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Virgin Mobile vs Three: comparing their networks and benefits

Virgin Mobile and Three logos

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We look at whether you're better off joining Three or Virgin Mobile when it comes to network coverage, speeds, prices and benefits. SIM Sherpa is your trusty guide. Last updated: 12th May 2021

In our Virgin Mobile vs Three comparison

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How their mobile networks compare

Do Virgin Mobile have better coverage than Three?

How Three and Virgin's signal compares

Virgin Mobile and Three mobile network icons

Virgin's overall 4G/3G/2G coverage is bigger than Three's

Read why

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

After decades of using the EE network (and its predecessors), Virgin Mobile have now switched to using the Vodafone network. Three operate their own separate network themselves and don't rely on anyone else.

For basic calls and texts, Virgin have more of the country's physical landmass covered - meaning better signal as you travel around and rurally. Although in places people live, there's no real difference.

Virgin also have the advantage for 4G data too. More of the UK's geography covered, more towns and villages. But again, if you're anywhere urban, Three aren't at a disadvantage.

The key really is to use both networks' coverage checkers below to test out the places you'll use your phone most. That's more important than general coverage statistics in places you'll never go.

Useful link: More about Virgin Mobile's network

5G coverage is on a city-by-city basis on both

Three's 5G locations map

See latest places

at Three.co.uk
(opens in new window)

If you're an early adopter and have a 5G-ready phone, both Three and Virgin Mobile are viable options. They've both got their 5G networks live and are expanding them rapidly, in urban locations.

The covered location count totals as 192 for Three (see list here) and 100+ for Virgin Mobile (see theirs here). But it's worth understanding, this doesn't mean the entire location gets the faster data technology.

Both Three and Virgin's host network host Vodafone have focused their rollouts on the busiest sections of towns and cities: the stations, shopping areas, sports stadia etc. It means very few residential areas get 5G.

Both sell 5G at no extra cost. You'll get it on every SIM only plan or phone contract, as long as the model itself has 5G data as a feature.

Useful link: Latest news on Three's 5G rollout

Check coverage before you sign up

Don't just look at your home postcode but where you work, your commute, where you go for pleasure: anywhere you'd use your phone

Three network map

Three coverage checker

Check Three signal

with their coverage checker
(opens in new window)

Virgin Mobile network map

Virgin Mobile coverage checker

Check Virgin signal

with their coverage checker
(opens in new window)

Our verdict on coverage:

Win for Virgin Mobile

"The overall blend of coverage is better on Virgin Mobile. But we wouldn't rule either out before you've actually checked what they're like in the places you plan to use your phone."

Compare pricing and deals

Data speeds: are Virgin Mobile or Three faster?

We look to see if Three or Virgin Mobile have quicker downloads

Three and Virgin Mobile's 4G logos

4G speeds are quite close on Virgin and Three

Virgin don't let anything slow you down banner

Read why

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

One downside from Virgin Mobile's network switch from using EE to Vodafone is the hit on downloads speeds over 4G. They've moved from top position to second.

Independent network testers Opensignal and Speedtest by Ookla say Virgin's host Vodafone runs out at a slight advantage over Three (on average 21.15 - 25.1 Mbps vs 21.60 Mbps).

There's no speed caps on Virgin Mobile, so we think it's fair to assume the same speeds. Both Virgin and Three's typical downloads are like a low-to-mid range home fibre broadband connection.

From experience, we'd say on Virgin, you'll get a greater range of speeds. Sometimes 4 or 5 times greater than the average. Sometimes a third of it. Three are a little more consistent, with smaller peaks.

Useful link: Three's 4g+ Big Network Build news

Three are coming out on top for 5G speeds

Three's fastest 5G banner

Why they're faster

at Three.co.uk
(opens in new window)

It's still early days for 5G and there's not a huge amount of testing data available. But what there is, Three seem to be living up to their promise to build the fastest 5G network.

Speedtest's testing of all the networks in London put Three top of the pile with typical downloads at 196.02 Mbps, peaking at 362.46 Mbps. Virgin's host Vodafone were clocked typically at 166.77 Mbps, peaking at 288.17 Mbps.

Both are revolutionary compared to 4G and will allow more advanced features to be developed for phones that weren't previously possible. But if you want bragging rights, Three are probably the current best bet.

The reason Three currently have the advantage is that they've secured more radio spectrum in the same more-optimal wavelengths to broadcast their 5G on. It's paying off now but as more spectrum gets sold, Three may not have a permanent advantage.

Useful link: What speeds might Three's 5G achieve?

Our verdict on data speeds:

Minor win for Virgin Mobile

"You're still going to spend most your time on a 4G connection with either network. And for that Virgin have a slight advantage on speed over Three."

Compare pricing and deals

Extra network features on Three vs Virgin Mobile

Here we look at other things Virgin and Three offer to keep you connected on your phone

Virgin and Three extra network features

Three's WiFi calling is more settled than Virgin's

Three's WiFi calling scheme called InTouch

See supported phones

at Three.co.uk
(opens in new window)

Switching to Vodafone has an advantage for Virgin vs using EE, because their signal is now broadcast on better frequencies for getting into buildings and avoiding indoor blackspots. Three's is less optimal.

To help out, both networks have got WiFi calling (lets your phone make calls via WiFi where no mobile signal) and 4G calling (utilises more types of signal for calls, so better chance of having reception).

Out of the two we'd say Three's is better. Virgin use their own technology (not Vodafone's) and it seems to support fewer phones, even if the have the feature. Check Virgin's list, if yours isn't on there it's unlikely to work.

We think Three's list of supported phones is actually a little defensive (the phones the guarantee rather than the models that might work). It kicks in easily when needed and supports SMS texting too.

Useful link: Our guide to the best WiFi calling networks

Virgin Mobile's free WiFi hotspots are better than Three's

Free WiFi on Virgin Mobile

How to get free WiFi

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

Virgin Mobile customers get a real advantage from joining a mobile provider that's also part of a broadband supplier: Virgin Media. You can tap into their broadband expertise.

Pay monthly customers can access 3.5 million + free WiFi hotspots across the UK, in useful locations like the high street, transport hubs (including London Underground), pubs and cafes.

This is useful as it saves on using up your mobile data allowance. You get unlimited usage. Using less data means you could in theory choose a smaller, cheaper plan (although the actual savings are hard to predict).

Three have nothing comparable in terms of free WiFi on a national scale. But like Virgin Mobile, you will get free access to WiFi when you're on the London Underground network (here's how to get that on Three).

Useful links: Free UK-wide WiFi on Virgin Mobile | Three's free WiFi on the Underground

Our verdict on extra network features:

A win for Three

"We think more people will find it useful being able to make calls indoors via WiFi calling and 4G calling on Three than getting free WiFi on Virgin. Although much will depend on your own priorities."

Compare pricing and deals

Virgin Mobile and Three's benefits compared

Free data schemes: Virgin Mobile vs Three

Both Three and Virgin Mobile have free data schemes, so which is more generous?

Virgin and Three logos with speedometer icon

Three have scrapped their Go Binge streaming benefit

ExpiredThree's Go Binge promotional banner

Read statement

at Three.co.uk
(opens in new window)

There used to be an excellent benefit on Three called Go Binge. It gave you an effectively unlimited data allowance to stream a selection of apps on your phone, even if you were on a plan that had a data cap.

There are a few networks still offering similar schemes, which you can read about here. But Three aren't one of them. Virgin do have something similar, for social media messaging data, which you can read about below.

Normally, video and music streaming are some of the data-hungriest activities you can do on your phone, so not having this count towards your data usage on Three was a real advantage.

Overall, Three are getting in danger of becoming a bit of a low-frills provider. They've stripped out other benefits too recently, like their Wuntu Rewards app and their easyJet upgrade offer.

Useful link: Read Three's existing customer guide for Go Binge

Virgin Mobile's free data focusses on social media apps

Data-free Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter

See all free apps

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

Virgin don't have anything quite as generous as Three's Go Binge was in terms of writing off the cost of data for specific apps but they do still have something:

If you're on a pay monthly phone or SIM only contract, they'll not charge you for data you use for pictures and texts via the messaging apps Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. And also the social network Twitter.

It effectively means you can use these as much as you like without worrying about the data. In our guide to networks that offer free data, we point out that you use this type of app a lot but that they're not really the biggest consumers of data.

We're basically saying it's a nice feature if you use your phone with these apps a lot but don't expect it to save you huge amounts of data.

Useful link: Data-free messaging on Virgin Mobile

Our verdict on free data schemes:

Win for Virgin

"Now Three don't offer Go Binge to new customers, this is a win for Virgin Mobile by default."

Compare pricing and deals

Free roaming: Three vs Virgin Mobile

Is roaming on Virgin Mobile as good as Three's Go Roam?

Virgin and Three roaming icons

Three's inclusive roaming is UK's most generous

Roaming on Three compared with Virgin

See all free countries

at Three.co.uk
(opens in new window)

Join Three on any pay monthly phone or SIM only plan and you'll get access to the free worldwide roaming scheme called Go Roam (read our detailed review of it here).

This lets you use your plan's UK minutes, texts and data for no extra cost in these 71 countries worldwide. That's 23 extra on top of the standard EU countries every network, including Virgin, now have to include.

When you consider charges for roaming in places like the USA on some networks hit £5 per MB, you can see how getting it free quickly adds up in value, if you travel a lot.

Useful link: Full details on Three's free roaming scheme at Three.co.uk

Virgin Mobile’s free roaming covers only the standard EU countries

Virgin Mobile free EU roaming banner

See all free countries

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

Like we say, every mobile provider has to let you use your regular UK minutes, texts and data while abroad in the EU for no extra cost on pay monthly (read more in our roaming guide here).

Virgin Mobile don’t go beyond this basic requirement. And have quite a few finickity rules about how much of your normal data you can use abroad (see their roaming calculator here to work it out).

So if you mainly travel within the EU, you’re covered with Virgin. But if you regularly go further afield, you might want to check Virgin’s extra roaming costs here to check you’re satisfied paying extra.

Virgin do include a cap on roaming spending with all deals to avoid you ever accidentally running up a huge bill, which provides some reassurance.

Useful link: Virgin's guide to all their roaming costs

Our verdict on inclusive roaming:

A win for Three

"Three are still the champions of free worldwide roaming in our eyes. Other networks like Virgin Mobile including only EU countries in their deals are still behind the curve. An easy win for Three here."

Compare pricing and deals

Other benefits you get on Virgin Mobile but not on Three

Here's what you'd miss out on by joining Three instead of Virgin

Virgin Mobile better than Three

Virgin Mobile let you keep unused data each month

Virgin Mobile data rollover scheme

Keep unused data

full details at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

Most people's data usage varies from month-to-month, depending on what you've been doing with your phone. Sometimes you'll get right near your data-limit or over, sometimes you'll get nowhere near.

Virgin Mobile (and a few other networks we rank here) have come up with a solution that gets rid of part of the annoyance of not using up all the data that you've paid for in your plan:

It's called Data Rollover on Virgin, and it comes with every pay monthly SIM only plan or phone contract. It lets you keep unused data to use next month instead. It's a second chance to use it.

This is something that Three don't offer, so if you're sensitive about your data usage and wastage, Virgin could be a better choice.

Useful link: Everything you need to know about data rollover from the Virgin Mobile website

Deals and pricing on Virgin Mobile vs Three

Comparing Three and Virgin Mobile's SIM only deals

Which of the two currently has the best value SIM only plans?

SIM card with Three and Virgin Mobile logos

Networks

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Added features

Current offers on Virgin Mobile and Three

Here are the key promotions Three and Virgin Mobile have on right now

Virgin and Three logos with a special offer label

Phone contracts: how Three and Virgin Mobile compare

We look at prices and differences between their smartphone deals

Phone contracts on Three and Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile let you upgrade or leave their network early

Virgin Mobile Freestyle Contracts

How to upgrade early

at virginmedia.com
(opens in new window)

There are a few things to watch with Virgin Mobile: many of their advertised deals are 36-month contracts (a full extra year than normal), so a lower monthly rate can add up to more in total.

Also you’ll need a good credit rating, because most of Virgin Mobile’s smartphone contracts are based on credit agreements (basically loans).

This does have some benefits though. You’re able to upgrade early or leave Virgin Mobile with 30 days’ notice by paying off your credit agreement in full whenever you like (cheaper than old-fashioned exit fees).

Otherwise, you’ll find a decent range of iPhone, Samsung and some other cheaper Android models with Virgin Mobile, all with no upfront costs.

Useful link: See Virgin's full range of phones

Three's contracts are more conventional

Phone comparison tool screenshot

Compare prices

at simsherpa.com
(opens in new window)

We'd describe Three's phone contracts as being 'conventional mobile contracts' because they all last 24 months, and there's no loans or credit agreements to get involved with, and no early upgrades either.

Three's phone range is very similar to Virgin's. We've built a new tool for you to compare phone contract prices on Three, Virgin and other mobile networks.

Just select the phone you want, the minutes, texts and data, you need and it shows you how each mobile provider stacks up in terms of price.

Or look at our popular model example comparison further down the page to compare Virgin Mobile and Three's starting prices on some of the best selling phones.

Useful link: Compare mobile phone contracts at simsherpa.com

Our verdict on phone contract pricing

Virgin usually cheaper

"On 24-month contracts, Virgin Mobile are just about cheaper than Three, although a lot will depend on the phone and plan you choose. There are no upfront costs on Virgin, which could swing it for some."

Compare phone contracts

Making your mind up

The main differences between Virgin Mobile and Three

Here's a quick summary of things that could help you decide between the two:

Reasons to join Virgin Mobile...

They have stronger 5G/4G/3G/2G in all the places you use your phone (check here)

You like the idea of keeping unused data at the end of the month

You message loads on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger so would benefit from data-free messaging

You like the idea of being able to change your SIM only or phone plan once a month, so you never overpay

Reasons to join Three

Their 5G/4G/3G coverage is good in the areas you tend to use your phone (check here)

You want to roam for no extra cost in the most destinations as standard

You want WiFi calling and 4G calling that Virgin don't have (check phone compatibility here)

Other Three guides

More guides about Virgin Mobile