What is an MVNO?

Lyca Mobile, giffgaff, and Tesco Mobile are all MVNOs. Here’s what this means and how you can benefit.

woman using mobile phone network

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. You might not know what an MVNO is, but you may have used one without knowing it. An MVNO is a company that offers mobile services but does not own or operate its own network. Instead, it uses a network run by a mobile operator.

One example of MVNO is giffgaff. It doesn’t have its own network, so it uses O2’s mobile network instead. If you’re a giffgaff customer, you get the same coverage as O2 customers but at a lower price. This is because giffgaff has lower overheads, so they can afford to charge a lower price.

What are the MVNOs in the UK?

Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three are the ‘big four’ UK providers that have their own mobile networks. As a result, multiple MVNOs piggyback off their coverage and network.

Here’s a list of the main MVNOs in the UK and the network they use:

MVNO Network
Asda Mobile
BT Mobile
Lebara Mobile
Lyca Mobile
Sky Mobile
Tesco Mobile

Table showing the UK’s MVNOs and their associated network.

How do MVNOs work?

MVNOs lease minutes or data bandwidth from the ‘big four’ main operators; in most cases, the customer is never aware.

MVNOs purchase the minutes or data from the main network operators at wholesale prices and then offer lower prices to their own customers due to lower overhead costs. They don't have to deal with the infrastructure and operational costs of running a wireless network, such as constructing cell towers.

Do MVNOs have the same coverage?

Yes, MVNOs give you the same coverage as the main network operator, and usually at a lower price.

What are the types of MVNO?

As we explain below, there are different types of MVNOs. What they can and can’t offer depends on their agreement with the main network operator.

Full MVNOs

They have their own core network infrastructure and independently handle operations like billing, customer care, SIM card distribution and marketing. They don’t own the physical network.

Light MVNOs

Light MVNOs have a light level of control over their infrastructure but rely more heavily on the host operator for certain operational support. They might manage billing, customer care and SIM card distribution but depend on the operator's core and radio access networks.

Service provider

Provide services under their brand but rely almost entirely on the infrastructure of the host operator. They usually control billing, customer care, and sales - but the main operator handles core network operations and maintenance.

Branded reseller

MVNOs with the least control over operations and infrastructure.

They primarily focus on marketing, sales and customer service initiatives under their brand name. The host operator then manages all technical operations, including network, billing and SIM card distribution.

What are the pros and cons of an MVNO?

One of the main pros of an MVNO is the lower prices. MVNOs offer contracts and SIM only deals at a much cheaper price than the main operators, which means you save money while still getting good coverage. However, one of the main cons is that you don’t get the same benefits you would as a customer of the main operator.

For example O2 customers get O2 Priority, which lets you buy tickets to events before they go on sale, while Vodafone customers have VeryMe rewards.

As an MVNO customer, you won’t be able to receive these benefits. But your MVNO might offer its own benefits that could be just as good.


EE’s MVNOs include:

  • BT
  • Lyca Mobile

EE’s network covers most of the country, and it offers 5G options.


O2’s MVNOs include:

  • giffgaff
  • Sky Mobile
  • Tesco Mobile
  • Virgin Mobile

O2’s 4G network is available for 99% of the UK population, and its 5G network is expanding.

Vodafone MVNOs

Vodafone’s MVNOs include:

  • Asda
  • Lebara Mobile
  • Talkmobile

Vodafone offers 2G, 4G and 5G coverage.

Three MVNOs

Three Mobile’s MVNOs include:

  • iD Mobile

Three’s 4G network covers 99.8% of the UK, and its 5G network is the fastest in the UK.

What are the cheapest MVNOs?

The cost of a contract or a SIM only deal from an MVNO will depend on the package you choose.

Asda Mobile, for example, offers a 30-day SIM only contract from around £10 a month. This gives you unlimited minutes, text messages and 12GB of 5G data. Or you might opt for a giffgaff SIM only deal where you can get unlimited data for around £25 a month.

To find the cheapest deal from an MVNO, you need to do some comparisons. It’s also worth thinking about how much data you really need.

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