UK 5G Mobile Plans: Operators Use Roaming and Streaming to Attract Customers

What Do I Need to Know?

  • Each UK operator offers a range of postpaid 5G plans
  • Most operators offer plan tiers that include extra benefits, such as streaming access or roaming
  • The UK market has a large number of MVNOs that offer 5G plans

Background

EE was the first operator to launch a 5G network in the UK, having also been the first to launch 4G earlier in the decade. Vodafone and O2 followed that same year, and Three launched in early 2020. As of May 2022, coverage had rolled out to most of the UK’s cities and towns, covering large parts of the population. EE and Three were also quick to launch home internet services based on 5G, though these plans are not included in this report.

What Are Operators Offering?

EE

EE’s assortment of plans is relatively straightforward: there are four plans with data allowances and two that offer unlimited data, differentiated by download speed. The operator doesn’t define any of its plans explicitly as 5G, but for each it lists either a maximum download speed (25Mbps or 100Mbps) or says there’s no maximum speed. Its top-tier plan with 200GB of data is billed at being for the price of 125GB, and the extra data allowance is added after 10 days. All plans also allow data sharing between accounts on a family plan of at least two lines.

Plan1GB5GB25GB200GB
Price (GBP)15182123
Data (GB)1525200
Price/GB (GBP)15.003.600.840.12
Table 1. EE limited data 5G plans

In addition, EE offers versions of each plan with Smart Benefits, which are subscriptions to extra content that is included for the length of the plan (i.e. 24 months). Services available include Netflix, Apple Music, BT Sport and Microsoft 365, among others. Most of these Smart Benefits plans come with one, but the top-tier unlimited plan includes three Smart Benefits.

O2

O2 offers a similar number of plans to EE and a split by extra benefits. The two main differences, apart from the size of data allowances, are that O2 doesn’t differentiate by download speed and its plus plans feature extra roaming, rather than streaming services. Every plan offers some benefit on top of the airtime portion of the contract: these are typically at least 3 months of Apple Music or Disney Plus, or some other streaming benefit, plus certain tiers offer limited time promotions for a prepaid Mastercard offering GBP50 or GBP100.

Plan6GB15GB120GB250GB
Price (GBP)12152025
Data (GB)615120250
Price/GB (GBP)2.001.000.170.10
Table 2. O2 limited data 5G plans (standard)

The key difference between standard plans and Plus Plans is the amount of roaming included in the plan. Standard plans offer 25GB of roaming in the EU, while Plus Plans offering unlimited roaming (subject to fair use policies) in 75 destinations worldwide, including the EU, US and Australia. The Unlimited Plus Plan costs just GBP2 per month more than the standard version, making it a very attractive deal for users who travel frequently. On the other hand, the 150GB Plus Plan actually costs more per month than the 160GB standard plan.

Plan150GB PlusUnlimited Plus
Price (GBP)2232
Data (GB)150Unlimited
Price/GB (GBP)0.15n/a
Table 3. O2 Plus plans

Vodafone

Like its competitors, Vodafone offers a standard range of plans and a range that includes benefits on top of minutes, texts and data. The standard range of plans is called Vodafone Red, and features only the airtime plans, i.e. no roaming is included. Each plan is also available as a “Plus Entertainment” version, which includes 24 months of YouTube Premium, Amazon Prime or Spotify Premium for an additional GBP7 per month.

PlanRed 1GBRed 5GBRed 160GBRed 200GB
Price (GBP)11152023
Data (GB)15160200
Price/GB (GBP)11.003.000.130.12
Table 4. Vodafone 5G Red plans

Vodafone’s other range of plans is called Xtra Benefits. Each offers benefits such as Unlimited Data Boosters (usable a certain number of times per month after the user maxes out their data allowance), discounted smartwatch connectivity, device care and unlimited picture messages. These plans also offer roaming in 51 destinations in Europe, plus GBP6 per day to roam in outside Europe, including Australia and the US.

Plan2GB6GB250GB
Price (GBP)182230
Data (GB)26250
Price/GB (GBP)9.003.670.12
Table 5. Vodafone 5G Xtra Benefits plans

Vodafone also offers three unlimited data plans, differentiated by download speed. The two lower tiers don’t actually offer 5G, with their download speeds limited to 2Mbps and 10Mbps respectively, while the top tier plan is on Vodafone’s 5G network. These plans are also available with entertainment packages and Xtra Benefits, including the largest range of countries with free roaming.

Three

Three offers a wide range of plans at competitive prices. Each of its 24-month plans includes personal hotspot access and access to roaming for an additional GBP2 per day in Europe and GBP5 per day in the rest of the world. 

Plan4GB8GB12GB
Price (GBP)91012
Data (GB)4812
Price/GB (GBP)2.251.251.00
Table 6. Three 5G plans (lowest-priced)

Two plans are not included in these tables. The first is Three’s entry-level plan, which offers 1GB of data for GBP8 per month, and doesn’t use Three’s 5G network. The other is Three’s sole unlimited data plan, which costs GBP24 per month.

Plan30GB100GB250GB
Price (GBP)141620
Data (GB)30100250
Price/GB (GBP)0.470.160.08
Table 7. Three 5G plans (higher-priced)

MVNOs

The UK is one of Europe’s largest markets for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), though the majority are no-frills brands aimed at more value-conscious consumers and students, or ethnic brands aimed at immigrants looking for cheap calling to their home countries. Four of the best-known brands have launched 5G service: Tesco Mobile from the UK supermarket chain, which uses O2’s network; BT Mobile, from EE’s parent company BT Group, uses EE’s network; Sky Mobile is associated with the UK’s largest pay-TV brand and also uses O2’s network; and Virgin Mobile, the mobile arm of the UK’s main cable broadband provider and also uses O2’s network.

Conclusion

Compared with their continental counterparts, UK operators offer a much wider range of plans. They also inflate the number of plans they offer by tacking on benefits, such as access to music or video streaming services, though where these added-benefit plans have the same data allowances, they haven’t been included in the tables. Another notable quirk of the UK market is that operators typically bundle their airtime contracts with the price of the smartphone; because of this, the prices listed in this report are for SIM-only plans.

OperatorEEO2VodafoneThree
Plan200GB250GBRed 200GB250GB
Price (GBP)23252320
Data (GB)200250200250
Price/GB (GBP)0.120.100.120.08
Table 8. UK operators’ top-tier limited-data plans

UK operators used to offer very low data allowances compared with operators in the rest of Europe, but now their top-tier plans’ data allowances are in line with those from comparably sized countries, if not higher. The average price per GB of data is also comparable to top tier plans from other countries, though plans in the rest of the EU-5 typically include better roaming offers.

OperatorEEO2VodafoneThree
PlanUnlimited (GBP31)UnlimitedUnlimited MaxUnlimited
Price (GBP)31283024
Table 9. UK operators’ top-tier unlimited plans

With regard to unlimited plans, only EE and Vodafone differentiate by download speed. However, EE’s lower-speed plan offers much higher speeds than those from Vodafone, which are effectively limited to 3G speeds. For those prices, customers would do better to get Vodafone’s limited-data plans that offer 5G: for example, the Red 150GB and 200GB plans cost less than the lower unlimited tiers but offer enough data for most users.

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