.


EE (99% coverage)

EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. Now a part of the BT Group, EE offers high-speed 4G coverage through the BT Mobile and EE brands. EE also provides the underlying coverage for multiple MVNOs which have access to their 2G and 3G network:

As of February 2016, EE has 95% population coverage for 4G internet. This is the widest 4G coverage of any UK network. Double-speed 4G coverage currently stands at 80% with 4G+ coverage (LTE-Advanced) available to customers in London.

If you’re looking for a deal with EE coverage, see our guide to the best value SIM cards with coverage from EE.

Check Coverage on EE & EE MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (1800MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
95% population coverage (800MHz, 1800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)


O2 (99% coverage)

As well as providing their own O2-branded service, O2 also provides the underlying coverage for the following brands:

In general, giffgaff is a better value way of accessing coverage from O2 but at a much lower cost. For more information, see our full comparison of the best value SIM cards with coverage from O2.

All of O2’s MVNOs have access to 4G. As of November 2015, O2 has 78% population coverage on 4G.

Check Coverage on O2 & O2 MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 99% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
98% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
78% population coverage (800MHz frequency)


Three (97% coverage)

Three is the UK’s newest network coverage provider and claims 97% population coverage on 3G and 4G. It’s worth noting that Three doesn’t have any 2G coverage on which to fall back upon (for this reason, it’s not possible to use a 2G-only handset on Three or on Three’s MVNOs).

The following MVNOs are currently using Three as their network coverage provider:

As of April 2015, Three has 60% population coverage on 4G. Some but not all of Three’s MVNOs have access to their 4G network.

Check Coverage on Three & Three MVNOs »

2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
3G Coverage:
97% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage:
60% population coverage (800MHz & 1800MHz frequencies)


Vodafone (98% coverage)

Vodafone currently provides the underlying coverage for the following brands:

At present, 4G is only available on the Vodafone-branded service. Vodafone’s MVNOs are restricted to having only 2G and 3G coverage. As of February 2016, Vodafone has 86% population coverage on 4G.

Check Coverage on Vodafone & Vodafone MVNOs »

2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage:
89% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage:
86% population coverage (800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)

Apps & Accessories for Better Indoor Coverage

Wi-Fi Calling Handsets

It might be possible to use app or accessory for better indoor coverage.

We strongly recommend following the instructions above in order to find the mobile network that offers the best coverage in your area. In some cases, this won’t be possible (e.g. if you’re tied in to a 24-month contract or if there are no mobile networks offering coverage in your area). In this case, you might be able to use a smartphone application or a special accessory to improve your coverage at home:

About MVNOs

  • ASDA Mobile
  • BT Mobile
  • giffgaff
  • iD Mobile
  • Talkmobile
  • TalkTalk Mobile
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Virgin Mobile

The UK has a large number of MVNOs (a selection of MVNOs is shown in this image).

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) lease spare capacity from a mobile network provider.

The UK has four network providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The network provider manages all of the fixed network infrastructure (including the required licenses, the mobile masts and the network of backhaul connections).

MVNOs such as BT Mobile, giffgaff and iD Mobile provide a service on top of the network provider’s infrastructure. The underlying coverage will come from the network provider, but things like billing and customer support will be handled by the MVNO.

Giffgaff Run By You

giffgaff is a MVNO on the O2 network. It’s targeted at younger and more price-conscious consumers.

In some cases, MVNOs are either owned or partly-owned by the underlying network provider. This is a technique for targeting different groups of customers. For instance, giffgaff is a fully-owned subsidiary of O2. Compared to the main O2 brand, giffgaff is targeted towards younger and more price-conscious consumers. Lower prices can be offered on this sub-brand without cannibalising the revenues made on the core O2 brand.

Armed with this knowledge, savvy consumers can often save money by switching over to a low-cost MVNO. You’ll often receive the same exact coverage at a vastly reduced cost through MVNOs.

Historical Information

The information in the table above shows the current line-up of UK virtual network operators. In the past few years, certain MVNOs have changed the network they lease spare capacity from. This has led to changes in the coverage they offer.

  • ASDA Mobile. In October 2013, ASDA Mobile switched to using the EE network. Prior to this, ASDA Mobile operated on the Vodafone network.
  • BT Mobile. The BT Mobile service launched to consumers using EE’s mobile network in March 2015. Prior to this, BT had a business-only mobile service which operated on Vodafone until summer 2014.
  • Family Mobile. Family Mobile (originally from IKEA and then from Coms Mobile) previously used coverage from EE. The service closed in August 2015.
  • Lycamobile. In 2010, Lycamobile switched to using the O2 network. Prior to this, Lycamobile used the Orange network.
  • Orange & T-Mobile. In October 2011, Orange and T-Mobile combined their network operations. They created a new single combined network under the EE brand. The combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile have now become the 3G network of EE. In addition, EE has launched a 4G network but this wasn’t made available to customers on Orange or T-Mobile. As of February 2015, it’s no longer possible to take a new plan on Orange or T-Mobile.
  • OVIVO Mobile. OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service closed on March 19th 2014.
  • Post Office Mobile. The Post Office Mobile is due to close on the 8th August 2016. Whilst the Post Ofice Mobile was in operation, it used coverage from the EE network.
  • TalkTalk. In November 2014, TalkTalk signed an agreement to change their network coverage provider from Vodafone to O2. At present, customers are still yet to be switched over to using coverage from O2. Hence, customers on TalkTalk currently continue to receive coverage from the Vodafone network. It’s expected that customers will be moved over to O2’s network in 2016.
  • TPO Mobile. In 2016, TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) will change their network coverage provider from EE to Three. 4G will be made available to customers as part of the transition. Previously, TPO Mobile has used coverage from EE since its launch in November 2012.
  • Sky. In 2016, Sky is due to launch a MVNO using coverage from O2.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 77 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Newbs said:

    Is there any site which tell us about coming upgrades of specific towers? I live in an area of the 3% or so not covered by EE’s 4G (no 4G at all with Three) and wondered if I should sit tight with my current provider (Three) or possibly change to BT/EE. Do any networks publish forthcoming upgrades?

  2. Phippster said:

    When checking coverage, I prefer using Ofcom’s more realistic Mobile Coverage Checker
    ( ), instead of the checkers provided by the mobile network operators. They’re not known for their accuracy (honesty) from what I’ve seen – especially when it comes to expected indoor coverage. For example, giffgaff’s checker indicates that I have good 2G coverage indoors and outdoors – This is not the case! 2G/3G signal strength is woefully poor here.


    1. Claire replied:

      The last couple of weeks our EE mast has not been used so our signal has been zero Felixstowe, Suffolk, piecing together bits of info we guess that their contract hasn’t been renewed as the BT takeover was imminent. We have heard other areas are the same and people are leaving EE to gets signal with O2 who seem to be best here now. None of this shows on the comparison sites which claim tone up to date, even EE claim that they have a strong signal here!

  3. phil said:

    P.S. Sainsbury Mobile will be defunct from 15/01/16

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Phil,
      Thanks for the heads up about this – I’ve written an article here for any other readers affected by the closure. I’ll update the table above when they close their service on the 15th January.
      Thanks again!

  4. phil said:

    I.D. Mobile is listed as 2g 3g and 4g yet it is on the Three network that doesn’t do 2g

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Phil,
      Thanks for the heads up about this – this was a mistake on my part! I’ve amended it to reflect the fact that iD Mobile lacks 2G coverage.

  5. Mick best said:

    Update My BT sim arrived 4g signal 📶
    Full bars very fast indeed.
    Very impressed first time I’ve had full bars on any network inside my house.
    And with the purchase of EE by BT things can only get better.
    So will keep watching out to see if things improve over the next 12 months while my BT contract in in force.
    You never know might go back to giffgaff at some point

  6. Arpit Kadia said:


    I bought this Samsung Galxy J5 dual SIM phone from India. I came in UK and i am using talkmobile SIM & there is no problem in making calls and messaging. I am facing mobile internet problem. I have tried to change the settings and APN things and also took it to carphonewerhouse team to show this issue but there is no any proper solution. I also message to Samsung care and they have replied something like it has to do with cellular Band or kernel due to regional configurations. As per the phone technical specification its compatible with 2g & 3g band. I dont know how to solve this issue. Can anyone guide me.
    Thanks in Advance

    Arpit Kadia

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Arpit,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think there’s any issue with the band support on your Galaxy J5 – you’ve already told me that it’s successfully connecting to the 3G network. Rather, the most likely issue is the APN settings (I know you’ve tried this already, but it might be worth trying again – or trying with a different SIM card & different APN settings). If your Galaxy J5 is dual-SIM enabled, I’d also double-check that data is enabled on that SIM card (you’ll need to choose Talkmobile as your primary SIM card).

  7. John Osborne said:

    Does the signal strength from the mast affect the download speed of data.? I am getting different opinions on this. For example if I am on the fringe of a 4G mast and I only have 1 bar, does this mean that I will only get 3G or less? Also, as I live in BN5 9AY, I am in a “Black Hole” of most providers. If I invest in a high gain RF amplifier and point the antenna in the right direction, will this lift me into the higher regions of 3G and give me significantly improved download speeds?

    Hope you can shed some bright lights on this . .



    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment and a very good question. I’ll try answer your question in two parts:
      1) Yes: the speed and quality of your service will depend very much on the strength of the signal. With a 1-bar signal, you’re likely to get lower speeds than on a 4-bar signal. The battery life of your phone is also likely to be significantly reduced (as it needs to spend a lot more energy trying to hold on to a signal). Finding a way to improve your coverage should boost the download speed as well as the battery life of your phone. You could also look into features such as EE’s wi-fi calling and Vodafone’s Sure Signal service.
      2) 2G, 3G and 4G coverage are all totally separate and independent from each other (they use different frequencies, and sometimes different base stations). So it’s not the case when you have less than 1-bar of 4G signal, your phone drops down to 3G instead (rather, your phone will simply search for the best available signal it’s able to hold on to).
      Hope this helps,

  8. Richard said:

    What network are White Mobile on ( and are they any good?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your comment. I believe White Mobile is using EE for their coverage. Unfortunately, I’ve not tried this out so wouldn’t be able to say very much (it’s possible other readers of this website have tried them out, however).

  9. Pebble Mobile said:

    Hi Ken,

    I’m the director of a recently launched MVNO offering national roaming in the UK called Pebble Mobile.

    I was hoping you may be interested in reviewing our service on your website.

    The idea behind our National Roaming MVNO model is that it allows our customers to connect to all of the major UK networks, thus truly offering the best overall coverage of the UK; whilst offering numerous “perks”, free whole of EU roaming, inclusive calls to 60 countries, free calls at “Happy Hour” and inclusive calls to UK 08x numbers etc – and we’re currently working on introducing native WiFi calling to support nearly every Android handset running ICS 4.0 or upwards (having recently tested on a HTC Wildfire S!), which is really exciting as you’ll be able to use it worldwide with our service – thus completely avoiding roaming charges in the most expensive destinations (as opposed to companies like EE that bar WiFi calling use outside the UK altogether and limit availability to the six most expensive handsets they sell).

    Pebble works just like any other UK network, i.e. with true UK mobile numbers that are inclusive to call and/or text from all other UK networks (unlike Jersey/Isle Of Man numbers that some “solution providers” use) with number portability therefore available between Pebble and other UK Networks as a result.

    I’d love to have you review Pebble Mobile on your website and will provide you with any and all assistance you would require in doing so, if you’d be interested please contact me: hello [a][t] pebble [d.o.t] network

  10. Ian said:

    Hi Ken,

    Family Mobile is stopping their service soon 🙁

    Coms Mobile provides a Pay As You Go (PAYG) mobile service on the EE network which has traded under various names in the past including IKEA Mobile, Smarter Mobile and Your Family Mobile.
    This service is closing down on 31st August 2015.


  11. Richard said:

    Hi Ken We only have a 2G network where we live. Does a 3G phone automatically pick up the 2G signal when 3G is only a weak signal Richard

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your comment. Your phone should indeed fall back to 2G automatically when there’s no 3G available. To help your battery life, you could decide to force the phone onto 2G-only mode. On the iPhone, you can do this through Settings > Cellular/Mobile > Voice & Data and choosing the 2G option. On Android, go to Settings > More networks > Mobile networks > Network mode and choose the GSM only option.
      Hope this helps,

  12. Stephen said:

    Hi Ken, Do you know if MVNO’s are throttled compared to their host network? I’m on GiffGaff and I can often have full 3G/4G signal in London yet I’m unable to use any data on my handset at all until I move away from a busy area. i.e. Charing Cross station is particularly frustrating whilst waiting for the train to leave!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve been asked this question a couple of times though unfortunately I haven’t yet seen any concrete or official figures (for reference, I recommend reading the comments here, here and here). I think everything we’ve seen is so far quite subjective but it’s obviously that different levels of priority exist on the network (emergency services being the number 1 priority). The difficulty is we don’t actually know how other priorities are assigned on the network: it’s probably a confidential clause in the MVNO agreements and it can even change based on network conditions, etc.
      Sorry I can’t give you more of a fully-formed answer!

  13. Paul said:


    This is an interesting article. I’m thinking of moving from O2 to BT Mobile but am wary of BT’s apparent status as a MVNO. With BT’s purchase of EE however and the fact it won its own chunk of 4G spectrum, surely this will change and BT and EE will be ‘equal’…? And the service expand.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think it’s totally fair to assume that all MVNOs offer a low-quality service (it just so happens that a large number of them compete on price rather than other things). I think BT Mobile can certainly be classed as a high-end MVNO. If you take a look at this table, they offer 4G coverage whereas other EE MVNOs currently don’t. As you say, going forward, BT is also set to take over the EE network.

  14. Vanessa said:

    While talking to Three regarding a possible new contract with them, I said I was considering switching to O2, but via a third party. Three told me that if I did this, I would be de-prioritised as an O2 customer and not get such good signal as one of their direct customers. I can’t find anything online to substantiate this claim. Can you comment?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Vanessa,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s theorised that O2 has different levels of priority on their network. With an educated guess: priority 1 would be business users, priority 2 would be Pay Monthly customers and priority 3 would be Pay As You Go. Saying this, the information and levels of priority have never been confirmed officially be O2.
      With regards to your question about connecting to O2 via a third-party provider, it’s highly unlikely O2 will differentiate based on where you bought the contract (all customers on O2 Pay Monthly contract should get the same priority). If you’re switching to an O2 MVNO (e.g. giffgaff or Tesco Mobile), the answer may be different and the priority may differ.

  15. Matthew said:

    Hi Ken,

    I stumbled across this site by accident, as I’m in that terrible period of being in that last month of my contract on Three and now shopping around! It’s like chasing my own tail!

    One question I have, is that do all the MVNOs have a fair split of data speeds? What I mean is, do all the networks that, say, use EE have the same speed?

    I have read some recent forum posts that GiffGaff network speed is terrible (<1MBps)

    I must say, Im happy with Three, but looking to reduce my bill from the £30pcm.

    One thing I have found, and may be of use, is that PAYG on Three seems to be better value than monthly contracts! £15 on PAYG gives you 300mins, 3000 texts and Unlimited Data. Compared to a rolling 30 day contract of £20 that gives 600mins, 5000 texts and Unlimited data.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Matthew,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s an absolute maze shopping around for a new tariff or mobile network so I can definitely appreciate how you’re feeling right now!
      RE: MVNO data speeds. This is a really good question, and I’m afraid there isn’t a simple answer. Essentially, MVNOs will buy airtime in bulk from one of the four network operators (EE, O2, Three & Vodafone). They’ll then provide this to their own customers using the network operator’s network. The details of each MVNO’s agreement is obviously confidential so I can’t definitively tell you how traffic is prioritised. The thing we are able to determine quite easily is the type of coverage offered to each MVNO (e.g. you’ll see that most EE MVNOs are 3G-only, BT Mobile has standard 4G coverage and EE has double-speed 4G or 4G+ for customers on 4GEE Extra). So yes: data speeds vary depending on MVNO but not in a way that’s easy to measure, excepting from reading online reviews.
      With regards to Three, I do agree that their Pay As You Go tariffs are great value for anyone wanting all-you-can-eat data! I suppose there are a few downsides: no tethering on Pay As You Go and a very limited number of minutes.

      1. Graham replied:

        I moved one of two Tesco contracts to giffgaff. I have found giffgaff is much slower than Tesco from experience and by testing the two side by side on speedtest. I’m going back to Tesco again. Tests done with two xperia Z2 phones side by side on giffgaff and Tesco. Giffgaff was approx 30 % slower up and download.

  16. Tracey said:

    Hi There
    Could you help me I am on Three but my signal isn’t very good.
    I live in Nottingham I want to leave them but I don’t know who to go with either EE or O2 or Vodafone.
    My work mates are on EE but didn’t get any signal today at work but another mates who is on 02 & Vodafone did.
    So which is better.
    But I heard that EE is meant to be one of the top networks
    Thank you

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Tracey,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to give you a specific answer with regards to coverage (it will differ substantially based on where you live and work). In the first instance, I’d definitely use the coverage checkers here (it might help to rule out a few networks). Once you’ve done that, it’s definitely worth ordering some free Pay As You Go SIM cards. They’ll allow you to test the coverage on each network (there’s no need for you to top-up before you do this). Your smartphone will need to be unlocked for you to use SIM cards from another network (if your handset was purchased from Three, it should already be unlocked for use on any network).
      Hope this helps,

  17. Torkeer said:

    Hi Ken,

    Firstly, great site. Keep up the good work.

    I have a question about smartphones. I would like to buy a dual sim Samsung galaxy phone – note 4 or the A7. I was wondering if you know a reputable seller whom I could purchase from in the UK or from abroad?

    I know Samsung dual sim phones are not available in Europe but are sold mainly in the far east. I find this quiet bizarre as I am sure there is a demand for them in Europe too but the manufacturers are doing nothing to sell them.


    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Torkeer,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, Samsung doesn’t officially sell dual-SIM handsets here in the UK. Hence, anything you buy is likely to be imported (double-check the frequency bands supported in case they don’t match up with networks in the UK). With regards to retailers & importers, I’m afraid I can’t advise on reputable sellers (this isn’t something I’ve ever tried myself)!

  18. Tom said:

    I have poor coverage in my house and currently use a sure signal box to boost this, for that reason I’m keen to stay on vodafone but am wondering if I could continue to use the signal booster on the vodafone network through any of the piggyback providers. Is this possible?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, the Vodafone Sure Signal will only work with Vodafone SIM cards (you can’t use it on Vodafone MVNOs). Sorry about that!

  19. Martin said:

    Hello Ken this is a strange problem I have come across, I’m a helper on the giffgaff network a user came on the forum with a problem. He has a Samsung Galaxy S5 mini he purchased this from talk talk who said it was unlocked. It connects to the giffgaff network but only stays connected for 5 minutes. I’ve suggested everything but nothing works. Any ideas ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Martin,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the question has stumped me as much as it’s stumped you! I can’t think of any obvious reason why the phone will only connect for 5 minutes at a time (is it always exactly the same amount of time or does the 5 minute figure vary every time?). The obvious things to try are:
      1) Using a SIM card from another network in the Galaxy S5 mini – ideally, the SIM card should be on another coverage provider and should not be a network using coverage from O2.
      2) Using the giffgaff SIM card in another handset (perhaps borrowed from friends/family).
      Doing these two things should help diagnose whether it’s a problem with the handset or a problem with the network. Beyond that, I don’t have any further thoughts to mind as to why this is happening on his Galaxy S5 mini.

      1. Martin replied:

        Hello Ken, thank you for the quick reply, it disconnects after 5 minutes each time. My assumption is the phone isn’t saving the settings automatically once the giffgaff sim is installed. He’s tried manual apn configuration but still the same. He’s tried the sim in a Sony Z10 and it works fine. So looks like the phone has compatibility issues. I’ve suggested trying another sim from a network provider like EE. Just to see if the phone is unlocked. He said there was no branding on start so that’s not an issue.

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Martin,
          Count me in as totally stumped! Can’t think of any obvious answers but definitely worth trying the two things I mentioned in my comment. One other thing that did come to mind: is the handset imported from another country? If so, Samsung is known to use region locking on their phone. I’m not quite sure how the region locking works but you normally need to make a 5 minute phone call in the region where you bought the handset (otherwise, it won’t work abroad in another country). Not sure if this is possibly related (if so, I’m not sure why it’s managing to work for the first 5 minutes every time).

  20. Ash said:

    Could any one give me the unlock code from ee to giffgaff as I’ve got Samsung galaxy s5 mini and no longer want to be with ee. I want to go to giffgaff but now they’re telling me I have to pay to change. not good. another thing, I brought the phone now they want to charge me to go to giffgaff. any one with unlock pls help – it’s a s4 mini (GT-I9150). thanks

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Ash,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, EE charges £20.42 if you want to unlock a phone from their network (see this article for more information). Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways you’re able to get around this (unless you’re able to find a working unlock method that’s free).
      With regards to a PAC Code for moving your number from EE to giffgaff, it should always be free to receive this code (it’s your legal entitlement and EE must provide it free of charge within two hours of your request).

  21. Jill said:

    Hi, I am a volunteer for a village ‘good neighbour’ network. We have 6 volunteers who share a basic 2G phone on EE network to take calls from villagers wanting transport to hospital etc. We are in a very poor network coverage area (coverage worsened in last few months). We cannot use a signal box as that would mean moving it to a different house each week. We have lobbied network providers, local MP, council etc. re getting improved coverage. In long term there’s possibility of mast on new community centre. Any advice on how we could improve things on short term basis? Would a 4G phone give us any advantages – e.g. transferring calls to a landline?
    We would appreciate any advice you may be able to offer

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Jill,
      I’m afraid I can’t give you very much advice regarding the situation beyond trying to get a femtocell e.g. a Vodafone Rural Open Signal.
      I would say that 4G probably isn’t useful for calling at the moment: today’s 4G networks don’t actually support voice calling (they use a technology called CSFB whereby your phone actually falls back to a 3G network in order to make a phone call). Hence, it’s probably best to focus on getting 3G coverage rather than 4G (at least for the time being).
      Wishing you all the best of luck with the campaign,

      1. Jill replied:

        Thanks for the advice Ken

  22. Simon said:

    Hi Ken, after being given the “truth about supermarkets mobile providers/coverage” by 1 of the big 4 mobile providers keen on getting my business, but not keen on me going elsewhere, here i found the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!!

    I can now get a good deal at less cost & with more minutes/texts & data per month.
    So glad i found this site before being pressurized in to a 12 month contract!

  23. Adam Garfunkel said:

    Hi there. I am a Vodafone customer (and pay for my wife and eldest daughter’s phones through Vodafone). I have just been told by a Vodafone call-centre salesperson that if I go with buy the phone and the Vodafone contract through Carphone Warehouse then as Carphone Warehouse ‘only rents’ our masts, the signal will be weaker. I said I thought that sounded like bullshit. She declined to comment and said that she could not discount iPhone 6 prices. Is this ‘weaker signal’ because of renting correct?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Adam,
      Thanks for your comment and a very Merry Christmas! It does sound as if the call centre staff are giving you incorrect info:

      • You’ll always get the same service & coverage on a Vodafone-branded contract regardless of whether you signed up directly or via another company (e.g. the Carphone Warehouse). The signal strength will be exactly the same.
      • If you’re signing up for Talkmobile (the Carphone Warehouse MVNO which uses Vodafone’s network) the story might be slightly different. The signal strength and coverage will still be the same as Talkmobile uses Vodafone’s masts and signal. The service quality could theoretically be different (i.e. if Vodafone decides to prioritise their own customers when a mast becomes busy) but there isn’t any concrete information about what actually happens in real-world usage.

      Anyhow, it sounds to me as if the first is applicable to your situation so you can safely ignore what the call centre have told you!

      1. Adam Garfunkel replied:

        Thank you Ken. That is the way I was thinking. It is very poor that Vodafone get their staff to say that, don’t you think. More than ‘very poor’, it’s downright misleading and they shouldn’t do it. Don’t you agree?

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Adam,
          Definitely agreed that they shouldn’t be saying this – probably a combination of poor staff training and them trying to pressure sell you a contract over the phone. Anyhow, you can rest assured you’re getting the same Vodafone service even when buying the contract elsewhere!

  24. Austin said:

    Hi Ken,
    Can you give me some advise, I would like to get a smart phone from TalkTalk who use Vodafone.
    I need the phone for London and Eastbourne, I know vodafone are OK in London but have heard their reception is poor indoors in Eastbourne, have you any info on this?
    I have been told that O2 would be better, what do you think?
    Thanks Austin.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Austin,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I can’t say anything about the coverage in Eastbourne (the people living locally would probably be the best ones to ask). In the first instance, I would definitely use Talkmobile’s online coverage checker. This will tell you whether indoor/outdoor coverage should theoretically be available at home, work, etc.
      In reality, your actual coverage may differ from this map (e.g. due to buildings, trees, obstructions, etc). For this reason, it’s always a good idea to first try the signal out directly in your phone. You can order a free SIM card from the network you’d like to trial (I’d probably go for Vodafone Pay As You Go in this case). Stick the free SIM in your existing unlocked smartphone and count the number of bars you get on the network. If the coverage looks OK then you should be good to sign up on Talkmobile!

  25. Dave La said:

    Thanks for some really useful information and comparisons especially on pay-as-you-go which well-known price comparison web sites don’t seem to cover.

    I think it is worth emphasising that impressive network coverage figures like 98% and 99% are percentage of the population, not percentage of the land area which is very different, so it is worth checking the coverage maps.

    A network that only supports 3G/4G may be OK in towns and cities but if like me you like to visit rural areas at weekends or on holiday then you will find substantial gaps in coverage for 3G/4G only networks. In that case, you will probably want to choose a network that also provides 2G as a backup in areas with no 3G coverage.

    As you can see from the table above, there is one network that doesn’t provide any 2G service so that would be one to avoid if you are likely to venture outside the more densely populated areas.

    1. Martha replied:

      3 does actually have some 2G coverage via a roaming agreement with EE.

      It has been turned off in areas of 3G/4G coverage and is limited to voice/text but works seamlessly from a customer’s point of view.

      1. Ken Lo
        Ken replied:

        Hi Martha,
        Thanks for the heads up on this! As you say, Three used to have a 2G roaming agreement with Orange. They began turning this off in 2011. I’m not sure how much 2G coverage is still available on Three but I’m willing to assume incredibly little. Anyone trying to use a 2G-only handset on Three will probably find their phone unable to pick up a signal.

  26. Andy D said:

    I spoke with vodafone as my contract is up and I am moving to Phone Coop which uses EE

    Before giving me my PAC code, the salesman told me that the virtual networks typically only have access to 25 %, or maybe he meant 25 % of the capacity.

    What do you make of this? Is my coverage likely to be that poor? Or is this misleading sales patter?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Andy,
      Thanks for your comment. You raise a really good point – virtual network operators such as the Co-Op mobile will lease their capacity from one of the network providers (EE in this case). There has been some talk about variable service quality – for instance see the comments here and here. In terms of what the salesman has told you, it’s highly likely the statistic was made up. I’ve not yet seen any concrete figures about how much priority is actually assigned to each virtual network operator (I suspect this will differ depending on the network and will only be specified in the confidential agreement between the virtual network and the underlying network provider). My feeling is it’s probably nothing to worry about and the suggestion of 25% capacity is probably a lot of nonsense.
      Hope this helps!

      1. Martha replied:

        MVNOs do get lower priority on the network than the MNOs

        E.G. O2s Hierarchy

        1st priority are O2 Business and Contract.
        2nd priority are O2 Prepay and Tesco Mobile.
        3rd priority are Giff Gaff, MVNOs and international roamers.

        It’s obviously more noticeable in congested areas and in the lower capacity bands such as 800/900 MHz

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Martha,
          Thanks for your comment. I’ve read rumours online about this type of prioritisation but never seen anything confirmed (either in terms on a detailed independent study or an official statement from O2). Do you have any resources to this effect? I’d really love to see a detailed study (this is something the guys at OpenSignal or RootMetrics should definitely look into!) so I could update the advice given in this article.

  27. Rob said:

    Hi is anyone else experiencing the Three sim activation failure syndrome, their stock answer from customer services and technical departments is “you have to wait another 24 hours” 4 days now met 18 other customers in their shop today according to their staff over 7,000 customers are affected and the issue may take weeks to rectify, you can not even move your number or cancel your contract as when you ring the cancellation line you are let on hold tried 4 times each time left for up to an hour and no answer, how can such a majo failure go unpublised? Ironicall Three have illuminated displays in their shops rubbishing the other providers bad customer relations as reasons why peole moved over to Three yet they themselves are selling phones with sim cards they know they can not activate pot calling kettle springs to mind.

    just in case antone is having a problem try emailing or ringing 01628 765000 and asking for either Mr. Cocker or Mr. Reilly

  28. morgan said:

    Thanks for article. Where can I get a full list of MVNOs and providers. Shouldn’t ofcom hold an up to date list of MVNO’s and their actual network providers ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Morgan,
      Thanks for your comment. I’d recommend having a look at the MVNO Dynamics site for a more comprehensive list of MVNOs. Do be aware that not all of the MVNOs are active, some are really small and many don’t sell directly to UK consumers.
      I’m sure Ofcom must also maintain a list of licensees but I’m not aware of this being available online.

  29. patsy chapman said:

    very informative for someone about to get their first smartphone

  30. Brian said:

    This is a great article but I still can’t get to the bottom of whether MVNO’s have the SAME service level as the native operators. Are they treated the same when cells are busy or do they get lower priority and suffer higher drop rates? Is there any evidence of Data throttling for the MVNOs? There is very little transparency on this as far as I can see and I haven’t found a definitive statement anywhere!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your comment and you raise a really interesting point! The coverage should always be the same on a MVNO and the underlying network provider. This, however, doesn’t mean the level of service will always be the same (i.e. you can have the same coverage but speeds could be lower). Each MVNO can implement their own policies on the quality of service and how traffic is prioritised. As an example of this, see my article on traffic management policies and how they differ for each UK network.
      Unfortunately, there’s no public data regarding the quality of service and which customers will receive priority over others. The exact details are likely to be defined in the confidential agreements between each MVNO and the underlying network provider. It’ll also be a function of how each MVNO manages the traffic internally on their network. The answer to your question could be different depending on the MVNO (and all such evidence would be somewhat anecdotal).
      I’m aware there have been discussions regarding traffic priority on giffgaff and O2. Several people have suggested that customers on O2 often get priority (e.g. here). That said, I’m not sure if the question has ever been answered officially.

    2. Mick best replied:

      I have just left giffgaff today due to very poor data speeds 3g/4g.
      Throttling from the main operator (in this case o2).
      Definitely goes on but you can’t get a straight answer from either network.
      I’ve tried eventually being given an email address for Telefonica.
      O2’s parent company.
      And the response from them was as clear as mud.
      Yes data and calls can drop out at busy times and it’s something you’ll have to live with if your going to a network that essentially piggybacks on another network.
      So BT mobile here I come

  31. andy said:

    Hi just wondering if you know what operators and MVNOs have uk call centres, due to accent,
    getting point over and quality of call thanks Andy

  32. Derek said:

    I’m a member of giffgaff and found this thread very helpful in deed. I’ll probably be linking to it on the giffgaff forums so expect some more traffic.

  33. Joythi said:

    Hi Ken, Thanks for the articles
    you made greatful contents!! amazing 🙂
    I have a question about MVNO
    Could we know how many MVNO in UK?
    17 operators in the table except main operators are total MVNO?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Joythi,
      You’re right… in the UK, all of the mobile networks are MVNOs except from EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. I’m not sure about a complete list of MVNOs… the list I’ve provided is far from comprehensive (it only covers the largest consumer MVNOs). There’s also lots of business and specialist MVNOs. The PrepaidMVNO website has a list of 90 UK MVNOs. I’m not sure how many are current – it’s possible that some of them aren’t currently trading or selling to consumers so do double-check the reliability of the list!

  34. Michael said:

    Thanks for the article! 🙂 This is a extremely useful site for those looking at Virtual operators and how to assess coverage and quality in the UK.

    I am finding that some of the Virtual operators have ‘variable’ quality in that some of them only use the spare capacity of their host network and perhaps at a lower priority 🙁 therefore, experience a lot of ‘drop-outs’ during a calls no matter where called from.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks! You make a really interesting point… When mobile masts are congested (i.e. when there is abnormally high traffic), I guess there would be some kind of system prioritising different types of user (e.g. business customers get priority over normal consumers). I’m not sure if there’s any specific data on how traffic is prioritised and which MVNOs receive priority over others. If any other readers have a thought on this issue or some real-world data which illustrates this happening, I’d be really interested in hearing about it!

      That said, if your local mast has plenty of spare capacity (as it should under normal circumstances) then there’s unlikely to be a difference between MVNO service quality.


      1. David Thompson replied:

        Hi Ken
        Interesting comments re MVNO receiving priority. I’m on TalkTalk mobile which piggybacks on Vodafone. I live in a small rural village and I suspected that Vodafone were squeezing TalkTalk and prioritising their own customers because my data signal has virtually disappeared over the past few months (although voice signal is good). However on checking with a different handset which uses Vodafone, and testing signal strength with the OpenSignal Android app which is installed on both the TalkTalk and Vodafone handsets, the data signal is identical (i.e. practically zero). I have a tracker installed on my handset which was a Godsend a year ago when I dropped it in a remote location, and I managed to locate it from my PC. Now it no longer works reliably where there is a poor signal.
        Maybe it’s time for a move away to EE…!

  35. Adrian said:

    The network coverage may exist (in theory) but network availability is another matter. Having toured the UK extensively including Wales and Scotland there are so many places where there is no Vodafone coverage and 3G is like vapourware. I have to use a Sure Signal box at home to get a signal, even that is not perfect. I am not picking on Vodafone they are my provider of choice the others seem no better. Cross the channel and there is a strong 5 bar signal and plenty of capacity everywhere.
    Am I the only one to feel this way?


  36. Len Cooper said:

    This is a great web site as Ive searched for ages to discover a reason that my mobile phone fails often to receive incoming calls with a Tesco Sim – I have seen here that the Tesco Network is Virtual – When I use my phone on Orange now EE I have no problems and The EE Network is real and giving me a more reliable connection. It may well be that other users in different locations and using different mobiles of course can get different results but I will be sticking to main and real networks in future. My reason for using Tesco in the first place was the reasonable price of the calls, however as my business depends on my answering calls quickly then price is not relevant against quality of service. Well done for this most informative site please keep it up to date as some of us out here want to learn or need to learn ……

  37. lee said:

    orange and T-Mobile have had native 3g cross native network (it picks the best signal now) now for last 3 months please correct your list

    apart from that list is very good

  38. karl said:

    hey ken this website is great but ive had a problem with talk mobile where they wont let me change my number , they say i had to use it a point of sale and beacuse there a virtual proivder cant change the number afterwards.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Karl,

      I'm not sure it is true that MVNOs cannot change the number afterwards: for example giffgaff do this all the time. Though perhaps there is a limitation on the Talkmobile system? I'm afraid I can't really advise beyond what Talkmobile customer services can tell you, sorry 🙁


  39. jadam said:

    Hiya, great site, very small correction Lebara uses Vodafone same as Asda

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Right you are – thanks! I've updated the article.


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