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

Mobile phone coverage is provided by mastsIf 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 can include missed phone calls, delayed text 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 seems like a daunting challenge to find the mobile network offering the best coverage in your area. This is because there are about 30 different brands of mobile network to choose from in the UK. In reality, however, things are much simpler 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 we’ll present some apps & accessories for improving your coverage.

Check & Compare Mobile Coverage

UK Mobile Coverage is provided by four providersIn 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 (or 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 the 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 checker.

Mobile Network BrandCoverage Provider2G3G4GCoverage Checker
1pMobileEECheck 1pMobile Coverage
ASDA MobileEECheck ASDA Mobile Coverage
BT MobileEECheck BT Mobile Coverage
C4C MobileO2Check C4C Mobile Coverage
Co-operative MobileEECheck Co-operative Mobile Coverage
Delight MobileEECheck Delight Mobile 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
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.

On the online coverage map, it’s worth checking all of the places where you might regularly spend some time. So besides your home, you may also want to check the coverage at your school, university, local pub or workplace. Ideally, you’ll 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. You should ideally have good 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.

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, 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 of a building. If your mobile network only promises 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 include building construction materials, your location inside of a building and the proximity of other nearby buildings. For instance, if you’re living in a basement flat, your actual indoor coverage could be worse than suggested on 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

RoadWhen studying an online coverage map, you’ll often 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 almost any activity on your smartphone (including online radio, online video and downloads).
  • 4G is the latest generation of mobile technology, with download speeds around 5 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 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 network that supports 2G coverage (2G isn’t offered on Three and on 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 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 reasons (e.g. the materials used to construct your home).

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 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 2017, 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 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 May 2017, EE has 99% population 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.

EE has recently won a 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 but with a much lower price.

All of O2’s MVNOs provide access to both 3G and 4G coverage. As of July 2017, O2 had 97% 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: 97% population coverage (800MHz frequency)

Three

Three (97% coverage)

Three is the UK’s newest network coverage provider, and claims 97% population coverage on their 3G network. As of August 2017, Three also offered 91% population coverage on 4G.

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 one of 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: 97% population coverage (2100MHz frequency)
4G Coverage: 91% population coverage (800MHz & 1800MHz frequencies)

Vodafone

Vodafone (98% coverage)

In the UK, Vodafone provides 98% population coverage. Of this, 96% population coverage is on 3G and 4G (as of May 2017).

As well as providing services directly to the consumer, Vodafone also powers the coverage for Lebara Mobile. TalkTalk Mobile also currently uses coverage from Vodafone, but they are expected to change their coverage provider to O2 very soon.

At present, 4G is only available on the Vodafone-branded service. Vodafone’s MVNOs are restricted to having only 2G and 3G coverage.

Check Coverage on Vodafone & Vodafone MVNOs →

2G Coverage: 98% population coverage (900MHz frequency)
3G Coverage: 96% population coverage (900MHz & 2100MHz frequencies)
4G Coverage: 96% 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 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 may be able to use a smartphone application or a special accessory to improve your coverage at home:

Typically, MVNOs do not provide or support 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).

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) piggyback on capacity from a network coverage provider.

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

MVNOs such as 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 towards 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 over to a low-cost MVNO. You’ll often receive the exact same coverage 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 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 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.
  • 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 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. As of February 2015, Orange and T-Mobile are closed 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 120 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 120 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • 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

  • I was trying to establish whether MVMO provide a poorer signal compared to the underlying network operator as was suggested by my local mobile phone shop. If I went with PlusNet virgin or iD can I expect similar signal strengths compared with EE or O2? My own experience using TalkTalk (Vodafone) is that I now get very poor reception (possibly because they no longer provide new customers with a mobile service, preferring you to use O2 instead). Otherwise very informative site, thank you.

    • Hi Adrian,
      Many thanks for your comment and a very good question! On the old TalkTalk Mobile service (which is currently being phased out), you’ll only get 2G and 3G coverage from Vodafone. This potentially explains the difference in coverage, especially as mobile networks have been redeploying some of their existing 2G/3G networks and converting them into 4G networks instead.
      Assuming you’re on a MVNO that supports all types of coverage, the coverage you receive should be exactly the same as on the parent mobile network. There could however be some differences in download speed or quality of service, though this isn’t very easy for us to measure or quantify (it depends on all kinds of different factors like how traffic is prioritised on the network, what the backhaul for that MVNO looks like, local congestion factors, etc).
      Hope this helps!
      Ken

      • So as I suspected…. Thanks for your speedy and informative response, saves so much time trawling through chat rooms that just seem to agree that they have the same problem without any particular explanation as to why the problem exists and what to do about it! I’m off to try iD, hopefully I’ll have 4g coverage as well.

    • Hi Adam,
      Many thanks for the kind feedback! I actually have a number of SIM cards from different mobile networks and use them all a little so I can get an experience of using each network! My main phone at present however is on the EE network.
      Ken

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