Originally published October 29, 2017.
Updated January 2021.
Reading time: 5-8 minutes
Before heading off on your vacation or business trip to England, it’s important to understand a bit about the UK’s mobile networks and the cellular frequencies on which they operate. If your mobile phone isn’t compatible then you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle when your plane touches down in London. No one wants to lose connection, especially after a long flight. Being without a working phone in a foreign country is the stuff of nightmares!
But the good news is that your phone is most likely going to work in the UK! In fact, if you’ve got a network unlocked iPhone it will work in the UK. And if you’ve got a network unlocked Smartphone (eg a Samsung, HTC, Android, Google etc) then it’ll probably also work.
In this easy to read and understand article, we’ll give you some information about the UK’s mobile networks, explain how you can check to make sure that your phone is going to work when you reach the other side of the pond and give you a recommendation about how to get a prepaid UK SIM Card before you leave on your trip.
The UK’s mobile networks
Here in the USA, the main mobile network operators are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. They each operate their own cellular network, and each network operates on different frequencies.
In the United Kingdom there are four mobile network operators: EE, Vodafone, Three and O2.
EE (short for “Everything Everywhere” — yes we know, a weird name), owned by British Telecom since 2016;
O2 (as in the chemical symbol for oxygen), owned by the massive Spanish Telefónica company;
Vodafone, owned by the international Vodafone Group; and
Three, owned by the CK Hutchison Holdings company.
EE, O2, Vodafone and Three own and operate the UK’s mobile network infrastructure – the cell towers, cables and backbone networks that interconnect with each other. All offer 3G and 4G LTE voice, text and data services. As at January 2020, 5G is offered by EE, Vodafone and Three.
UK mobile network frequencies
The main 3G frequency in the UK is 2100MHz. All of the UK’s mobile networks offer 3G coverage on the 2100MHz frequency. In addition, EE provides 3G coverage on 2600MHz and O2 and Vodafone provide 3G coverage on 900MHz.
For 4G LTE the main frequency is 800MHz with all four mobile networks providing 4G LTE coverage on the 800MHz frequency. In addition, EE provides 4G LTE coverage on 1800MHz and 2600MHz, and Vodafone provides 4G LTE coverage on 2600MHz too.
The lower 800MHz frequency means it can travel much further over long distances, which means users can get a 4G LTE signal even when they’re a long way from a cell tower. This becomes particularly useful in rural areas where cell towers are are more spread out than in city areas.
Also, the 800MHz frequency is better in city areas too where indoor coverage is crucial, since the low frequency is better at passing through walls and other physical objects.
5G is a new technology, and has recently been switched on in the UK. The Three UK network has 5G coverage in parts of London, with more than 20 more cities gaining coverage by the end of 2019.
But will my cell phone work in the UK?
The good news is that your cell phone is highly likely to work in the UK!
If you have an iPhone (even the latest iPhone 11) then it will work in the UK because Apples have designed their phones to work on a very broad range of cellular frequencies. The iPhone is truly a “world phone”!
And if you’ve got any other type of Smartphone (for example a Samsung, HTC , Huawei, OnePlus etc) then it’s also highly likely to work too (pretty much any Smartphone purchased new in the last four years will work so long as it’s network unlocked). To be sure though, if you’re not using an iPhone and you want to check if your phone will work in the UK, then all you need to do is head over to the Will My Phone Work website, select “United Kingdom” as the country, and then select the appropriate UK mobile network you want to use. We recommend the Three UK mobile network due to its great value and strong 3G and 4G LTE network coverage.
If you have an older feature phone then it probably won’t work (so think of it as a good excuse to upgrade to one of the latest and best phones).
Separate to your phone working on the UK network frequencies, it must of course also be network unlocked and therefore capable of using a SIM Card different to that one normally installed in your phone. For this we’ve got a separate cool guide about unlocking your phone.
So am I good to go?
There’s no need to be confused — that’s the last thing you need when planning an overseas vacation. It’s really very simple:
If you have an iPhone (including the latest iPhone 11), and it’s network unlocked, then your phone will work in the UK. Awesome!
If you have a Smartphone, and it’s network unlocked, then it’s highly likely going to work (but just check using the Will My Phone Work website above)
If you have an older feature phone, then it probably won’t work.
Once you’ve confirmed your phone will work, then you’re ready to buy your UK SIM Card and get it delivered to you here in the USA before you leave home on your UK vacation — that way everything will be working the instant you touchdown in England! Update your Facebook status, post your first photos on Instagram, make a Whatsapp call, or check those important work emails that came in during your flight.