Coverage should be your top consideration when choosing a new mobile network. Find out how to compare the mobile coverage in your area.
When you’re choosing a new mobile network, the coverage available in your area should be the first thing you consider.
On a mobile network with poor coverage, you would likely have a frustrating experience. Web pages are likely to load slowly on your phone (or not at all) and phone calls are likely to being missed. The battery life on your smartphone will also be worsened by poor coverage.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about mobile coverage in the UK. From how to check and compare coverage across different mobile networks to the key questions you should ask when considering the coverage on a network. We’ll also discuss the UK’s system of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) along with apps and accessories for improving the coverage in your home.
Compare UK Mobile Network Coverage
In the UK, there are currently more than 30 different mobile networks to choose from. Only four companies, however, hold a license to build and maintain their own mobile phone masts (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone). Besides the big four, all other mobile networks piggyback on coverage from one of the four main providers.
Mobile networks that piggyback on someone else for coverage are known as “mobile virtual network operators” (or MVNOs for short). 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 your service is branded as BT Mobile or giffgaff, the underlying coverage will still be coming from 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 network, we’ve shown the underlying coverage provider and also the types of coverage that are available on that network. You can tap the relevant link for each network to see an online coverage map for that network.
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 in the table.
Key Questions To Ask About Coverage
In our opinion, there are six important questions you should ask about coverage when choosing a new mobile network in the UK:
1. Which coverage provider do you use?Firstly, it’s important to determine the coverage provider being used by the mobile network. This will either be EE, O2, Three or Vodafone. The coverage provider used determines lots of other things such as the type and level of coverage available in your area.
You can use the table provided earlier in this page to see the coverage provider for each UK mobile network.
2. Will I have access to 4G coverage or 5G coverage?
Find out whether you’ll be able to access faster forms of coverage like 4G coverage or 5G coverage. Nowadays, most UK mobile networks offer access to 4G coverage and this is a fairly decent baseline for almost all daily usage. Some mobile networks are however still limited to 3G coverage -this will give you slower download speeds and poorer performance.
If you have a 5G-ready phone, a 5G-ready SIM card will allow you to access even faster speeds. Meanwhile, customers with a 2G-only phone or some dual-SIM smartphones should choose a mobile network where they have access to 2G coverage.
3. Do you have coverage in all of the places where I regularly spend time?
Use the coverage map for your mobile network to see whether coverage is available in all of the places where you regularly spend time. For instance, besides simply checking the coverage at your home address, you may also want to check the coverage that’s available at your workplace, university, school or local pub.
4. Is coverage available indoors or only outdoors?
If possible, you should choose a mobile network that claims to offers indoor coverage at the places where you regularly spend time. This means they have enough confidence that the signal is strong enough to be usable inside your home.
Do be aware that actual indoor coverage may differ based on factors not considered by the online maps. For instance, indoor coverage can be affected by building construction materials, wall insulation and proximity of other nearby buildings. It may also differ based on your location inside the building (e.g. coverage is often worse if you’re living in a basement flat).
5. Can I test-drive the coverage before I sign up?
- For mobile networks using coverage from EE, you can test the coverage using a free ASDA Mobile or EE SIM card.
- For mobile networks using coverage from O2, you can test the coverage using a giffgaff or O2 SIM card.
- For mobile networks using coverage from Three, you can test the coverage using a SMARTY or Three SIM card.
- For mobile networks using coverage from Vodafone, you can test the coverage using a VOXI or Vodafone SIM card.
There’s no need to undergo a credit check or to sign a contract when using one of these SIM cards in your phone.
6. How about international coverage?
If you regularly travel abroad, it’s worth checking the international coverage available on your mobile network.
Some mobile networks have inclusive roaming offers for customers to use their mobile phone abroad at no extra charge. These include Three’s Go Roam offer, Vodafone’s Global Roaming service and O2’s Travel plan. Roaming bundles may also be available such as EE’s Roam Further Pass swappable benefit and Sky’s Roaming Passport plan.
Overview of Mobile Coverage in the UK
EE is the UK’s largest mobile network provider. Originally formed out of the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, the company has been part of BT since 2016. EE offers 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G coverage to its own customers, though many MVNO customers are limited to either 3G or 4G coverage.
The following mobile networks use coverage from EE:
3G, 4G & 5G
3G & 4G
- ASDA Mobile
3G & 4G
- BT Mobile
3G, 4G & 5G
3G & 4G
- Co-op Mobile
3G & 4G
3G & 4G
- IQ Mobile
3G & 4G
- Plusnet Mobile
3G & 4G
- RWG Mobile
3G & 4G
- Utility Warehouse
3G & 4G
- Vectone Mobile
- Virgin Mobile
3G & 4G
At the time of writing, EE offers 99% population coverage on 2G, 3G and 4G. 5G coverage has started rolling out to customers in selected areas on EE. EE’s mobile network uses the following bands and frequencies:
|EE Coverage Type||Supported Bands & Frequencies|
3G, 4G & 5G
3G & 4G
3G & 4G
3G & 4G
- Sky Mobile
3G, 4G & 5G
- Tesco Mobile
3G & 4G
The O2 mobile network uses the following bands and frequencies:
|O2 Coverage Type||Supported Bands & Frequencies|
Three’s network uses the following bands and frequencies:
|Three Coverage Type||Supported Bands & Frequencies|
One important thing to note is that Three doesn’t offer any 2G coverage. For this reason, it isn’t possible to use a 2G-only device on Three’s network (or on any other mobile network that uses coverage from Three). Some dual-SIM devices may also not work correctly on Three’s network.
For more information, see our guide to Three’s coverage. We’ve also got an overview of the mobile networks using coverage from Three.
Vodafone was the UK’s first mobile network, having originally launched their first-generation mobile network in 1985. Today, they offer 99% population coverage on 2G, 3G and 4G. 5G coverage has also started rolling out in selected towns and cities across the UK.
Vodafone’s mobile network in the UK makes use of the following bands and frequencies:
|Vodafone Coverage Type||Supported Bands & Frequencies|
Apps & Accessories for Better Indoor Coverage
Where possible, we’d always strongly recommend choosing a mobile network where you’re able to get good indoor coverage.
In some cases, however, it might not always be possible to choose a network with indoor coverage. For instance, you might be tied in to a contract with one network or there might be no mobile networks offering good coverage in your area.
As a solution to this, there might be some apps and accessories you can use to improve your indoor coverage:
- BT Mobile: Customers with a compatible BT Mobile smartphone can use BT’s Wi-Fi Calling service to make and receive phone calls when connected to wi-fi.
- EE: On EE, it might be possible to use wi-fi calling if you have a handset that’s compatible with the service. An EE signal box may also be available to customers lacking a smartphone with Wi-Fi Calling support.
- iD Mobile: iD Mobile offers wi-fi calling to customers who have a compatible smartphone.
- O2: Customers with a compatible handset on O2 can use O2’s Wi-Fi Calling service.
- Sky Mobile: Sky offers wi-fi calling on a limited selection of smartphones.
- Three: On Three, it’s possible to use wi-fi calling on a selection of devices. Alternatively, it may also be possible to request a Home Signal box.
- Vodafone: Vodafone has a wi-fi calling service for compatible smartphones. For anyone using a non-compatible device, it may be possible to buy a 3G Vodafone Sure Signal.
Many lower-cost MVNOs do not support apps and accessories for better indoor coverage. For this reason, it may sometimes be better to choose one of the main mobile networks if you’re in an area with poor coverage.
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 spectrum licenses and the network of physical masts.
Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) piggyback on the infrastructure from one of the four coverage providers. MVNOs include BT Mobile, giffgaff, Sky Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Their underlying coverage comes from the network coverage provider, but things like billing and customer support are handled by the MVNO.
In some cases, MVNOs are either owned or partly-owned by the coverage provider. This is a common technique for targeting different groups of customers. For instance, giffgaff is a low-cost subsidiary of O2 aimed at younger and more price-conscious consumers. Through their sub-brands, mobile networks can offer lower prices without cannibalising the revenues made on their 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, but often at a vastly reduced cost.
The information in the table above shows the current line-up of UK mobile 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.
- FreedomPop. FreedomPop’s UK network previously offered coverage from Three. The service closed in February 2020 and is no longer available.
- 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. Between July 2013 and 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 the 19th March 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 closed in January 2018.
- The People’s Operator. TPO Mobile (The People’s Operator) closed in February 2019. It offered coverage from Three between July 2016 and February 2019, and coverage from EE between November 2012 and July 2016.
- Virgin Mobile. Virgin have announced plans to change their coverage provider from EE to Vodafone. This will take place by 2021 with customers getting access to 5G coverage on Vodafone once the migration has happened.