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

Mobile Virtual 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. That’s thanks to cheaper networks which piggyback off the big four networks to deliver their services.

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 5GB of data and unlimited texts and minutes with EE will cost you £18 a month. But 10GB of data from BT Mobile is half that price for BT customers. That’s a saving of £108 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 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 the same signal

You won’t see any difference to reception 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.

There might be some minor differences. Though most will be offering 4G service, not all will provide 5G. And they don’t all allow wi-fi calling via your number – though you can get around this by using alternatives such as What’sApp to make calls via the internet.

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. 

Until recently I was with Three one and off for years. And every time I went to cancel they came back with an even lower price than what was advertised on their website.

Third parties often have cheaper deals

You can also get new contracts or upgrades via comparison sites and mobile phone shops that can be significantly cheaper than going direct, though they don’t always include extras, such as those listen in the next point.

You often get extra features, services and freebies

Free streaming

The big networks offer all sorts of discounts, such as £2 off Disney+ via O2, or free Paramount+ via Three. However, these offers are usually restricted to certain tariffs. – and they might work out no cheaper than finding a different deal elsewhere and paying for the streaming direct.

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, O2 Priority and Three+. 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 Odeon tickets and Greggs from O2. But in my experience these are nice to have extras rather than essentials.

And there’s a hack that’ll get you access to each one even if you’re with different networks.

“It’s understandable people are nervous of switching – but it’s costing them a fortune”

One of the families I filmed with for the Channel 5 series Shop Smart Save Money was Christine and James. Christine was paying a fortune with O2 but she didn’t want to change her 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 a 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 provider isn’t actually much of a risk. All thanks to finding an alternative virtual network that still used the O2 network.

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!


  • BT Mobile
  • Plusnet
  • Your Co-op
  • Utility Warehouse
  • 1pMobile

MVNO for O2

  • Virgin Mobile
  • Giffgaff
  • Lyca
  • Sky
  • Tesco Mobile

MVNO for Three

  • ID
  • Smarty
  • Superdrug

MVNO for Vodafone

  • Voxi
  • Talk Mobile
  • Asda
  • Lebara

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. Here’s more on how that works.

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

  1. In the last week I have moved from Vodafone to Lebara and managed to get 15GB of data, unlimited calls and unlimited texts plus European roaming for £2.78 a month for 6 months. Really pleased with that! Just one point regarding Vodafone; I am in credit to the amount of £37.67 and when I contacted them I was told the credit would be available after 21st February but I would need to phone them again after this date to request it, they don’t automatically refund credits. Not exactly ethical!

  2. 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.

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

    1. Very good point above about not necessarily getting the same signal with MVNO’s. I was with Vodafone on a contract which was expensive (was paying off an expensive phone as part of it ) then moved much later to Lebara on the super cheap deal mentioned above. I’d first moved down to Voxi after Voda due to price when given the chance as they were much cheaper. The reception was just as good as Vodafone so I thought this Lebara deal seemed amazing for the price. Unfortunately I regularly couldn’t use it for voice calls at all! People just couldn’t hear me on the other end or it was just garbled noise. Data calls via WhatsApp etc were absolutely fine but I’d regularly experience people saying they couldn’t hear or understand me and that they were just getting distortion down the phone which became very frustrating especially when I needed to call banks, the council etc. So I’ve begrudgingly moved to ID mobile with their 15gig data and unlimited calls and texts for £8 per month on a 12month plan with cancellation free for 30 days with a £50 voucher for Uber Eats or Amazon after 3 months if you stay. I’m crossing my fingers this is decent and will work properly or I’ll need to cancel again and switch.

      So be warned there’s often a reason you are being offered a deal too good to be true on a MVNO!


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