What is 5G and is it worth including in my phone contract?

Woman's hand using smartphone against illuminated financial district in the city, with the concept of 5G communications technology

5G has the potential to revolutionise the way we use our phones, with speeds that could be up to 100 times faster than 4G. And with networks rolling out their 5G coverage across more of the UK and most new handsets being released with 5G compatibility, now could be the perfect time to upgrade to 5G.

Most SIM cards offer 5G speeds for no extra cost. So, provided you have a 5G-compatible device, you can make the most of these faster speeds without having to pay more. If you’re tempted, take a look at our best SIM only deals.

Or, if you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about with 5G, here’s what you need to know about 5G to help you decide if it’s worth upgrading.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth and new generation of mobile internet technology and a serious step up from 4G.

“5G mobile networks promise faster download and upload speeds, lower latency (less ‘lag’ or waiting time) and higher capacity in busy areas, (think sports events or festivals)”, says David McClelland, TV Technology Expert from BBC Rip Off Britain.

When it comes to speeds, 5G can be potentially up to 100 times faster than 4G. This will enable you to download movies and stream music within seconds, rather than minutes. And it should eradicate the lag time, or slight delay you may experience when gaming.

How fast is 5G?

5G is much faster than 4G. It has the potential to reach speeds of 10 Gbps, (gigabits per second), compared with 4G at 100 Mbps, meaning it could be up to 100 times faster.

This means you could download an HD (750MB) movie in less than a second, whereas with 4G where it could take one minute, according to consumer group Which?

Using 5G, it’s possible to download a 4K movie, (100 GB) in less than 90 seconds, compared to over two hours with 4G.

However, it’s worth pointing out these are the potential top speeds with 5G and it isn’t available everywhere right now. Even if you buy a 5G phone and price plan, while you may have the technology, you may still not be able to make full use of it, depending on where you live or work.   

You can check 5G coverage in your area by putting your postcode into this 5G map checker.

Which smartphones support 5G?

To get 5G, you’ll need to start by buying a 5G compatible phone.

“The majority of smartphones available for sale now support 5G, with the exception perhaps of some entry level handset or devices targeted towards younger or older users”, says David McClelland. 

Brands including Apple, Samsung and Huawei all sell 5G phones. And if you want to buy a 5G handset, you can find details of smartphones that support 5G along with reviews and prices over at Tom’s Guide.

Which networks offer 5G?

When 5G was initially launched in May 2019, only EE and Vodafone offered 5G plans. Now, all four major UK mobile networks, Vodafone, Three, O2 and EE offer 5G coverage and price plans.

However, coverage does vary between networks.  

EE currently has 5G coverage across half the country, with plans for full coverage by 2028. Whereas O2’s 5G coverage is currently available across 750 UK towns and cities, according to Which?

Other networks including Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, iD Mobile, SMARTY, Voxi, Lebara and giffgaff also offer 5G plans.

However, even if you’ve got a 5G enabled phone, if 5G isn’t available in your area, your phone will revert to using 4G.

To check your local 5G coverage, go to your network provider’s website, for example Vodafone or O2, and use the postcode checker.

Is 5G a lot better than 4G?

“The immediate benefits of 5G for mobile users may not be hugely noticeable unless you regularly download or upload larger files”, says David McClelland.

“If you travel regularly and tether your mobile with your laptop, you may well notice a speed difference between 4G and 5G.”

However, while 5G is faster than 4G, to get the optimum speed, (as well as having a 5G handset and price plan), you’ll need good 5G coverage in the area you’re in.

So if you live in an area with poor 5G coverage and want to download a movie or stream music, you may be unlikely to see much benefit.  

On the downside, using 5G can mean you lose battery power faster compared with 4G.

Is 5G more expensive than 4G?

You might imagine 5G would be more expensive than 4G but that’s not necessarily the case.   

While the cost of buying a new phone is a factor if you want to upgrade to a 5G phone, once you’ve got one, you can pick up 5G SIM only deals from under £5 a month.

As 5G can make streaming and downloading faster and easier, it’s worth checking your data usage package to ensure you’re covered, and not likely to be liable for extra charges if you exceed your current limit.

Should I get a 5G phone?

If you don’t have 5G, there’s no need to worry that your phone will stop working or work any less efficiently than normal if you stick with 4G. However, with news that many networks have switched off their 3G coverage, it’s worth considering a 5G device next time you upgrade your handset to futureproof your purchase.

“Mobile network operators are now busy switching off the UK’s 3G networks in order to replace ageing and inefficient equipment”, says David McClelland, “By decommissioning this legacy infrastructure, mobile networks will be able to offer faster, more energy-efficient 4G, 5G and perhaps even 6G networks fit for the 2020s and beyond”.

“All of this means that, irrespective of the speed benefits of 5G, owning a 5G phone and contract will give you the best coverage possible once 3G and 2G networks get switched off”.

Right now, whether you stick with your existing handset, if you’re happy with it, or upgrade to a 5G phone depends very much on your mobile habits.

If you tend to use your phone for business and often need to download or send big files, or use your phone for streaming or gaming, it may be worth considering a 5G model next time round.

Before doing this, it’s worth making sure you’re nearing the end of your contract, or beyond any minimum term, otherwise you could be clobbered with penalty fees.

On the flipside, if you only tend to use your phone for the basics, like making calls, sending texts or checking emails, it may be less important to you to upgrade both your phone package to take advantage of 5G, as you can do all these on 4G.