Best network for iPhone

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.

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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