2019 was the year the 5G phones started appearing on store shelves, then in 2020 the technology really took off, with the country's major mobile carriers all supporting this new super-fast network infrastructure and a wealth of manufacturers starting to offer top-tier phones with 5G modems onboard.
That means that as we march into 2021, there is already a great selection of 5G-capable phones worth considering, and very little reason not to buy a 5G phone.
Of course, with new tech there always comes a price tag, and for a while 5G was really limited to high-end and flagship devices. That's no longer the case, with more and more mid-range and even budget handsets now supporting faster networking. In this article we're focusing on mid-range and flagship phones, but be sure to check out our guide to cheap 5G phones if your budget is a bit lower but you still want to future-proof your next phone.
Best 5G phones 2021
1. iPhone 12 - Best 5G iPhone
It took Apple a little while longer to roll out 5G technology, but it was well worth the wait. Sporting an Apple-designed 5G modem and support for 5G bands around the world, the iPhone 12 is the best iPhone for those that want super-fast connectivity and all the benefits that come along with it.
It's not just 5G that makes the iPhone 12 great though; it features an industrial design reminiscent of the iPhone 5 and it features Apple's latest and greatest A14 Bionic chipset at its heart, offering incredible performance across the board. There are also improvements to the camera setup and, importantly, it sports the same 6.1in Super Retina XDR display as the iPhone 12 Pro - a first for a non-pro iPhone.
If the standard iPhone 12 is too big for your tastes, we'd also recommend the 5G-enabled iPhone 12 Mini, which offers the same features in a smaller form factor.
Read our full Apple iPhone 12 review
2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Best 5G Android
After 2020's disappointing Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has finally earned the name with a follow-up that delivers almost everything you could want from a 5G Android flagship - admittedly at a price that only a few can afford, and in a form factor that will simply be too big for some.
The camera is now probably the best in any phone, with a 108Mp main shooter backed up by an ultrawide and two telephoto lenses at different zoom levels.
The expansive 6.8in display delivers both high WQHD+ resolution and adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz, and with new S-pen stylus support it comfortably fills the productivity niche of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra too.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
3. Oppo Find X3 Pro - Best design & display
The Oppo Find X3 Pro is a phenomenal phone by any measure. The 6.7in 10-bit 120Hz QHD+ panel is one of the best displays in any phone right now and Oppo backs it up with 65W wired and 30W wireless charging, a 4500mAh battery, and a top-tier camera that boasts 50Mp sensors on both the main and ultrawide lenses.
You’ll have to live without a periscopic zoom lens - the telephoto here is a measly 2x zoom - but Oppo instead includes a novel microlens camera capable of microscopic super-closeups. That's not the only oddity, as the design itself is utterly unique thanks to a seamlessly sloped camera module built right into the glass of the phone's body.
For pure performance the Find X3 Pro is also hard to beat, with all of the above plus a Snapdragon 888 chip, 512GB storage and 12GB RAM. You just have to be willing to pay the price, as it doesn't come cheap.
Read our full Oppo Find X3 Pro review
4. Samsung Galaxy S21 - Best Android all-rounder
Samsung takes the same balancing act that it struck with last year's Galaxy S20 and updates the hardware.
As a result, you get strong performance, a fresh new design, better battery life, the latest Android 11 (dressed in Samsung's own One UI 3.1, at launch) and integrated 5G.
Best of all, all this comes in a more affordable package than its predecessor - though if you're happy to spend a little more, there's always the larger S21 Plus.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review
5. Xiaomi Mi 11 - Best for specs
The Xiaomi Mi 11 is a rock-solid performer thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset with integrated 5G at its heart, which comes paired with 8GB RAM and plenty of storage.
Throw in a WQHD+ 120Hz AMOLED display (quad-curved, no less), 108Mp rear camera, and 55W fast-charging paired with 50W wireless charging, and you can see that the Mi 11 won't be beaten for specs at its price.
There are minor downsides - you won't get an IP rating, there's no telephoto camera, and Xiaomi's MIUI software still has room for improvement. But if pure performance is what you're looking for, then look no further.
It's not on sale in the UK just yet, but will launch here this month, so start saving.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 11 review
6. OnePlus Nord - Best value
OnePlus's second-ever affordable phone is an absolute treasure, powered by Qualcomm's solid mid-range 5G-capable chip, the Snapdragon 765G.
The Nord also totes a 90Hz AMOLED display, a great primary 48Mp camera and solid 30W fast charging.
Software-wise, the company's OxygenOS user experience is also a major highlight - bringing responsive interactivity and a clean interface to the table that lends itself to the phone's powerful, premium feel.
Read our full OnePlus Nord review
7. Google Pixel 5 - Most compact
Google's first 5G flagship walks a different path to its predecessors, showcasing Android 11 to the best of its abilities but also shedding the more experimental features of previous generations and opting for more conservative hardware at the same time.
Its clean design and user experience are supported by a set of superb - and now more feature-rich - cameras, as well as an incredibly compact design and battery life that's actually usable.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review
8. Asus ROG Phone 5 - Best for gaming
The Asus ROG Phone 5 offers one of the best mobile gaming experiences around, complete with built-in triggers, a gorgeous 144Hz AMOLED display with impressive touch response times, impressive audio chops and incredible power under the hood in the form of the Snapdragon 888 and up to 16GB of RAM.
There are plenty of accessories available, from the Switch-like Kunai 5 controllers to the AeroActive Cooler 5 to keep your phone cool during extended gameplay sessions. The software is top-notch too, offering granular per-game performance tweaks alongside system-wide performance modes.
However, while the large display means it’s great for gaming, some may find it too tall to use effectively one-handed, plus, at 238g, it’s much heavier than most flagships in 2021 – and it’s noticeable when you pick it up too.
Read our full Asus ROG Phone 5 review
9. OnePlus 8T - Best software
The OnePlus 8T is no longer the company's latest core phone, but we'd still recommend this older model over the more recent OnePlus 9.
The 8T is cheaper than its follow-up, yet still sports a smooth 120Hz refresh rate display and blisteringly fast 65W fast charging.
It was also one of the first phones outside of Google's own Pixel 5 to boast the latest and greatest Android 11; in this instance, covered by OnePlus' OxygenOS 11 user experience on top.
Read our full OnePlus 8T review
10. iPhone 12 Pro Max - Best for multimedia
The iPhone 12 Pro Max may not utilise its expansive display as effectively as the S21 Ultra does - especially when it comes to matters of productivity - but it's an undeniably superb large-screened phone all the same.
It boasts some of the best performance on the market, a stunning 6.7in OLED display, great battery life, support for MagSafe for iPhone accessories and totes one of the most capable smartphone cameras money can buy - complete with sensor-shift OIS (optical image stabilisation), something we've never before seen on a smartphone.
Provided you're comfortable with its sizeable proportions, you'll just have to grapple with its equally demanding high price tag.
I's worth pointing out that the smaller and cheaper iPhone 12 Pro also offers 5G, but we think it's the least compelling of the iPhone 12 line-up, as it's too similar to the standard 12.
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review
The biggest phone we haven't mentioned above (almost literally) is the Galaxy S21 Plus. It's essentially the same as the regular S21 apart from its expanded screen size - and a bigger battery to come with it. Buy it if the S21 appeals, but you don't want to settle for a smaller form factor.
There's also always the Note 20 Ultra - a great phone for productivity that's simply been supplanted by the more recent S21 Ultra. You should still consider the Note version if you find a good price though, or if the included S-Pen appeals enough, as while it's compatible with the S21 Ultra it's sold separately and also doesn't slot directly into the phone.
We also haven't included either the OnePlus 9 or OnePlus 9 Pro, and have instead included a few older OnePlus phones. We were disappointed with both the design and the performance of the 2021 OnePlus flagships, especially the much-hyped Hasselblad camera, and so we don't recommend you buy them - you're better off with rival phones from other brands, or OnePlus's own 8T or 8 Pro from 2020.
Then there's the iPhone variants. Every iPhone 12 offers 5G support, but we've only mentioned the 12 and 12 Pro Max in our chart. Check out the 12 mini if you like the 12 but want a smaller display, though for the most part we don't recommend the 12 Pro - it's too similar to the standard 12 to justify the price hike, though consider it if you really care about the minor camera upgrades.
5G phone buying advice
Getting a 5G phone is only one piece of the puzzle. To actually take advantage of this latest generation of cellular connectivity you need to:
- Have a 5G-capable phone
- Subscribe to a network that offers 5G connectivity
- Pay for a plan that includes 5G connectivity
- Be in an area with good 5G coverage
Before you splash out on a 5G phone, it's worth checking to see what the quality of 5G coverage in your area is like, noting that it varies by network. You may have to change network if you want to reap the benefits of 5G in your area, and every network offers a different set of 5G phones - though you can of course buy any of them SIM-free.
Check out RootMetrics' coverage map for an independent evaluation of mobile coverage (including 5G coverage) from the UK's major carriers, across the nation.
Why upgrade to 5G?
5G is around 20 times faster than 4G, with the potential for even better speeds in future. With 5G, you'll be able to stream video in 4K resolution without buffering and make high-resolution video calls if you so wish. There are also benefits for mobile gaming, because of 5G's lower latency. For more details on the technology, check out our 'What is 5G?' guide.
If you decide to wait, we've also tested some great 4G smartphones at various price points. Check out the best flagship, mid-range and budget phones available now, as well as some great phones coming soon.