Best Cell Phone Providers
Picking the best cell phone provider should be simple. You go with the company that offers the best coverage, the most flexible plans, and the widest selection of top- and mid-tier phones, all at a great price. But the most expensive provider still charges more than twice as much as the least, for commensurately better service. Where should you draw the line between price and performance?
There’s no getting around it: Picking a new carrier is all about making tradeoffs. If you know your budget and have a decent idea of your usage patterns, though, you have a leg up on the process. After diligently comparing all four national carriers and their innumerable mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – the providers that don’t operate their own towers – we’ve identified the top companies, based on performance, pricing, device selection and included features. Our picks should get you to the finish line.
The best cell phone service in the nation continues to come from Verizon Wireless. The brand’s extensive coverage, speed, and reliability are unmatched. For pure bang for your buck, though, we’re huge fans of T-Mobile. Great speeds are backed by even better prices, but it’s the company’s extras like Music Freedom and BingeOn that place it so high up our list – assuming you have coverage in your area, that is.
4 Cheap MVNO Service Providers You Should Consider
Republic Wireless harnesses the power of free Wi-Fi to offer affordable phone plans for its users. In 2018, Republic Wireless rolled out a handful of new phones that help them compete with other carriers, including the Samsung Galaxy Edge. The company’s “My Choice” plan now costs $20 for unlimited talk, text, and Wifi data and 1 GB of cell data.
Base plans start at around $15 per month, which makes them extremely affordable if you only need bare-bones coverage and usage. Another perk Republic Wireless offers – no contracts! The main drawback that comes with these plans is the fact that you can’t bring your own phone, and only a handful of phones are available.
- Network details: Republic Wireless uses the Sprint network.
- Average bill: less than $25 per month
- Pros: No contracts; cheap monthly bills
- Cons: Sprint network may not work in your area; must purchase a Republic Wireless phone
- >> Check out Republic Wireless Plans
Boost Mobile is another low-cost provider offering no contract plans that operate on the Sprint network. Unlimited talk, text, and 3 gigs of 4G LTE data plans start at just $35 per month, and the most expensive plan Boost Mobile offers includes unlimited gigs of data plus unlimited talk and text for only $50 per month.
Although you can’t bring your own phone, offerings include a wide range of Android devices plus super affordable basic options from makers like Samsung, Kyocera, Motorola, and LG. In addition to its monthly unlimited plans, Boost Mobile also offers daily unlimited plans with no contract for as little as $2 per day.
- Network details: Boost Mobile uses the Sprint network
- Average bill: $35 per month
- Pros: No contracts; unlimited monthly and even daily plans
- Cons: Must purchase a Boost Mobile phone, although inexpensive options start at around $20
- >> Check out Boost Mobile Plans
Although it started with humble beginnings, Cricket Wireless is now a key player among low-cost, no-contract mobile providers. Owned by AT&T, Cricket Mobile utilizes its parent’s network, but with cheaper plans and offerings.
They offer a wide range of prepaid plans that start at just $30 per month for unlimited talk and text and 2 GB of high-speed data. Meanwhile, unlimited talk and text plans with 5 GB of data start at around $40 per month. With Cricket Wireless, you can also save $5 per month by enrolling in auto-pay. Plus you can bring your own phone, provided it is already compatible with the AT&T network.
- Network details: Cricket uses the AT&T network
- Average bill: $30 and up
- Pros: No contracts; cheap unlimited plans; bring your own phone
- Cons: AT&T dead areas with no service; reported subpar customer service
- >> Check out Cricket Wireless Plans
Tello is a lesser-known MVNO that uses the Sprint network. One of Tello’s best selling points is their Build Your Own Plan feature, which lets you choose your own monthly voice, text and data minutes.
They also offer predefined plans, which get expensive once you get to higher 4G data allowances. Tello has some of the best pay-as-you-go phone rates around, as well. Tello could be an excellent choice for those who frequently call Mexico or Canada — all of your voice minutes work in all of North America.
When compared with similar other cheap cell phone plans and higher data plans, Tello falls short on all fronts. They charge more for less than all comparable carriers.
- Network details: Tello uses the Sprint network
- Average bill: $14 and up
- Pros: No contracts; cheap unlimited plans; bring your own phone
- Cons: Sprint dead areas with no service; reported subpar customer service
- >> Check out Tello Plans
For those in search of the best of the best, the list begins and ends with Verizon. Expensive though it may be, Verizon is the unequivocal king of mobile, offering up the most comprehensive, dependable connectivity you can buy. With the fewest dropped calls, the most expansive coverage in both rural and metropolitan regions, and average download speeds that far exceed what you get anywhere else, there’s simply no better service available.
Verizon Wireless provides the strongest and most reliable network available, which covers 99 percent of the United States. This provider, known to be the number one military employer, has attracted a whopping 142.8 million subscribers as of July 2016. Like Sprint, Verizon offers the most popular smartphones on the market.
Furthermore, the service actually places emphasis on the rural community, featuring the Verizon LTE in Rural America Program. This program allows coverage for 2.7 million rural residents in 169 counties.
However, while the service boasts such extravagant statistics, it also is one of the most expensive services around. Then again, you are paying for high-quality service. This includes great customer service, though the ACSI score is set at 71 for 2016, which is no change compared to the previous year.
How much will Verizon pay to switch?
Verizon will also offer up to $650 in the form of a prepaid card once you trade in your phone.
However, the trade-in must be in good working and cosmetic condition and be worth more than $0.
Furthermore, if you had an outstanding balance for your old device, you’ll receive up to $650. However, if you just paid an early termination fee, you’ll earn up to $350. Keep in mind that you’ll possibly need a new phone after trading, whether it’s an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy, a Google Pixel, or a different Android device, so you’ll need a SIM card to go with your new device.
Verizon’s Cell Phone Plans
Verizon features a number of postpaid and prepaid plans to appeal to a wide variety of consumers. Nearly all of Verizon’s cell phone plans come with unlimited talk and text, so it must stand out through its data plans. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The size packages a customer can purchase are between 2GB and Unlimited – labeled by sizes such as small, medium, and large.
However, like Sprint, the new Verizon plan boasts what is known as safe mode, which means you will not be charged overage fees once you exceed the data limit. Instead, you will be facing slower speeds. This applies to all of Verizon’s new plans.
Recently Verizon released their unlimited postpaid plan, keeping it on par with all the other major carriers. A bit more about the Verizon Unlimited plan. You’ll receive unlimited talk, text, and data, mobile hotspot (up to 10GB of data), and more – all on the Verizon LTE network – for a fee, though if you read the fine print, you may be restricted to slower speeds after 22GB of usage per line.
So when it comes to “Verizon vs. Sprint plans,” which is the clear winner here? I would have to give Verizon the point here.
Verizon Family Plans
Similar to Sprint, Verizon’s family plans, which are delved into further here, are integrated into the new Verizon plans. In other words, you are able to add additional lines to the plans.
However, one can forget that Sprint can offer unlimited text, talk, and data for a small fee per line per month in its prepaid plans. Verizon also does the same, now sporting an unlimited prepaid plan. With that being said, Sprint’s family plans are more affordable compared to Verizon’s family plans. Due to affordability, Sprint wins in this department.
Verizon is currently the best when it comes to coverage. Verizon’s LTE coverage extends to 99 percent of the nation, and as mentioned in Verizon’s overview, the service also works with rural communities, even going so far as to implement its LTE in Rural America Program.
Unfortunately, Alaska, some of Maine, Western Virginia, and some of the Western US do not have access to the 4G LTE network. While this is a downside, the network blankets a grand total of 2.4 million square miles.
T-Mobile provides an extensive network, featuring the fastest LTE available, for its customers. Unfortunately, the service does not exactly work quite well in rural areas, which can be considered a major disadvantage for potential customers.
T-Mobile phones are incredibly varied, and the service also includes the latest and greatest smartphones. These T-Mobile phones complement the service’s plans, which range from prepaid to unlimited. Even though it’s a good idea to adopt T-Mobile’s ONE unlimited plan, you can certainly take advantage of T-Mobile’s Music Unlimited features that are embedded into its other plans.
And T-Mobile’s customer service? It’s considered the best in the industry, boasting an ACSI score of 74, a full three points higher than AT&T’s score. Not only is the customer support network solid, but so isn’t its loyalty programs.
How much will T-Mobile pay you to switch?
Similar to AT&T, the T-Mobile network offers up to $650 per line (up to 12 lines) via prepaid MasterCard. If you’re worried about the early termination fees or a remaining phone balance, don’t worry – T-Mobile has got your back.
That being said, T-Mobile may have some unique exclusions to its deal. For instance, certain iPhones may be ineligible for the promotion. We have more information regarding the switch to T-Mobile here. It’s important to keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase a SIM card before you can activate your phone with T-Mobile’s service. You can activate said SIM card through the official website, via phone, or at any T-Mobile store.
T-Mobile’s Cell Phone Plans
T-Mobile’s cell phone plans come in three types: the T-Mobile unlimited plan, otherwise known as T-Mobile ONE and Prepaid Plans (perfect if you need no-contract plans).
The most enticing plan is T-Mobile ONE, which features unlimited talk, text, and 4G LTE data. In fact, price-wise, this T-Mobile unlimited plan is cheaper compared to the Verizon Unlimited plan, though it is a little more expensive than AT&T Unlimited Choice and Sprint Unlimited plans. Similar to AT&T, this T-Mobile plan may face a data limit. After all, those who consume more than 30GB per month will encounter reduced data speeds during congestion periods.
Additionally, with the basic ONE plan, you’ll be only able to stream videos at up to 480p (DVD quality), games at up to 2Mbps, and music at 500kpbs. However, you can upgrade to T-Mobile ONE Plus for an additional fee, which lets you stream HD video and higher quality music and gaming. For an even higher fee, you can add T-Mobile international perks to the ONE Plus plan.
With T-Mobile international features added, you’ll be able to make unlimited calling to landlines in over 70 countries and mobile numbers in over 30 countries. However, the feature of HD video streaming remains only in the United States.
Fortunately, if that becomes a tad too pricey for you, you can save a few extra dollars per month per line utilizing the AutoPay feature.
Of course, if T-Mobile’s ONE is not for you, you can take advantage of T-Mobile’s prepaid cell phone plans.
In regards to prepaid cell phone plans, you can browse individual monthly plans, pay as you go plans, family monthly plans, mobile internet plans, and the international tourist plan. Individual prepaid lines run from 4GB to Unlimited 4G LTE data, though you can always opt into T-Mobile ONE prepaid.
So in the case of T-Mobile network plans against AT&T plans, who takes the point? I would have to go with T-Mobile here. Plans are far more affordable, and you can adopt an unlimited plan with no strings attached.
T-Mobile’s Family Plans
T-Mobile places a heavy emphasis on family, which you can read about here. For one, T-Mobile grants its customers the ability to add more than nine lines to its T-Mobile ONE plan.
Furthermore, T-Mobile offers only one type of family plan, which you will find out if you check out the prepaid section: T-Mobile ONE. As I’ve already discussed T-Mobile One, the only thing you need to know is that you can add more than nine lines to the T-Mobile ONE service.
T-Mobile LTE is incredibly strong and reliable if you live in an urban area. In fact, you’ll be thrilled to have the fastest 4G LTE speed if you happen to live in such an area.
On the other hand, if you live in a rural area, you may receive abysmal T-Mobile LTE coverage.
AT&T boasts the second largest subscriber base in the nation. The wireless service is home to 133.3 million subscribers as of Q3 2016. Why have so many migrated to AT&T? For one, AT&T offers a solid network, which is considered 50 percent faster than 4G LTE2.
AT&T also offers the latest phones in its smartphone arsenal on top of shareable plans. The plans are considered a little more expensive compared to the typical wireless carrier, but the service does offer a couple of unlimited plans, without any strings attached. Furthermore, the cheapest unlimited plan offers better features compared to the unlimited international plan brought to you by Straight Talk. And by the way, Straight Talk only offers 5GB of high-speed data and unlimited international calling for the same price.
To top it all off, AT&T’s customer service is fantastic, sitting at an ACSI score of 71. This score, however, falls a little short of T-Mobile’s score of 74, which is regarded as number one among the major wireless providers. However, 71 and 74 is not a major difference in scores, so you’ll most likely receive amazing customer service from each provider.
How much will AT&T pay you to switch?
AT&T will offer you up to $650 per line via an AT&T Promotion prepaid debit card. We do carry an in-depth guide regarding switching to AT&T if you are interested in switching.
Nevertheless, the value of your AT&T Promotion Visa Prepaid Card will be determined by your previous carrier’s Early Termination Fee or the device payment plan balance at the time of your termination.
To obtain a card, you simply need to purchase a new smartphone on AT&T Next – which allows you to purchase a phone with $0 down – and activate a new line. After activation with a fresh new SIM card, you can port your number to AT&T, trade in your old smartphone, and send the provider your final bill.
AT&T’s Cell Phone Plans
AT&T’s cell phone plans are quite standard. These plans are deemed “Mobile Share Advantage,” which features no overage fees whatsoever. This means you will experience reduced upload and download speeds once your selected high-speed data amounts have been exceeded.
Mobile Share Advantage plans range from 1GB of data to 100GB of data, which can be shared among all family members.
AT&T also offers a GoPhone prepaid service, featuring no-contract plans that range between no data package to unlimited high-speed data. You can also purchase a certain amount of minutes or data for a fee per day or even per minute, which is quite unique to AT&T’s service.
And if you’re tempted by an unlimited postpaid plan, you can opt into one of two plans: AT&T Unlimited Plus or AT&T Unlimited Choice. It used to be so that you needed U-Verse TV or DIRECTV to adopt the AT&T Unlimited plan, but that is no longer the case. While both offer unlimited talk, text, and data, Unlimited Plus is more of what you would call “premium.”
AT&T Unlimited Plus, which is rather expensive even compared to the Verizon Unlimited plan, not only includes awesome perks such as HBO programming but also 10GB of mobile hotspot per line, high-definition video with the fastest upload and download speeds, unlimited text from the U.S. to over 120 countries, and roaming in, as well as unlimited talk and text to, Mexico and Canad.
Additionally, you’ll save quite a bit per month on DIRECTV services, though you will not save on U-Verse TV packages.
On the other hand, AT&T Unlimited Choice is a bit cheaper, rivaling the prices of T-Mobile ONE and Sprint Unlimited plans, but you’re dealing with a maximum speed of 3Mbps, standard-definition video rather than high-definition video, and no mobile hotspot. However, like AT&T Unlimited Plus, you’ll be able to have unlimited text from the U.S. to over 120 countries and be able to roam in and use unlimited talk and text to Mexico and Canada.
It’s important to note that AT&T may very well slow your data speeds after 22GB of usage.
If you need data only without resorting to excessive data plans, AT&T also issues what is known as DataConnect Pass, which is perfect for those on the go. If you don’t use a lot of data, you can always purchase DataConnect Pass, which comes in the amounts of 250MB or 2GB. However, these last for a set amount of time, whether 24 hours or 90 days, so you best use the data wisely when purchasing this pass.
AT&T’s Family Plans
With Mobile Share Advantage you can add lines to AT&T’s plans for a certain fee (dependent on the device). And if you’re not a fan of Mobile Share Advantage, you can always save money with the Multi-Line Discount on prepaid plans. For the second device, you will save only a few dollars, but for the third, you save a bit more, and so on and so forth. For more information on AT&T’s family plans, you can refer to this guide.
So when it comes to family cell phone plans which carrier comes out on top: AT&T or T-Mobile? While AT&T allows you to add lines to its unlimited plan, it’s still a bit more costly, especially when you factor in DIRECTV or U-verse service. However, you can also receive a lot more data through the Mobile Share Advantage plans.
That being said, I would have to give the “family plan” award to T-Mobile. It’s more affordable, overall, especially when you consider T-Mobile’s ONE plan.
AT&T’s coverage – even LTE coverage – is solid. It may not be as fantastic as Verizon, but it covers a lot of locations in the nation. In fact, it reaches hundreds of millions of people in both the United States and Mexico. It’s rather impressive, admittedly.
Though AT&T’s speed is slightly slower compared to T-Mobile, AT&T’s LTE network and general coverage are more extensive. AT&T is the winner here.
Sprint (otherwise known as Sprint Corporation) is the fourth largest mobile network operating in the nation, serving 60.2 million customers as of October 2016. The service offers wireless services through not only its main service but also through various subsidiaries including Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. They are known to offer the latest and most popular phones.
Sprint is known for quality, but unfortunately, the service isn’t as strong as Verizon’s network. While the network may fall a little short of Verizon, the service balances out with more affordable individualized plans and features. In fact, its plans are generally more affordable compared to T-Mobile plans. Some contracts provided by the Sprint network, however, may come with strings attached.
Unfortunately, Sprint also falls a little short in one other area: customer satisfaction. According to the Benchmarks By Company chart by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Sprint’s ASCI customer satisfaction falls below Verizon Wireless but by only a point. As of 2016, the American Customer Satisfaction Index score was 70, a 1.4 percent positive increase from the previous year.
How much will Sprint pay you to switch?
If you’re considering switching to Sprint, you can rest assured that an early termination fee will not be a pain in the behind. You will not only save 50 percent when moving from select Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile rate plans, but the service will cover your switching fees up to $650 per line (less phone trade-in credit provided) via a Visa Prepaid Card after online registration and new phone activation. Do keep in mind that you will need a new SIM card when you obtain and activate a phone. As a side note, Sprint offers plenty of phones, including the latest Samsung Galaxy phones, so you should be able to find a phone that satiates your needs.
Do keep in mind that you will need a new SIM card when you obtain and activate a phone. As a side note, Sprint offers plenty of phones, including the latest Samsung Galaxy phones, so you should be able to find a phone that satiates your needs.
Sprint’s Cell Phone Plans
When it comes to Sprint Wireless’ postpaid plans, you will find only one plan: Sprint Unlimited. If you want specified data amounts, you’re better off going with Sprint’s prepaid service, which is perfect for just about anyone, especially if you want an unlimited prepaid plan rather than postpaid plan.
In the case of Sprint Unlimited, there is sometimes a limited-time deal attached to this particular plan. For instance, you might be able to receive two lines of unlimited data, talk, and text for a good deal, with the third, fourth, and fifth lines being free of charge.
Sprint Unlimited, which is an incredibly affordable plan (even compared to the unlimited T-Mobile plan), allows you HD video streaming at up to 1080p+, HD music streaming at up to 1.5Mbps, and game streaming at up to 8Mbps. In other words, you’re receiving all the premium features – yes even high-definition video streaming – included in this without an extra charge.
As the icing on the cake, Sprint also features unlimited 2G data once the 10GB of high-speed data has been exceeded on mobile hotspot. Overall, this plan stacks up against the T-Mobile unlimited plan, which is dubbed T-Mobile ONE. However, this T-Mobile unlimited plan still forces you to upgrade to HD video streaming, music streaming, and more for a certain fee. But while I would love to talk about the competition between T-Mobile and Sprint, I’m focusing on the rivalry between Verizon and Sprint.
Sprint Family Plans
Sprint’s Unlimited plan can be applied to families too, which is further described in this article. However, when it comes to prepaid plans, you’re able to choose what data amount you want and bundle them together into a single account to create a family plan. For instance, a child could use unlimited data, one parent 5GB of data, and the other parent 3GB of data. Unfortunately, you can only use this prepaid option for up to five lines, meaning if you have a bigger family or network, you will probably want to switch to another provider or open up another account with Sprint.
Sprint doesn’t have as vast of coverage as Verizon, but the network reliability, according to recent data from Nielsen (and as flaunted on commercials), is within one percent of the competitor. Their coverage is not as great as Verizon’s in the western United States, but Sprint does offer international coverage.
How We Evaluated the Carriers
We analyze the state of the cellular industry every few months. Unlike most of our reviews and comparisons on other products, we consider price when ranking cell phone companies because how much you pay each month is a significant factor in your buying decision. It’s not, however, the main factor – if you’re in the market for the cheapest service you can get, we strongly recommend you look at our reviews of prepaid cell phone providers.
Here, the most important factor we consider is quality of service. Since providers can’t be counted on to accurately report their coverage quality and speeds, we used data from unbiased, third-party sources. Crowdsourcing options such as Ookla’s Speedtest and the popular OpenSignal both let you test download speeds, but for an accurate, independent impression of coverage quality and reliability, RootMetrics is the gold standard. We use RootMetrics’ RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality, aggregating them with crowdsourced data and our own tests and experience to arrive at the final grades.
Picking a Cell Phone Provider: What Else to Look For
The providers we outlined above suit many people, but they aren’t for everyone. If you’re trying to find cell phone plans that fit your lifestyle, there are a few things to watch out for along the way.
Coverage & Quality
As we’ve mentioned, the quality of a provider’s coverage is the most important factor you should consider as you compare the best cell phone plans. Verizon claims the top spot in terms of performance, ubiquity, and speed. AT&T is a close second, suffering just slightly in rural regions. T-Mobile’s download speeds are superb, but the carrier can feel useless once you leave metropolitan areas. Sprint’s network is slow and unimpressive but sufficient for most people’s needs.
With the exception of U.S. Cellular, which operates a regional network in the Midwest, every other provider is an MVNO of one of the Big Four carriers, piggybacking off of their networks. The better ones offer service on AT&T’s towers, but most operate on Sprint’s infrastructure.
There’s one last consideration to remember when picking a quality network: the communications standard that’s used. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, a cellular standard common in the U.S. but rarely used internationally. T-Mobile and AT&T, on the other hand, use the international GSM standard. Unless a device is very specifically made with both types of antennas, GSM phones don’t work on CDMA networks and vice versa. If you plan on buying an unlocked phone and carting it from carrier to carrier, keep this in mind.
Pricing & Fees
For a long time, the chief difference between the big carriers and the smaller prepaid providers was contracts: You couldn’t buy a new phone from a carrier without committing yourself to two years of service with one company. Now that the Big Four have done away with contracts, cell service is easier to budget, since how much you pay for your connection is separate from how much you pay for your phone.
Of course, many providers still let you pay for your phone over two years, lumping its price into your monthly bill. But the cost of service by itself is finally easier to understand. It still varies greatly, though; expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $65 per month for service, plus the cost of whichever device you choose to buy.
Beware lest you be drawn in by claims of “unlimited” data; the vast majority of providers that promise it throttle your speeds once you hit a predetermined data cap. Just four of the providers we review here are exceptions to this rule: T-Mobile, Sprint, Cricket Wireless and Boost Mobile. Far more common is unlimited talk and text, a feature offered by each of the providers we let into our lineup.
One feature available at only two providers is data rollover: the ability to roll any unused data from your monthly allocation over into the next month. At the moment, T-Mobile and AT&T are the only companies offering any sort of data rollover. T-Mobile’s take on it is far more forgiving than AT&T’s, but both are welcome additions the companies are granting at no extra charge.
Finding a decent cell phone provider can seem hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Looking for cheap cell phone plans that still give you room to stretch? T-Mobile has you covered. On a tight budget but still, want great service? Check out Cricket Wireless. And of course, there’s always Verizon if you’re willing to pay top dollar for a top-quality experience.
Whatever you choose, we’re here to help. Scan our comparison chart above, use our grades to guide your choices and you’ll be delighted with the cell phone plan you find.