Mobile Network Operators in the UK

The UK – United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – has one of the most matured mobile markets in the world with a number of mobile network operators (MNOs) and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) providing services from one end of the country to another.

Services offered by mobile network operators in the UK include telephone voice calls, SMS, mobile Internet, as well as a range of value-added services. You will find matured 3G and 4G networks in the UK, as well as rapidly growing 5G networks.

Mobile Network Operators in the UK (United Kingdom)

Having said that, there are generally two types of mobile network operators – MNO and MVNO. Let’s have a look at them, so you can have a better understanding of how they operate.

MNO vs MVNO: What is the difference?

There is one major difference between an MNO (mobile network operator) and an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator, or simply virtual operator): the former setup, own and operate their own infrastructure and network, while the latter does not. An MVNO exists by piggybacking on an MNO, using its infrastructure and network to resell mobile services to subscribers.

An MVNO does not have its own telecom towers and frequencies; it uses those of a proper MNO to provide its own services. Despite not owning any infrastructure, virtual operators are able to sell their own branded SIM cards and plans. You wouldn’t know they are resellers, at face value.

List of Virtual Mobile Network Operators in the UK

There are only four real mobile network operators in the UK who have their own infrastructure and run their own networks. These are the MNOs. Here are the Big 4, as they are called:

  • EE
  • O2
  • Vodafone
  • Three

EE is currently the largest mobile operator in the UK, followed by O2. In June 2023, Three and Vodafone announced their interntion to merge and form a new MNO called MergeCo, which will then become the largest operator in the country. If the deal goes through, MergeCo will begin operations by the end of 2024.

List of Virtual Mobile Network Operators in the UK

Apart from the Big 4 in the UK, there are twenty virtual operators. Virtual mobile network operators (MVNOs) are different from MNOs in that unlike MNOs who have their own infrastructure and networks, MVNOs do not own any of that. Instead, they resell the services of MNOs using the MNOs infrastructure and networks. Which is why they are called virtual operators.

The list of virtual mobile network operators riding on the networks of one or more of the Big 4 include:

  • Tesco Mobile
  • Giffgaff
  • BT Mobile
  • Virgin Mobile
  • Sky
  • Talkmobile
  • Plusnet
  • Asda Mobile
  • Lycamobile
  • Lebara
  • Superdrug
  • Your Co-op
  • 1pMobile
  • FreedomPop
  • Now Mobile
  • iD Mobile

As already mentioned, virtual operators piggyback on the mobile network operators to resell their services. This means that virtual operators are able to offer 3G, 4G, and 5G services as long as the MNO they piggyback on has those technologies.

For example, Tesco Mobile, an MVNO, uses the MNO O2’s infrastructure and network to deliver services to its subscribers. If you are on Tesco, your Tesco SIM card actually connects to O2’s network to work. That’s how MVNOs operate.

As another example, virtual operators like Smarty, iD Mobile, FreedomPop, and Superdrug Mobile all use Three’s network. When you pop their SiM card in your phone, they all connect to Three‘s network.

Does it matter whether you use an MNO or MVNO?

Not in the least. Feel free to get on any type of mobile network operator in the UK whose services align with your needs. They are all licensed to provide you with mobile services, and sometimes, you will find that an MVNO has packages that are better tailored to your needs.

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