Man using smartphone

Complete guide to 4G

  • 4G phone networks compared
  • 4G speeds and data explained
  • Expert advice on whether 4G is right for you

4G is a step up in speed from the 3G network that most current phones use to access the internet.

4G is all about faster internet speeds – it offers no improvement in making calls or sending texts. With 4G, your phone can open webpages instantaneously, download apps and songs in seconds, and stream videos without any annoying buffering.

You'll need a 4G phone to access 4G networks. Find out which models the Which? experts have rated as the best cheap 4G phones. 

How fast is 4G?

Telecoms regulator Ofcom estimates that 4G download speeds are around five to seven times those available through the 3G networks and says 4G should give a browsing experience comparable to your home broadband service.

What you won’t get is the theoretical speed of up to 100Mbps sometimes quoted by networks. That’s because the speed you’ll actually get can be affected by the signal strength in your area, how many other people nearby are using 4G and whether you’re inside or outside.

According to our state of the nation mobile phone report, produced in conjunction with coverage specialists OpenSignal, Vodafone has the fastest average 4G speeds (as measured between July and October 2014). Users recorded average download speeds of 13.2Mbps - that compares to an average ADSL home broadband connection of 7.4Mbps.

Find out more by reading our Mobile Phone State of the Nation report.

What does that mean in real life?

With 4G you can download a song almost instantaneously or get the latest app in just a few seconds, rather than having to wait for almost two and a half minutes. You can download TV shows and movies in minutes rather than hours, though you do need to consider how much data this will use.

Upload speeds are also faster over 4G. Though less important than download speeds for most people, faster uploads mean it’s quicker to post pictures on Facebook or add videos to YouTube.

Do I need 4G?

Infographic showing data usage

Deciding whether you should take out a 4G deal will depend on how you use your phone (and whether it's actually available in your area).

If you only use the internet occasionally, perhaps to see what’s happening on Facebook, read emails or to check the time of your next train, then you won't really see the benefits and shouldn’t spend more on a pricier 4G deal.

But, if you regularly stream or download content, then you'll really benefit from 4G's faster speeds. However this sort of use can be expensive - we suggest you steer clear of watching video content, in particular, unless you have a large or unlimited data pack.

How do I get 4G?

To get 4G you need to have a 4G-compatible phone, a 4G tariff and live in an area with a 4G signal – when you’re outside this area you’ll revert to slower 3G speeds.

It's important to check if the provider you are signing up to offers coverage in the places where you will use your phone. Find out by using our free coverage map.

How much 4G data do I need?

The cheapest deals typically come with fairly small data allowances – often 500MB or less. This won’t be enough if you want to get the most out of 4G.

Using the internet on your phone consumes the same amount of data whether it’s 4G or 3G. However, 4G’s faster speed means the networks are promoting its suitability for performing far more data-hungry tasks.

For example, Vodafone customers get free access to Sky Sports Mobile TV or Spotify music streaming, but using these for an hour will consume 174MB or 36MB of data, respectively.

The graphic, right, shows some common activities and reveals much data they typically require.

So is 4G worth it?

4G is proving popular. Millions of people have signed up to 4G packages and EE customers seem convinced of its worth. In a special Which? survey we asked 300 of them what they thought of 4G. The results were overwhelmingly positive. 68% told us they were satisfied and 63% would recommend it to a friend.

More on this…

  • Best mobile phone networks – see who came out on top in our unique survey
  • Best mobile phones – find out which phones impressed in our tough lab test
  • Your phone rights – discover what to do if you get poor reception