What is a mobile virtual network operator?

Choosing a mobile provider can be a tricky decision, especially if you end up committing to a contract but want to keep monthly costs down. But that’s where signing up with a mobile virtual network operator or MVNO for short, can help. Here, we explore what they are and what it means when it comes to your phone deal.

To find the best mobile phone contract and SIM deals for you, we've partnered with Uswitch.

What is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)?

MVNOs don’t own their own mobile network infrastructure. Instead, they rent space from the only four providers that do – EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone. So, even if your phone deal isn’t with one of these big four firms, the service you get will be provided by one of them.

Why do MVNOs exist?

Setting up, maintaining and managing a mobile network is expensive. Firms also need licences issued by communications regulator Ofcom before they can use the radio spectrum which enables the system to work.

MVNOs don’t need to worry about these licences as they’re classed as customers of the main network operators (although they do need to meet certain regulations). MVNOs also don’t have to spend time managing or maintaining the network themselves. It means that MVNOs can offer services without the considerable overheads that come from owning the infrastructure.

Which MVNOs use each network?

If your phone deal is with an MVNO, your contract should specify which of the big four they rent space from, but here’s a summary of some of the most popular MVNOs and the networks they use .

Network infrastructure owned byMobile virtual network operator
EEBT Mobile, Plusnet, Utility Warehouse
O2GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, Lyca Mobile
ThreeiD Mobile, Smarty
VodafoneAsda Mobile, Voxi, Lebara, TalkTalk

What are the pros and cons of using an MVNO?

One of the biggest benefits is that services from an MVNO can be much cheaper compared to signing up with one of the big four providers.

If you live rurally, it also means your choice of mobile provider is probably far greater than you might think it is. For example, if you only seem to get reception with O2, you could also explore deals from MVNOs that rent space from them (including GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile).

The downside is that not all features and benefits offered by the big four network providers will be available with MVNOs, despite sharing the same infrastructure. For instance, not all MVNOs will offer Wi-Fi calling (where you use the internet connection to make calls).

In some instances, particularly during peak times, the main network operators may prioritise their own customers. The result is that if you’re an MVNO customer, you could notice your connectivity and speed takes a slight dip .

Depending on the MVNO, you also may not have access to 5G. While it’s offered by all of the main networks and many MVNOs, there are still a handful that don’t. For example, 5G is currently not available with Plusnet or Utility Warehouse .

Which main network is best?

There’s not a huge amount of difference in terms of overall service availability. EE, O2 and Vodafone all reach 99% of the UK population , while Three reaches a little more at 99.8%.

How do I choose between mobile providers?

Before you make a decision, consider:


The vast majority of the UK has access to 4G but 5G (the latest mobile technology) is still being rolled out. While it’s available in most large towns and cities, it’s not always an option in more rural or remote parts of the UK. If 5G is something you’re keen to access, check which providers offer it (and whether it’s available where you live).


When you compare phone packages, it’s easy to get carried away, so think about whether you really need the very latest handset and how much data you’ll actually use. If you’re taking out a monthly contract, be mindful that you’ll need to keep up with bill payments. If not, you could face fines, have your phone contract cancelled and it could impact your credit history.

Contract or contract free

If you don’t want to tie yourself into a contract, it’s worth comparing SIM only deals which often come contract free or as rolling monthly contracts. As they come without the handset, these plans can also be considerably cheaper.

Extra benefits

Some providers will include added extras and incentives, for example, O2 customers enjoy access to exclusive tickets for events and shows (not available to MVNO customers). That said, don’t be too swayed by perks – if you don’t use them, you won’t be any better off.

Save money and compare mobile phone deals

Comparing mobile plans from a range of providers is one of the quickest and simplest ways to help you find the best package for your needs. To start your search, you can head over to Uswitch, where you’ll find the latest contract and SIM only deals.

To find the best mobile phone contract and SIM deals for you, we've partnered with Uswitch.


NimbleFins Newsletter

Get energy alerts, deals, tips, news, and more!