Mobile networks are most definitely NOT "all the same" - with different deals, handsets and extras meaning that choice of network is more important than ever.
If you've stuck with one network out of loyalty, you may well be missing out.
With newer networks like Tesco Mobile and giffgaff vying with more established players like Vodafone and O2 for your custom, there’s more choice than ever.
But it can be confusing, so here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of each of the UK’s major mobile phone network operators, so you can help decide which network is best for you.
The list isn’t exhaustive - deals change all the time and each network has exclusive offers on different phones at different times, so do your research first - why not try Yahoo’s comparison tool?
Best for: Ultra-fast 4G
EE is the UK’s newest mobile brand, formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile. Confusingly although Orange and T-Mobile shops have gone from the high-street (to be replaced by EE stores) T-Mobile, Orange and EE brands co-exist, with individual online shops and varying prices. Whether you buy a phone from T-Mobile, Orange or EE, you’ll be able to take advantage of the UK’s biggest 3G network, with the most coverage.
Pros: EE runs the UK’s first 4G network, offering ultrafast mobile broadband when you pair a compatible phone (like the iPhone 5, HTC One (above) or Samsung Galaxy S4), with a 4G SIM.
All EE tariffs include unlimited calls, texts and free WiFi via BT WiFi hotspots and on the London Underground. EE Film offers 2 for 1 cinema tickets every Wednesday.
Cons: At the moment EE is the only network offering 4G, thus controlling the price of 4G in the UK. However if you can wait until June/July when Vodafone, O2 and Three launch rival 4G services, more competition should lead to cheaper 4G prices.
Verdict: EE is currently the network for accessing ultra-fast 4G on a range of high-end mobile phones.
Best for: Value deals if you already own a phone
giffgaff (like Virgin Mobile and Tesco Mobile) uses airwaves belonging to another network, in this case O2. giffgaff is in fact owned by Telefonica, O2’s parent company.
Pros: Instead of long-term contracts giffgaff offers SIM-only ‘goodybags’ lasting 30 days, offering unlimited internet for £12 a month. giffgaff focuses heavily on its community, giving £5 payback per member for every new member recruited. Instead of call centres, questions are dealt with by the community, the immediate benefit being there’s no waiting on hold to speak to someone in a call centre.
Cons: giffgaff’s set-up may may not suit people with limited internet access or those who feel more comfortable talking to someone about phone issues. It doesn’t sell phones either - so to use giffgaff you’ll need to buy a handset upfront or on PAYG and unlock it.
Verdict: giffgaff is a great choice if you’ve already got a phone, want value for money and don’t want to be tied into a long-term phone contract
Best for: Good selection of handsets - deals such as concert tickets
Owned by Telefonica, O2 is one of the UK’s biggest networks, introducing 4G later this year.
Pros: O2 has a huge selection of PAY and Pay Monthly phones, with exclusives, early upgrades, free WiFi and discounts on home broadband. O2 customers get access to gig and event tickets 48-hours before they go on sale. O2 Priority Moments offers freebies and discounts on nearby brands, while Priority Sports gives access to apps like Nike Training Club App and exclusive events.
Cons: O2 doesn’t offer unlimited data on its Pay Monthly tariffs
Verdict: Along with a huge selection of phones, O2 is a good choice for music fans and includes some groundbreaking app incentives
Best for: Freebies such as Orange Wednesdays
Orange now comes under the EE umbrella, meaning Orange (now EE) customers benefit from the largest 3G network in the UK.
Pros: All Orange customers benefit from 2 for 1 cinema tickets with Orange Wednesdays and discounts on Orange broadband. Pay Monthly tariffs include free BT and London Underground WiFi, while Swappables offer free premium content such as Sky Sports Mobile TV.
Cons: Orange doesn’t offer unlimited data on any of its Pay Monthly deals, so heavy data users (including those looking for a SIM-only tariff) will find more competitive tariffs elsewhere.
Verdict: Orange is a good choice for customers who want a call, text, and do some moderate browsing, with some cool extras.
Best for: Good value deals
As part of EE, T-Mobile customers get access to the UK’s largest 3G network.
Pros: T-Mobile offers a wide selection of tariffs to suit all types of user, with boosters offering free texts, calls or landline calls. Its Full Monty plan is one of the few tariffs to offer truly unlimited data, making it great value for smartphone users. You Fix plans cap your monthly spend to prevent bill shock and customers get free WiFi on the London Underground.
Cons: T-Mobile doesn’t offer extras like Swappables
Verdict: Great for the cash conscious, particularly anyone requiring unlimited internet
Best for: Good value deals for mobile internet
Three is the UK’s fastest growing mobile network, focusing on mobile internet, with 4G coming later this year.
Pros: If you want a plan with data Three’s tariffs are among the cheapest, with the benefit of truly unlimited data via The One Plan and new Unlimited Internet tariffs. SIM-only tariffs are very competitive too.
Cons: Three doesn’t offer as comprehensive a selection of phones as rivals like Vodafone or O2, particularly if you’re looking for a PAYG phone.
Verdict: If you want competitive high-end handsets with the freedom to browse and stream movies on-the-go without bill shock, Three is the network for you.
Best for: Cheap PAYG deals
Tesco runs on O2’s network and offers some great value tariffs.
Pros: With Triple Your Credit top up £15 on PAYG and Tesco will triple it to £45, Tesco Clubcard customers also get 3 points per pound they top up. ‘Family Perks’ offers extra minutes or data to families with multiple Pay Monthly accounts, while Capped Tariffs ensure you don’t go over your monthly bill, avoiding bill shock. Tesco Mobile is also the only network provider that has pledged to stop mid-contract price rises
Cons: Tesco Mobile’s phone selection isn’t the most up to date, so can’t compete with the bigger networks on choice. There are no Pay Monthly tariffs with unlimited data either.
Verdict: Tesco Mobile offers amazing value on PAYG and SIM-only tariffs, with great offers for families and Tesco shoppers.
Best for: Good deals for Virgin Media users
Virgin Media runs on EE’s network, which means customers benefit from 99 per cent 3G coverage in the UK.
Pros: Virgin Mobile (along with Three and T-Mobile) is one of the few networks to offer unlimited data with its Premiere tariff. Customers also get the flexibility to move up and down between tariffs. Virgin Media broadband and TV customers benefit from monthly £5 discounts on PAY Monthly tariffs, free Spotify, free phone insurance and free calls and texts to other Virgin Mobile users. SIM-only plans competitive too.
Cons: Virgin Media doesn’t offer as exhaustive a phone selection and doesn’t always get the latest smartphones on launch.
Verdict: Amazing value for existing Virgin Media customers - particularly families and those who don’t want to be tied into a long-term contract.
Best for: Great extras for Pay Monthly customers
Vodafone offers an exhaustive selection of tariffs and sells all the major smartphones, with 4G connectivity coming soon.
Pros: Pay Monthly customers can take Data Test Drive offering unlimited internet for three months, upgrade 75 days early, get free WiFi and access Vodafone VIP for exclusive events and discounts. PAYG customers can earn Free Rewardz winning prizes with every top-up and Red Box helps transfer information between phones.
Cons: Although Vodafone tariffs include unlimited calls and text, they don’t offer unlimited data, so for hardcore internet users there are more competitive tariffs.
Verdict: Vodafone offers an exhaustive selection of the latest phones from a range of manufacturers, with some great Pay Monthly incentives.