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Three mobile review 2017

Hannah Ricci
Monday, January 9th 2017

Three is the only UK mobile provider to offer unlimited data on 4G, and it has a wide choice of SIM-only deals and pay monthly contracts with the latest mobiles and tablets, as well as several pay-as-you-go options.

Three launched its 4G network in 2013 and offers this faster service at no extra cost to 3G. However, availability is pretty limited because Three’s 4G coverage is not as good as that of EE, O2 and Vodafone. Could Three be the provider for you? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is Three mobile any good?

Broadband Hannah Ricci
  • Tariffs & plans
    5/5
  • Phone & device range
    4/5
  • Customer service
    3/5
  • Value for money
    4/5
  • Coverage
    3/5
  • Overall
    4/5

Pros and cons

  • Unlimited data and tethering
  • Get text message usage alerts
  • Use your phone for free abroad
  • Free wi-fi at Underground stations
  • Limited 4G coverage
  • Slower upload speeds than rival networks
  • Traffic management from 3pm to midnight
  • 24-month contracts for new phone deals

What we like

Three is a popular mobile provider, with a 12% share of the UK mobile phone market. It may be smaller than rival networks EE, O2 and Vodafone, but it punches above its weight with competitive 3G and 4G deals. It also offers useful features, like unlimited data and free use of your phone in 18 international destinations.

So could Three have the right mobile plan for you or should you carry on your search elsewhere? Here’s the good and bad on Three to help you decide.

Unlimited data and tethering

Three offers unlimited usage on 4G. Giffgaff also does this but its unlimited SIM plan comes with traffic management. Using your phone as a personal wi-fi hotspot (known as tethering), is also permitted on all new Three phone contracts and SIM-only plans, but not on pay-as-you-go.

If you have all-you-can-eat data, tethering is limited to 30GB for new phone plans.

Usage alerts by text

If you choose a capped rather than an unlimited plan, Three texts you when you’re running low on minutes or data. Once you’ve used up your monthly allowance, you won’t be able to use the internet without buying an add-on, which helps you avoid racking up a massive bill.

Use your phone for free abroad

Three’s Feel at Home feature allows you to use your phone abroad at no extra cost. It operates in 19 countries and the allowance includes calls and texts to UK numbers and using the internet. If you have an all-you-can-eat data plan, usage is limited to 25GB. Tethering is not permitted abroad.

Free wi-fi in London Underground stations

Commuters and visitors to the capital can save data while travelling on the London Underground thanks to a partnership with Virgin Media. Three customers get free wi-fi at entrance halls, escalators and platforms in 130 Tube stations, but not when travelling between stations.

Visit Three Mobile

What we don’t like

Limited 4G coverage

Three was the fourth and final mobile network to launch 4G in 2013 and is consequently playing catch-up on coverage. Three currently covers 53% of the UK population.

Slower upload speeds than rival networks

While Three’s download speeds have improved significantly (7Mbps for 3G and 17Mbps for 4G), its upload speeds still lag behind the competition. In the latest Ofcom report, Three recorded an average upload speed of 1.7Mbps over 3G and 9.4Mbps over 4G, slower than EE, O2 and Vodafone.

TrafficSense policy operates from 3pm to midnight

Three operates a traffic management policy to prevent network congestion at peak times. TrafficSense doesn’t constrain the amount of data you can use, but from 3pm to midnight, file sharing and tethering may be slowed down, while time-sensitive activities – such as video streaming – are prioritised.

24-month contracts for all new phone deals

If you want a new mobile phone from Three, be prepared to commit for 24 months. It’s the only option and pretty restrictive if you like to keep up with the latest handsets.

Compare SIM-only deals

Coverage

Three’s network is expanding, but some areas will be unable to get 4G for some time. To find out if you’re covered where you are, you can call 0800 118 2309 (or 0203 151 8206 from a mobile) from 8am to 10pm every day. Or you can check Three’s coverage map online.

Check coverage

Three SIM-only plans for phones

Three offers a wide range of competitive SIM-only plans for phones, many of which you can get on either one-month or 12-month contracts. Prices vary so there’s something to suit every budget and level of usage.

If you’re already with Three, you can just order a SIM and you’re good to go, whereas anyone with a phone from another provider may need to get it unlocked first. Here’s an overview of Three’s SIM-only options and the key issues to consider when choosing.

One-month contracts

Minutes Texts Data Data speed Monthly cost  
200 - Unlimited Unlimited 500MB - Unlimited 4G-ready £9 - £36 Buy Now

One-month plans cost more than 12-month deals

Three’s one-month SIM-only plans cost more than the same deals on 12-month contracts, which is pretty standard practice in the industry. If you’re looking for short-term flexibility, the higher cost is usually worth the option to leave or switch deals without penalty.

All plans include unlimited texts and calls to 0800 numbers

All 0800 calls are free on Three SIM-only plans, while 084 and 087 numbers are charged at an access charge of 45p per minute plus service charge. Unlimited text messages are also included in every tariff.

Picture and video messages (known as MMS) cost 40p each, unless you are using an internet messaging service, such as iMessage or WhatsApp, which will use your data allowance instead.

Choose the right size SIM and ensure your phone is unlocked

Three offers all plans with a choice of three SIM sizes: standard, micro and nano. If you’re switching to Three from another provider, your phone may need to be unlocked to accept a Three SIM card.

12-month SIM-only contracts

Minutes Texts Data Data speed Monthly cost  
200 - Unlimited Unlimited 500MB - Unlimited 4G-ready £6 - £33 Buy Now

12-month plans are cheaper than one-month deals

Choosing a 12-month plan over a one-month rolling contract will save you money over the course of a year, because they are all cheaper each month for the same allowance of minutes, texts and data. There’s also more choice of 12-month SIM deals.

You get unlimited texts and calls to 0800 numbers

All 12-month SIM plans include unlimited text messages, while picture and video messages (known as MMS) cost 40p each. You can avoid this charge by using an internet messaging service, such as iMessage or WhatsApp, which uses a small portion of your data allowance instead.

Calls to 0800 numbers are free, and 084 and 087 numbers are charged at 45p per minute plus service charge.

You may need to unlock your phone

If your phone was purchased from another provider, it may need to be unlocked before you can switch. Three offers this service for free for its own phones but other networks can be less flexible. Call your existing provider to find out your options.

Compare Three SIM-only deals

Three pay-as-you-go plans

Unlike some providers, Three doesn’t keep its best deals for those who sign up to a contract. As a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customer you can enjoy many of the same perks, such as unlimited data and Feel at Home to use your phone abroad.

Three offers two PAYG options. You can top up your phone with credit and then pay for each call and text you make, as well as for each time you go online, or you can use your credit to buy a bundle (also known as an add-on). Here’s an overview of your options.

PAYG bundles

Minutes Texts Data Price  
100 - 300 3,000 500MB - Unlimited £10 - £20 Buy Now

Add-ons are better value for money

Frequent users get better value for money by buying a bundle rather than by paying for each call, text and megabyte of data. You can get an unlimited data SIM plan, which is a very tempting deal and the only one of its kind on the market. A major snag for some, however, is that you can’t tether on Three PAYG plans.

You can buy a new phone or just get a free SIM

Three offers a wide range of handsets on PAYG. You can get your hands on a basic smartphone or, if you’re feeling flush, you can get an iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy. Those looking to save money with an old or second-hand phone can get a free PAYG SIM: just check that your phone is unlocked first.

See Three PAYG deals

PAYG non-bundle rates

Usage Standard tariff charges
Three-to-Three calls 3p/min
Calls to UK mobiles 3p/min
Calls to UK landlines 3p/min
UK text messages 2p/text
UK picture messages (MMS) 40p/MMS
UK video messages (MMS) 40p/MMS
UK data Free allowance of 150MB with every top up, then 1p/MB
Three standard pay-as-you-go rates
Three-to-Three calls
3p/min
Calls to UK mobiles
3p/min
Calls to UK landlines
3p/min
UK text messages
2p/text
UK picture messages (MMS)
40p/MMS
UK video messages (MMS)
40p/MMS
UK data
Free allowance of 150MB with every top up, then 1p/MB

Low rates are handy for very light phone users

Three’s standard PAYG rates are competitive, and they are an affordable option if you rarely use your phone. The offer of 150MB internet data free with every top-up is useful for Googling a few things and occasionally checking in on social media.

Top-up credit never expires

It is common with other providers for top-up credit to expire if left unused for a prolonged period of time, but this isn’t the case with Three. Again, this is a useful feature for very occasional users who just like to have a mobile phone on hand for emergencies, like the car breaking down. Just remember to keep the phone charged as well.

Three mobile phones

Three has an impressive selection of smartphones, including the latest models and some older, cheaper handsets. Since Three was developed for the internet, all phones are 3G or 4G-ready for getting online, so you won’t find very basic handsets just for calling and texting.

Customers have a range of different payment options to choose from, such as paying more upfront for a lower monthly charge, or vice versa. A major plus is that all Three phones are supplied unlocked so you can easily switch to another provider at the end of your contract.

24-month contracts

Minutes Data Texts Upfront cost Monthly cost  
100 - Unlimited 500MB - Unlimited Unlimited £0 - £149 £8 - £33.50 Buy Now

Three offers all the latest mobile phone models

Three is quick off the mark in offering the latest phone models and tariffs, including the iPhone 7. You won’t find any basic, cheap models that just allow you to call and text, but there is a wide selection of phones to choose from.

Paying more upfront will cut the monthly cost

There’s a wide choice of tariffs to suit a range of different budgets, whether you prefer to pay a larger sum upfront for a lower monthly fee, or pay more each month. Many phones are also available with no upfront cost.

Early handset upgrades are not possible

Early upgrade options to get a new phone are quite limited at Three. All contracts run for 24 months and the earliest you can upgrade is 30 days before the end. If you want to upgrade earlier, you’ll have to pay the remaining monthly charges of the contract in full.

See Three phone deals

Three data SIMs for tablets

If you want to get your tablet online without wi-fi, a Three mobile broadband data SIM is a good solution. There are four options that run on flexible one-month contracts so you’re not tied in and can switch plans or cancel at any time without penalty. You can also get data plans on a 12-month contract.

There’s no unlimited data offer, however, so if you’re constantly online you might find the maximum 20GB data cap restrictive, but logging on to wi-fi (where available) will help save your data. Here are your options and what you need to consider before joining Three.

One-month/12-month contracts

Data Texts Minutes Monthly cost  
2GB - 20GB     £10 - £23 Buy Now

Texting or using extra data will incur extra charges

Tablet SIMs include a data allowance only. You won’t be able to make calls but can send text messages for 2p each. If you hit your data allowance, you’ll incur additional charges of 1p per megabyte (MB).

Tethering is permitted on all plans

Tethering is permitted on all Three SIM-only data plans, so your inclusive data can be used to wirelessly connect several devices to the internet at once, providing your main device has the tethering function.

Three doesn’t offer unlimited data for tablets

Three’s tempting offer of unlimited data does not apply to tablet SIMs, with a maximum allowance of 20GB per month. That’s quite substantial but falls short of the most generous plan on the market, which is the 25GB data SIM from EE.

12-month data SIMs are slightly cheaper

Although you’ll be tied to a contract, the 12-month data plans offer slightly better value for money than the shorter deals. However, the 1GB data plan is only available on a 12-month contract.

If you use your phone to go online frequently it may be better to go for a 12-month plan as you'll save money in the long run.

See Three data SIM deals

Frequently asked questions

How do I switch to Three?

Check Three network coverage in your area

The best way to find out if Three covers your area is to check coverage online. If 4G isn’t available at the moment, they may be able to tell you when it is expected to arrive.

Check your phone is unlocked if you’re going SIM-only

If you previously purchased a phone from another provider, it may need to be unlocked to accept a Three SIM card. It is legal but can invalidate your phone’s warranty. Contact your current provider for assistance or search for an unlocking code online for your phone model.

Contact your current provider and request a PAC

Tell your current provider that you want to leave and request a Porting Authorisation Code (PAC) to transfer your phone number. It makes sense to wait until you have reached the end of your current contract to avoid early termination charges.

Pick your tariff and give your PAC to Three

Your existing provider will issue the nine-digit PAC on request, either immediately over the phone or within two hours by text message. It is valid for 30 days so pass it onto Three as soon as you have chosen a tariff to keep your current phone number.

Does Three offer 4G?

Three launched 4G in 2013 and the network is now available in many parts of the country, although not yet everywhere. Coverage is less widespread than that of rival brands, EE, O2 and Vodafone. Three’s 4G is currently available in selected sites in around 50 towns and cities – 53% of the UK.

Use the Three coverage checker to see if it is available in your area and if not, when it is due to arrive. If you can’t get 4G at the moment, you can take out a 3G plan and upgrade for free when 4G rolls out.

How fast is Three 3G and 4G?

Like all providers, Three’s 3G and 4G speeds vary depending on many factors, including your proximity to the local mast and the amount of traffic on the network at any one time. See how Three’s average speeds compare to the industry average below.

  EE O2 Vodafone Three
Average 4G download speed 22Mbps 13Mbps 15Mbps 17Mbps
Average 4G upload speed 17.6Mbps 13.2Mbps 13.1Mbps 9.4Mbps
  Go Go Go Go
Network Average 4G download speed  
EE
22Mbps
O2
13Mbps
Vodafone
15Mbps
Three
17Mbps

Source: Ofcom

Does Three allow tethering?

Yes. The function is called Personal Hotspot and it is permitted on all SIM-only and pay monthly phone contracts, but not on pay-as-you-go. There are some limitations in that tethering is not permitted abroad and if you have an all-you-can-eat data plan, tethering is limited to 12GB.

What happened to Three’s The One Plan?

The One Plan was an extremely popular phone tariff from Three that offered all-you-can-eat calls, texts and data (including unlimited tethering). Three terminated The One Plan in 2014, citing abuse of unlimited tethering, which caused continuous network congestion.

Visit Three Mobile

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