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

If you’re choosing a new mobile network, the level and quality of coverage should be the first thing you consider.

If your mobile network has poor coverage, potential problems include missed phone calls, delayed messages and web pages failing to load. It can also result in substantially poorer battery life as your handset will need to work harder to maintain a connection.

At first glance, it may seem like a daunting challenge to find the mobile network offering the best coverage in your area. This is because there are more than 30 mobile network brands to choose from in the UK. In reality, however, things are much simpler to compare as all of the 30 different mobile networks use one of four underlying coverage providers.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about mobile coverage in the UK. We’ll start by showing 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 compare coverage on different networks. Finally, we’ll discuss the factors that can influence your coverage and will present some apps & accessories for improving your coverage.

Check & Compare Mobile Coverage

In the UK, only four companies hold a license to build and maintain their own mobile network infrastructure. These companies are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. They each license some spectrum from the Government and build their own network of mobile phone masts to cover the country.

In addition to the four network coverage providers, there are a large number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs for short). MVNOs do not maintain their own mobile network infrastructure: instead, they piggyback on infrastructure from one of the four coverage providers. As a result, the signal and coverage you receive on a MVNO is exactly the same as coverage on the underlying provider.

There are many examples of MVNOs in the UK. For instance, BT Mobile is a MVNO using the EE network and giffgaff is a MVNO using the O2 network. Although you might receive a BT Mobile or giffgaff branded service, the underlying coverage will still be coming from either EE or O2.

Table: UK Mobile Networks & Actual Coverage Provider

In the table below, we’ve provided a list of UK mobile networks. For each mobile network, we’ve shown the underlying coverage provider and the types of coverage available on that network. You can click on the relevant link for each network to access an online coverage map and coverage checker.

Mobile Network BrandCoverage Provider2G3G4GCoverage Checker
1pMobileEECheck 1pMobile Coverage
ASDA MobileEECheck ASDA Mobile Coverage
BT MobileEECheck BT Mobile Coverage
C4C MobileO2Check C4C Mobile Coverage
CMLinkEECheck CMLink Coverage
Co-operative MobileEECheck Co-operative Mobile Coverage
CTExcelEECheck CTExcel Coverage
CUniqO2Check CUniq Coverage
EEEECheck EE Coverage
FreedomPopThree*Check FreedomPop Coverage
giffgaffO2Check giffgaff Coverage
iD MobileThreeCheck iD Mobile Coverage
IQ MobileEECheck IQ Mobile Coverage
Lebara MobileVodafoneCheck Lebara Mobile Coverage
LycamobileO2Check Lycamobile Coverage
O2O2Check O2 Coverage
OrangeEECheck Orange Coverage
Plusnet MobileEECheck Plusnet Mobile Coverage
ROK MobileThreeCheck ROK Mobile Coverage
RWG MobileThreeCheck RWG Mobile Coverage
Sky MobileO2Check Sky Mobile Coverage
SmartyThreeCheck Smarty Coverage
Superdrug MobileThreeCheck Superdrug Mobile Coverage
T-MobileEECheck T-Mobile Coverage
TalkmobileVodafoneCheck Talkmobile Coverage
TalkTalk MobileVodafone**Check TalkTalk Mobile Coverage
Tesco MobileO2Check Tesco Mobile Coverage
ThreeThreeCheck Three Coverage
TPO MobileThreeCheck TPO Mobile Coverage
Utility WarehouseEECheck Utility Warehouse Coverage
Vectone MobileEECheck Vectone Mobile Coverage
Virgin MobileEECheck Virgin Mobile Coverage
VodafoneVodafoneCheck Vodafone Coverage
VOXIVodafoneCheck VOXI Coverage

* FreedomPop uses the mobile data connection for calling and texting. This means the coverage and service reliability is more limited compared to other networks using Three.
** TalkTalk Mobile closed to new customers in April 2017. TalkTalk home broadband customers are now offered a discounted contract from O2.

The mobile networks highlighted in bold maintain their own mobile network infrastructure. All other mobile networks are considered to be MVNOs, piggybacking on the coverage provider listed.

How To Assess Mobile Coverage

The first step in assessing mobile coverage is to use the relevant online coverage map applicable to your mobile network. You can use the table above to find the relevant coverage map for mobile networks you’re thinking of joining.

When you’re on the online coverage map, it’s worth checking all of the places where you might regularly spend some time. So besides your home address, you may also want to check the coverage at your school, university, local pub or workplace. You should ideally be looking for a mobile network that provides you with good coverage in all of these places.

Finally, it’s worth spending a little bit of time to review the types of coverage available. For a smooth experience, you should have indoor coverage and if you’re a smartphone user, this should be either 3G or 4G coverage. If you’re using a basic handset without smartphone capabilities, it may be necessary to have 2G coverage from your network.

Indoor & Outdoor Coverage

If possible, you should choose a mobile network that offers you both indoor and outdoor coverage. This is vital if you want to use your phone inside a building. If your mobile network only claims to offer outdoor coverage, we’d recommend staying clear as you’re likely to have a poor experience.

Please be aware that actual indoor coverage depends on a number of factors that are not always considered by online coverage maps. Factors affecting your indoor coverage can include building construction materials, insulation, your location inside the building and the proximity of other nearby buildings. For instance, if you’re living in a basement flat, your actual indoor coverage may be worse than suggested in online maps. If you have reason to believe this might be the case, you can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card to test out your coverage.

If you’re struggling to find a mobile network with good indoor coverage, consider using one of the apps or accessories listed here to improve it.

2G, 3G & 4G Coverage

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

  • 2G is the oldest type of mobile network still in use today. It’s mainly designed for calling and texting, but you can also use it to browse the internet at dial-up speeds.
  • 3G (recommended minimum) is the basic level of coverage expected on mobile networks today. It allows you to call, text and browse the internet on your smartphone. A good 3G connection should provide broadband-level speeds and should be fast enough for most activities on your smartphone (including online radio, online video and downloading).
  • 4G is the latest generation of mobile technology, with download speeds around 5 to 10 times faster than 3G. While it isn’t necessary for a good smartphone experience, you’ll find it a lot zippier and smoother when using 4G instead of 3G.

Where possible, we’d strongly recommend choosing a mobile network with either 3G or 4G coverage. On basic handsets without smartphone functionality, it may be necessary to choose a mobile network that supports 2G coverage (available on all networks, except Three and Three’s MVNOs).

Real World Experimentation

SIM Cards Stacked
You can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card to test the coverage on each provider.

Finally, it’s worth noting that online coverage maps only provide a computer-generated prediction of what the coverage will be like in your area. This prediction is based solely on geography and the location of phone masts. However, as previously discussed, actual real-world coverage may differ due to other factors (e.g. building construction materials).

Before signing up to a lengthy 24-month contract, it may be worthwhile carrying out a real-world experiment on coverage. For instance, ask people living in your household about their experience of using a certain network coverage provider. Is their mobile service normally reliable at home? Do they ever experience any problems with indoor coverage?

A further way to test this out is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from the mobile network you’re planning to join (or you can get a free SIM card from any mobile network sharing the same coverage provider). You can insert the free SIM card into any unlocked smartphone to test the level of coverage. How many bars of signal are you able to get on that mobile network? Are you able to use it indoors without any problems?

Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK

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

EE

EE (99% coverage)

EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. Formed from the merger of Orange and T-Mobile in 2010, the company became a part of the BT Group in 2016. As of 2018, EE offers high-speed 4G coverage directly to consumers through the BT Mobile and EE brands.

A number of MVNOs use coverage from EE: notably ASDA Mobile, 1p Mobile, Plusnet Mobile (also owned by BT) and Virgin Mobile. Most MVNOs offer access to both 3G and 4G coverage, but a number are restricted to offering just 3G coverage.

As of 2018, EE has 99% population coverage and 90% geographical coverage for 4G internet. This is the widest 4G coverage of any UK mobile network. Double-speed 4G coverage currently stands at 80% and 4G+ coverage is available to customers in London.

In 2015, EE won a government contract to provide the UK’s emergency services network. As such, EE is investing heavily in improving rural coverage. Their 4G network is therefore expected to cover 95% of the UK’s landmass by 2020.

Check Coverage on EE & EE MVNOs →

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

O2

O2 (99% coverage)

O2 provides a mobile service through their own branded network. They also power the underlying coverage for MVNOs like giffgaff, Lycamobile, Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile.

In general, we’d recommend giffgaff as a better value way of accessing coverage from O2 at a lower price.

All of O2’s MVNOs provide access to both 3G and 4G coverage. As of 2018, O2 had 99% population coverage on 4G.

Check Coverage on O2 & O2 MVNOs →

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

Three

Three (99% coverage)

Three is the UK’s newest network coverage provider. As of 2018, they claim to have 98.3% population coverage on 3G and 99.8% population coverage on 4G.

MVNOs using coverage from Three include iD Mobile from the Carphone Warehouse, SMARTY (a sub-brand of Three) and Superdrug Mobile.

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

It’s worth noting that Three doesn’t provide any 2G coverage. For this reason, it’s not possible to use a 2G-only handset on Three or on Three’s MVNOs. For customers using their phone in a rural area, it may be advisable to instead choose a rival mobile network with coverage from either EE, O2 or Vodafone.

Check Coverage on Three & Three MVNOs →

2G Coverage: Not available: you’ll need a 3G handset.
3G Coverage: 98% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage: 99% population coverage (800MHz & 1800MHz frequencies)

Vodafone

Vodafone (98% coverage)

In the UK, Vodafone provides 98% population coverage. Of this, 97% population coverage is on 4G.

As well as providing services to the consumer directly through their core brand, Vodafone operates a youth orientated sub-brand called VOXI (available to under-30s only). They also provide the underlying coverage for Lebara Mobile.

Check Coverage on Vodafone & Vodafone MVNOs →

2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage: 96% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage: 97% population coverage (800MHz & 2600MHz frequencies)

Apps & Accessories for Better Indoor Coverage

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

In the first case, we strongly recommend following the instructions above to find the mobile network that offers the best coverage in your area. In some cases, however, this won’t be possible (for instance, 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:

Most lower-cost MVNOs do not apps and accessories for better indoor coverage.

About MVNOs

  • ASDA Mobile
  • BT Mobile
  • giffgaff
  • iD Mobile
  • Plusnet Mobile
  • Sky Mobile
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Virgin Mobile

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

The UK has just four network coverage providers: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. These coverage providers manage all of the fixed network infrastructure (including the required licenses and the network of mobile phone masts).

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) piggyback on capacity from a network coverage provider. These MVNOs include BT Mobile, giffgaff and iD Mobile, provide a mobile service on top of the coverage provider’s infrastructure. The underlying coverage will come from the network coverage 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 coverage provider. This is a common technique for targeting different groups of customers. For instance, giffgaff is a subsidiary of O2 targeted at younger and more price-conscious consumers. Lower prices can be offered on a sub-brand without cannibalising the revenues made on the core brand.

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

Historical Information

The information in the table above shows the current line-up of UK virtual network operators. In the past, MVNOs have sometimes changed their underlying coverage provider. 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 current BT Mobile service launched to consumers in March 2015 using EE’s mobile network. Prior to this, BT had a business-only mobile service which operated on Vodafone until summer 2014.
  • Delight Mobile. From July 2011 to July 2018, Delight Mobile offered coverage from EE. In July 2018, the service closed down with customers being transferred to Vectone Mobile.
  • Family Mobile. Family Mobile (originally from IKEA and then from Coms Mobile) previously used coverage from EE. The service closed in August 2015.
  • LIFE Mobile. In November 2016, customers on LIFE Mobile transitioned to Plusnet Mobile. Customers who originally signed up for a LIFE Mobile plan were moved over to the Plusnet Mobile service.
  • Lycamobile. In 2010, Lycamobile switched to using the O2 network. Prior to this, Lycamobile used the Orange network.
  • Mobile by Sainsbury’s. From July 2013 to January 2016, Sainsbury’s had an own-brand mobile network using coverage from Vodafone.
  • Orange & T-Mobile. In October 2011, Orange and T-Mobile merged their network operations under the EE brand. The combined networks of Orange and T-Mobile became the 2G and 3G network of EE. In addition, EE launched a 4G network under their own brand but this wasn’t made available to customers on Orange or T-Mobile. In February 2015, Orange and T-Mobile closed their service to new customers.
  • OVIVO Mobile. OVIVO Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service closed on March 19th 2014.
  • Post Office Mobile. The Post Office Mobile previously used coverage from EE. The service was closed in August 2016.
  • TalkTalk Mobile. TalkTalk Mobile previously used coverage from Vodafone. The service was closed to new customers in April 2017. Customers of TalkTalk home broadband are now offered a discounted contract from O2.
  • Tello. Tello previously used coverage from Three. The service was closed in January 2018.
  • TPO Mobile. In July 2016, TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) changed their network coverage provider from EE to Three.

Your Comments 125 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 125 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • Stephen White said:

    Hi Ken,
    Is there anway you can provide a list of supplier’s roaming coverage? I’ve discovered the hard way that even though Plusnet give pricing for roaming in Tanzania and Kenya, for example, they have no agreement with a local supplier in either country. In other words, a Plusnet sim card won’t work in either of those countries. Not very good when you’re there and discover you phone doesn’t work.
    I know they piggyback off EE (which may have coverage in those countries) but they are of course only the provider for the UK, not abroad. Each supplier has to negotiate their own deals abroad.
    Consequently I’m having to move from Plusnet and when I ask the ‘which countries’ question of potential suppliers, they reply ‘everywhere’. Just not correct I’m afraid.

    • Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a definitive list of roaming suppliers for each mobile network – it often changes due to commercials or other related factors. Some mobile networks publish a list on their website, but most of them no longer do this (with Plusnet falling in to this group). The GSMA website has a list of declared roaming agreements between mobile networks, but I believe this is outdated and doesn’t always reflect the mobile networks you’re actually able to use.
      Your best bet would probably be just to check with the mobile networks directly, and to see whether someone in customer services is able to provide you with a list.
      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!
      Ken

  • Hello Ken,
    Thought you may be interested in this. I am a Tesco Mobile user.
    Did you know that Tesco Mobile users CANNOT call western Canada from the UK (that includes mobiles and landlines) specifically area code 250 which includes parts of Vancouver / Vancouver Island and mainland BC. People calling from area code 250 can call Tesco mobile numbers no problem.
    I have been in touch with Tesco and – eventually – got the answer that it was due to “Tesco not having a Network agreement with Canadian providers”. Actually what they mean is they don’t have a Network agreement with Canadian providers who use the area code 250 because I can call other areas of Canada no problem.
    I find it all a bit odd.

    • Hi Tony,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. This sounds absolutely bizarre, and I’m not sure why it would be the case (I personally don’t really believe the explanation from Tesco Mobile!).
      Ken

      • Hello Ken,
        Thanks for the reply.
        This is the explanation I received from Tesco (after many emails back and forth) thought you might find it interesting.*remember it relates to Canada area code 250.
        “Our Network Team have investigated this for you and the information they have provided is Tesco Mobile are unable to support calls to this area code as this area code is restricted, intercontinental charges are too high as we don’t have arrangement with the service providers in this area”.
        Cheers, Tony.

  • Very cool unbiased info. The big networks don’t want this information to be widely known…..it’ll hurt their bottom line. Wish I’d known about this stuff ten years ago! Thanks

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