What Is the Difference Between 3G & 4G Phones?

By Susan Davis

Cell phone technology is always improving, and the latest generation of cellular network is the fourth generation, or 4G. 4G is a newer technology than the previous 3G service, and has the associated benefits and drawbacks compared to its predecessor.


Both 3G and 4G phones use radio waves to transmit signal, with 4G signals using a wider range of bandwidth at higher frequencies. Unlike 3G, 4G is not designed to carry voice, with voice service being provided by older technology in other bands while the 4G signal exclusively carries data. This allows 4G cell sites to be smaller and more efficient than those of the previous generation while still transmitting data up to ten times more quickly.


4G networks can carry significantly more data over a given period of time than can 3G networks. To qualify as 3G, a network must offer peak speeds of at least 0.2 Mb/s, while a 4G network must offer peak speeds of 100 Mb/s for fast-moving devices (in cars or trains, for example) and 1 Gb/s (or roughly 1000 Mb/s) for relatively stationary devices such as those used by pedestrians. Existing 3G networks tend to offer higher peak speeds than the minimum required, and existing 4G networks are still developing towards their own minimum standard. However, existing 4G service is still significantly faster than existing 3G service, with many users experiencing download speeds roughly ten times as high. This allows large files, movies, and music to be streamed to your device much more rapidly.


4G coverage is significantly less broad than 3G coverage. Many networks offer it only in major cities and not necessarily in all of those - check with your network before acquiring a 4G phone! However, some 4G technologies are better capable of penetrating buildings than 3G coverage, meaning that it's possible that service will be better in covered areas.


4G service typically costs more than 3G service. Even when it does not, many plans only offer a limited amount of data per month, an amount which will be much easier to run into on a 4G connection. Overage charges can be very expensive, so check your plan and stay on top of your data use.