What is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO)

There are more virtual mobile network operators (MVNOs) in the UK than we’ve ever seen before. So what is an MVNO, and what does it mean for you when buying a new mobile phone contract?

An MNVO is a company, which offers phone contracts, but do not own a mobile network. In the UK there are just four mobile network operators. These are Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three. Known as the big four.

Any other mobile provider is an MVNO. MVNOs come in all different sizes and some you’ll be familiar with whilst others you may never have heard of.

Some of the larger MVNOs in the UK are Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile and Tesco Mobile. These are well-established names, so you may be surprised they don’t own their own mobile network.

So you may be thinking whether this impacts your choices when choosing a mobile phone plan. Well, it all depends on how you look at it.


When it comes to signing a contract with any company. It’s really important you know who you’re dealing with. This is the problem with some MVNOs. They package their business to appear as if they are providing the services. However, all MVNOs are linked to the four actual mobile networks.

The contracts these MVNOs have with the actual mobile networks will vary. The larger more established MVNOs such as Virgin and Tesco are household names in their own right.

So it’s unlikely Tesco would run the risk of brand damage by signing a poor MVNO contract. You also need to consider customer service. Again, even though Tesco do not have their own mobile network. You can safely say they are pretty active at ensuring the Tesco brand isn’t damaged.

There are four mobile network operators in the UK. The rest are MVNOs
Only the big four operate mobile networks in the UK

This means although an MVNO isn’t providing the actual phone network. If you choose an MVNO, which is already known for other business activities. It’s very unlikely you’ll experience any impact by choosing one of these over one of the real mobile network providers.

In fact, some of the larger MVNOs may even offer a better package. This could be the actual plan and what’s included, but it could also be with providing better customer service.


Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge rise in less established MVNOs. A lot of these companies have been purposely created to offer MVNO contracts to the consumer. Not all MVNOs offer monthly phone contracts and offer sim-only contracts instead.

What I mean by this is they have no other business interests. This doesn’t automatically mean they will offer a poor service. However, it does mean you don’t already have a recognised brand to help you decide whether they will be right for you.

Also, it could show they don’t have any experience of running a large scale business. Although Tesco and Virgin don’t own an actual mobile network. They are known for already running large scale business. This may give you peace of mind compared to choosing an MVNO you do not recognise.

Do not let this put you off choosing at MVNO you don’t recognise. However, I would recommend doing your homework first. Once you’ve signed the contract and you’re out of any cooling off or cancellation period. You’ll not be able to cancel your contract without a termination fee. An example of a good MVNO not known for other services is Giff Gaff.

One of the best ways to check if an MVNO has a good reputation is to check for reviews. You want reviews you can trust, so I would recommend using a review site such as Trust Pilot. These are genuine reviews from consumers.

One word of caution. Although Trust Pilot offers genuine reviews. You’ve got to remember a lot of people only leave reviews on such sites. When they’ve experienced poor customer service. So it can be difficult to always judge a particular company from reviews alone. That being said, the law of averages means the overall review score must be taken into consideration to some extent.


The mobile phone market in the UK is a lot more crowded than it once was. Even the four actual mobile networks in the UK now own MVNOs.

This may appear strange at first, but it also makes sense to some extent. A lot of the times it’s to offer a different brand identity.

A good example of this is Voxi. Voxi is a relatively new MVNO, which when first launched was only available to people under the age of 30. Since then they’ve opened up to everyone.

Voxi, however, is in fact owned by Vodafone. Vodafone is the longest-running mobile network provider in the UK. They attract a large consumer base and business base. This dictates the type of brand identity Vodafone needs to maintain.

To attract a younger crowd who are more interested in social media than making calls. They had to appeal to that crowd. Doing this under the Vodafone banner would have two problems.

Firstly, it can be very difficult to change peoples perception. Secondly, it could have caused a risk of damaging their brand with their current customer base. This is the reason why they decided to launch the MVNO Voxi.


Yes, it’s definitely a lot more difficult today to know who provides your phone and data connections. Although there are many MVNOs available in the UK. All of these lease services from the big four.

So if you choose to by a phone contract with Tesco. You’ll still receive your bills and customer service from Tesco. The only difference is the actual services will be provided by the real mobile network provider. In the case of Tesco this is currently O2.

Choosing an MVNO over one of the big four isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can get some great deals. Just ensure you do your homework if you decide to choose an MVNO you’ve never heard of before.