In this article, we will be covering what is a MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) and which carriers are the best in terms of coverage, data and overall value.
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You’ve probably heard of the “Big Four” mobile network operators: EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three, but they’re not the only carriers in the UK. There are dozens of other smaller mobile networks, which usually offer prepaid SIM only plans at significantly cheaper prices. These smaller providers are called mobile virtual network operators or in short MVNOs. You probably heard about some of them before, and are perhaps using one right now.
At Half Cooked, we honestly love MVNOs as they usually offer far more flexibility than mobile plans from other major operators, and their prices are significantly lower. However, this is not always the case as there are some exceptions such as BT Mobile and Virgin Mobile which market themselves as more high end.
This article will go into detail about what a mobile virtual network operator is, which UK mobile networks are actually MVNOs, and which ones we think offer the best deals in terms of network coverage, data speeds, prices, value and extra features.
MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. A MVNO piggybacks on a main mobile network operator, because it doesn’t have its own underlying network infrastructure to provide a service to its customers. UK MVNOs don’t own any hardware, they just lease wireless telephone and data spectrum from one of the four UK main networks for resale.
Any UK mobile carrier that isn’t EE, Vodafone, O2 or Three is an MVNO. Even big names such as BT Mobile, Sky Mobile and Virgin Mobile are MVNOs, because they don’t own an underlying infrastructure. MVNOs don’t really hide this fact, but due to them having their own customer services, billing systems and marketing campaigns most mobile users think they have their own networks.
MVNOs offer identical network coverage with their parent networks with the exception of 5G. There are only a few virtual mobile networks offering 5G coverage at the moment. This is due to 5G technology being quite new and it’s not available countrywide, even the main operators can only offer 5G download speeds in certain towns and cities. Also, keep in mind that 4G Calling (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi Calling can improve your network coverage significantly and most MVNOs don’t get access to these two features while all four main networks offer them to their customers.
In most cases, download and upload speeds are also identical between the parent network and the MVNO, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, BT Mobile’s 4G download speeds are capped at 60Mbps, unless you purchase their Extra Speed 4G add-on. Two of Vodafone’s unlimited data plans come with speed caps at 2Mbps and 10Mbps. O2 and Three don’t enforce any speed restrictions to their MVNOs.
Now that we know the basics of mobile virtual network operators, we can dive deeper and see which main network is used by which MVNO. The list below shows some of the most popular active UK mobile virtual network operators. There are even more MVNOs in the UK, but our list is limited to the ones we actually tested and reviewed for the time being.
|Main Network||MVNO||Review Article|
|BT Mobile||BT Mobile Review|
|Virgin Mobile||Virgin Mobile Review|
|1p Mobile||1p Mobile Review|
|Plusnet Mobile||Plusnet Mobile Review|
|ASDA Mobile||ASDA Mobile Review|
|To The Moon Mobile||TTM Mobile Review|
|Talkmobile||Talk Mobile Review|
|Lebara Mobile||Lebara Mobile Review|
|Sky Mobile||Sky Mobile Review|
|Tesco Mobile||Tesco Mobile Review|
|iD Mobile||iD Mobile Review|
|Superdrug Mobile||Superdrug Mobile Review|
|Honest Mobile||Honest Mobile Review|
The best overall virtual network is a hard one to tackle. We are torn between SMARTY and VOXI. Both networks offer contract-free SIM only plans with unlimited UK minutes & texts. On one hand SMARTY’s prices are significantly cheaper and you get a lot more data for your money, plus there’s the added benefit of Wi-Fi Calling and you can get some of your money back if you’re using one of the light data plans. However VOXI’s plans have a number of great features like endless social media, endless video and VOXI 5G is available on selected plans. VOXI and their parent network Vodafone are the only two UK networks offering 5G coverage and data speeds when roaming abroad.
SMARTY is powered by Three, therefore their 4G coverage lacks considerably in comparison to VOXI, which is powered by Vodafone. Having said that, their average 4G data speeds are almost identical. We can’t pick a definitive winner here, if you’re a data hungry mobile user SMARTY is the better choice. VOXI is great if you spend a lot of time on social media and watching YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video etc. You can check out our SMARTY vs VOXI comparison to see which network is more suitable for you.
1p Mobile piggybacks on the EE network, providing the best 4G network coverage and the fastest download speeds to their customers. The carrier has the cheapest pay as you go rates in the UK with 1p for calls, texts and data. We strongly believe 1p Mobile is the best network for light data users. However, the network has a minimum 120 day top-up requirement with at least £10 of credit. If you top-up £30 in one go, you can keep your SIM active for 365 days without ever having to add credit to your account. Failing to add credit in a timely manner will cause your SIM to be deactivated and your number will be deleted.
1p Mobile doesn’t offer 5G, Wi-Fi Calling or 4G Calling. They offer some of the most basic SIM deals on the UK mobile market.
When it comes to unlimited data plans SMARTY is the uncrowned king of the MVNOs. The carrier offers one of the cheapest unlimited data plans on the market, and whenever they make a discount on their unlimited data plan it becomes the cheapest available. There’s a fair usage limit of 1TB data (1000GB), but that’s a lot of data to burn through on a monthly basis, especially on a mobile device.
Networks like iD Mobile and Superdrug Mobile also offer similarly priced unlimited data plans. However, iD Mobile’s unlimited data plan is only available on a 12-month contract. Meanwhile Superdrug Mobile’s unlimited plan doesn’t offer Wi-Fi Calling. All SMARTY customers get Wi-Fi Calling at no extra cost, provided their handset supports the feature.
5G in the UK is growing fast, but only a few MVNOs provide 5G coverage and data speeds at the moment. VOXI is using Vodafone’s 5G network, which is available in 57 cities and towns in the UK, as well as 193 other locations across Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland. VOXI 5G is available on their 15GB, 45GB and unlimited data plans. All VOXI plans have the endless social media feature, but the 15GB and 45GB data plans also come with the endless video perk, which allows you to stream videos on YouTube, Netflix and some other popular platforms without using your data. Combine unlimited video streaming with 5G download speeds and you can watch any video content in 4K resolution without any hiccups.
Alternatively, you can look at deals from Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile and BT Mobile if you want to experience 5G data speeds, but all three networks will ask you to sign up for a long term contract. VOXI’s SIM only deals work on a prepaid basis so you are commitment-free. This means you can switch to another mobile network without having to pay a penalty fee.
Keep in mind that 5G is only available in some cities and towns, and even then it’s not available throughout the whole of the city, only in certain areas.
Virgin Mobile is powered by the EE Network, so they offer the best 4G coverage in the UK alongside other EE powered MVNOs. However, when it comes to 4G download speeds EE enforces a speed cap, and even BT Mobile customers suffer from it unless they purchase the Extra 4G Speed add-on. Virgin Mobile is the only exception, their customers get exactly the same data speeds EE customers do.
Since Virgin Mobile doesn’t have a pay as you go service and doesn’t offer contract-free data bundles, you have to undergo a credit check to join their network. The network offers 12-month and 24-month contracts and they all come with unlimited UK minutes & texts, as well as Wi-Fi Calling. 5G isn’t available at the moment and probably won’t be offered until the network switches to O2. Virgin’s family mobile plans are also worth checking out, but sadly, you must be an existing Virgin Media customer to benefit from their special discounts.
We think BT Mobile’s family plans are the best, because you can save up to 20% on extra SIMs and if you’re a BT Broadband customer you’ll get an additional £5 discount on each SIM. If you’re also a BT Halo customer you’ll get double data. Since BT Mobile makes full use of EE’s unrivalled underlying infrastructure, you’ll be able to reach your loved ones almost anywhere in the UK. You can get a maximum of five SIMs per family plan.
Having said all of that, you can only join BT Mobile after passing their credit check and you’ll have to sign up for a long term contract. While you can change your plan once a month, all family members must be on the same price plan. It’s a big minus as different members of the family have different data requirements, but we still think this is the best deal on the market.
SMARTY also deserves an honorable mention here. Their family/group SIM plans get you a straight up 10% discount on extra SIMs and you can add 9 more SIMs per one main plan.
Student life in the UK can be expensive and it’s highly unlikely a student has credit history. This means students usually prefer no credit check SIM only deals. According to most recents reports published by Three, EE and Open Signal; younger people tend to burn through considerably more mobile data than older mobile users.
SMARTY offers contract-free student SIM only deals and you get a large amount of data for cheap prices. Their SIM deals offer great value and you can even get an extra 10% discount, if you join a family/group plan.
The best UK mobile network for free streaming and social media is VOXI, hands down, there’s no competition here. Endless social media is included in all VOXI plans.VOXI customers can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Pinterest and Facebook Messenger data-free. More expensive VOXI plans also include endless video, which allows you to stream videos on YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, My5, tvP and UKTV Play without burning through your data.
There’s also an Endless Music add-on offering data-free usage on Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Deezer, Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, SoundCloud and Napster. However, this isn’t included in any plans, you have to purchase the add-on separately.
Combine these with the network’s superfast 5G and 4G download speeds and you’re good to go.
Mobile virtual network operators in the UK aren’t the best when it comes to international roaming. Almost all of them offer the same deal; free roaming in the EU and EEA countries. The only MVNO that stands out in this regard is iD Mobile, but don’t expect something like Three Go Roam or O2 Travel Inclusive.
Although the network is powered by Three, you only get four more extra destinations (Band 2) to use your UK allowances in. These are Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.
iD Mobile is our winner here, but we don’t really recommend it unless you’re specifically travelling to one of these four destinations.
Lebara Mobile is one of the best UK mobile networks for making international calls, if not the best. Of course, some operators may have better rates for some specific countries, but overall Lebara Mobile is on the top of the list, closely followed by their rivals in this regard, Lycamobile.
The network offers main price plans include unlimited international minutes to 41 different countries. All Lebara Mobile SIM plans are contract-free and work on a prepaid basis.
BT Mobile makes yet another appearance in this article. The EE powered MVNO offers the best free Wi-Fi service in the UK, but they’re closely followed by Virgin Mobile. Both networks offer millions of free Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK and the world. However, based on the service they provide in the country, BT Mobile is a little ahead of Virgin Media.
We’d like to remind you that both BT Mobile and Virgin Mobile are only offering pay monthly, long term contracts at the moment. This means you will have to undergo a credit check.
Yes, all MVNOs piggyback on a network with underlying infrastructure and they provide identical coverage with their provider. However, not all MVNOs offer 5G yet and it will be some time before 5G becomes standard.
In most cases yes. Having said that, some major networks like EE provide limited 4G download speeds to their MVNOs, but EE’s capped data speeds are faster than other networks’ uncapped speeds. You should be good either way.
It can be hard finding the right tariff for you at first. We normally recommend data plans with a few GBs of allowance for light mobile users. If you’re not going to be using your mobile data that often (like once every few days for checking your emails) you may want to check out traditional pay as you go SIMs.
MVNOs don’t hide their parent network. You can check out the table above, at the start of this article or check out your MVNOs official website to find out who provides coverage to your MVNO. Even a simple Google search should tell you the answer though.