giffgaff vs Three: coverage, 4G/5G speeds and benefits compared
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We look at the differences between Three and giffgaff on pay monthly and pay as you go plans to help you decide which is best for you. SIM Sherpa is your trusty guide. Last updated: 18th May 2021.
In our giffgaff vs Three guide
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Comparing giffgaff and Three's mobile networks
Coverage compared on Three and giffgaff
Do giffgaff or Three have better signal around the country?
✔ giffgaff have a generally better blend of coverage
Three operate their own network directly, while giffgaff use O2's network (they were founded by O2 but are now run at arm's length). There's pros and cons to both the O2 and Three network:
The O2 network giffgaff use is better for calls and texts. Indoor coverage is stronger thanks to the frequencies they use. And they have the joint-largest amount of the country's landmass covered for calls/texts.
For 4G data, giffgaff's advantage over Three is less clear. They're about even for geographical coverage and in big cities and towns, they're basically neck and neck overall (see below for 5G).
A lot depends on where you use your phone and whether you travel around a lot. Urban livers will be fine on both. More rural might prefer giffgaff. Use their maps below to check in the places you'll use yours.
Useful link: What Three's Big Network Build involves
✔ Both providers now offer 5G data too
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Every plan on Three is sold as 5G, even their pay as you go. Phone contracts for models that don't have 5G as a feature still have 5G on the SIM if you swap it out. giffgaff sell specific 5G plans but are 4G otherwise.
5G coverage-wise, the reported number of live locations is similar. For Three, it's 192 (see their latest list here), compared to 150+ on giffgaff (no specific list available, they say to use coverage checker).
Both networks focus their 5G coverage areas within those places on the busiest parts only. It's not like the entire city or tow has it. Out of the two, O2 (giffgaff) probably cover larger parts.
Though our own testing finds that the quality of the connection on the edges of the places with reported 5G on giffgaff/O2 can quickly become worse than a 4G connection!
Useful link: Latest news on Three's 5G rollout
Use their network maps
Avoid disappointment and make sure you're happy with either's reception near you
giffgaff signal map
using their official map
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Three's signal map
using their official map
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Our verdict on coverage:Win for giffgaff
"Using O2's network puts giffgaff at a slight advantage over Three when you look at how much of the entire country is covered - although people in urban areas will probably notice little difference between them."
4G data speeds: giffgaff and Three compared
Is 4G faster on Three or giffgaff?
✔ Expect faster 4G data on Three than giffgaff
Concentrating on 4G data, independent network testers Opensignal and Speedtest by Ookla have clear results showing that typical download speeds are faster via Three's network than the O2 network that giffgaff use.
Based on millions of measurements taken on smartphones up and down the country, they say typical downloads on Three are 21.60 Mbps, while you could expect around 16.95 - 18.00 Mbps via O2's network.
Both networks in real life will go faster and slower than those results but Three's average is in the range where things like UHD will stream smoothly, where O2 could start to creak.
Both networks are more than adequate for basic usage like checking emails, browsing the internet, streaming music and using social media.
Useful link: What difference 5G will make
✔ Some giffgaff customers suspect they're slower than O2
The above speed predictions are based on being on O2 directly vs Three, rather than being on giffgaff themselves.
The consensus among their customers seems to be that giffgaff have a lower bandwidth (share of the network) than full O2, so you get a slower speed.
If this is true, you could find the average speed on giffgaff even lower than is reported above, if you spend less time on 4G and more time on slower 3G. Our own tests have never been able to support this theory though.
Useful link: Read giffgaff customer forums
Our verdict on speed:A win for Three
"Three is generally faster than giffgaff's parent O2, plus we have doubts that giffgaff customers get the fastest possible data, which makes Three the more appealing option for people wanting reliable speeds."
Extra network features: Three vs giffgaff
How they keep you talking and browsing in more places.
✔ Three have WiFi calling, 4G calling and free hotspots
The main 3G signal that Three uses to bring you phone calls and text messages is on high frequencies that can sometimes struggle to get indoors if you're not near a transmitter or live in an old building with thick walls.
To make up for this, Three have two extra bits of technology to boost your signal indoors: WiFi calling and 4G calling, which Three call 4G Supervoice. giffgaff have neither of these.
What's good about Three's WiFi calling is that it supports loads of phones (check their latest list here). It also works on pay monthly and pay as you go plans.
If you travel a lot around London, Three take part in the free WiFi on the Underground scheme, which lets you log in once and automatically get free WiFi when you're travelling around the network.
Useful link: Three's network features guide
✔ giffgaff don't have most the extra features major networks have
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It's a good job that the lower frequencies that giffgaff's 2G and 3G calling signal is broadcast on are better for decent indoor coverage, because they don't have any of the extras that would otherwise improve it.
There's no WiFi calling or 4G calling on giffgaff (even though their parent O2 offer both). So if you're indoors with no signal, you won't be able to make a call (unless you use WhatsApp or similar apps).
You will at least now get free WiFi access on the Underground and at 8000 O2 WiFi locations on giffgaff with all their deals. You'll have to download to the giffgaff app and play with some settings but you'll be automatically connected after that.
Overall, it's very much a low-frills experience on giffgaff. Minutes, texts and data to use on a regular mobile network, without extra features to keep your calls connected where signal can't reach.
Useful link: How to get free WiFi on giffgaff
Our verdict on extra network features:Clear win for Three
"Joining a main network like Three brings you the benefit of more comprehensive ways to keep your phone connected for calls than smaller providers like giffgaff, whose low prices mean fewer features."
Comparing giffgaff and Three benefits
Roaming: how giffgaff and Three compare
Can giffgaff match Three's Go Roam?
✔ Inclusive roaming on Three is more comprehensive
Like every network in the UK, Three offer roaming in the EU at no extra cost. That applies whether you're on pay monthly or pay as you go - SIM only or phone deal.
Three go a step further than giffgaff (and every other network) by giving you an extra 23 worldwide countries at no extra cost on all their pay monthly plans and pay as you go add-ons (see all 71 destinations here).
In those countries, you'll be able to be able to use up to 3000 minutes, 3000 texts and 12GB or 20GB data out of your regular data allowance depending on where you are before you get charged anything extra (varies per country, see full terms here).
It includes popular destinations like the USA where most networks, including giffgaff, become unusably expensive. It's a great scheme and still our overall favourite roaming scheme on the market.
Useful link: Read our review of Go Roam
✔ There's much less inclusive roaming on giffgaff
As you'd probably expect from a no-frills provider like giffgaff, they don't really go beyond the legal requirement to offer roaming in the EU at the same cost as usage in the UK.
That's nothing to sniff at. It's not like giffgaff are priced like they're giving you loads of free extras. You'll still be able to use your monthly bundle in all of the countries listed here.
You'll also get 4G speeds wherever available too. It just means that if you're going elsewhere in the world, you'll need to turn data roaming off or curb your usage.
Charges in non-EU countries can run as high as a ludicrous £2000 per GB (so check costs before you leave to avoid burning straight through your credit).
Useful link: giffgaff's roaming fair usage policy
Our verdict on this topic:A win for Three
"Even if you take one trip to somewhere like the USA per year, being able to use your phone without paying the extortionate roaming costs on Three will be worth its weight in gold to some people. Go Roam is still our favourite roaming scheme."
Benefits you get on giffgaff but not Three
Advantages to joining giffgaff over Three
✔ Earn money for getting people to join giffgaff
Since launching in 2009, one of the ways giffgaff has grown so fast is through their refer a friend Payback scheme, which gives customers £5 each time they get a friend to join the network.
You can order free SIMs from giffgaff to give to your friends. If they activate it and top up with at least £10, they'll receive £5 free credit and you'll get £5 too.
You can take the £5 as free credit, as cash paid twice a year into a Paypal account, or donate it to charity. You can also earn payback for helping out on giffgaff's customer forum by answering questions.
This is a clever win-win-win arrangement, where you can earn yourself some money on the side, your friend gets free credit and giffgaff get new customers.
Useful link: Make money recruiting for giffgaff
Benefits you get on Three but not on giffgaff
Reasons you might join Three over giffgaff
✖ Three are getting a little no-frills themselves
Despite having a slightly smaller physical mobile network, we'd always rated Three as our favourite overall provider, because they made up for that with an excellent package of benefits. But that's started to change:
They got rid of their Go Binge scheme last year. This gave you an unlimited data allowance on capped plans to use with specific streaming apps. You could watch them as much as you liked without using data.
Some smaller benefits have gone too. There's no more easyJet Hands-Free upgrades for Three customers. And they scrapped their O2 Priority-style rewards app Wuntu.
Other than roaming and the network features like WiFi calling, it's getting hard to justify joining Three over giffgaff, for benefits nowadays.
Useful link: Our guide to all free streaming data schemes
Our verdict on other benefits:Basically a draw
"Other than roaming, we'd now pretty much say both Three and giffgaff are low-frills providers. A lot will come down to network features and price."
Comparing giffgaff and Three's deals
Special offers on giffgaff and Three
What's in each network's promotions this month?
SIM only: pay monthly plans on giffgaff and Three
Use our comparison tool below to see how giffgaff and Three's monthly plans compare:
Our verdict on SIM only plans:No clear winner
"If you're after a short 1-month deal with a moderate amount of data, giffgaff tend to be better value. If you're willing to commit to 12 months and want a bigger data deal, Three become more competitive."
Unlimited data options on Three and giffgaff
Is Always On as good as Three's unlimited data?
✔ Unlimited data on Three has fewer restrictions
If you look at Three's terms and conditions for their unlimited data plans here, you'll see there is in theory a limit of 1000GB data per month before they'd get suspicious you were using your plan not just for personal use.
Three say that even if you used your phone for every minute of the day, you'd still not get to that amount. They also won't slow you down while you're in the UK. And you can even use it for tethering.
The only real restrictions apply when you take your unlimited data plan abroad. Depending on where you go, there are limits of the monthly data you can use and potentially your speed too (read more here).
You can get unlimited data on Three with a phone contract, a pay monthly SIM only deal, or even as a pay as you go add-on too (you'll sometimes see it branded as All-You-Can-Eat data).
Useful link: Read our unlimited data plan rankings
✔ giffgaff now have two products for unlimited data
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On giffgaff, you've got a choice between Always On data and Unlimited data. With Always&nsbp;On, it is impossible to go over a data limit. But speed restrictions kick in after 80GB of usage.
And they're pretty severe. Taking your 4G down to 2G-like speeds for the majority of the day. If you want unlimited data, because you know you're a heavy user, Always On isn't for you.
But giffgaff do now have a genuinely unlimited data SIM too. It's more expensive but it does do away with the tedious speed limits. Here's how they compare on price today:
Useful link: Read full 'Always on' details on the giffgaff website
Our verdict on unlimited data:A win for Three
"If you're serious about data usage on your phone, you'll find giffgaff Always On's 2G speeds after 80GB use unworkable. And their genuinely unlimited data plan is almost always more expensive than Three."
Phone contracts: giffgaff vs Three
Which network has better deals on smartphones?
✔ giffgaff's contracts are generally more flexible
All of giffgaff's phone contract are based on taking out credit agreements (basically loans) for the cost of your phone and combining that with a monthly Goodybag (your minutes, texts and data).
Although you have to take a Goodybag in your first month, after that you can just keep paying giffgaff for the phone only and use another network's SIM in it. Or you can change plans each month too.
It's also flexible when you sign up. There's normally about four choices of up front payment. And you can pay the loan off faster without being penalised too if you want. It's a very flexible system overall.
Three's phone contracts are more conventional 24-month ones with no finance - although some models do have a 36-month finance option now too. These are more about spreading the cost than giving flexibility.
Useful link: See full giffgaff phone range
✔ giffgaff and Three compete closely on price
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Basing your phone contracts on finance normally lets mobile networks offer cheaper deals than those that don't, mainly for accounting reasons for the network. So how do giffgaff compare with Three?
On smaller data plans, we expect giffgaff to almost always work out cheaper than Three. But once you move up into larger plans (20GB upwards), Three start to give giffgaff a run for their money.
Our phone comparison tool here lets you choose just giffgaff and Three phone deals to compare. The best way to find out is to use that to find the model you're after.
Three also sell contracts via third party retailers, where you can get some really competitive deals. These are providers like Fonehouse, BuyMobiles.net and more who buy their own phones and sell you contracts on multiple networks.
We include those in our comparison tool too, so give it a go.
Useful link: Compare phone deals
Our verdict on this topic:Win for giffgaff
"giffgaff's prices are normally cheaper than Three's for phones and their contract structure offers more flexibility too. Make sure you understand the financial agreement you're entering with giffgaff though."
Basic pay as you go: Three vs giffgaff
How they compare if you just want to pay per minute, text and MB data
✔ Three's basic rates are cheaper than giffgaff's
Three have now got rid of their popular 321 plan, which offered nearly market-leading basic pay as you go rates. In our comparison of the cheapest pay as you go SIMs, Three now come third for value ahead of giffgaff.
Their pay as you go is now aimed mainly at getting you to buy monthly bundles but you can still just top up with credit and pay for what you use at these rates:
It's pretty good for infrequent users. You just have to do something that costs money at least every 180 days (like send a text) to keep the SIM active. Otherwise credit never expires.
You also get the network benefits of WiFi calling and 4G calling with Three's pay as you go. You'll only get the extra worldwide roaming benefit if you buy one of the monthly add-ons. Otherwise it's Europe only.
Useful link: Full details on Three's pay as you go SIMs
✔ giffgaff's rates are more expensive than Three's
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Compared to Three, giffgaff's basic rates are a little pricier but are still the cheapest option on a provider using O2 network (O2 scrapped their Classic PAYG tariff):
There's the same requirement to do something chargeable every 6 months on giffgaff as Three. As long as you do that, there's no credit expiry on giffgaff.
One nice bonus if you've got friends and family on giffgaff is that you'll get free giffgaff to giffgaff calls to them, as long as you top up at least every 3 months. This is one way round giffgaff's high per minute charge.
Useful link: All pay as you go rates on giffgaff
Our verdict on this pay as you go:Win for Three
"Three's basic rates are cheaper than giffgaff for calls and you get the benefits of WiFi calling / 4G calling that giffgaff don't offer."