Why Find the Best Cell Phone Provider?
The top performers in our review are Verizon Wireless, the Gold Award winner; AT&T, the Silver Award winner; and T-Mobile, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a cell phone provider to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the 10 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 10, 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.
How We Evaluated the Carriers
Top Ten Reviews analyzes 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.
The Best Cellular Service Provider: Verizon
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.
The sole complaint we have with Verizon is financial. Expect to pay an extra $10 to $15 every month over the other major carriers and up to twice the monthly price of the cheap prepaid options. Granted, with that bill comes superb device selection and the dependability of the best network in the country; if you can afford it, there's no better option.
The Best Value Cellular Carrier: T-Mobile
T-Mobile’s rural coverage has improved in recent months, but it still lags behind the likes of Sprint, much less AT&T and Verizon. What propels the magenta carrier forward are the uncompromising features you get for just $50 a month. The convenience of data rollover is a welcome addition to T-Mobile’s already cheap cell phone plans, but the real treats are its Music Freedom and BingeOn programs.
Music Freedom and BingeOn let you stream as much music and video as you like, without digging into your monthly data cap. The catch is that you have to use one of the apps T-Mobile has approved for the service. There are questions about just how appropriate these services are given the FCC’s Net Neutrality regulations, but until the lawyers get that stuff sorted out, there’s no downside for us consumers. If you live in or around a decently sized city, T-Mobile’s benefits far outweigh its drawbacks.
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.