The UK’s first 5G network was rolled out almost exactly one year ago. It can now be found in more than 80 towns and cities. But what exactly is 5G coverage? Is it available near you? And is it even worth it? Looking for cheaper data (and plenty of it)? Or only here for a short stay? Check our guide to the UK’s best SIM-only packages.
What is 5G?
Like 4G, 5G is a cellular network which connects to the internet and phone networks by radio waves via a local antenna. 5G mainly uses higher frequencies than 4G, making it roughly 10 times faster. Therefore, 5G means faster internet and download speeds, and a more reliable data connection in dense, urban areas. It also provides a near-instant connection to smart home devices, apps and websites.
5G and coronavirus
Recently, some conspiracy theorists have claimed that 5G technology is helping to transmit coronavirus—claims which have led to the damage and destruction of some 5G masts around the country. Scientists have completely dismissed these allegations, with one University of Reading professor describing them as “complete rubbish”.
Not convinced? Here are a few facts to set the record straight:
- Coronaviruses predate 5G by millions of years. The common cold is a good example of this
- Many countries without 5G networks have been severely affected by Covid-19, such as Iran and Japan
- South Korea on the other hand, which has the world’s most established 5G network, has been very effective in combatting the virus
- 5G works using radio waves—a technology we’ve been using perfectly safely for the best part of a century
Where is 5G available in the UK?
5G is already available in 87 major towns and cities via at least one mobile operator. Coverage is scheduled to roll out to at least a further 18 major towns and cities during 2020. Cities with the most significant coverage include London, Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Wolverhampton. These are all covered by each of the big four operators (more on those later)
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Is 5G worth it yet?
5G is undoubtedly faster than what we’re getting from 4G. According to PC Mag, 5G will save consumers 23 hours of loading time (almost one full day) per month while browsing social media, playing games, streaming music and downloading programmes to watch.
Rather unbelievably, 5G makes the time it takes to download a movie just six seconds on average now—as opposed to seven minutes. That makes UK 5G an exciting proposition, especially as prices are likely to fall over the coming years.
Can my phone handle 5G?
If you want 5G, you’ll need to upgrade your phone so it’s 5G-compatible, as 3G or 4G phones can’t be updated to support the new network. You’ll also need to be in an area that has 5G coverage.
Older phones will work with 5G plans—but your internet speed won’t improve. So unless you’ve got one of the latest handsets, you’ll effectively be throwing away money.
Which phone networks are compatible with UK 5G—and what are the best deals?
Of the big names, only a few are currently 5G compatible. At this early stage, it’s hard to tell who’ll come out on top. So for now, you’re best off checking the coverage and prices based on your home city. If you’re here for less than two years, or you already have a 5G enable phone, VOXI is probably your best bet—offering unlimited data at well under the market rate. Otherwise, EE comes out on top—though their cheapest deals offer limited data.
The cheapest rates in a nutshell
|Data limit||Handset||Price||Contract length|
|Unlimited data, texts and calls||SIM only||£35.00 per month||No minimum contract|
|10 GB data, unlimited texts and calls||Samsung Galaxy S10 5G (pre-owned)||£44.00 per month||24 months|
|6GB data, texts and calls||Samsung Galaxy S10 5G||£50.00 per month||24 months|
|6GB data,unlimited texts and calls||Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5g||£55.00 per month||36 months|
|6GB data, unlimited texts and calls||Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G||£59.00 per month||24 months|
As a spin-off of Vodafone, VOXI enjoys the same coverage as their much bigger parent company—along with some of the cheapest rates on the market. Unlike the other providers on this list, VOXI is SIM-only, so you’ll need to buy your own handset. On the plus side, you won’t be locked into any contracts—so you’re free to shop around and get the best deal there too. VOXI also offers some of the best deals on 4G data. So if your area isn’t covered, they’re a great choice while you wait for 5G reception in your neighbourhood to improve.
Voxi offers unlimited 5G data, texts and minutes for just £35.00
EE claims to be leading the UK’s 5G rollout and is expanding the number of cities 5G is available in on a daily basis. So far, these cities include London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Hull, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Sunderland, Northampton, Stevenage and Wakefield.
To use 5G with EE, you’ll need to get a 5G phone and a 5G plan. Prices start from £44.00 a month for a Huawei Mate 20 X 5G (for 10GB of data). But the Samsung Galaxy Fold 5G is as much as £94.00 a month (for 60GB of data).
The full range of EE 5G phones can be found here.
Mobile network Three says it has more 5G than any other UK network (something most of the phone networks are laying claim to), and will eventually have the country’s fastest 5G.
Three’s 5G is currently available in selected postcodes in more than 60 UK towns and cities, including London, St Albans, Peterborough, Maidstone, Sheffield, Nottingham, Luton and Guildford.
5G Home Broadband with Three is currently live within London and will be coming to homes across the UK very soon.
Three’s 5G phone prices start from £49.00 a month for the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G (for 4GB of data). Prices go as high as £106.00 a month for the Huawei Mate Xs 5G (unlimited data).
The full range of Three 5G phones can be found here.
O2’s 5G coverage launched on October 17, 2019, originally just in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. At the time of writing, O2 5G is live in 24 towns and cities worldwide (including London, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham and Sheffield). Plans are in place to increase this to 50 by summer 2020.
O2 has a wide range of 5G-compatible phones on offer. Prices start from as little as £24.84 a month for the Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G (1GB of data). The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is their most expensive, at £55.50 a month (for 5GB of data).
The full range of O2 5G phones can be found here.
Vodafone has already rolled out 5G to dozens of locations across the UK and the EU and they say they’re “aiming to expand our 5G network as quickly as possible without compromising on quality”. The eventual aim is to cover as much of the UK as possible and selected European destinations.
Vodaphone has a variety of 5G phones on offer, including the Samsung Galaxy A90 5G, starting from £29.00 a month (unlimited data). There’s also the Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G from £29.00 a month (for 6GB data).
The full range of Vodaphone 5G phones can be found here.