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Three review: The start of a 5G comeback?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
5
Starting at

Strong on value for money, but Three is weak on service and support

Pros 
Great deals on SIMs and smartphones
Improving 5G speeds and coverage
Cons 
Lags behind on 4G performance
Below average customer service and satisfaction scores
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For a network at the cutting edge during the 3G era, Three has often felt on the back foot during the 4G years, falling behind EE and increasingly Vodafone when it comes to coverage and/or speeds while pushing the value angle instead. Now, however, Three is betting big on 5G services and unlimited data plans in a bid to reclaim its old position – and its prices are as competitive as ever. Could this be the start of a three-naissance?

If it is, Three has some work to do. Our 2021 Mobile Network Awards survey puts it behind some of its rivals for customer support, though it fares better on value for money. While 88% of O2 or EE customers would recommend their network to a friend, only 77% of Three’s users would say the same. 

READ NEXT: Vodafone review

Three review: What do you get?

Three’s greatest strength over the past few years has arguably been a compelling range of monthly phone plans. These stretch all the way from budget handsets from Nokia and Xiaomi for £10 a month, through mid-range favourites like the OnePlus Nord 2 from £25 a month, to blockbuster flagship phones from Samsung and Apple at £50 or more a month.

Whatever you’re buying, though, Three tends to undercut most of the competition. At the time of writing, for instance, Three will sell you an iPhone 12 with 100GB of data for £47 a month over 24 months with £49 up front, while you’re looking at £52 to £57 from O2 or Vodafone with a £25 to £30 upfront cost. Over the term of the contract that will cost you £136 to £261 more – and EE is even pricier.

That doesn’t mean that Three is necessarily the cheapest. iD Mobile, which runs on top of Three’s own network, is actually cheaper for many handsets, while Sky and Virgin Mobile can also be found selling the same phone for less.

If you’d rather go SIM-only, it’s still worth keeping Three on your shortlist. Its 12-month contracts run from £6 for 1GB to £15 for 30GB, with one of the cheapest unlimited data packages at just £20 per month. Sign up for 24 months and these get even cheaper, with 30GB for £14 a month, 100GB for £16 a month and a £10 discount on unlimited data for the first six months. All of Three’s SIM-only plans come 5G-ready, too, so if you switch your phone you can move to 5G at the same time without getting a new SIM or plan. Three also offers some of its packages on one-month rolling contracts. We’ve got the most recent plans listed below.

Monthly fee (1 month)

Monthly fee (12 months)

Monthly fee (24 months)

Data

Texts

Minutes

Advanced 1GB

n

£6

£5

1GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 2GB

n

£6

n/a

2GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 4GB

£16

£10

£9

4GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 8GB

n

£11

£10 (£5 for first 6 months)

8GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 12GB

£19

£13

£12

12GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 30GB

£24

£15

£14

30GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced 100GB

n

n

£16

199GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

Advanced Unlimited

£26

£20

£20 (£10 for first six months)

Unlimited

Unlimited

Unlimited

Browse Three phone contracts


Certainly, Three’s customers rate the network when it comes to value for money: 37% of those we surveyed said they were very satisfied on this count, while a further 41% were satisfied. These scores put Three ahead of EE, O2, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone, though not low-cost champs like Tesco Mobile, BT Mobile, Sky Mobile or Giffgaff.

READ NEXT: EE review

Three review: Customer service

Customer service and support is one area where Three hasn’t done so well recently. In our Mobile Network Awards survey, just 28% of Three users said they were very satisfied with the level of customer support, against 64% for Sky Mobile, 58% for Tesco Mobile, 53% for Giffgaff and 41% for EE. 41% were still satisfied, but this still leaves Three trailing for satisfaction overall. 

These results are backed up by Ofcom’s latest figures. Three’s score for overall satisfaction – 86% – is still the lowest of any major UK network, and 13% of its customers had a reason to complain. Three had more Ofcom complaints per 100,000 subscribers than any other service except Virgin Mobile, while the number of complaints resolved on first contact was 42%, against an industry average of 46%.

Browse Three phone contracts


Three review: Coverage, reliability and speed

Our survey also makes grim reading for Three’s performance and reliability. Only 87% of users said that they were able to get a fast enough signal for general web browsing and social media apps, where every other major UK network achieved 92% or more. Just 80% told us they could stream audio from Spotify or a similar music-streaming service – again the lowest figure for a major UK network. 

Only 68% said they could stream video from Netflix or another video streaming service, where most rivals reached 82% or more. There’s arguably an element of expectation at play, with users looking for higher speeds and smooth streaming everywhere from Three, but the experience doesn’t seem to be as smooth as it should be for everyone.

There’s still potential for a comeback. The latest figures from RootMetrics put Three behind EE and Vodafone for UK-wide median download speeds, but Three’s performance has improved since the last set of tests, partly helped by an expanding and improving 5G network. Three’s everyday 5G median download speeds were higher than 100Mbits/sec in six of 16 test cities and above 70Mbits/sec in all 16, and RootMetrics noted that “Three has by far the most speedy mid-band spectrum of any operator at its disposal, so we could see faster speeds going forward”.

Three already offers good 4G coverage across nearly all of the UK, including some rural areas where other operators have struggled. Meanwhile, 5G services are now live in over 300 locations, although – as ever – availability will be patchy in some of these. 

READ NEXT: BT Mobile review

Three review: Roaming

Three used to be a good option for frequent international travellers, but in the fallout of Brexit, the mobile network has since announced that it will soon be bringing back roaming charges. Once a big selling point, Three's 'Go Roam' features used to give you inclusive calls, texts and data in more places than other networks, with a 71-strong list including Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, the US and Vietnam. 

Sadly, that's all due to change. Three will charge £2 a day to use your data, text and calls allowance in EU countries and £5 per day in other locations such as the US and Japan. This move comes into effect from 23 May 2022, although anyone who signed up to a contract before 1 October 2021 supposedly won't be affected by this change, at least before their contract expires.

Three review: Other services and spending caps

Three offers Wi-Fi calling on some (though not all) of its handsets, along with a feature that allows you to make calls over a 4G data connection to give you more reliable calls in poor signal areas. It also supports spending caps; pick a level between £10 and £100 over your regular contract payment, and you won’t be allowed to make additional calls or use additional data beyond that.

Browse Three phone contracts


Three review: Verdict

Three is improving in some key areas, and its low-cost SIM-only deals, unlimited data plans and pay monthly phone contracts mean it’s always worth looking at from a value for money perspective. All the same, it has work to do in matching EE and Vodafone on speed, while its customer support and satisfaction scores give us a little too much reason for concern. With rivals matching it on price and beating it on service, it’s hard to recommend Three right now.

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