4G Networks in the UK

The UK has a range of 4G network providers, with most offering a mix of pay monthly, pay as you go and sim only deals.  Customers can take a phone deal which includes a 4G mobile, and then use the 4G connectivity to enjoy faster downloading when not connected to Wi-Fi.

4G is the next step up from 3G, and whilst 3G does provide quick speeds, the increase with 4G makes a significant difference.

You can compare phone deals from UK networks to see what’s available, and check out the various offers on 4G phones and tablets.

4G UK Speed: How fast is 4G?

When you browse the web and use social media you are always either downloading or uploading.  When a page loads on your phone you have downloaded that information, just as when you buy a song from iTunes you have downloaded that as well.

When you post a photo to Facebook you are uploading, but the majority of what you do online will involve downloading.  In most cases you’ll find your download speed is much faster than your upload speed, but this is fine because the latter is likely to be a lot less important to you.

4G download speeds in the UK can theoretically reach 150Mbps, with uploads up to 50Mbps.  When you consider that a number of home broadband providers in the UK offer a maximum of 76Mbps, that makes 4G look like extremely fast, but real-world usage is going to differ from theoretical.  There are external factors, like location and local web traffic that affect the speed of 4G on your phone or tablet.

With these factors in mind, your 4G download speed could reach 20Mbps, with upload speed of 10Mbps, but this is still fast and ideal for streaming video, posting photos and downloading songs.

4G Phone Deals

The vast majority of smartphones available on the market will be 4G-ready; in fact, any phone that can’t use the 4G network would be a budget model with basic functions, designed to be low-cost and practical.

A smartphone is a 4G-ready phone, and so the deals and offers you see on anything mid-range to high-end would involve access to a 4G network.  That’s as long as your chosen network also offers 4G, and in the UK that is pretty much a given.

You can choose different 4G deals from UK networks, with tariffs offering varying allowances for calls, texts and data.

4G Pay Monthly

The 4G Pay Monthly deals from UK networks involve a contract, with a minimum term and monthly allowances.  You’ll get calls, texts and data to use on the 4G network, whilst contract length can be anything from 12 months to 24.

You’ll get a new smartphone or tablet for free, or at a reduced upfront cost, and then the price you pay each month includes both your tariff fee and the cost of the phone.  Capacity to access the fast UK 4G network comes as standard with the smartphone, as long as it’s built 4G-ready, which it should be.

You can then use your monthly data allowance to get online when you aren’t connected to Wi-Fi.  Some providers will warn you when your data is running out, but a lot of smartphones will also allow you to keep track of data usage yourself.  This leaves it in your hands, and you will be able to keep offline instead of accruing extra charges for usage outside your allowance.

4G SIM Only

SIM Only contracts from 4G networks involve paying for a tariff alone, with no phone included in the deal.  You would need to buy a new phone outright, or use one you currently own.  4G access will depend entirely on whether that phone was built 4G-ready.  Taking a SIM Only contract on a budget phone will not necessarily mean 4G access is available.

SIM Only contracts are usually offered on a 12-month deal, or a 1-month rolling contract.  As with Pay Monthly, you can get calls, texts and data included, renewing each month.

UK 4G Phone Networks: EE

EE 4G network

EE network coverage

The 4G network from EE now covers 75% of UK landmass, with 99% coverage for the population.  The network provider has stated that it is aiming to deliver 4G to 95% of UK landmass by 2020.
It is the biggest 4G network provider, and is investing as much as £1.5 million a day to achieve its 2020 target.  EE’s relentless and unflinching rollout of 4G saw an extra 2% of UK landmass get coverage in December 2016 alone. 

What do EE offer?

You can choose from the very latest smartphones, as well as a range of mid-range releases.  Typically, EE phone deals offer unlimited calls and texts, with varying amounts of monthly data available, from 500MB a month to a whopping 15GB.  EE also offers pay as you go and SIM plans, as well as dedicated data plans ideal as am add-on for your smartphone or tablet.

EE highlights

  • 75% coverage of UK landmass
  • 99% population coverage
  • Biggest 4G network in the UK
  • Free Apple Music for 6 months - pay monthly customers
  • BT Sport app - free for 3 months
  • Massive data plans available

UK 4G Phone Networks: BT Mobile

BT Mobile network coverage

BT Mobile uses the EE network, although that network is now actually owned by BT Group after 2016’s takeover.

As a BT Mobile customer you’ll enjoy the same kind of 4G network overage afforded to EE customers, so that means 99% population coverage and 75% UK landmass coverage.

What do BT Mobile offer?

BT Mobile offers everything from entry-level mobiles to high-end smartphones, although those budget models may not be able to access 4G.

Unsurprisingly, you’ll get the best BT Mobile deals if you are an existing BT Broadband customer, but there’s still plenty on offer for those getting their home broadband elsewhere.

As a BT Mobile customer you’ll also have free unlimited BT Wi-Fi, and that’s at every one of the five million UK hotspots.  Connecting to BT Wi-Fi also means you aren’t using up your data allowance, so it’s a great benefit to have.

BT Mobile highlights

  • 99% population coverage
  • 75% coverage of UK landmass
  • Uses EE’s massive 4G network
  • Free unlimited BT Wi-Fi
  • Optional spending caps
  • Next day delivery available

UK 4G Phone Networks: Vodafone

Vodafone network coverage

As of November 2016, Vodafone’s UK 4G population coverage is above 85%, and the network provider has more than 6.9 million 4G customers.  The aim is to reach 98% population coverage, although no specific date is attached to this.

Vodafone’s network extends overseas as well, with 30 other countries offering Vodafone 4G connectivity.

What do Vodafone offer?

Vodafone has a wide range of tariffs available for pay monthly and SIM only customers, as well as some good offers on pay as you go.  As you’d expect with a major network, the selection of phones is extensive, with everything from top-end to entry-level, across the usual manufacturers.

For new customers, choose a Red Value Bundle, and you can take a NOW TV Entertainment Pass, Spotify Premium or Sky Sports Mobile TV as an additional benefit.

Existing customers can still take advantage of the network’s best deals when purchasing an additional pay monthly device or SIM only bundle.  This is something Vodafone highlights, in order to demonstrate that new business doesn’t get preferential treatment.

Vodafone highlights

  • 4G population coverage above 85%
  • 6.9 million 4G customers
  • 4G as standard
  • Network Satisfaction Guarantee
  • Variety of tariffs, phones, tablets and SIM deals
  • Get NOW TV Entertainment Pass, Spotify Premium or Sky Sports Mobile TV with a Red Value Bundle

UK 4G Phone Networks: O2

O2 4G

O2 network coverage

O2’s network coverage is over 78% of the population for 4G; the network offers standard 4G speed, meaning that it’s typically five times faster than standard 3G.  3G coverage for the provider is 98%, with 2G sitting at 99%.

O2 is aiming to bring 4G to 98% of the indoor population by the end of 2017.

What do O2 offer?

As with all the major network, you can get a mix of Pay Monthly, Pay As You Go and SIM Only deals.  You can buy smartphones and tablets outright, or choose monthly plans, and you can also get hold of accessories directly purchased from their website.

Prices for phones and tablets are competitive, and you can choose from the familiar manufacturers.

You get plenty of choice in terms of data, with anything from 1GB to 3GB available, as well as the option for unlimited calls and texts.

O2 highlights

  • Wide range of tariffs, smartphones and tablets
  • Over 78% population coverage for 4G
  • 98% coverage for 3G
  • O2 Refresh - halve your bill when you pay off your device cost, and upgrade your smartphone whenever you like
  • Trade in your device with O2 Recycle
  • Free next day delivery if you order by midnight (selected areas)

UK 4G Phone Networks: giffgaff

giffgaff network coverage

When using giffgaff you are actually piggybacking the O2 network, so you can expect the same 4G coverage.  That means 4G coverage for over 78% of the UK population, with 98% targeted, whilst 3G coverage is up at 98%

Operating on the 800 MHz frequency band, giffgaff 4G proves good over long distances and through walls.  However, the downside of this frequency is that it can be affected negatively in densely occupied spaces, where a number of connection are happening at the same time. 

What do giffgaff offer?

Flexibility is a focal point for giffgaff, with the absence of long-term contracts providing plenty of appeal for customers.  Flexible plans and unlocked phones have seen giffgaff gain serious traction in the market, and its softer, customer-focused approach is clearly working.  

You won’t find the widest range of phones, but the big-hitters feature, with most flagships and top-end phones available.  You’ll also find a mix of mid-range releases, along with SIM only plans that maintain the flexible theme.

giffgaff highlights

  • Uses O2’s network
  • 4G coverage for over 78% of population
  • 3G coverage at 98%
  • All phones are unlocked
  • Free next day delivery on orders before 10pm
  • Flexible plans and payment options, with no contracts
  • Get goodybags loaded with calls, texts and data

UK 4G Phone Networks: Three

Three network coverage

Although late to the UK 4G party, Three has got up to around 65% population coverage for its own fast 4G service.  There’s also 97% coverage for 3G, whilst 2G is absent entirely from the network.

The network is somewhat renowned for better coverage around cities, with rural areas suffering, but this is becoming less of a factor as its roll-out continues.  The aim for Three is to reach 98% population coverage for 4G.

What do Three offer?

4G comes as standard with all of Three’s plans, and you can choose tariffs with all-you-can-eat (i.e. unlimited) calls, text and/or data.

Three was the first network to introduce roaming at no extra cost as well.  ‘Feel At Home’ lets you call and text the UK, or make use of your mobile data, from 42 overseas destinations.

Three also lets you block your phone from going over any pre-agreed talk-time allowances, and block numbers on premium rates.

The range of smartphones and tablets is very good, with competitive prices and plenty of choice regarding memory and colour, where possible.

Three highlights

  • 4G comes as standard with all plans
  • Free roaming in 42 destinations worldwide
  • Spending caps – never go over your call allowance
  • Block calling to premium-rate numbers
  • Get unlimited calls, texts and data with ‘all-you-can-eat’
  • Offers available for both new and existing customers
  • Broad range of manufacturers/brands represented

UK 4G Phone Networks: Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile network coverage

Tesco is another one of the virtual network providers, using another network to provide customers with coverage.  In this case, the deal is with O2, so Tesco Mobile customers will get the same kind of coverage as O2 customers.  That’s 4G for over 78% of the UK population, whilst targeting a figure of 98%.

2G and 3G coverage sits at almost 100%, giving customers great options for signal.

What do Tesco Mobile offer?

Tesco Mobile is pretty well stacked when it comes to customer benefits.  You’ve got free delivery via DPD on all pay monthly orders, as well as Family Perks, which give you free monthly extras when your household has more than one Tesco Mobile contract.  These include up to 1GB data every month, or up to 500 extra minutes to any UK network.

Those switching to Tesco Mobile can keep their old number, and there’s the option to trade in your old phone for cash or money off your new contract.

An innovative move by Tesco is to offer money off your contract by agreeing to use the Xtras app and this displays one-page ads.  You essentially agree to a discount by opting in for the ads, and you’ll get an extra 200MB of data to cover what you might use as a result.  You are always free to pause or cancel Xtras, and it won’t use up data when abroad.

Other useful features of Tesco Mobile include capped contracts, so you don’t get higher bills, and 4G at no extra cost.

Tesco Mobile highlights

  • Free delivery with DPD on all pay monthly orders
  • Family perks - free extras for households with more than one contract
  • Keep your old number when switching
  • Trade in your old phone for cash or money off new contract
  • Xtras app - agree to one-page ads for money off your bill
  • Contract capping
  • 4G at no extra cost

UK 4G Phone Networks: Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile network coverage

Virgin Mobile uses EE’s network, so it shares the same 4G coverage.  That means over 97% population coverage, through the biggest 4G network in the country.  The coverage applies to all pay monthly and pay as you go plans.

Assuming that Virgin Mobile maintains its deal with EE, then the latter’s target of 95% landmass coverage for 4G by 2020 would also apply to Virgin Mobile customers.

What do Virgin Mobile offer?

A key selling point for Virgin Mobile is the data rollover, which lets you keep unused data.  It carries over to the next month, and is an extra benefit on all pay monthly and pay as you go plans.

There’s also free messaging on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, as well as the option to change your 4G plan up or down each month.

Customers get free Wi-Fi at over 250,000 UK hotspots, whilst the optional Travel Passes get you good value for overseas phone usage and come at a competitive price.

Virgin Mobile highlights

  • Uses EE’s massive 4G network
  • 98% 4G coverage in the UK
  • Data rollover - keep unused data
  • 4G as standard on all plans
  • Free Wi-Fi at 250,000 hotspots
  • Free messaging on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger

UK 4G Phone Networks: Talkmobile

Talkmobile network coverage

Talkmobile uses Vodafone’s network, so customers should be getting the same coverage.

However, unlike Vodafone, Talkmobile does not offer 4G connectivity yet.  The provider has suggested that once 4G is accessible by all, it will offer the service.

Signal coverage, via Vodafone, is at 99.7%, in terms of UK population.

What do Talkmobile offer?

Talkmobile focuses on low-cost plans, making sure that customers are drawn by the simple but effective appeal of ultra-competitive pricing.

The mix of sim-only and pay monthly options represent great value for money, and you can choose from a good selection of smartphones as well.  The aim is to provide straightforward plans, alongside a streamlined range of phones.

In an unusual move, the newest and most expensive phones are actually absent from Talkmobile’s site.  The network opines that new releases offer little in the way of a progress and improvement, so the more affordable, but older, releases are preferred for sale.

Talkmobile highlights

  • 99.7% call signal coverage
  • Streamlined range of phones
  • Low-cost sim-only and pay monthly plans
  • Straightforward tariffs with no hidden costs
  • Dedicated customer service teams