MVNOs: The network hack that’ll cut hundreds from your mobile phone bill

Virtual Mobile Network Operators (MVNOs) give the same signal at lower prices.

It’s easy to ditch EE, O2, Three and Vodafone and save money without compromising on the quality of your service.

One of the families I filmed with for the last series of Shop Smart Save Money was Christine and James. Christine was paying a fortune with O2 but she didn’t want to change provider. She knew O2 gave a signal in the locations she needed it and didn’t want to risk bad reception with another mobile company.

And I think that’s quite a common feeling. We rely on our phones all day, whether at work or at home. Yes you might be able to get signal with another big network, or you might be able to hop on to some wi-fi at those locations. But sometimes you just want to stick with what you know works.

However I was able to convince Christine that not only would she save a shed load of cash by moving away from O2, but also that switching network isn’t actually much of a risk. And that’s thanks to Mobile Virtual Networks.

What is a Mobile Virtual Network?

There are four main networks. EE, Vodaphone, O2 and Three. And these are actually the only real networks. The rest are what are known as mobile virtual networks operators (or MVNO). And that includes big names such as Virgin Mobile, Giffgaff and ID Mobile.

Essentially these MVNOs have agreements in place to lease the infrastructure and technology of the main networks to offer their own branded services – and their own prices.

Benefits of switching to a virtual network

There are two key reasons not to be scared of switching your provider.

They usually have the lowest prices

You will get much, much lower prices from the virtual networks. This is even the case for those owned by the big networks such as Giffgaff (owned by O2’s parent company Telefonica), BT Mobile (which actually owns EE) and Voxi (owned by Vodafone).

Here’s a good example. Right now 3GB of data and unlimited texts and minutes with EE will cost you £19 a month. But 6GB of data from BT Mobile is a tenner less for BT customers. That’s a saving of £120 a year and double the data!

A handful of MVNOs are also changing how you’re charged – which could make them the cheapest option for you. Sky Mobile will let you carry over unused data, while Smarty will give you £1 credit back on each full GB of data.

Or you can get extra discounts thanks to your existing contacts. BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk all offer their customers special deals for adding a mobile SIM to their existing TV and broadband packages.

You can get exactly the same signal

You won’t see any difference as long as you move to one which operates on the same service as your current main network.

So that could be Virgin Mobile instead of EE, Tesco Mobile instead of O2, ID rather than Three or Voxi rather than Vodafone. There’s a decent list of the main virtual networks and the network they use further down the page.

Most will be offering 4G service, but do make sure it’s not just 3G. And of course, it might take longer before you get 5G on the MVNOs.

Benefits of sticking with the big networks

Of course, it doesn’t mean the main networks don’t have benefits. The following can mean you’re better off sticking with the likes of EE and O2 – but only if you’re able to get those prices down.

You can really haggle down prices

This is true for most, if not all, mobile networks – but especially with the big four. Use your research on the virtual networks to find the price you want to pay and then see if your existing network will match or beat it. 

I’m with Three and every time I go to cancel they come back with an even lower price. So I pay £10 for 8GB of data, whereas I was previously paying £12 for just 4GB.

You often get extra features, services and freebies

Free streaming

The big networks offer all sorts of freebies, such as free Amazon Prime Video with EE and 24 months of Spotify with Vodafone. You might even be able to use certain services without it coming out of your data allowance, such as Apple Music with some Three tariffs.

Now these can be great value for money IF you are already planning to pay for these services. But they certainly shouldn’t be the main reasons to choose one of the main networks. 

Loyalty apps

The same goes for Vodafone’s VeryMe and O2 Priority. These popular loyalty apps do have the occasional great freebie or discount – but you need to check just how much extra these are costing you.

Use them a lot on things you’d get anyway then great – e.g. the free Caffe Nero coffees from O2. But in my experience of O2 is that offers aren’t what they once were. You rarely get as much back in freebies you actually need/want as you’ll have paid out in the higher monthly price.

Worldwide roaming

A big reason I’ve stuck with Three (once I got the discount on the monthly price) is that you get more data roaming in more countries – not just Europe. So though I’m possibly paying £12 or so more a year than I necessarily need to, I’ll be saving more on my phone use in countries such as the USA.

Vodafone also offers this on tariffs which include Global Roaming Plus, and EE on its Max plans – though you do pay more for these.

Of course these are pointless if you only ever travel to Europe. That could change once Brexit happens, but until then, and possibly after, you’ll be able to use your allowances in most European countries for no extra charge.

Which Mobile Virtual Network Operators use each network

There are a number of providers out there, but here are some of the main ones you will see. Some are very familiar names!


  • Virgin Mobile
  • BT Mobile
  • Asda (moving to Vodafone from 2021)
  • Plusnet
  • The Phone Co-op
  • Utility Warehouse

MVNO for O2

  • Giffgaff
  • Lyca
  • Sky
  • Tesco Mobile

MVNO for Three

  • ID
  • Smarty
  • Superdrug

MVNO for Vodafone

  • Voxi
  • Talk Mobile

How to bring your mobile phone number with you

You can take your existing phone number with you to your new network. You just need to request a PAC from your existing network and give it to your new one, and your number will be moved over, usually the next working day.

More ways to bring down your mobile phone bill

2 thoughts on “MVNOs: The network hack that’ll cut hundreds from your mobile phone bill

  1. It’s actually not true that you can always get exactly the same signal. You should do for Vodafone and O2, but both EE and Three have part of their network on a frequency which only certain phones and plans are allowed to access (800Mhz/band 20) and not all MVNOs have access to this either. This is why on the EE and Three coverage maps they ask you to say what device you have, because if you have a device that supports band 20 on their network (and you have a compatible plan) you’ll get better coverage. It’s a bit complicated, but it basically means just because you currently get signal somewhere on EE or Three directly, doesn’t mean you’ll definitely also get the same signal on an MVNO even if it’s using the same network.

    Another thing worth mentioning is wifi calling (which lets you make/receive calls with no signal as long as you’re on wifi) – MVNOs also don’t always support this, so if you relied on this to receive calls from home, for example, double check the MVNO you’re looking to move to supports this.

    That’s not to say it’s not worth switching but it’s worth watching out for – I wouldn’t want to switch assuming I was going to get the same signal but then find out I didn’t.

  2. Do you know if an of EE’s MVNO also offers the visual voicemail? That’s the only reason i’m still with EE.


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