Best Network For iPhone UK: Performance & Value Compared

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If you’re thinking of buying an iPhone on contract, you’ve got a SIM-free iPhone and want to sign up to a contract, or are nearing the end of a contract and want to go with a different provider, you’ll be wanting to know which network is best for you. This article is the right place to find out.

We go through the various network providers available in the UK and discuss their pros, cons and general performance – you should be able to find the right choice for you in no time. If contract prices are the key factor, however, you may be best served by visiting our guide to the Best iPhone deals.

We also go into more detail about the research and reports we use to determine our verdict for each network further into this article.

Quick links

There’s a lot more to it than this simple list (coverage and speed can vary by region, prices can change depending on deals events etc), but if you’re in a hurry this list might be useful to you:

What networks are there?

In the UK we have four big networks:

There are many further providers, but they all ‘piggyback’ on the infrastructure of one of the above. So EE is piggybacked by BT Mobile, Plusnet and Virgin Mobile; O2 is piggybacked by Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile; Three is piggybacked by iD Mobile and Smarty; and Vodafone is piggybacked by Talk Mobile and VOXI.

This piggybacking arrangement will be relevant when we discuss coverage, speed and reliability because the smaller providers are reliant on the physical infrastructure of their chosen big network, and will be susceptible to the same problems.

1. EE

EE

EE offers excellent coverage, and some plans offer Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and BT Sport App for the duration of the contract. It also offers 5G. It’s a solid choice.

Network: EE

Price: EE offers the iPhone 12 with 5G for £59 per month with 10GB of data and £50 upfront. That’s a total of £1,466. EE no longer partners up with third party sites like Carphone Warehouse or Mobile Phones Direct, so the best deals are from EE’s own website.

Coverage: EE’s network came out top for 4G coverage in the UK in the latest RootMetrics report. That said, Ofcom’s 2020 report did find that customers were more satisfied with the reception or signal strength from O2 and Vodafone. Just remember to check Ofcom’s coverage tool to see how EE performs in your location.

Speed: Excellent. It was rated top in Opensignal’s 2020 test for download and upload speeds.

Customer service: EE scored well in the Ofcom report for overall satisfaction, on par with O2 and Vodafone and higher than Three.

Visit EE’s website for more information.

2. Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile

You could do a lot worse: Tesco Mobile offers a variety of deals at decent prices, with SIM-only a highlight. It is 5G ready.

Network: O2 (piggyback)

Price: At time of writing Tesco does the iPhone 12 for £49.99 per month and £60 upfront, on a 24-month contract with 6GB of data, 5,000 minutes and 5,000 texts. That’s a total cost of £1,249.76.

Coverage: O2’s network was rated worst for reliability by RootMetrics, but did win the Best Network Coverage public choice award from Uswitch.

Speed: Tesco suffers here because of its dependence on O2’s infrastructure. O2 came bottom in OpenSignal’s report for speeds across the UK.

Customer service: Very good. Tesco consistantly gets high customer service and service satisfaction scores in reports from the likes of Which? and Ofcom.

Find out more on Tesco’s website.

3. Plusnet

Plusnet

Plusnet doesn’t sell phones, but its prices on SIM deals are appealing if you bought an iPhone SIM-free. We like the ability to set a monthly price cap to prevent nasty surprises when your bill arrives. We haven’t included any other SIM-only networks here, but Plusnet regularly scores highly in customer service reports so we chose to feature it. No 5G available yet.

Network: EE (piggyback)

Price: The cheapest you can currently go is £6 per month (which gets you 2GB data, unlimited minutes and unlimited texts).

Coverage: EE’s network came out top for 4G coverage in the UK in the latest RootMetrics report. That said, Ofcom’s 2020 report did find that customers were more satisfied with the reception or signal strength from O2 and Vodafone. Just remember to check Ofcom’s coverage tool to see how EE performs in your location.

Speed: Excellent, thanks to the performance of EE’s network. It was rated top in Opensignal’s 2020 test for download and upload speeds.

Customer service: Plusnet’s mobile service wasn’t rated in Ofcom’s latest report, but it scored highly for broadband service satisfaction which gives a good indication that its customer service will be reflected positively for mobile. Additionally, it won the Best Network for Customer Service award in Uswitch’s latest Telecoms awards

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Read more on Plusnet’s website.

4. Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile

Going with Virgin Mobile makes sense if the firm already provides your broadband and TV. Not yet 5G ready (but ‘coming soon’).

Network: EE (piggyback)

Price: Virgin has the iPhone 12 for £46.50 per month with no upfront payment, 1GB of data and unlimited minutes for 24 months. There is a 36 month option to bring the cost down, and 5G is coming soon. The Total Cost of Ownership (TOC) for this deal is £1,116 but 1GB data isn’t much so you’d be likely to choose a higher data option at a slightly higher price.

Coverage: EE’s network came out top for 4G coverage in RootMetrics report, but averags in Ofcom’s 2020 report found that customers were more satisfied with signal strength from O2 and Vodafone. Check Ofcom’s coverage tool to see how EE performs in your location.

Speed: Excellent. EE, which provides the network infrastructure that Virgin relies on, came top in Opensignal’s 2020 survey.

Customer service: Virgin got an average rating in Ofcom’s survey for overall service satisfaction.

Find out more on Virgin Mobile’s website.

5. O2

O2

One of the best-known and oldest operators in the market. O2 was rated lowest for network reliability and overall performance by RootMetrics in 2020, but USwitch gave it the award for Best Network Coverage. It has 5G available now.

Network: O2

Price: O2’s best offer for the iPhone 12 is  £48.88 per month, with 3GB data and £10 upfront. You’ll get 6 months of Disney+ for free, and 12 months of Apple TV+. That’s a total cost of £1,183.12. You won’t find O2 deals at Carphone Warehouse, but there are still deals available at Mobile Phones Direct.

Coverage: As mentioned, O2’s network was rated worst for reliability by RootMetrics, but did win the Best Network Coverage public choice award from Uswitch.

Speed: Not good. O2 came bottom in OpenSignal’s report for speeds across the UK.

Customer service: O2 scored well for service satisfaction in Ofcom’s latest report.

Find out more on O2’s website.

6. Vodafone

Vodafone

Vodafone has its perks, including varying roam-free destinations depending on your plan, upgrade after one year if you stick with Vodafone, and some options for additional entertainment bonuses like Amazon Prime Video or Spotify Premium. It’s not the cheapest, though. Speed and coverage are fine, and 5G is available now.

Network: Vodafone

Price: Vodafone’s lowest monthly charge for the iPhone 12 is a whopping £62 and £19 upfront, with unlimited texts and data. Speed is limited with this plan, and the total cost is £1,507. You can get cheaper deals on Carphone Warehouse or Mobile Phones Direct, though. 

Coverage: Vodafone’s network rated second best reliability and accessibility in the UK.

Speed: Pretty good. Vodafone came second out of four in OpenSignal’s download and upload speed tests, and won the Voice App Experience award.

Customer service: Vodafone performed well  in Ofcom’s survey for satisfaction with overall service, with a score in line with average.

Find out more on Vodafone’s website.

7. Giffgaff

Giffgaff

A small but popular operator, Giffgaff is highly rated by its customers. It’s an O2 piggybacker, though, which puts a question mark over speeds. 

Network: O2 (piggyback)

Price: Giffgaff does the iPhone 12 for £47.16 per month, which includes the minimum 6GB of data (which the firm calls a ‘goodybag’) and an upfront payment of £35. The total cost of this contract is £1,166.84.

Coverage: O2’s network was rated worst for reliability by RootMetrics, but did win the Best Network Coverage public choice award from Uswitch.

Speed: Bad news for Giffgaff users: the provider piggybacks on O2’s network, which came bottom in OpenSignal’s report for speeds across the UK.

Customer service: Giffgaff scores highly in Ofcom’s report for overall service satisfaction, and has long had a reputation for being a customer favourite.

Go to Giffgaff’s website for more details.

8. Three

Three

Three’s unlimited data bundles are an appealing prospect. Coverage may be a worry, so check your local area. It is 5G ready.

Network: Three

Price: Three has the iPhone 12 for just £32 per month for the first six months, then £64 for the remainder of the contract; that’s with unlimited data and nothing upfront. That adds up to £1,344, which isn’t bad for the amount of data you’re getting. You’ll also get free Apple TV+.

Coverage: Three’s network was rated below EE and Vodafone for reliability and bottom of the list for accessibility. It’s not mentioned in Opensignal’s report and scored poorly in Ofcom’s.

Speed: Three’s network came third out of four in RootMetric’s report.

Customer service: Three scored lowest in Ofcom’s report, with below average scores for satisfaction with overall service.

More details can be found on Three’s website.

9. iD Mobile

iD Mobile

iD is Carphone Warehouse’s inhouse network. It offers some excellent prices but nationwide coverage is not good (although your area may be fine – check Ofcom’s tool) and speeds are middling. 5G is not currently available with iD.

Network: Three (piggyback)

Price: iD offers the iPhone 12 for £36.99 per month and £99 upfront, with 10GB data. That’s £987.75 in total, one of the best prices we’ve seen for a data all-rounder. There’s no 5G available yet, though.

Coverage: Three’s network was rated below EE and Vodafone for reliability and bottom of the list for accessibility. It’s not mentioned in Opensignal’s report and scored poorly in Ofcom’s.

Speed: As a Three piggybacker, iD doesn’t get great speed numbers. It came third out of four in RootMetric’s report.

Customer service: iD is not mentioned in the customer service reports we’ve seen.

Find out more on iD’s website.

10. Sky Mobile

Sky Mobile

As is the case with several of the firms in this article, Sky offers preferential mobile rates for those who subscribe to other Sky services. It is 5G ready. Its Swap12 and Swap24 plans mean you can upgrade early if you stick with Sky.

Network: O2 (piggyback)

Price: Sky has the iPhone 12 for £46 per month, with 2GB of data and £99 upfront. Be sure to tick Get 5G Speeds before checkout. That’s a total of £1,203 but 2GB probably won’t be quite enough for most people.

Coverage: O2’s network was rated worst for reliability by RootMetrics, but did win the Best Network Coverage public choice award from Uswitch.

Speed: O2, whose network Sky piggybacks, came bottom in OpenSignal’s report for speeds across the UK.

Customer service: Sky won Network of the Year from Uswitch in 2020, and Ocfom’s report found it got average scores for overall service satisfaction.

Find out more on Sky Mobile’s website.

11. BT Mobile

BT Mobile

BT Mobile is a sensible option if you subscribe to BT Broadband. However, not all phones are available directly from BT itself. Older iPhones including the iPhone XR is available, but if you’re looking for newer models like the iPhone 12 you’ll be directed to EE’s website to get your hands on it.

Network: EE (piggyback)

Price: As mentioned, the iPhone 12 isn’t available direct from BT, but the iPhone XR and iPhone SE are. They start at £36 per month and £30 per month respectively. If you’re a BT broadband customer you’ll find you’ll get a discount.

Coverage: EE’s network came out top for 4G coverage in RootMetrics report. Check Ofcom’s coverage tool to see how EE performs in your location.

Speed: Excellent. BT uses EE’s network, and EE came top in Opensignal’s 2020 survey.

Customer service: Ofcom didn’t rate BT’s service satisfaction for mobile in its latest report, but it did find that BT’s broadband and home phone customers were very satisfied with the service they recieved.

Find out more on BT’s website.

What do you need from your network?

When selecting a network there are lots of different criteria to consider. You will probably have to compromise in one area to get what you’re looking for in another.

Price

For a rough comparison of prices, in the individual entries we’ve listed the lowest monthly fee each network offers (at time of writing) for the iPhone 12, over 24 months and with a maximum upfront cost of £100 and a minimum of 1GB data. Check the individual sites for up-to-date prices.

It’s worth noting that there are often deals from the networks available from third parties like Carphone Warehouse, Mobile Phones Direct and more, so shopping around can pay off once you’ve chosen your network.

When looking at pricing it’s important to look at total cost of ownership (TCO) over the course of a contract, which includes the upfront cost and however many monthly payments are required. An apparently unappealing contract may work out the best for you if it only lasts 12 months (most are 24 or more).

The amount you pay will vary according to your monthly data allowance, the value of the phone (assuming it’s included) and any additional features, such as Apple Music subscriptions. But beyond this, some deals are simply better value than others. You shouldn’t assume that you’re paying a fair price.

Coverage

Most of the UK now has decent 4G coverage, and some has 5G. But there still remain rural pockets with 3G or with nothing at all.

If you live in central London and don’t plan to leave any time soon then you don’t need to worry about coverage. But everyone else should at least consider it. Your choice of network will dictate what infrastructure you’ll be using, and the location of your network’s towers (or the towers belonging to the network your provider is piggybacking) will dictate how good a signal you can get in a given area.

Ofcom’s mobile coverage checker is a useful tool for seeing which networks can cover your area – or an area you want to visit regularly.

According to the research firm RootMetrics, EE offers the best 4G coverage across the UK as a whole. Second place was Vodafone, followed by Three and then O2. But this really does vary by your exact location, so take a look at the RootMetrics’ coverage map to analyse likely performance in your local area.

Speed

Whereas broadband deals trumpet their estimated speed from the rooftops, mobile networks are less public about the speeds you should expect. But while the numbers can be hard to uncover – and, to be fair, lots of factors influence the speed you actually experience – it’s clearly an important factor to consider.

To see how well your current provider is living up to their claims, you can use the free iPhone app Speedtest by Ookla.

EE came top in a recent report by Opensignal, winning the top spot for overall download speeds in the UK. It also won the best games experience, video experience and upload speed experience. Vodafone came a close second in most, but did beat EE in voice app experience.

Good news for EE, of course, but also good for the providers that piggyback on that company’s infrastructure: BT Mobile, Plusnet and Virgin Mobile.

Reliability

Network outages are hugely frustrating, leaving you unable to access any online services until you get back to Wi-Fi. In Dec 2018, for instance, O2 customers were disconnected for a whole day.

This is another case where piggybacking is important. The above incident affected O2 piggybackers too – so when considering a network provider, check out reports of its parent network’s reliability.

Customer service

This is where the smaller providers can stand apart from their parent networks. How efficient is the provider at dealing with problems, and does it offer compensation when things go wrong? Does it spam you with marketing letters? Does it get your bills wrong on a regular basis?

An Ofcom report from August 2020 found that Tesco Mobile tops customer satisfaction rankings, while Three fares worst.

Data limit

You can pay less if you’re willing to compromise on your data allowance: contracts can vary from around 250MB to 60GB or more.

We’d advise against going for the real bargain-basement allowances: 2GB is probably a sensible minimum to aim for. But it all depends on what you’re going to be using your phone for: streaming is a particular drain.

To get an idea of your requirements, read How much data do I need? And to read about ways you can reduce the amount you burn through, see How to save data on iPhone.

Can you sign up with more than one network?

Yes, if you’ve got a new enough iPhone. The XR, 11 and later all offer eSIM support, which means you can have a conventional hardware SIM from one network and an eSIM from another – but note that in the UK, only EE and O2 support eSIM.

For more details, read How to use dual SIMs on iPhone.

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