Will a Chinese / Imported Smartphone Work in the UK?

Chinese Shipping container

If you’re your thinking of buying an imported Chinese phone bargain, then you’ll want to know; will it work in the UK?

Over the course of the next five minutes (okay maybe 10), I’m going to explain the ins and outs of buying a phone from overseas. I’ll show you what you should be watching out for to guarantee that your new phone will work in the UK.

Don’t worry if you’ve already gone ahead and bought your first smartphone from overseas, this guide will still be useful to know as it covers the basics, should you ever have to troubleshoot any connectivity issues. Those of you still to take the plunge are in luck as we’ll be covering ‘what to look for’ when importing your first Chinese or non-EU phone.

By the end of this article you’ll know:

Xiaomi Mi 12
Xiaomi Mi 12
Xiaomi Mi 12
Xiaomi Mi 12
  1. How to tell if a Chinese Phone or non-EU phone will work in the UK on your mobile network?
  2. What bandwidths to look for that will support 2G, 3G & 4G LTE & 5G.
  3. Which UK mobile network carriers are piggy-backing (using other networks).
  4. Some useful facts about mobile frequencies that might help you win a very geeky pub quiz.

Popular UK Mobile carriers & their frequencies

The table below shows the most common UK mobile network providers also known as network carriers.

UK Networks

Three (3)

4G – 800/1800MHz

3G – 2100

T-Mobile, Orange, EE

4G – 800/1800/2600MHz

3G – 2100

O2 / Telefonica

4G – 800MHz

3G – 900/2100


4G – 800/2600MHz

3G – 900/2100

Giff Gaff

4G – 800MHz

3G – 900/2100


4G – 800MHz

3G – 900/2100


4G – 800/1800/2600MHz

3G – 900/2100

Virgin Mobile

4G – 800/1800/2600MHz

3G – 900/2100

TalkTalk Mobile

4G – 800/2600MHz

3G – 900/2100

How do I find out what frequencies my Chinese or non-EU phone supports?

When importing a phone, you first need to check which frequencies the phone supports. You can do this by either looking on the phone manufacturers website or alternatively websites such as devicespecifications.com are great for finding out full device information.

Once you know what bandwidth the phone supports, you can then cross check this against the carrier information above.

4G LTE is listed as either a ‘Bandwidth (MHz)’ or as a ‘Number’

In the UK, we currently use only three bands for our 4G network. These are Band 3, 7 and 20. Below, I’ve converted the frequency to a band number. Often manufacturers decide to use either the frequency or the band, so hopefully this will come in handy.

Frequency 2600MHz = Band 7

Frequency 1800MHz = Band 3

Frequency 800MHz = Band 20

Update: There’s been some Spectrum Re-Farming in the U.K

What the heck is spectrum farming? Is exactly what I was thinking too. It’s actually pretty simple. The networks EE & Three are going to start using the 2100MHz (traditionally only for 3G) for to improve your 4G data. Other networks will likely adopt the same refarm’ing practises soon.

You don’t have to do anything as this will happen automatically. So it’s good news for everyone. The reason for the change, or refarm, is that almost all smartphones are now 4G capable meaning a lot of the radio frequencies are just going to waste by providing 3G only.

Working out if my Chinese or import phone’s bandwidth is supported in the UK?

Below I’ve posted a couple of examples of phones and their bandwidths, so we can see what all this GSM / LTE Frequency stuff is all about.

Don’t forget to read the next section where I explain why to always use the 4G Band Numbers rather than the frequencies.

VIVO Y85 Smartphone

Network Support:

2G – GSM 800/ 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900

3G – HSDPA 850 / 900  / 1900+ / 2100 / 2000

4G – LTE band 1 (2100), 3 (1800), 5 (850), 7 (2600), 8 (900), 34 (TDD 2100), 38 (TDD 2600), 39 (TDD 1900), 40 (TDD 2300), 41 (TDD 2500)


While the VIVO Y85 is a stunning low-cost smartphone, it’s missing the 4G Band 20 (800MHz). Since this is needed for 4G Data Calls and Data in general, you’d want to avoid this smartphone.

For 3G, it passes as it does supports the 2100MHz frequency.

Xiaomi Mi A2 Lite

Network Support:

2G – GSM B2 (1900), B3 (1800), B5 (850), B8 (900)

3G – HSDPAB1 (2100), B2 (1900), B5 (850), B8 (900), B34 (TD 2000), B39 (TD 1900+)

4G – B1 (2100), B2 (1900), B3 (1800), B4 (1700/2100 AWS 1), B5 (850), B7 (2600), B8 (900), B20 (800), B38 (TDD 2600), B40 (TDD 2300)


The Xiaomi Mi A2 Lite has full U.K support. We can find bands 3, 7 & 20 in its 4G frequencies and also both 900MHz and 2100Mhz in the 3G section.

What’s the difference between FDD LTE & TDD LTE

The LTE part of this is simple. It stands for ‘Long Term Evolution’ and simple means 4G.

The FDD and TDD are different versions of 4G. Here in the U.K., we only use the FDD standard. If you want more technical explanation, read up on FDD and TDD LTE here.

Now onto the important bit.

Each 4G band has its own unique number. But, frequencies can be shared across FDD and TDD. So you can have a phone that supports 2600MHz FDD or 2600MHz TDD.

Luckily for us, the band numbers are unique. Band 7 is (FDD 2600MHz) and Band 38 is (TDD 2600MHz).

So make sure to use the 4G band numbers when checking if your smartphone is supported by your network carrier.

Didn’t You Say Something About Piggybacking Earlier?

That’s right, not all the networks above use their own frequencies. It’s quite common for UK carriers to use a virtual network, or in simple terms, they rent the network spectrum from other providers. Until recently there have only been 4 networks in the UK that own the frequencies they operate on.

EE, Vodaphone, Three & O2. All the other carriers rent the frequencies they use allowing them to provide network coverage for their customers.

*BT is the exception here as they recently bought some of the 4G spectrum and became the 5th biggest network owner in the U.K.

Here’s a very helpful list of all the UK Carriers who piggyback from over at USwitch.

Here the boring bit I was talking about, read on if you dare! Or skip to the bottom and leave a comment if this helped you out.

What is VoLTE?

Let’s start with the basics. VoLTE or Voice over LTE (commonly referred to as 4G) is when a phone uses its internet connectivity to make and receive calls. This is super useful as often you can have internet connectivity but no 3G signal. Traditionally you would need 3G to make and receive calls; with VoLTE you can make this call on the 4G network.

Certain bandwidth spectrums (common urban city areas) in the UK are very good at penetrating deep into buildings meaning you are more likely to get 4G signal when 3G isn’t available.

Another added benefit of 4G voice calling is that it’s able to send around 2-3 times more data than 3G. To take advantage of this your voice over VoLTE has been upgraded to Voice HD. The Voice HD is clearer and should give a richer audio experience.

Does your smartphone or your network provider support VoLTE?

There are some limitations to making Voice over 4G (VoLTE) calls. The most obvious being both phone need to be 4G enabled and have 4G signal for the call to work. Next, you need to be on a network that supports 4G over Voice.

Currently, in the UK, the following providers all support a form of Voice over 4G (VoLTE):

  • Three Network (4G Super-Voice) – 50%+ UK Coverage
  • EE (4G Calling)
  • Vodafone (HD Voice) (Vodafone to Vodafone only)
  • O2

Which smartphones support 4G Voice Calls (VoLTE)?

This isn’t as simple as you’d first think. When you buy a phone directly from a network provider such as EE they will have customised the phone to include their 4G Calling software.

If you’ve bought your phone SIM-free or have switched networks then you might be out of luck for the time being. For certain popular handset such as the Galaxy S7, EE have been rumoured to be pushing out VoLTE updates.

Popular high-end phones from Apple, Google, Huawei, Samsung & LG that were produced in 2017 onwards are all including the VoLTE feature built in. For the non-flagships smartphones, your best bet is to visit the store or ask the network providers online and buy the device from them.

Making calls on WiFi

As well as VoLTE most network providers are also rolling out apps or built-in software which allows you to make calls over your WiFi network. You can check the Network providers websites for how to enable this on your device.

What’s the difference between Dual Band, Tri-Band & Quad Band?

In essence, when a phone is classed as a multi-band device it can support multiple radio frequencies / bandwidths. A band is classed as a group of frequencies within a certain range. If your phone supports bandwidths 900MHz and 1800MHz, it is actually using two spectrums of bandwidth, 880-960MHz and 1710-1879MHz, one for upload and one the other for download. Each area in the world chooses what frequencies to output its cellular waves onto. If you’d like to delve a little deeper and brush up on you GMS frequency bands then check out Wikipedia GSM Frequency page.

Where will a Dual Band phone work?

Dual Band is one of the most widely used frequencies and uses 900MHz & 1800MHz. This will allow the phone to work in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Australia and most parts of Asia. If your mobile phone only supports this frequency it will not work in US and Canada.

The other Dual Band frequencies that are widely used are GSM 850MHz & 1900MHz. These frequencies are used in the US, Canada, Brazil and other parts of South America. If your mobile phone supports these frequencies is will not work in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Australia and most parts of Asia

Where will a Tri-Band phone work?

Tri Band or Triband like the name suggests means that the phone will work on 3 different frequencies. Generally, tri-band phones work the 900 MHz, 1800Mhz and the 1900Mhz spectrum which means you can use it in Europe, most of North America and most of Asia.

Where will a Quad Band phone work?

A quad-band phone will work almost anywhere in the world and covers the following frequencies:

  • 850 MHz (U.S. / Canada / Latin America / Brazil)
  • 900 MHz (Africa / Europe / Brazil / Africa / Australia / Asia (excluding Japan and South Korea))
  • 1800 MHz (Africa / Europe / Australia / Asia / Brazil)
  • 1900 MHz (U.S. / Canada / Latin America)

What is 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G?

1G – Stands for 1st Generation so without giving anything away this was the 1st wireless network that phones communicated on and was introduced in the 1980s to allow the transfer of analogue signals.

2G – You guessed it, stands for 2nd generation wireless network and was commercially launched in 1991. The advent of 2G allowed for digital voice to be transferred over radio waves.

2.5G – They improved upon the 2G network allowing faster internet speeds more commonly known as GPRS.

2.75G – Or EDGE as you might see it appear on your phone is another enhancement on 2.5G.

3G – Was released to further the standards and improve speeds again.

4G – This is where things change, the 4th generation wireless network was created primarily for data use, allowing us to achieve even faster mobile internet speeds.

5G – Now we are looking into the future. As more people adopt data-heavy mobile plans and streaming increases we will inevitably have to open up more frequencies. This will be known as 5G and will enable faster speeds whilst supporting more people at once.

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