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Given how much we use our phones, it’s important we get it right when buying them. This means not only getting the right device, but also choosing the right network and tariff. Tech is important, but so is good reception, reliable customer service, contract flexibility, seamless video streaming, and, of course, affordable prices.

Here’s what to look for when choosing a mobile phone tariff, handset, and provider.

Comparing Mobile Phone Deals: Types of Tariff

There are several ways to get a mobile phone in the UK. If you need a handset, you can choose a contract that allows you to rent it—or rather, pay it off—alongside your monthly bill for airtime and data.

Already have a device or want to buy one outright? You can get a SIM-only deal on contract, so you just pay for your minutes, messages, and mobile data. Don’t want to get locked into a contract? Only pay for the minutes and MBs you use with a pay as you go deal.

Let’s take a closer look at each purchasing option and why you might choose it:

Pay-monthly contracts

We tend to buy our mobile handsets and usage packages bundled together, on one contract with one bill. These contracts lock you into monthly payments for at least 12 months, and often two years for high-end gadgets like iPhones. When the contract is up, your mobile phone provider hopes you’ll negotiate a new one a new one, with an upgraded phone, and begin paying off that new device.

Should I get a pay-monthly contract?

The benefits of these bundled contracts are clear: you have one contract, with one expiry date and one payment. You can get top-of-the-range handsets and pay for them in instalments. This has become an increasingly attractive option as the prices of handsets have ballooned: the iPhone X retails for around £1,000 new.

Also, once you’ve locked in a contract for two years you don’t have to think about it—until you find your data allowance isn’t sufficient or you want a new gadget.

What are the downsides to pay monthly contracts?

You’ll pay in total more for your device on a contract than you would if you bought it outright. With pay-monthly phone contracts, you’re effectively taking out a loan on the device from your mobile provider, and there will be interest. If you don’t have the lump sum, you can consider taking out an interest-free credit card and using it to purchase the phone (but remember to pay it off before it starts accumulating interest).

If you do get a pay-monthly phone, you need to be vigilant about renegotiating a cheaper deal when the contract runs out. A recent study by consumer advocate Citizens Advice found that three major phone providers, including EE, Three, and Vodafone, don’t reduce your costs after your fixed term deal has expired and you’ve paid off the phone. The consumer watchdog estimated that four million mobile phone customers were, on average, spending £38 a month on phones they technically already owned. When you contract is up, either upgrade to a new device or switch to a SIM-only deal with the old one (for more information see below).

Additionally, these contracts are long and inflexible: you’re locked into paying for your usage and the device for up to 24 months, which can be costly if you’re overestimated your appetite for data, as many of us do. Get sick of the device, start pining for a new one, and you’re also in a pickle. However, you may have some early upgrade options, if you’re dying to get your hands on the latest headset.

SIM-Only Contracts

If you already have a device, either one you’ve purchased outright or one previously bought on contract and paid off, you can get a SIM-only deal for it. A SIM-only contract allows you to pay for just your minutes, messages, and data. Pop a SIM into an unlocked phone and you’re free to call, text, and stream to your heart’s content—or at least within your allowance.

You can get SIM-only deals on 12-month (or longer) contracts, or on a rolling, 30-day basis.

Buy a phone directly from the manufacturer or from another retailer and you can immediately use a SIM from any provider and network on it. But many phones sold by network operators, either on contract or for PAYG usage, are locked to those networks, meaning you won’t be able to use them with a SIM from a rival network. You can free a phone to use a SIM from any provider through a process called unlocking, depending on the policies of your mobile provider.

Can I unlock my phone?

You can free a phone to use a SIM from any provider through a process called unlocking, depending on the policies of your mobile provider.

  • EE: All phones purchased on contract with EE are locked to its network. EE will unlock devices after the sixth month of a contract for a fee of £8.99 or for free if you’re out of contract.
  • O2: Since June 2018, all pay monthly phones and PAYG phones sold by O2 are unlocked.
  • Three: Since December 2013, all phones purchased through Three have been automatically network unlocked.
  • Vodafone: All phones purchased through Vodafone are network locked. Pay monthly customers can unlock them after they’ve paid three monthly bills and PAYG customers after they’ve owned them for 30 days. The unlocking is free.

PAYG

You can also get a SIM that allows you to purchase airtime, texts, and data on a pay as you go (PAYG) basis. PAYG phone deals are ideal for those who want to avoid the commitment of a contract, who want more control over the amount they spend, or whose phone needs may change from month to month.

Pay-as-you-go bundles

All mobile phone providers will have a PAYG rate they charge for talk minutes, messages, and data. Normal usage on these rates is pretty expensive though. Providers tend to also offer bundles you can use to ‘top up’ your phone. Terminology will vary (giffgaff calls them ‘goodybags’ and EE calls them ‘packs’) but they’re usually a certain, or even unlimited, allowance of minutes, texts, and data you can use within a time period—often 30 but sometimes 90 days. You can generally roll over unused allowances to the next time period. Three even offers an unlimited PAYG package: all you can eat minutes, messages, and data, for 90 days.

While PAYG phone plans offer flexibility and are especially good for second phones or those you only use for short periods of time, PAYG is ultimately a more expensive way to pay for service than pay monthly contract plans.

Compare Mobile Networks: Majors and MVNOs

There are four mobile phone carriers in the UK—EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone—offering phone and data services. Your device will ultimately be connecting to one of these four networks, but they’re not your only options for a mobile contract.

What is an MVNO?

In Britain there are also around 60 mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), firms which lease mobile telephone and data spectrum from the major networks. Effectively these firms piggyback off the major carriers: sign up for giffgaff, for instance, and you’ll be hitching a ride on O2’s network. The largest MVNOs include Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile (all EE); giffgaff (O2); and ID Mobile (Three).

MVNOs can give you the service of one of the major providers at a lower cost, but you should be aware of the network you’re actually using and its strength and reliability, and coverage in your area. Check a coverage map online or check with friends visiting your home or living in your area before you commit to a network.

Major Mobile Networks: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone

As we use our handsets for fewer phone calls and more streaming, shopping, and browsing online content, consumers are mostly concerned with the availability and speed of data networks, especially 4G. Here’s how the major network carriers perform, whether you’re on contract with their provider themselves or using a MVNO.

Which mobile network has the best 3g and 4g coverage?

Network3G4G
EE99%89%
O299%84%
Vodafone99%83%
Three99%76%
  • EE:

    EE was the first to launch a 4G network in the UK, in 2012, (and today is pioneering 5G on these shores) and its network remains the most widespread, speediest, and most used. It boasts greater than 99% coverage of the UK population and is aiming to achieve 95% geographic coverage by 2020. That pervasive coverage means EE users are able to connect to its 4G network 89% of the time, and only rely on slower 3G and 2G around a tenth of the time. When users do connect to EE’s 4G, they find the fastest download and upload speeds in the UK: 32.5 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 10.4 Mbps upstream—speeds that are comparable with the lower tier of fibre optic fixed line broadband you may have at home. Altogether, 88% of EE customers report being satisfied with EE’s signal and reception. And customers of MVNOs that use EE’s network report even greater levels of satisfaction with the same network service. See if EE is available in your postcode, neighbourhood, and town using its coverage checker.

  • O2:

    O2 is the second most trafficked British network and its 4G is widely available, with 99% population coverage and the best indoor premises coverage at 95%. 4G is there when you need it too: with 84% availability, it’s nearly as reliable as EE’s, so you won’t have to resort to 3G while streaming Netflix on the train. Unfortunately, however, O2’s 4G is the slowest with average download speeds of 15.8 Mbps, less than half of EE’s. But despite the slower speeds, 88% of O2 customers report being satisfied with the signal and reception they get from O2, above the industry average of 87%. See if O2 is available in your postcode, neighbourhood, and town using its coverage checker.

  • Three:

    Three was the last major mobile carrier to launch a 4G network, but while it’s traditionally lagged behind the other three operators in prevalence and speed, it’s making up ground fast. Three now has 99.8% population coverage and its indoor and outdoor geographic coverage is now competitive, at 89% and 78%, respectively. Three ranks third in the speed of its 4G, clocking in at 21.6 Mbps and comparable with Vodafone. Its downstream 3G speeds are the fastest in the UK, at 8 Mbps. Which is good news for customers, because they may be relying on it more than they’d like. Three has the lowest 4G availability of the four carriers, at 76%. That may be why just 82% of Three customers Ofcom polled were satisfied with its signal strength and coverage. See if Three is available in your living room, postcode, neighbourhood, and town using its coverage checker, with special designation for indoor and outdoor coverage.

  • Vodafone:

    Vodafone is the third most popular UK mobile operator and offers the second faster 4G, with download speeds of 24.3Mbps. Customers are able to connect to that quick 4G, 83.4% of the time, putting Vodafone nearly level with O2. Data is also available in 94% of indoor spaces and 79% of the great outdoors. See if Vodafone is available in your postcode, neighbourhood, and town using its coverage checker.

Choosing a handset

Once you’ve chosen a network and provider and a way of paying for phone services, you’ll need to choose a handset. Most networks will offer you a full menu of devices, from all ranges of manufacturers. Since most phones have similar basic functionality nowadays, deciding which one you want is partly a matter of taste.

Here’s what to consider when selecting a device:

  • Operating system: There are two main operating systems for phones: Apple iOS, run on iPhones, and Android, loaded onto Samsung, Google, Huawei, and other phones. iOS is known for being intuitive and stylish, but you’ll have to shell out a lot to get an iPhone. The Android platform is known for being more customisable and you’ll have a wider range of devices across many price points to consider.
  • Specs: How big is the screen and how high resolution? Can you comfortable hold it and see every pixel of Game of Thrones on the bus? Check out the screen to body ratio on the device. And How many photos of cats and landscapes can you store? Hint: you’ll need at least 32GB of storage. And how high-quality is the camera that takes those? Look for dual lenses and a low aperture?
  • Price point: You can snag a basic smartphone for under £100 all-in or you can splash out ten times that on a brand new iPhone. Of course, you may be buying them on contract and spreading these costs out, but you should consider whether you want, or can afford, to pay £10 a month to ‘rent’ your device—or more than £75.