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Best mobile network 2021: Grab a Black Friday bargain with one of the top UK networks for speed, value and customer satisfaction

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Looking for speedy 5G, reliable coverage, more data or a better deal? We’re here to point you in the direction of the best mobile network

Choosing between the UK’s mobile networks never gets any easier. Whether you’re looking for a new phone or a monthly SIM-only deal, there are dozens of operators, plans and bundles to pick from, and it’s all too easy to sign up to what looks like a great deal, only to find you could have had a lower price or more monthly data elsewhere.

Not only do you have the four major 4G and 5G mobile networks to choose from but also dozens of virtual operators, each offering their own SIM-only bundles or smartphone plans, and performance, price and customer service can vary massively. Bagging the best deal takes work.

Luckily, we’re here to do that work for you, combing through the different networks and their plans and packages to find the best options for every type of user. We’ve compared prices, features and add-on services, and factored in the latest performance and coverage figures from RootMetrics, whose researchers painstakingly roam the length and breadth of the UK testing signal strength, connection speeds, reliability and more.

What’s more, we’ve brought in the results of our Mobile Network Awards 2021 survey, along with the latest customer service report from Ofcom and the Net Promoter Scores from this year’s UK Regulators Network scorecards. These cover how likely users of a network are to recommend it to a friend. You’ll find this information summarised in the tables below each review.

READ NEXT: The best smartphones you can buy


The best mobile network deal this Black Friday

Get a free Xbox Series S with select Google Pixel 6 deals at EE

To celebrate Black Friday, EE is offering an Xbox Series S and 3 months of Game Pass for free with select phone contracts, including the Google Pixel 6. There are several choices available, starting at just £45 per month (£30 upfront charge) for 10GB data.
EE
From £45 per month

The best mobile networks in 2021

1. Sky Mobile: The best mobile network for happy customers

Price: From £6 to £30 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at Sky Mobile

Sky Mobile is the runaway winner of the Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards 2021, scoring wins in all four categories, including customer service, value and reliability. The Sky Mobile customers we surveyed couldn’t say enough nice things about the network. Some 98% were satisfied or very satisfied with its customer support, 96% felt they were getting good value for money, and 96% would recommend it to a friend. Sky Mobile had some of the best results for performance and reliability in our survey.

You might have to spend some time trying out different contract terms and upfront payments but this network has some of the best deals on new smartphones, too, and an excellent range of flexible SIM-only plans, especially if you’re a fairly casual user wanting 8GB to 20GB of monthly data. These include some exceptional features, particularly a data rollover that allows you to bank your unused data for up to three years.

While its speeds are limited by its reliance on O2 as a host network – it’s still the slowest of the four major networks according to RootMetrics – 4G speeds are improving and you can get a fast 5G connection in a growing number of UK towns and cities. Ofcom hadn’t published its own figures for Sky this year, but we do know that it has some of the lowest figures for customer complaints in the business.

Affordable, reliable and backed by great support, Sky Mobile is a brilliant network – and an even better bet for existing Sky subscribers, with streaming apps that won’t use your data while you’re watching Sky TV on the go.

Read our full Sky Mobile review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (O2); Minimum plan: £6/mth, 2GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan: £30/mth, 60GB data, unlimited minutes and texts; Discount options: None; Data rollover: Yes; Additional features: Spending cap, unlimited streaming of Sky apps

Find out more at Sky Mobile


Industry averageSky Mobile scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%N/A
Satisfaction with value for money83%N/A
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers136
Net Promoter Score25N/A

Save £588 on a Samsung Galaxy S21 5G Sky Mobile contract this Black Friday

The best deal to be had at Sky Mobile this Black Friday gives you the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G with 60GB of data for just £39 per month. This low price is due to a 50% discount on the data package, affording you a total saving of £588 over the lifetime of the contract.
Sky Mobile
Save £588

2. Giffgaff: The best mobile network for value

Price: From £6 to £35 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at Giffgaff

With its flexible approach and great value Goodybags, Giffgaff has always been a great network for value, and it’s also the runner-up in three out of four categories in the 2021 Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards. While it falls just behind Tesco Mobile on Customer Support, it’s second only to Sky Mobile on reliability and value, with 94% of users either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the network when it comes to bang for buck. Meanwhile, Ofcom’s most recent figures put it out in front on value for money, with decent scores for service and support as well.

Giffgaff’s cut-price plans run the gamut from a basic £6/500MB package to an unlimited Golden Goodybag for £35 a month, and there are some excellent deals at all price points in between. What’s more, while all Giffgaff plans work on a flexible, 30-day basis, where you can change or cancel at any point, the network makes it worth your while to set up a recurring Golden Goodybag plan, which boosts the normal £10/8GB plan to 10GB of data and the £15/15GB plan to 25GB. As with Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, performance is limited by the use of O2 as a host but O2’s 4G speeds have improved and there’s real potential in its 5G services. If you’d like to save some cash and still get an excellent, reliable service, look no further.

Read our full Giffgaff review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (O2); Minimum plan: £6/mth, 500MB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan: £35/mth, unlimited data, minutes and texts; Discount options: None; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Spending cap

Find out more at GiffGaff


Industry averageGiffgaff scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%93%
Satisfaction with value for money83%95%
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers13N/A
Net Promoter Score2552

Get nearly double data with GiffGaff this Black Friday

GiffGaff is offering increased data on several of its packages this Black Friday, with the best offering you nearly double the data. Where £15 would usually get you 15GB of data, with this deal you can get 25GB of data for the same price.
GiffGaff
25GB data
£15 per month

3. EE: The best mobile network for high 4G and 5G speeds

Price: From £13 to £41 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at EE

Whether you’re looking for a cutting-edge 5G connection or the highest 4G speeds, EE is near impossible to beat right now. The latest UK test results from RootMetrics give EE a UK-wide median download speed of 58.8Mbits/sec, nearly double that of its nearest competitor, Vodafone. Median everyday 5G download speeds topped 100Mbits/sec in all 16 cities where RootMetrics runs its detailed tests, with over 50% availability in 11 of them. While other networks can be faster in specific metro areas, EE’s nationwide performance is unmatched.

Of course, that kind of speed doesn’t come cheap, with even the most basic SIM-only deal with 1GB of data coming in at £14. However, if you want a lot of data and you’re happy with a two-year contract, then you can have 120GB for £20 a month, 200GB for £28 or unlimited data for £35. EE also has some nice extras on its premium Smart Benefit packages, including bundled Apple Music memberships or BT Sport.

Ofcom surveys have consistently given EE good reports: 92% of its customers are satisfied with the overall service and EE gets fewer complaints per 100,000 customers than any other network except Sky, which is equal on six, and Tesco Mobile with a mere three. That’s backed up by our survey results; 81% of EE users were satisfied or very satisfied with their customer support, while 88% would recommend the network to a friend.

Read our full EE review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Primary network operator; Minimum plan: £14/mth, 1GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan: £41/mth, unlimited 5G data, minutes and texts; Discount options: No; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Swappable benefits on selected contracts, family data sharing, spending cap

Find out more at EE


Industry averageEE scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%92%
Satisfaction with value for money83%80%
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers136
Net Promoter Score2517

Get a FREE Xbox Series S and 3 months of Game Pass with select EE contracts

Right now at EE, you can net yourself an Xbox Series S with 3 months of Game Pass at no extra cost when purchasing select phone contracts. With handsets including the Google Pixel 6 and the Samsung Galaxy A52s on offer, and a minimum data purchase of 10GB, you can get this deal for as little as £29 per month.
EE
From £29 per month

4. Tesco Mobile: The best mobile network for family-friendly options and great service

Price: From £7.50 to £30 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at Tesco Mobile

Tesco Mobile can’t match EE and Vodafone for data speeds, or Giffgaff and iD Mobile on price, but it’s definitely doing something right when it comes to customer service. It won a Highly Commended in this year’s Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards for Customer Support, with 58% of Tesco Mobile customers “very satisfied” and a further 28% “satisfied”. Some 94% would recommend the network to a friend. Ofcom’s latest figures are just as positive, with an overall satisfaction score of 91% and just three Ofcom complaints per 100,000 subscribers.

Tesco Mobile has some top value SIM-only deals, particularly on its longer 18-month contracts, where you can get 25GB of data for as little as £12.50 a month, or a mighty 100GB of data for just £17.50. What’s more, these come with extras, like family perks that give you a discount or some extra data if you take out several contracts on the one account. Tesco Mobile runs on the O2 network, so you won’t get the fastest connection but reliability and coverage aren’t a problem, and our test results showed that the vast majority of Tesco Mobile users have no problems streaming video or music on the move. Don’t let the Supermarket own-brand stigma put you off; this is one of the UK’s best value networks.

Read our full Tesco Mobile review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (O2); Minimum plan: £7.50/mth, 2GB, unlimited minutes and unlimited texts; Maximum plan: £30/mth, unlimited data, minutes and texts; Discount options: Family perks, cheaper 18-month contracts; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Spending cap

Find out more at Tesco Mobile


Industry averageTesco Mobile scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%91%
Satisfaction with value for money83%90%
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers133
Net Promoter Score2544

Save over £100 with Tesco Mobile Clubcard Prices this Black Friday

Tesco is currently offering "Clubcard Prices" discounts on multiple products, including these SIM-only deals. Previously £25 per month for 24 months, this unlimited data contract is now £20 per month, saving you £120 over the course of the contract. A valid Clubcard number is required to take advantage of this deal.
Tesco Mobile
£20 per month

5. iD Mobile: The best mobile network for low costs and unlimited plans

Price: From £6 to £20 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at iD Mobile

iD Mobile operates a no-frills virtual network with a mix of rolling one-month, 12-month and 24-month contracts on a range of handsets. It nearly always scores highly on value with the latter, with great prices on phones from budget through to premium flagships.

The SIM-only deals are well worth checking out as well. On the one hand, iD offers some of the best budget plans, giving you up to 24GB of data for under £10 a month if you catch the right offer. Opting for a one-year contract helps cut the cost further and a data rollover feature helps you make the most of your plan. iD Mobile also has one of the best unlimited deals, at just £18 to £20 a month.

The main thing that counts against iD Mobile is that it runs on top of Three’s host network, which now comes behind EE and Vodafone on 4G performance. However, every plan comes with free 5G where your phone supports it, and Three’s 5G services are impressive, even if there’s a lot of work to be done in making them more widely available across the UK.

We don’t have full Ofcom customer service scores for iD and we didn’t get enough responses to our own survey to feature iD in our awards, but the only thing we have seen that concerns us is an above-average number of Ofcom complaints. If you’re looking to keep your costs low without watching every MB of data, then iD Mobile could be the network for you.

Read our full iD Mobile review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Virtual network operator (Three); Minimum plan: £6/mth, 4GB, unlimited minutes, unlimited texts; Maximum plan: £20/mth, unlimited data, unlimited minutes and texts; Discount options: Extra data on 12-month deals; Data rollover: Yes; Additional features: Spending cap

Find out more at iD Mobile


Industry averageiD Mobile scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%N/A
Satisfaction with value for money83%N/A
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers1315
Net Promoter Score25N/A

Get double data with iD Mobile this Black Friday

iD Mobile has a slew of deals and offers laid out for Black Friday, but the best of the bunch gives you double the data for the same price. Previously offering 30GB for £12 per month, this offer bumps that up to 60GB for no extra cost.
iD Mobile
60GB data
£12 per month

6. Vodafone: The best mobile network for bundles and unlimited 5G

Price: From £11 to £37 a month, SIM-only | Find out more at Vodafone

Although it isn’t as fast as EE or as affordable as the no-frills budget networks, Vodafone has found a good balance between performance and value for money. It’s climbed ahead of O2 and Three for performance, with a UK median download speed of 25.2Mbits/sec and it’s proven it can do fast 5G, with everyday 5G median download speeds of 192.2Mbits/sec in Glasgow and speeds of over 140Mbits/sec in Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham. In central London, Rootmetrics recorded maximum 5G speeds of 491.1Mbits/sec. Availability is growing fast across the UK, too.

Vodafone has a few issues with customer satisfaction and support, however, according to the Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards 2021 survey. Here, only 66% of users say the network is “satisfactory” or “very satisfactory”, while only 78% would recommend it to a friend. Of the major networks, only Three and Virgin Mobile did worse.

In Ofcom’s latest research, again only two networks had more Ofcom complaints per 100,000 users (the same ones, Three and Virgin Mobile). Yet, Vodafone is still worth a look for its Unlimited Max 5G data plans, which come in cheaper than the EE equivalent, and for its Red with Entertainment bundles, which include a free subscription to Spotify, Amazon Prime Video or YouTube Premium.

Read our full Vodafone review for more details

Key specs – Network type: Primary network operator; Minimum plan: £11/mth, 1GB, unlimited minutes and texts; Maximum plan: £37/mth, unlimited minutes, data and texts; Discount options: Cheaper 24-month contracts, mobile plus broadband deals; Data rollover: No; Additional features: Bundled entertainment subscriptions

Find out more at Vodafone


Industry averageVodafone scores
Satisfaction with service overall90%90%
Satisfaction with value for money83%77%
Complaints to Ofcom per 100K subscribers1320
Net Promoter Score2527

Half-price contracts for the first six months in Vodafone's Black Friday sale

Vodafone is offering several of its unlimited data SIM-only contracts half-price for the first six months this Black Friday. These start at as little as £11 per month (£22 per month from month 7) for restricted speeds of up to 2mbps downloads. For unrestricted downloads and 5G capability, the cost is £15 per month (£30 per month from month 7).
Vodafone
From £11 per month

How to choose the best mobile network for you

Mobile phone running costs span a very broad range, from £5 per month for a basic SIM-only contract up to £40 a month or more – so it’s best to start by working out a budget before you think about your wish list.

READ NEXT: The phones with the best battery life

How much data do I need?

Now that nearly all contracts include unlimited minutes and unlimited texts, your big concern is probably data. While you can still find plans with 250MB or 500MB allowances, there’s no real reason to be stuck with such a limited package these days. You can find 1GB to 3GB packages for around a fiver, and 10GB for not a whole lot more.

However, unless you’re a really light user we’d suggest looking at 10GB to 15GB contracts as the minimum, while some of the best value packages now come with 20GB, 100GB or more. That gives you the freedom to stream music and video or play online games, and if you plan to use your mobile as a Wi-Fi hotspot or use game streaming services, you might want to go even further. After all, Unlimited data deals are no longer the expensive luxury they once were.

How long should you tie yourself in for?

Most SIM-only contracts generally last a year, but some networks are now offering some compelling deals that sign you up for 18-months or two years. If you’re happy to make that commitment, you can save a few pounds per month or bag some extra data. Pay monthly phone contracts tend to last two years, and sometimes three. Make sure you can afford the monthly payments as, once you sign up, you’re locked in until your contract comes to an end.

When it does, review your options. If you’ve fully paid off the cost of your phone, you can now either save money by switching to a SIM-only contract or take advantage of an upgrade. Some networks offer split contracts, where you pay one monthly payment for your plan and another for the phone. In that case, you can save money by letting the latter expire then moving to a lower-cost SIM-only plan.

You’ll also see SIM-only deals that work on a rolling monthly basis, which gives you the flexibility to buy lots of data when you need it, then switch down to a cheaper plan when you don’t. Giffgaff and iD Mobile are very good value here, but on other networks you may want to check that the monthly contract isn’t costing you a lot more per year than the standard 12-month option.

Family plans and spending caps

A few virtual networks, such as BT Mobile, Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, offer family SIM bundles, where you can pay for multiple SIMs under one overall contract. This may work out cheaper than taking out separate contracts, or see you getting useful perks or bonus data as a reward. What’s more, it gives you more control over spending, as you can decide which plan different family members need. Some plans even allow you to share unused allowances, meaning that, say, dad’s unused minutes can be swept through to data-greedy sons and daughters.

Another way to keep costs under control is by setting spending caps. Most providers now support these, and they help ensure that, should you (or your offspring) burn through the allowance, you won’t get a horrific shock when you open the next bill.

READ NEXT: The best smartphone cameras you can buy

Roaming and rollover features

Until recently, all UK networks allowed you to use your call, text and data allowances while travelling within the EU, while a few allowed you to use them in other popular destinations, such as the US and Australia.

Sadly, post-Brexit, this is no longer the case. Vodafone has now started charging customers up to £2 per day for inclusive EU roaming, while EE is to do the same from January 2022. O2 will charge, meanwhile, should users exceed a 25GB data cap while they’re abroad. Three and most of the virtual network operators have yet to announce any plans to follow suit but it’s wise to check if you plan to travel much should borders open up more.

If you frequently travel to one country outside the EU, it’s also worth looking to see how different networks charge for roaming in that country. If it isn’t included in the standard tariff, you may be able to buy an international roaming add-on that slashes the price, even if this means paying daily while you’re away.

Finally, look out for rollover features, where unused minutes or megabytes can be rolled over to the next month, or streaming features that allow you to use specific music or video streaming services without cutting into your data allowance. Some networks also offer additional extras, like a free Amazon Prime, BT Sports or Disney+ subscription or early access to tickets for live events.

What else should you consider?

There’s one other crucial thing you should check before you sign up: coverage. If your network is weak in your area, it won’t matter how fast or how good it is elsewhere. All mobile networks offer an online coverage checker, so you can enter your postcode and find out what services are available where you are. Ofcom also has its own coverage checker that can tell you which of the four networks will give you data and enhanced data services.

If anything, it’s getting even more important to check what data speeds and services are available in your area. The big networks are all now rolling out 5G services and many virtual network operators are following suit with their own 5G plans. 5G is great if you can get it and you have a 5G phone, and some networks are now offering plans with free upgrades, so you’re ready for 5G when it arrives, or you upgrade. However, that’s no use if you can’t get a 5G signal and it’s unlikely to be deployed near you anytime soon. After all, it’s no use paying for the UK’s fastest connection if you only get to enjoy it on the odd trip here and there.

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