Guide to 5G
What is 5G, how to get it and how much does it cost?
Mobile data speeds are about to get a lot faster now that EE, Three and Vodafone have launched 5G for some. It's a gradual roll-out, with the whole of the UK expected to be 5G-ready in 2022. We'll run you through what it all means for you, including how to benefit from this new tech and what it costs.
In this guide
This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please give us your feedback and tell us what we should add in the 5G networks and phones discussion.
What is 5G?
Put simply, 5G is the fifth generation of the technology used to deliver the mobile internet, ie, to get online on a mobile or dongle without needing to connect to a cable or Wi-Fi.
Being more modern, it promises to be up to 100 times faster than 4G and 2,000 times faster than 3G – the type of technology you're probably familiar with as they're what appear on most phones when you go online using your mobile's network. Whether those speeds are achieved, only time will tell.
It won't replace these, but instead will be another 'layer' on top which runs at much higher and faster frequencies. This means more information can be carried, enabling it to deliver lightning-fast speeds. EE – the first network to launch its services in the UK – promises it will offer 'a near-instant connection'.
As you will see from this guide, 5G has limited availability and is very expensive, so if you're on lookout for a new phone or Sim, you will probably instead want to see our Cheap Mobiles, Cheap iPhone, Cheap Samsung or our Best Sim only guides.
Although 5G is starting to arrive in the UK, only a small number of people will initially be able to get it. First up, only a limited number of the most modern handsets are actually compatible with 5G – with no iPhone option yet. Plus the number of networks to offer it is limited, and even then it's only in some cities...
Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester are the first to have it. EE has also listed the next locations in its 2019 UK roll-out as Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. Next year (2020) will then see further sites connected, including Aberdeen, Cambridge, Derby, Gloucester, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Wolverhampton and Worcester.
Vodafone originally launched its 5G network in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester but now extends to Birkenhead, Bolton, Gatwick, Lancaster, Newbury, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton. It has also promised a further seven places will be switched on "later this year" – in Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Portsmouth, Reading, Southampton and Warrington.
Three claims to be "building the UK's fastest 5G network" and has introduced a 5G home broadband service. This is currently limited to London but will extend to 24 other locations by the end of the year. These will be: Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol, Bradford, Brighton, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leicester, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading, Rotherham, Sheffield, Slough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton.
O2 has yet to set an exact date, but will initially launch 5G in areas of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds. O2 has said it expects 5G to be live in a total of 20 towns and cities "by the end of the year", and a total of 50 towns and cities by "summer 2020".
Not many just yet, including no iPhones. So if you've just signed up to a new contract that includes a phone, you could realistically be years away from connecting to 5G. Both EE and Vodafone offer 5G Sim only contracts in addition to deals which include the handset, with the models currently available and Sim free pricing where available below.
- Huawei Mate 20 X 5G (£1,000)
- LG V50 ThinQ – currently only available via a pay monthly EE contract.
- OnePlus 7 Pro 5G – currently only available via a pay monthly EE contract.
- Oppo Reno 5G – currently only available via a pay monthly EE contract.
- Samsung Galaxy A90 5G (£669)
- Samsung Galaxy S10 5G (£1,099)
- Samsung Galaxy Fold 5G – currently only available via a pay monthly EE contract.
- Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G (£1,099)
- Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G (£749)
To illustrate the current cost difference between 4G and 5G, we've compared the cheapest pricing for a 5G Samsung Galaxy S10 versus its 4G counterpart (you need a special 5G phone for the new technology, so we're unable to compare like-for-like exactly).
This is not an exact science as there are notable differences between the two phones aside from the 5G capability, such as a bigger screen and better camera – plus you've only the choice of 256GB storage with the 5G version, whereas you can opt for 128GB or 512GB with the 4G version – but the price differences are still stark.
5G – 256GB Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
Vodafone contract (via Mobiles.co.uk) £670 £24 5GB £1,246 Handset bought outright + cheapest 5G Sim (Vodafone) £1,099 £15 5GB £1,459 4G – 128GB Samsung Galaxy S10 Vodafone contract (via Mobile Phones Direct) £308 £24 5GB £884 Handset bought outright + cheapest Sim (Three) £799 £9 8GB £1,015
The cheapest way we could find to get a 5G handset and Sim with a reasonable level of data (as most use under 3GB each month) is via a 24 month contract deal from Vodafone. Via a mobile reseller it costs a hefty £1,246 over 24 months (warning: go direct to Vodafone and you'll pay £1,489 for the same deal), yet a comparable 4G deal is £884 over 24 months – a price difference of over £360 over two years.
We've concentrated on the Samsung Galaxy S10 here for comparison, though if you're determined to be among the first to try 5G, you should always compare the costs of buying your chosen handset outright and pairing with a Sim only deal, as this provides a benchmark to compare contract costs against – and can be cheaper.
As we've said, upgrading to 5G won't come cheap, but if you're determined to do it, then at least do it in the cheapest way possible – though early adopters often pay more. Here's our top tips to find the best deals:
- Contract deals can be the cheapest way – though never just go direct to the network. We'd usually say if you had the cash, then as a rule it'd be cheaper to buy a new mobile phone upfront and pair with a cheap Sim, as two-year contracts generally come at a hefty mark-up.
Yet special deals from cheap mobile resellers such as Mobiles.co.uk* (owned by Carphone Warehouse) and MobilePhonesDirect can undercut the cost of buying upfront – though deals direct from the big networks are almost never competitive, so always compare before signing up. Sites such as as Compare My Mobile* and HandsetExpert are useful for this, just be wary of any upfront cost filter (as setting it too low can often hide the best deals) and compare by looking at the total cost.
- Prefer to buy upfront? How to spread the cost of a new handset interest-free. If you want a snazzy phone but can't afford to buy the handset upfront, you're best off saving up. But if you really can't wait, then instead of paying mobile providers' inflated prices, you could opt for a way to buy it now, but pay no interest.
A 0% spending credit card lets you spread the cost, though once you've bought your phone, stash the credit card in a bowl of water in the freezer so you won't be tempted to use it again. You can then pair it with a cheap 5G Sim only deal. Sites such as as Compare My Mobile* have 5G filters which makes it easier to compare and find the best deal.
Is 5G worth it?
Unless you're really keen to be the first to try it – and are desperate for lightning-quick speeds – then for most it is extremely expensive, plus your choice of phones and network are currently very limited.
However early adopters often do pay more, so we would expect to see 5G prices drop in time as more networks offer it and availability across the UK increases. In fact, it's likely to eventually become the norm.
The usual way to get online is to use a broadband connection that is delivered to your home via a telephone line or cable. A Wi-Fi router is then connected to create a wireless signal. A 5G connection uses a mobile network with no need for physical wires, so ultimately they're different concepts.
Yet it's a question some ask as there's a possibility that 5G speeds could rival those delivered by your home connection – Vodafone is already promising faster speeds via its 5G network than current average download speeds from home broadband. If fulfilled, this could result in some ditching their standard broadband, but as firms continue to invest in upgrading wired connections, it's likely a long way off.
There may only be a few handsets available right now, such as the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G, but as the roll-out starts to ramp up, it's likely the market will become awash with options. TechRadar has a handy summary of the confirmed and rumoured models, including the iPhone 12.
5G officially arrived in the UK at the end of May 2019, though only two networks – EE and Vodafone – initially offer 5G plans. Coverage is also not widespread, with just eight cities seeing 5G from the offset, though a total of 27 locations should be up and running by the end of the year based on current plans.
We're also still a long way off full coverage, with EE currently targeting 2022 as the year the whole of the UK should be able to access 5G on its network.