Vodafone vs Three: which mobile network is the best?

Last updated: 17 May 2021   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

Vodafone and Three offer a varied range of SIM only tariffs to UK mobile customers, along with handset deals and PAYG SIMs.

Customers looking for value above everything else will find Three's mobile deals to be cheaper, whether that's on SIM only or device tariffs.

However, Vodafone have the edge on speed, coverage and extras, plus their 5G roll out is proving to be effective too.

Three marginally win this battle based on their value for money, although customers should be especially careful about checking 4G coverage in their area before signing up.

mobile phone comparison old vs new

At a glance

Vodafone Three
Prices from £11 £5
Contract length 30 days to 24 months 30 days to 24 months
4G speeds 21.0 Mbps average 19.3 Mbps average
4G geographical coverage 82% 79%
4G indoor coverage 95% 90%
Customer satisfaction 90% 86%

SIM only plans

Winner: Three offer cheaper plans and all their unlimited plans are truly unlimited.

Vodafone and Three each offer a range of SIM only tariffs available to customers on 24-month, 12-month or 30-day deals.

These are some representative tariffs available now on 24-month deals:

Package Minutes Data Contract term Monthly price
Three 4GB data Unlimited 4GB 24 months £9
Vodafone Red 5GB Unlimited 5GB 24 months £15
Three Unlimited data Unlimited Unlimited 24 months £20
Vodafone Unlimited Max Unlimited Unlimited 24 months £30

And these are examples of 12-month plans:

Package Minutes Data Contract term Monthly price
Three 4GB data Unlimited 4GB 12 months £10
Vodafone Red 5GB Unlimited 5GB 12 months £16
Three Unlimited data Unlimited Unlimited 12 months £20
Vodafone Unlimited Max Unlimited Unlimited 12 months £33

Three have made a name for themselves offering cheap unlimited data plans, and that definitely shows here.

While different data plans may be cheaper on Vodafone's network depending on the deals they have available, Three are invariably cheaper when it comes to unlimited data.

Read our round-up of the cheapest SIM only deals available from major and minor UK mobile providers.

For clarity's sake, we've compared Three's plans with Vodafone's Unlimited Max plans - Vodafone also offer slower tariffs with speeds capped at 2Mbps and 10Mbps.

It's something the network has been rebuked by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on in the past and there's more detail in our dedicated guide to Vodafone's mobile network.

30-day deals

Both Vodafone and Three give customers the option of taking a SIM only plan on a rolling monthly basis.

This is how their unlimited tariffs look at that level (other data packages are available):

Package Minutes Data Contract term Monthly price
Three Unlimited data (1 month plan) Unlimited Unlimited 1 month £26
Vodafone Unlimited Max Unlimited Unlimited 1 month £45

Customers on both networks pay a premium for the privilege of taking a rolling deal, but it's clear Vodafone customers pay far more for that privilege if they want the Unlimited Max plan with no speed limits.

We've got a guide to the best unlimited SIM only deals available to UK customers.

Pay as you go

Like most providers, Vodafone and Three operate a bundle system rather than a traditional pay as you go service.

This means customers buy bundles of minutes, texts and data that expire after a certain period.

Here are the cheapest and unlimited options from both networks:

Package Minutes Data Contract term Monthly price
Three 6GB Data Pack Unlimited 6GB PAYG £10
Vodafone £10 Bundle 250 minutes
Unlimited texts
3GB PAYG £10
Three Unlimited Data Pack Unlimited Unlimited PAYG £35
Vodafone £50 Unlimited Bundle Unlimited Unlimited PAYG £50

These PAYG bundles follow the same pattern we've already seen with these two providers: Three is the cheaper option.

Ultimately, most customers looking at either network will usually find it more economical to opt for a rolling monthly deal rather than a PAYG bundle.

Handset plans

Winner: Three seem to be cheaper overall, but individual device plans will vary.

Vodafone and Three have a huge range of the latest handsets available on a variety of data plans.

We're going to look at one premium handset and one cheaper device to see how the two compare on price.

First, here's the Apple iPhone 12:

Handset Minutes Data Initial price Monthly price
Three Apple iPhone 12 Unlimited 4GB £49 £43
24 month term
Vodafone Apple iPhone 12 Unlimited 6GB £29 £50
24 month term
Three Apple iPhone 12 Unlimited Unlimited £49 £31
24 month term
Vodafone Apple iPhone 12 Unlimited Unlimited Max £29 £63
24 month term

Although Vodafone's upfront costs here are lower, their monthly costs are higher in these comparable plans.

It's a similar story for the Samsung A12:

Handset Minutes Data Initial price Monthly price
Three Samsung Galaxy A12 Unlimited 4GB Free £18
24 month term
Vodafone Samsung Galaxy A12 Unlimited 6GB £9 £26
24 month term
Three Samsung Galaxy A12 Unlimited Unlimited Free £28
24 month term
Vodafone Samsung Galaxy A12 Unlimited Unlimited Max £9 £43
24 month term

The differences between the two providers are even clearer here, with Three demanding no upfront fees and charging much less per month for the same device.

However, it's always worth comparing specific device plans across different networks to check if a certain handset is cheaper with one network or another.


Winner: Three have the cheaper tariffs and deals overall.

There seems to be no contest on price - Three beat Vodafone at every level.

As we mentioned above, it's worthwhile checking up-to-date deals on particular data packs or handsets to see which network is offering the best prices, but the answer will be Three a good percentage of the time.

It's also clear the differences between Vodafone's Unlimited Lite, Unlimited and Unlimited Max plans have the capacity to cause confusion and frustration whereas what you see with Three is what you get and there aren't any speed throttling issues.

One final point: both networks employ annual price increases in April every year: for Vodafone, this is CPI + 3.9% while Three increase their prices by a flat rate of 4.5%.


Winner: Vodafone generally have better 4G coverage than Three.

Vodafone's 4G coverage consistently ranks above Three's, especially when we move away from urban centres and look at rural coverage instead.

According to the most recent Connected Nations report from Ofcom, here are how the two networks compare on 4G coverage:

Vodafone Three
Geographical coverage 82% 79%
Indoor coverage 95% 90%
Urban geographical coverage 99% 99%
Urban indoor coverage 98% 93%
Rural geographical coverage 79% 77%
Rural indoor coverage 75% 68%

As we can see, Vodafone has better coverage than Three across all these areas, with indoor coverage in both urban and rural areas a particular bugbear for potential Three customers.

Across the four nations, Three only beat Vodafone overall in one area (Northern Ireland), although they have better geographical coverage in Wales too.

Here's a more detailed breakdown:

Vodafone Three
England (geographical) 92% 92%
England (indoors) 95% 90%
Northern Ireland (geographical) 91% 92%
Northern Ireland (indoors) 92% 83%
Scotland (geographical) 66% 57%
Scotland (indoors) 95% 89%
Wales (geographical) 72% 77%
Wales (indoors 89% 85%

While there are variations, Vodafone usually have better coverage than Three. Certainly, customers in rural Scotland would find that, while coverage is less than ideal with Vodafone, it's worse with Three.

Of course, mobile coverage is a highly localised issue, and a mast in the right place can mean those statistics above suddenly become less important.

Customers should be sure to check coverage in specific postcodes where they spend a lot of time, while also remembering they may need to pass through some of those other areas during commuting and leisure time.

It's also worth noting rural 4G coverage is set to improve in the years ahead thanks to a Shared Rural Network (SRN) between all network operators.

Vodafone and Three are set to share (along with O2) an extra 222 mobile masts, and Three have recently reiterated their commitment to investing in infrastructure with improved download speeds across 1,500 sites.

Find out more about mobile coverage in general and across the four nations.

5G coverage

Winner: Three have more availability across major cities and more 5G locations.

5G coverage is the next frontier for mobile operators and both Vodafone and Three are continuing with their roll out of 5G services.

Vodafone arguably had a head-start on 5G: they were the first network to announce their 5G launch in 2019, although they were pipped to the post for their actual launch by EE.

Conversely, Three focused on the possibilities of 5G as a replacement for home broadband in London first, before rolling out their services at pace in 2020.

Thanks to RootMetrics' bi-annual testing, we can see how much 5G availability Vodafone and Three have in 16 key locations across the UK:

Vodafone Three
Glasgow 10.2% 6.8%
Edinburgh 1.1% 6.7%
Belfast 3.2% 5.6%
Newcastle Not enough data 3.1%
Leeds and Bradford 3.2% 17.9%
Hull 5.4% 29.6%
Liverpool 44.0% 11.7%
Manchester 14.6% 15.1%
Sheffield 2.2% 11.4%
Nottingham Not enough data 13.1%
Leicester Not enough data 11.8%
Birmingham 11.9% 27.0%
Coventry Not enough data 8.6%
Cardiff 15.2% 8.9%
Bristol 24.9% 5.5%
London 9.7% 16.9%

Vodafone's top availability in Liverpool (44%) dwarfs most of Three's availability scores, with their 29.6% in Hull the best recorded.

All this goes to say that 5G coverage for these two operators is still in its fledgling stages, despite Three saying they have rolled out services in 194 locations to date compared to Vodafone's 100.

Learn more about 5G broadband.


Winner: Vodafone are faster on 4G and are showing good signs on 5G too.

We have two main sources for UK mobile speeds - and both show Vodafone's network ahead of Three's.

Opensignal publish bi-annual reports on UK mobile network performance, with the Download Speed Experience category showing average real-world speeds.

These are the download speeds recorded in the last two reports in October 2020 and April 2021:

Vodafone Three
October 2020 20.4 Mbps 19.0 Mbps
April 2021 21.0 Mbps 19.3 Mbps

The differences here are minor, especially when compared to the speeds registered by EE's network (almost double those of these two operators).

Yet if we look at RootMetrics' speed data for the second half of 2020, there's more of a difference between the networks:

Vodafone Three
H2 2020 21.1 Mbps 13.9 Mbps

The differences in methodology between Opensignal and RootMetrics is interesting: while Opensignal track individual measurements from individual devices, the RootMetrics' team literally move around locations to test how customers experience mobile networks on the ground.

Both these methods bring something different to the table, yet it's notable Vodafone's speeds remain consistent between the reports.

As for 5G, RootMetrics's research found Vodafone's speed range was more impressive than Three's during their testing for their April 2021 snapshot.

Their findings included:

  • Vodafone recorded the single fastest median download speed of any network in any city with the 216.6 Mbps recorded in London
  • Three's fastest test was in Belfast with 137.2 Mbps
  • The slowest median download speeds for each provider were 81.5 Mbps (Vodafone in Hull) and 79.1 Mbps (Three in Sheffield)

From all of this, it's clear 5G speeds from both networks have the potential to be game-changing, but, as the availability statistics earlier suggested, we're not quite there yet.


Winner: Vodafone offer more extras and perks to their customers.

Vodafone customers on deals of 12 months or more can pay extra per month to access an Entertainment perk.

This allows customers to take a service alongside their mobile such as Spotify Premium or Amazon Prime Video while saving a few pounds on taking the service separately.

There are a couple of things to note about Entertainment perks:

  • A customer is stuck with their choice once it's been activated
  • The line-up of perks frequently changes

Taking an Entertainment perk can be worthwhile if a customer would otherwise sign up for the service, but it may be cheaper to get it elsewhere.

Customers can also access VeryMe Rewards (personalised offers based on their interests) and save money on taking home broadband via Vodafone with the discount service Vodafone Together.

Conversely, Three don't offer much in the way of perks or rewards since they scrapped their Go Binge service in October 2020.

Yet their Go Roam service for mobile roaming is one of the best in the business and is certainly worth a look for customers who like travelling.

Customer service

Winner: Vodafone customers are generally more satisfied, although Three wins on some key customer service metrics.

The most recent customer service data we have from Ofcom shows Vodafone are better for satisfaction with overall service, yet they trail Three on some other important metrics.

Here are their scores from Ofcom's Comparing Service Quality 2020 report set alongside the industry average for context:

Vodafone Three Industry average
Satisfaction with overall service 90% 86% 90%
Satisfaction with value for money 77% 88% 83%
Number of customers with a reason to complain 16% 13% 10%
Overall satisfaction with complaint handling 55% 56% 57%
Complaints completely resolved on first contact 44% 42% 46%
Complaints per 100,000 customers in 2020 20 23 13
Average call waiting time 1 minute 56 seconds 1 minute 3 seconds 2 minutes 7 seconds

As the table shows, fewer customers are satisfied with Vodafone's value for money, and Three customers spend around half the time waiting for their calls to be answered as Vodafone's do.

Yet there are a couple of measures where both Vodafone and Three are distanced from industry averages: they have more customers with a reason to complain and they have higher complaint levels than the sector average too.

In our comparison of the other two major networks in the UK, we find O2 and EE both perform much better on those metrics as well as several others.

We've got more detail on the best and worst mobile providers for customer service.

Verdict: which network is better?

Winner: Three are cheaper overall, despite Vodafone edging above them in several categories.

Vodafone and Three are arguably targeted at different types of customer. While Vodafone may appeal to those customers willing to pay extra for a little more, Three is firmly directed at customers looking for the highest amount of data at the lowest monthly price.

These approaches both have their merits, so how to choose between them?

We'd say choose Vodafone if:

  • You want better coverage
  • You want faster 4G speeds (and potentially 5G too)
  • You want a provider who offers extras
  • You don't mind paying extra for the above

On the other hand, choose Three if:

  • You're looking for cheap data plans
  • You want a simple contract with no confusing unlimited options
  • You don't mind potentially less coverage and lower speeds

Ultimately, we refer back to what the networks' customers said in Ofcom's Comparing Service Quality report: only 77% of Vodafone customers were satisfied with the value of the service whereas the figure was 88% for Three. For many, that will be the deal-clincher.


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