Best Cell Phone Providers
Why Find the Best Cell Phone Provider?
We spent over 60 hours researching dozens of cell phone service providers to find the best ones. Verizon Wireless is our top pick thanks to its strong network performance. It has the best coverage, reliability and speed of any carrier we evaluated. T-Mobile also fared well in our assessment. In particular, we are huge fans of its Unlimited 55+ plan, which offers discounted rates to seniors. T-Mobile’s prepaid subsidiary, MetroPCS, is our pick for the best value cell phone provider because of its great performance and budget-friendly prices.
Verizon Wireless has a reputation for being both the best wireless network in the U.S. and the most expensive. The first is true: It scores higher on network coverage, reliability and speed than any other cellular network, according to multiple independent studies. However, the second is also true. Across the board, Verizon’s prices are on the higher end of the spectrum. Its top-tier unlimited plans cost up to $90 per month for one person, and it doesn’t offer an individual budget plan. Whether or not the extra cost is worth the improved network depends on where you live.
Though we wouldn’t quite call it a budget plan, Verizon’s $60 individual plan is a decent mid-tier option. It gives you 5GB of data and lets you carry over unused gigs to the following billing cycle. Adding more data is a bit expensive at $15 per gigabyte, but it’s a good option if you don’t quite need an unlimited plan. The family plans with limited data follow the shared data bucket model, allowing two to five lines to split 2GB, 4GB or 8GB.
MetroPCS is a prepaid cellular provider owned by T-Mobile, and it uses its parent company’s great high-speed network. However, its prices are lower, and it has more plan options than T-Mobile.
The cheapest plan at MetroPCS costs $30 per month, and the price goes up $10 at each higher data tier. Technically, all the plans have unlimited data, but the two lowest-tier plans throttle your speeds after you use your 2GB or 5GB 4G LTE allotment. The most expensive plan costs $60 per month, and in addition to having unlimited data, it allows you to use 10GB on hotspot tethering. If you don’t need a hotspot, you can save yourself $10 by signing up for the $50 unlimited plan. Even on unlimited plans, it costs $30 to add each additional line, unless you happen to catch a promotional price.
We like that MetroPCS includes its Music Unlimited feature with plans that cost $40 or more. Music Unlimited lets you stream music from over 40 services – including Pandora and Spotify – without deducting from your data allotment. This is particularly nice for the $40 5GB plan, since you can’t add data mid-cycle. It can also help you stay under the unlimited plans’ 35GB high-speed data threshold.
However, its unlimited plans have a max video streaming resolution of 480p. DVD-quality streaming is fine and consumes less data than HD streaming, but it would be nice to have the option, especially since phone screens now support high resolutions.
Because it is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that runs on T-Mobile’s network, MetroPCS customers sometimes experience data de-prioritization to direct T-Mobile customers – if a lot of people use data on T-Mobile’s network in the same place at the same time, MetroPCS customers could see their speeds slow down. This never proved itself to be a problem in tests conducted by Tom’s Guide, our sister site, but it is worth mentioning.
Best for Seniors
T-Mobile’s unlimited plans are a great value when compared side by side with similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Its Unlimited 55+ plan gives customers ages 55 and older a discount on the T-Mobile ONE unlimited plan for up to two lines – instead of $130 for two lines, it costs $80 for the same service. Though this discount is restricted to two lines, only the primary account holder has to fit the 55+ requirement.
If you’re under 55, the T-Mobile ONE and ONE Plus plans are still solid unlimited-data options. T-Mobile’s network is one of the fastest in the country, and you can use up to 50GB of data before hitting the de-prioritization threshold.
On top of things you expect from an unlimited plan, such as unlimited talk, text and data, T-Mobile ONE adds extras like unlimited text and data use in more than 140 countries, in-flight texting and an hour of free in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights. The $10 ONE Plus addition adds HD streaming, 10GB of 4G LTE hotspot tethering, unlimited Gogo flight data and visual voicemail.
T-Mobile doesn’t offer many limited-data plans. It offers cheaper, no credit check plans that include 10GB of data, but they come with some disadvantages, including activation fees, deposits, ineligibility for discounts and lack of customization options. The ONE plans don’t have these problems, though if you’re new to T-Mobile, you pay $25 for a SIM card.
How We Tested
We’ve kept track of the ever-changing landscape of cellular plans for 12 years. We started with a list of 45 companies and quickly narrowed it to 15 services based on the availability of unlimited data plans. We performed in-depth research into these 15 companies, judging their networks, plans and extras. As part of our research, we combed through the companies’ websites, read all the fine print, chatted with industry experts and referenced studies conducted by independent reporting agencies like Ookla, RootMetrics, OpenSignal, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and our sister site Tom’s Guide.
The network is the most important part of your plan – all the data in the world won’t help you without a signal. As such, we weighted each carrier’s coverage, reliability and speed scores more heavily than other metrics.
Price is also an important factor. To embrace the full spectrum of the wireless providers’ offerings, we evaluated each one’s top-tier unlimited plan and cheapest budget plan. We compared plan prices for individuals and families and considered what you get for that price, noting things like high-speed data threshold and hotspot allowance. Finally, we looked at smaller things like the selection of phones you can buy from the provider, whether it lets you add a tablet or wearable to your plan, and how many lines you can add on a single plan.
How to Choose a Cell Phone Provider
There are dozens of cell phone providers to choose from, and with fierce competition, you’re spoiled for choice. We narrowed down our recommendations to widely available services that offer unlimited data plans, but there are a lot of great options that don’t fit these parameters, including Project Fi and Republic Wireless. A few others do fit within our parameters but didn’t make the cut, including CREDO Mobile, Page Plus Cellular, Wing Mobile, Ultra Mobile and Lycamobile.
Big Four Vs. MVNO
Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular are the only providers that operate their own networks. These (excluding U.S. Cellular, which is a regional provider) are known as the Big Four. All other cell phone providers in the U.S. are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). MVNOs use the network infrastructure of one of the Big Four carriers and piggyback on its service.
Big Four companies are more expensive but usually include more features and extras in their plans. For example, Verizon Wireless’s $90 unlimited plan includes 15GB of mobile hotspot tethering, while Page Plus Cellular, which uses Verizon’s network, doesn’t offer any mobile hotspot usage with its highest-tier plan. MVNOs tend to be prepaid services that cater to budget shoppers, offering cheaper plans and device options than the Big Four. Big Four direct customers get priority when networks are congested, whereas MVNO customers may see slower speeds.
Check Your Area
Though Verizon Wireless has the best-performing network across the U.S., it may not be the best option in every part of the country. When you shop for a new plan, you should first check which carriers perform well in your area.
Doug King, director of business development at RootMetrics, stressed the importance of looking beyond simple coverage, “Consumers need to understand not just how fast a network is in terms of uplink and downlinks, but it is critical to look at how reliable a network is based on its ability to initially connect and stay connected.” All carriers have their own coverage maps, but we recommend checking out RootMetrics and OpenSignal for insights like network reliability, speeds and call performance in your area.
Shop the Features
The competition between cell phone providers is fierce, and services are constantly changing their plans and prices in attempts to one up each other – something comparison shoppers can take advantage of. Most providers have an unlimited data option now, but each company’s definition of “unlimited” is a little different.
Allan Samson, senior vice president of customer acquisition at Sprint, told us: “As all carriers have rushed back to the unlimited plan, I think it’s increasingly important to truly understand the service you’re getting. People should really evaluate, ‘How am I using my phone?’ If you’re streaming a lot of video, ask, ‘Am I getting the premier quality in terms of HD, and am I getting that consistent experience with all my stuff included?’”
Shopping for the features you use seems like obvious advice, but with so much hidden in fine print, it’s easy to miss the fact that all download speeds are limited to 6Mbps on Cricket or that video streams at a max resolution of 480p on T-Mobile’s ONE plan and with MetroPCS.