Piggybacking your phone network – how to slash costs

Need to keep your signal? You can still switch network

If there are only one or two networks that give you decent mobile coverage, you may think your choice of mobile provider is limited. But it's possible to uncover hidden tariffs that operate off the same signal, and which cost much less. To help you understand who really provides a network's service, we've got a full breakdown of who 'piggybacks' on whom.

You can keep the same network signal and slash costs

There are actually only four UK mobile networks: EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone (check signal using regulator Ofcom's Mobile Coverage Checker). All others piggyback on their signals. The official name for a company that does this is a 'mobile virtual network operator'. Catchy, huh?

Despite the long-winded name, these providers can be a lot cheaper. We often find that deals from the big networks are more expensive than those that piggyback on them – for the same allowance. See our Cheap Mobile Finder for the latest Sim-only deals. You can also use our tool to sort by network, which includes those piggybacking off the parent network.

So if you live somewhere with poor signal, you might think your choice of provider is very restricted. But even if you can only get decent coverage with one network – O2, for example – that doesn't mean you'll be forced to remain an O2 customer for life. Instead, you can try a provider on a virtual network. Giffgaff, for example, borrows network space from O2 and coverage should be the same.

Which network does each piggybacker use?

In total, there are about 30 different piggybacking companies across the UK. So use the table below to see which providers are on the networks you want, then use our Cheap Mobile Finder or see the top Sim-only deals to find the right package for you.

Note. Just because a network piggybacks on another, it doesn't necessarily mean a phone locked to one will work with the Sim of the other, so always check first. Unlocking is generally free or inexpensive, but can take up to 30 days – see our Mobile unlocking guide for more.

Is there anything I need to watch out for?

On the whole, there's little difference other than the price, though it's worth noting that while you may be getting access to a parent network, you won't necessarily get access to all the functionality it offers. Here's what to watch out for:

Not all networks support Wi-Fi calling

All of the big networks offer Wi-Fi calling (using an internet connection to improve call quality, often when there is no or limited signal) and 4G calling (improved quality), yet not all virtual operators offer the same.

We've rounded up a list below of all the networks that do and don't currently offer Wi-Fi calling:

Which networks offer Wi-Fi calling

You'll miss out on any deals and freebies the big networks offer

You won't get the same perks as those contracted directly to the parent company. For example, Tesco Mobile users get access to the O2 network, but don't get any of the deals that might be offered through O2 Priority. However, some piggybackers offer their own perks, such as Sky Mobile, which will roll over your unused data each month. So consider what each firm offers and its value to you before signing up.

Your rights if you're unhappy with your mobile coverage

We've heard some reports of the signal strength not being as good on piggybacking networks as it is on their parent networks, but regulator Ofcom told us it should be exactly the same. It says other factors, such as the handset type or location, are more likely to cause signal problems.

However, if you're unhappy with your coverage, under consumer law you can cancel your mobile contract up to 14 days after you sign up, but if the problem arises after that, it's tricky.

Ofcom says it expects providers to deal "fairly and sympathetically" with customers who have signal issues because of mobile network problems – for example, if a provider switches off a mast or there are faults with the network. In these circumstances, the customer should be offered compensation or be allowed to leave the contract early without penalty.

But if the reason for the loss of coverage is unclear or in dispute – say if there's bad weather – it's less clear-cut. In these cases, Ofcom says you have "clear rights to seek redress or a resolution" to a complaint. In the first instance, complain directly to your network, and if it's not able to help, go through its official complaints procedure.

Want to complain about your provider?

It's always worth trying to call your service provider first to see if it can help, but if not, you can use free complaints tool Resolver. The tool helps you manage your complaint, and if the company doesn't play ball, Resolver can escalate it to the free Communications Ombudsman (or CISAS if you're complaining about Sky Mobile).

Important: If your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead just let us know by emailing voucherhelp@moneysavingexpert.com as that's usually quicker.

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