Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki

Networks: MNOs and MVNOs[]


It takes a while to understand the different types of operators and the differences between them. Here is a short summary:

Mobile Network Operator (MNO): A MNO is the most commonly visible mobile network operator like Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, Telefónica, etc. These MNOs are responsible for creating the mobile network. They have to purchase or lease the spectrum from the regulatory body of the country and the network equipment from the vendors. They are responsible for the day to day running of the network and would be blamed if there are problems or if the quality of experience is not as expected.

Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO): A MVNO relies on the infrastructure and most other things provided by the MNO. A MNO may have plenty of capacity left that it may be willing to sell at a cheaper price or a different rate. They wouldn't want to do this themselves as this may dilute the brand. To solve this they may sell it at a much cheaper price in wholesale to an MVNO like Virgin Mobile, Lycamobile, Lebara Mobile, etc.


In 2014 about 1000 active MVNOs and 250 sub-brands of the MNOs were registered in about 75 countries where the mobile markets are highly competitive. Like with MNOs, even multinational MVNOs are still organized on a national level. They often supplement the domestic market offer. Country by country their share is very different. In Western Europe it reached 14% on average in 2014, ranging from 25% in Germany to 0%.

In this WIKI only viable MVNOs are included while the MNOs of a country are generally all listed as long as they have a prepaid offer. Some MVNOs only cater for special audiences or are online-only which prohibits their listing. Others still simply don’t have good data rates or packages, but most of them nowadays have. Often they can beat their MNO competitors in lower rates.

Advantages and disadvantages of MVNOs[]

Having the choice between MNOs and MVNOs in many markets, where should the user turn to? Mostly, the MNOs are a safe bet. They have the strongest presence with clearly visible shops, many reload points and a reliable customer support. But some of them have given up the prepaid market or are clearly not so interested in visiting foreigners, which they deter by high rates and start-up costs.

That’s where the MVNOs step in. Often you have to look for their shops and ask for their top-up locations, but in many countries, they can be the better deal. The support is very variable: While you can’t expect any advice from an employee in a supermarket or a newspaper kiosk, small independent phone stores often take a lot of time and care in assisting customers.

Having said this, a MVNO may or may not have the same product like the MNOs. Most of them have leaner structures, less customer support and lower offline presence. In some countries like the US they sell the same product as a MNO; in others certain features like 4G/LTE or other amenities may be missing. Sometimes, they have special policies concerning tethering or VoIP. But these can be found at MNOs too.

As far as coverage and speeds are concerned, it’s clear that they can’t be better than the MNO on which their network is based. That’s why the underlying network is named with every MVNO, as well as any known restriction they additionally impose to the user.


If you are not sure, which to prefer: MNOs or MVNOs? In a country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t have a clear idea of what product your really want, a MNO may be a safer bet for a first time visitor. If you feel already quite comfortable and know where to turn to and what you are exactly looking for, a MVNO possibly delivers the same service often at a lower price.

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