How to choose a mobile provider
There are several things to consider when choosing a mobile provider. Coverage, cost, contract length and whether they offer the phone or SIM you're after.
That's why there's no such thing as a 'best provider'. We all exist in different circumstances, in locations with differing signal strength for different providers, and we all have our own notion of what constitutes a great deal, whether that's a reasonable monthly sum on the very latest handset or a SIM with a lot of data on a tight budget. Here are some things you should consider before choosing.
Pay monthly with a phone or just a SIM?
You know whether or not you need a phone. Of perhaps you don't. Or you think you do, but you actually don't. Unfortunately there's no way for us to know which of these circumstances you find yourself in, so you're going to have to decide for yourself.
To help you with that decision, try to quantify whether your existing phone still works great or not. There was a time not too many years ago where 'this year's model' represented a huge upgrade in terms of speed, features, screen quality and so on. Not so now. Generally speaking it's fair to say that the must-haves on the brand new handsets have at the very least become nice-to-haves, or more cynically, not-needs.
If you're perfectly happy with your current phone, our advice is to save some money and keep it until something comes around that makes that upgrade essential – something that you actually need. If, on the other hand, cost isn't really an issue and you just have to have the latest thing, well, then fill your boots.
If you're after a handset, forget about choosing Asda Mobile or Plusnet Mobile as these providers only provide SIMs. Likewise, if you are just after a SIM both are good choices if spending less is a factor. In terms of getting a pay-monthly handset deal, take your pick. Just be wary that not all providers will necessarily offer fantastic coverage/signal where you live.
Think about coverage and where you live
If you can't get a good signal where you live, your mobile deal is pretty much dead in the water. Provider/network signal maps, as provided on their websites, are a good place to start, but they all have a pretty major drawback: They can't tell you what the signal will be like in your home.
Chances are this isn't an issue for you – you probably already have a mobile deal and know you can get a signal on the network you're currently using. There are four networks in the UK: Vodafone, O2, EE and Three. Other providers piggyback onto one of these networks. So, if you're with EE currently and you know you get a great signal, but fancy a mobile deal from Virgin Mobile, which is on the EE network, you're not going to have any issues.
So, Virgin Mobile is on EE, as is Asda Mobile, BT Mobile and Plusnet Mobile. Tesco Mobile and giffgaff are both on O2.
Budget, roaming, contract length and other considerations
Set yourself a budget
Before you go mad and snap up an iPhone XS with 300GB of data per month, stop for a moment and ask yourself what you really need. When it comes to phones, we recognise that prestige is a factor for some. You may want to make a statement with your phone, but that's no reason to throw silly money at it. Shop around – that's what we're here to help you with – and nine times out of ten you're going to find the phone you want at a price that won't bankrupt you.
That's why it's always best to anchor yourself to a figure you're comfortable paying before you get carried away.
Think about contract length
Contract length is important. Firstly, because you need to bear in mind that however long the contract is, that's how long you're stuck with that provider. All providers, barring those deals that offer a 30-day rolling contract, will charge you through the nose for leaving early. Keep that in mind.
Secondly, contract length is going to dictate what it costs you each month. Shorter SIM only contracts tend to cost a little more as providers gird themselves against users switching in and out. Handset deals are literally multiples more expensive over shorter contract periods because you're essentially paying hire-purchase on the device itself, and like any credit agreement, the shorter the term the more your monthly premium.
Just bear in mind that the most tempting prices, especially on new, flagship handsets will also come with the longest contracts. Want to be tied in for three years? No? Then think carefully about what you can afford. Also worth bearing in mind that some providers do allow you to upgrade your phone mid-contract, usually for a fee, but in return will make you sign a brand new contract, tying you in for even longer.
Compare mobile deals
Who is the best mobile provider?
As painful as it is to hear, there is no one good answer to this question, apart from, maybe: Whichever provider suits you best. Perhaps you're with Virgin Media and could save some money in plumping for Virgin Mobile? Maybe only Three offers the handset you're after? Perhaps where you live, only O2 offers a really good signal? There are too many factors to pick an outright best.
However, at Cable.co.uk we don't simply include every little provider out there. Provider reputation and service are a key factor. So at the very least, choosing one of the providers listed above will never see you far wrong.