When it comes to choosing a mobile provider, coverage is one of the most critical issues.

After all, while you can still use many of your mobile’s features on Wi-Fi, the on-the-go access to calls, texts, data, and more is what makes them really handy.

To further complicate matters, your mobile, your surroundings, and even network congestion can have a big impact on both signal strength and how your phone performs when connected to a mobile network.

So how can you tell which network offers the best coverage near you?

You have a few options:

Network coverage maps offer an estimate of coverage in your area (although there are no guarantees to accuracy or service quality).

Third-party coverage maps such as OpenSignal and RootMetrics provide information you can rely on a bit more since it's collected from people actually using their mobiles.

Reports from major mobile research companies offer a look at bigger trends and the overall picture -- often at a national or state level -- but don't always provide information tailored to your region unless you live in a major city.

By looking at each of them and comparing the information available, you can piece together a good idea of what to expect.

If a day full of research isn’t your idea of fun, we’re breaking down everything there is to know about coverage with the big -- and not so big -- mobile companies in the UK.

Networks & MNVOs Explained

Before you can know what to expect from the various networks out there, you have to understand that while there’s a huge range of different network options, most of them are using only a handful of different physical networks to provide coverage.

Major networks in the UK include:

So what about the rest of those companies you see?

They’re known as MVNOs -- or mobile virtual network operators.

They actually use the same physical networks as the Big Four listed above. They just lease access to the bigger network and charge you accordingly.

Some are even owned by one of the Big Four, including:

While most MVNOs offer similar coverage, be sure to check the network’s plans and terms to ensure that you’re able to use the full capabilities offered by the bigger companies.

Many MNVOs limit speeds, de-prioritize traffic during peak hours, or provide access to only select frequencies of the main network.

So while coverage might be identical, features might be different.

Confused yet? It’s understandable…

But it also goes to highlight just how hard it is for the average person to find good, reliable information about coverage in their area from different providers.

Who Has the Best Coverage?

Looking at data from OpenSignal, RootMetrics, and other industry experts, there are some obvious brands which stand out -- even with all the networks in the UK market.

#1. EE

(Right: © EE 2019, Left: © RootMetrics 2019)

Simply stated, EE dominated rankings in every report we found. 

From download speeds to coverage in remote areas, they impressed industry experts and analysts time and time again.

EE states on their own site that they cover 90% of the UK geographically with plans to push to 95% in the next year. When it comes to population coverage, 4G.co.uk notes >99% 4G coverage with 98% 3G coverage.

Notable awards for EE include:

Ranked first in all 5 categories (4G Availability, Video Experience, Download Speed Experience, Upload Speed Experience, and Latency Experience) in OpenSignal’s Mobile Network Experience April 2019 by an extremely narrow margin

Ranked first overall in RootMetrics' Mobile performance in the UK part 1: performance across the entire UK - 2H 2018 with wins in every category (Reliability, Speed Score, Data Score, Call Score, Text Score).

Ranked first in Ookla's January 2018 Mobile Report for fastest carriers. 

MVNOs using EE’s network include:

#2. Vodafone

(Right: © Ken's Tech Tips 2019, Left: © RootMetrics 2019)

Offering 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage through the UK, Vodafone's network is impressive. They're also planning a 5G release in the summer of 2019.

They were the only network to give EE a run for their money in most reports.

When it comes to population coverage, 4G.co.uk notes 99% 4G and 3G coverage -- a figure repeated on Vodafone's own site.

Notable awards include:

Ranked second in the Latency Experience, Upload Speed Experience, Download Speed Experience, and Video Experience categories with a close third place for 4G Availability in OpenSignal's Mobile Network Experience Report April 2019

Ranked second in Ookla's January 2018 Mobile Report for fastest carriers. 

MVNOs using Vodafone's network include:

#3. Three

(Right: © Three 2019, Left: © RootMetrics 2019)

Three offers a strong 3G and 4G network throughout the UK. 

Most reports show them in a strong battle with Vodafone for second place in most rankings. 

In terms of population coverage, 4g.co.uk shows 99.8% and 98.3% for 4G and 3G respectively. However, while coverage is excellent, they tend to fall behind bigger names when it comes to download and upload speeds.

#4. O2 

(Right: © O2 2019, Left: © RootMetrics 2019)

While O2 ranks near the top of most reviews and reports for coverage,  upload and download speeds slower than the other three networks typically land the network near the bottom of the rankings. However, if you're not a heavy data user, their call, text, and stability all receive respectable marks.

According to 4g.co.uk, O2 offers 99% population coverage across their 2G, 3G, and 4G networks -- an impressive figure.

Notable awards for O2 include:

Ranked second for 4G Availabilty and third for Video Experience in OpenSignal’s Mobile Network Experience April 2019.

Ranked second for text performance in RootMetrics' Mobile performance in the UK part 1: performance across the entire UK - 2H 2018.

Awarded Best Network Coverage in the uSwitch Mobile Awards 2019.

MVNO's using O2's network include:

Common Questions

1. Can I get out of my contract if I have poor coverage?

In most cases, you cannot get out of your mobile contract for weak coverage unless you’re in the very early stages of your contract -- often a matter of days or weeks.

Even if the issue is on your network’s end, they’re going to make you jump through hoops to prove your signal is poor. They might also suggest fixes like a femtocell mini tower instead of letting you out of your contract. These mini towers use your home or business Internet connection to link your phone with the mobile network.

2. Is there any way to improve the signal in my home or office?

Apart from femtocell towers and signal amplifiers or repeaters in your home or business -- devices which often run hundreds of pounds -- there’s not much to be done if coverage at one of your frequently visited locations is poor.

In some cases, if you had coverage in the past and are suddenly experiencing issues maintaining a strong signal, it might be a problem with your device or SIM. In those cases, contacting your network is the first step toward solving the problem.

This is also true if you recently purchased an unlocked mobile. Having good coverage is irrelevant if your mobile doesn’t support every frequency used by the mobile network in your area.

3. Can I boost my mobile's antenna?

There are plenty of products out there claiming you can slap them on your battery or put them on your window and see instant gains in signal strength. But they’re mostly gimmicks.

In fact, this article outlines an experiment which found that not only do most phone antenna stickers not work, but they might also make things worse.

In general, if you absolutely need a stronger signal and can’t switch networks you’d be better off getting signal repeaters and amplifiers that take the signal in the air around you and make it stronger. But these don’t come cheap and often require running power or networking cables to the amplifier to get things started.

4. What about 5G? Who’s the best there?

It’s honestly too early to tell yet and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably just trying to sell something.

Most UK networks won't unveil their 5G networks until the later in 2019. While 5G stands to possibly change mobile service completely, we don’t feel like things have matured enough to compare providers at this time.

5. How can I test my coverage if I’m having problems?

Most mobiles offer an indicator to give a basic idea of how coverage is at your location. But if you suspect that you’re having signal issues but the bars at the top of your phone’s screen say otherwise, a speed test is a good way to check things.

Popular options include:

You’ll need to run the test with Wi-Fi disconnected if you want to check your mobile connection. This means the tests will use mobile data to transmit randomized information to and from your phone. So be careful if you have a small data allowance.

If your signal strength is high but speeds are inconsistent or really low, it could indicate a problem with your service or device. The next step to fixing issues would be to call your network.

You can also check sites such as DownDetector to see if anyone else if your area is reporting problems with the service provider you use. Keep in mind that many of these sites do not verify claims and only aggregate or pass on reports, so information might not always be wholly accurate.

Final Thoughts

By comparing data from multiple sources and using crowd-sourced information, you can get a better idea of what coverage is like in your area for a particular network.

In 2019, EE appears to offer the best coverage in the UK. However, networks and statistics change often.

While we’ve sourced our findings from top media outlets in the tech industry, these statistics only provide so much accuracy for your exact location because they look at the entire country.

For the most accurate information, turn to social media groups in your area or friends and family.

Ask them what networks they use and how they like their coverage.

This will provide information directly relevant to your area from people you know and trust.

P.S. If you’ve found a few providers who offer good coverage in your area, be sure to compare the various plans and prices on offer before signing any agreements. Our plan comparison tool makes it simple to compare plans by prices, data allotments, features, and more with just a few clicks.

[1] Open Signal: UK Mobile Network Experience Report April 2019
[2] Root Metrics: Mobile performance in the UK part 1: performance across the entire UK - 2H 2018
[3] 4G.co.ukBest 4G Network – UK Networks Compared
[4] Ookla: SpeedTest.net January 30, 2018 Mobile Reports
[5] WikipediaList of United Kingdom mobile virtual network operators
[6] Money Saving Expert'Piggybacking' and which network really provides your mobile signal
[7] Ken's Tech TipsHow To Check & Compare UK Mobile Coverage: Networks & MVNOs

Disclosure: You should know that in some cases, we may receive a referral fee (at no additional cost to you) for products purchased through the links on our site. These links help support our work but they do not influence our content. Our editorial recommendations are always genuine and we try to feature only the best products and services. Why trust us?