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What is 4G?

What is 4G

4G is of course faster than 3G and it’s the mobile technology that almost everyone is using – because while 5G is faster still, it’s not yet widely available at the time of writing.

But there’s a whole lot more to 4G than that. So for a rundown of all the benefits, how to get 4G, exactly how fast it is, and what the future holds, read on, because we’ve got an easily digestible guide to everything you need to know.

What is 4G?

4G is the fourth generation of mobile phone technology. It follows on from 3G (third generation) and 2G (second generation) mobile technology.

2G technology launched in the 1990s and was capable of making digital phone calls and sending texts. Then 3G came along in 2003 and made it possible to browse web pages, make video calls and download music and video on the move.

4G technology builds upon what 3G offers, but does everything at a much faster speed.

Of course, there’s now 5G too, which follows the same pattern. It’s the fifth generation and it’s faster still.

What are the benefits of 4G?

The benefits of 4G fall firmly into three categories. These are:

  • improved download/upload speeds
  • reduced latency
  • crystal clear voice calls

Improved download/upload speeds

4G download speeds

Standard 4G (or 4G LTE) is around five to seven times faster than 3G, offering theoretical speeds of up to around 150Mbps. That equates to maximum potential speeds of around 80Mbps in the real world.

With standard 4G you can download a 2GB HD film in 3 minutes 20 seconds, while it would take over 25 minutes on a standard 3G network.

4G upload speeds

However, a faster version of 4G is also available in many parts of the UK, called 4G LTE-Advanced (also known as LTE-A, 4.5G or 4G+).

This offers theoretical speeds of up to 1.5Gbps, but the current crop of LTE-A networks have a maximum potential speed of 300Mbps with real world speeds falling a lot lower.

EE has brought LTE-A to a number of UK cities, including London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, among others.

EE isn't the only network with LTE-A though, as Vodafone has also brought it to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Nottingham, Bristol, and numerous other locations.

Most recently, Three has launched a 4G+ service of its own, promising average speeds that are 15% to 33% higher where available. The network hasn’t provided a full list of 4G+ locations but has said that it’s been launched in high-demand cities such as London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. You’ll know it’s working where you are if you see a ‘4G+’ symbol on your phone.

You can expect the availability of LTE-A to increase in the coming years and speeds could get faster still. For example, Ericsson has developed technology which could allow for peak real-world 4G speeds of 1Gbps, though this won't likely be available for a while if at all.

But of course the main speed boosts will come from 5G, which the UK’s main networks are now rolling out. This at the time of writing offers average download speeds in the region of 130-250Mbps, with peak speeds of over 1Gbps, and the potential for it to get far faster still.

Reduced latency

Download speeds aren't the only thing that has been improved, because 4G also has a better response time than 3G – due to lower ‘latency’. This means that a device connected to a 4G mobile network will get a quicker response to a request than the same device connected to a 3G mobile network.

The improved latency times, reduced from 80 milliseconds (3G) to around 45 milliseconds (4G), may not seem that significant on paper.  However, they can make a significant difference when playing online games and streaming live video. Find out more about the benefits of 4G for gaming.

On 5G, latency is lowered further still, coming in at around 21-26ms based on Ookla data from late 2019, and likely to further decrease as 5G infrastructure improves

Crystal clear voice calls

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is similar to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which use voice apps such as Skype to support voice calls over the internet. Effectively, VoLTE rides on the back of the 4G network and brings crystal clear voice calls and video chat to your 4G mobile phone.

Another benefit is that it allows you to call and text when you only have a 4G connection, where previously you wouldn’t have been able to.

VoLTE is now available from Three, EE, O2, Vodafone, iD Mobile, Sky Mobile and BT Mobile, but only on certain handsets. Check out our full VoLTE guide for detailed information on availability.

Which Networks Offer 4G in the UK?

Main Networks Offering 4G
EE Logo Three Logo Vodafone O2 Logo
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The four main UK mobile operators (EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three) all currently offer 4G in the UK. Coverage and speeds differ between the operators, but they all have an active 4G network and offer 4G tariffs to their customers. 

There are other 4G operators, called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), who essentially piggyback off the main 4G mobile operators’ networks and offer their own mobile services. These include Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, Lycamobile, and Giffgaff, which all use O2’s 4G network, iD Mobile, SMARTY, Ctrl Mobile and FreedomPop, which use Three’s network, Talkmobile, VOXI and Lebara, which use Vodafone’s network, and BT Mobile, ASDA Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Plusnet, which use EE’s 4G network.

In other words, just about every UK network offers 4G and it comes as standard.

How To Get 4G

There are a number of things that need to be checked or done for you to get 4G on any device. These are:

  • Is 4G available in your area?
  • Do you have a 4G Ready phone?
  • Are you on a 4G tariff?

Is 4G available in your area?

Firstly, you will need to either check online or ask your mobile operator if they have launched 4G in your area.

Each of the 4G mobile operators has a ‘coverage checker’ which works from the post code you put in and this should be your first port of call (see below for links to each operator’s coverage checker).

If there is any doubt, call your operator and they should provide further assistance. There are two types of coverage you should check for – indoor and outdoor.

We have produced a comprehensive 4G coverage and network summary for most UK networks. 

Network and Coverage Reviews

Asda Mobile

BT Mobile

Ctrl Mobile




iD Mobile

Lebara Mobile



Plusnet Mobile

Sky Mobile


Tesco Mobile


Virgin Mobile



If your mobile operator doesn’t currently offer 4G in your area, the next step is to ask the operator when they will be launching 4G in your area. If you’ve got a long wait ahead or your network won’t reveal when it’s bringing 4G to your area then you still have the option of jumping ship to another operator.

The good news though is that at this point the vast majority of locations have 4G coverage from every UK network, so that’s unlikely to be an issue – the next challenge is 5G.

Do you have a 4G Ready phone?

The second thing you’ll need is a 4G Ready phone. You'll probably already have a phone which is compatible with 4G, as most smartphones are 4G compatible. If in doubt you should head over to the phone manufacturer's website and check your device's specification.

Don’t have a 4G phone? No worries, there are plenty of 4G smartphones available which can picked up on Pay Monthly tariffs, SIM-free or on Pay As You Go and these cover a range of costs and device types, from entry-level handsets to flagships and from compact to phablet.

If you’re hoping to get 5G then your handset options are more limited, but there’s still a large and growing number to choose from.

Are you on a 4G tariff?

This shouldn’t be an issue as just about all plans on all networks now come with 4G as standard. If you’ve stuck with the same plan for many years then there’s an outside chance you won’t have 4G (though your network will probably have added it to the plan anyway), but in that case you will be eligible to switch to a new plan by this point anyway.

So, if in doubt give your network a call and check out your options – and while you’re on you might want to consider upgrading to a 5G plan, so you have the very speediest data possible.

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