What is an MVNO, and should I get a mobile deal with one?

ByKim Staples
Family using phones

Make very nauseous owls? Maybe videos need observation? Malicious vampires not okay? Hmm, no, that doesn’t sound right. So what exactly does MVNO mean? And are they any good?

What are MVNOs?

An MVNO is a mobile virtual network operator. That clears things up, right?

Okay, let's explain further. Regular old mobile network operators (MNOs) - like EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone - own, run, and maintain their own physical mobile network. MVNOs don't. Instead, they have a deal with one of the MNOs in which they lease some of that network's capacity and sell it on as mobile deals to customers. For instance, Virgin Mobile (an MVNO) rents capacity from EE's network (an MNO), and sells its own Virgin Mobile deals.

There are around 1,000 MVNOs worldwide, with more than 50 in the UK alone. They first began as a way of introducing more competition to the mobile market and breaking up monopolies, and that's still what they're doing today.

Because the MVNO has much lower overheads and no need to maintain mobile masts and what-have-you, it's usually able to offer much cheaper plans. So everybody wins: the MNO gets to lease out some network capacity that otherwise wouldn't be used; the MVNO makes money through deals; and you, the customer, get great value deals with all the coverage of the main network.

The exact plans available from an MVNO are usually completely different from those on the network whose infrastructure it uses. You'll have access to the deals and benefits of the MVNO, but have pretty much nothing to do with the MNO. For example, Tesco Mobile is an MVNO that uses O2, meaning Tesco Mobile customers will get Clubcard points but not O2 Priority.

Examples of MVNOs

Here are some of the main MVNOs in the UK.

 

iD

Carphone Warehouse's network, iD Mobile, is a MVNO on Three. It likes to keep plans simple and low-cost, and has some pretty good extras on offer given the price - like TakeAway, that lets you use your plan's allowance when you're abroad in 29 countries. All plans include 4G too, going up to a chunky 20GB per month.

Our favourite MVNO deal this month comes from iD.  It's a perfect all-rounder with plenty of allowance - and it's got a bargain price attached to it. Plus, it's a Shockproof plan, with an automatic cap so you won't spend too much over your allowance.

iD Mobile

4GB of 4G data

500 minutes

5000 texts

£10.00 a month

1 month plan

See deal

See all iD deals

 

giffgaff

giffgaff's a little different from other networks: it's online only, community-led and provides you with as much choice as possible when it comes to your monthly mobile bill.

It's owned by Telefonica - the company behind O2 - and uses the same network. It's almost completely community-led - customer service and other information is provided by other giffgaff users rather than a hired team. 

giffgaff

2GB of 4G data

500 minutes

Unlimited texts

£12.00 a month

30 day plan

See deal

See all giffgaff deals

 

Asda Mobile

It may be a supermarket, but Asda Mobile is also an MVNO, piggybacking on EE's network. Like its grocery-laden parent, it offers good value, and its 30-day bundles of calls, texts, and data give you both flexibility and peace of mind.

ASDA Mobile

1.5GB of 3G data

600 minutes

Unlimited texts

£10.00 a month

30 day plan 

See deal 

See all Asda Mobile deals

 

BT Mobile

BT Mobile is another MVNO that runs on EE, and because it's from BT, it comes with some great perks. There's the BT Sport Lite app for your phone, free access to public Wi-Fi hotspots, and discounts of £5 per month for BT broadband customers.

See BT Mobile deals

 

FreedomPop

A basic SIM from FreedomPop, a 'freemium' MVNO on Three's network, gets you a small allowance (200 minutes, 200 texts, 200MB data) absolutely free each month. You can always pay a little extra for a tariff with more allowance - or take the opportunity to do surveys, download coupons, or take out free app trials to earn yourself more data for the month.

 

Samsung Galaxy S4

FreedomPop

 

2.25GB of data

Unlimited minutes

Unlimited texts

 

£74.99 upfront

FREE

for the first month

£6.99 a month thereafter

One-time activation fee of £0.99

View deal

 

 

See FreedomPop deals

 

LIFE Mobile

LIFE Mobile, which uses EE's network, is seriously dedicated to saving its customers money. Its straightforward plans are good value, only last 30 days, and come with a Smart Cap so you don't spend too much outside of your monthly allowance.

See LIFE Mobile deals

 

TalkTalk Mobile

If you're a TalkTalk broadband or home phone customer, you can also grab a deal from TalkTalk Mobile, an MVNO on O2. It's got SIM-only deals and affordable contracts, and you can double up on data if your plan doesn't have enough.

TalkTalk Mobile

2GB of 3G data

700 minutes

Unlimited texts

£7.75 a month 

12 month contract

See deal
  TalkTalk Mobile

150MB 300MB of data

300 minutes

250 texts

£20.00

£10.00 a month

24 months, existing TalkTalk customers only

See deal

See TalkTalk Mobile deals

 

Talkmobile

Talkmobile is another good value, online-only mobile provider, this time using Vodafone's network. There aren't many perks available - not even 4G just yet - but if you're just after a cheap and simple plan that isn't too complicated, Talkmobile is pretty much perfect.

Talk Mobile

2GB data (3G)

500 minutes

5000 texts

£7.50 a month

1 month contract

See deal
Talk Mobile

100MB data (3G) 

50 minutes

5000 texts

£5.00 a month

1 month contract

See deal

See all Talkmobile deals

 

Lycamobile

Lycamobile is an MVNO that uses networks in an incredible 20 different countries. In the UK, it uses O2's network. It's one of the best networks you'll find for calling and texting international numbers, thanks to its Bundles that give you a batch of minutes and texts to use in certain countries.  

Lyca SIM deals

1GB 4G data

200 minutes
(national & international)
check country list here 

Unlimited texts

SIM Only for International calls

£15.00 a month

30 days contract

Get deal

See all Lycamobile deals 

Tesco Mobile

Here's another supermarket that has an MVNO branch too. Tesco Mobile runs on O2, offering value deals, perks for other family members on the network, and those all-important Tesco Clubcard points.

See Tesco Mobile deals

 

The People's Operator

Arguably the most socially-conscious MVNO, The People's Operator (or TPO Mobile) uses EE. Not only does it give you fantastic value deals, 10% of what you pay each month goes to a charity of your choice - as does 25% of the company's overall profits.

See TPO deals

 

Virgin Mobile

Richard Branson's mobile child, Virgin Mobile, runs on EE's network too. It's got a nice wide range of tariffs, an excellent selection of some of the most popular handsets, and if you're a Virgin Media broadband or TV customer you may even be able to snag an extra discount.

See Virgin Mobile deals

Pros and cons of an MVNO

Pros

  • The main advantage of a deal with an MVNO is that their plans are usually very good value. Low overheads let the company pass on savings to its customers, and you won't have to pay as much.
  • Coverage is just as good as a large network (MNO). Asda Mobile customers, for example, will get the same impressive coverage as an EE customer.
  • Most networks, including MVNOs, have their own extra perks and benefits. BT Mobile has discounts for BT broadband customers; Tesco Mobile has Clubcard points; The People's Operator donates to a charity of your choice; and so on.

Cons

  • MNOs usually have plans with higher allowances available than MVNOs, even though they may cost more. Three offers plans with unlimited data, for example, but iD Mobile (which piggybacks on it) doesn't.
  • Speaking of data… While EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone offer plans with 4G mobile internet, not all MVNOs do.
  • Although there are extra perks on the table, you'll usually get more from MNOs. Think early bird tickets, Now TV subscriptions, free use of Wi-Fi hotspots, and the ability to use your phone abroad at no extra cost.

 

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