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Cell Phone Providers Review
Why Find the Best Cell Phone Provider?
The top performers in our review are Verizon Wireless, the Gold Award winner; T-Mobile, the Silver Award winner; and AT&T, 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 carrier 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 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 head start on the process. After comparing all four national carriers and their innumerable mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – the carriers that don't operate their own towers – we've identified the top 10 based on coverage, pricing, device selection and included features. Our picks should help get you into the right plan for your situation.
The best cell phone service in the nation continues to come from Verizon Wireless. The brand’s extensive coverage, speed and reliability are unmatched. And Verizon's unlimited plan includes a 10GB mobile hotspot and HD video streaming.
For a good value, we’re huge fans of T-Mobile. Great speeds are backed by even better prices. The unlimited T-Mobile One plan costs between $10 and $20 less than Verizon's offerings monthly, and the "Un-carrier" covers your taxes and fees, too
How We Evaluated the Carriers
Top Ten Reviews stays up to date on the state of the cellular industry since it changes constantly. We consider price a significant factor when comparing carriers. 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.
For this review, the most important factor we consider is coverage and quality of service. Since carriers 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 and provides objective, accurate and unbiased assessments of mobile network performance. RootMetrics drove nearly 250,000 miles throughout the country to test multiple categories, or "RootScores," to evaluate data speed and reliability, call quality and text performance.
We use RootMetrics' RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality. We also consider crowdsourced data and our own tests and experience to arrive at the final grades. Our sister site Tom's Guide tested providers in six different cities, chosen based on geographic diversity and population, including: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and New York City. At the sites, the testers ran Ookla's Speedtest.net app both inside and outside with nine different Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphones activated on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin Mobile. They conducted the speed test five different times and averaged the download and upload speeds recorded by the app. They also timed how long it took to install the 58MB app Pokémon Go.
The Best Cellular Service Provider: Verizon
For those in search of the best of the best, the list begins and ends with Verizon. The carrier has won the United States RootScore Award for Overall Performance seven years running, and the Tom's Guide tests were consistent with RootMetrics’ findings. The provider performed better than eight others, having the highest average download speed of 36 Mbps and the fastest app-download time in all six cities, the fastest being 1 minute and 2 seconds.
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 is 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. The carrier also doesn't apply corporate, employee, student and federal discounts with its new unlimited plan, only military and veteran discounts.
Granted, with its premium price come superb device selection and the dependability of the best network in the country; if you can afford it and want a signal practically everywhere, there's no better option.
The Best Value Unlimited Cell Phone Plan: T-Mobile
What propels the magenta carrier forward is its unlimited T-Mobile One plan. It costs less than Verizon's Unlimited plan and includes unlimited HD video streaming, a 10GB LTE mobile hotspot (that is throttled to 3G speeds after being depleted), and competitive international roaming options. If you use less than 2GB of data in a month under the One plan, T-Mobile will credit your account $10. And T-Mobile even has a rewards program called T-Mobile Tuesdays, where subscribers can get a freebie each week, like movie tickets, a coffee or pizza.
Even if you don't enroll in one of T-Mobile's unlimited plans, the company’s included extras for its Simply Prepaid Plan are huge selling points. The convenience of data rollover is a welcome addition, 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 those issues sorted out, there’s no downside here for consumers. If you live in or around a decently big city, T-Mobile’s benefits far outweigh its drawbacks.
The Best Individual Cell Phone Plan: Verizon
The best plan for individuals is Verizon Wireless' 5GB for $55 plan. Truth be told, most people don't need unlimited data, and 5GB should be plenty for most users. The plan includes unlimited talk, texts and calling to Mexico and Canada. Any unused data is rolled over to next month. But if you're worried about going over the 5GB limit, Verizon has a "Safety Mode" option that, when enabled, reduces speed until your next billing cycle, so you don't receive any overage charges.
The Best Budget Carrier: MetroPCS
If you're after cheap monthly rates, MetroPCS is the way to go. MetroPCS is a prepaid MVNO that runs on T-Mobile's network, so you get the same brisk speeds. In fact, during our tests, we found that MetroPCS even beat out Verizon for average upload speed.
The carrier offers several affordable plans, including a $30 monthly plan that includes 1GB of LTE data and another option that has 3GB of data for just $10 more. Up to five family members can mix any combination of phone plans and then take $5 off each, without needing to share data. For instance, four 3GB plans would cost $140. We like that MetroPCS has a data maximizer feature that streams lower-resolution video to help users make the most of their limited data.
For those who want unlimited data, MetroPCS offers a $60 unlimited data plan that doesn't throttle video and music streaming. And as an added bonus, MetroPCS even throws in an 8GB mobile hotspot. If you find the hotspot unnecessary and don’t mind low-res 480p video, there's a $50 unlimited plan available, too.
We are fans of this carrier’s low prices, but we're even more fond of its network. MetroPCS may not be the cheapest carrier, but it essentially matches the download and upload speeds of its parent company, T-Mobile, making it the best cheap pick.
Picking a Cell Phone Provider: What Else to Look For
The carriers 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 carrier'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, network size 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 notably slower and smaller than the top carriers, but it does rank second for call performance, trailing slightly behind Verizon. It tied for the runner-up position in text performance with AT&T.
With the exception of U.S. Cellular, which operates a regional network in the Midwest, every other carrier is an MVNO of one of the Big Four carriers, piggybacking on their networks. The better ones offer service on AT&T's towers, but most operate on Sprint's infrastructure.
Pricing & Fees
For a long time, the chief difference between the big carriers and the smaller prepaid carriers was contracts: You couldn’t buy a new phone from a carrier without committing yourself to two years of service with that company. Now that the Big Four have done away with contracts, cell service is easier to budget, since your mobile connection is separate from the price of your phone.
Although the cost of service is finally easier to understand, pricing, fees and plans still vary. You can expect to pay anywhere from $35 to $65 per month for service, plus the cost of whichever device you choose to buy. Several providers let you add a smartwatch, tablet or hotspot to your plan for an additional monthly fee.
Beware lest you be drawn in by claims of "unlimited" data; most carriers that promise it throttle your speeds once you hit a predetermined data cap set between 20GB and 30GB. Far more common is unlimited talk and text, a feature offered by almost all carriers we evaluated.
We did award extra points for providers that included a mobile hotspot with their unlimited plans. This feature allows you to wirelessly connect a tablet, laptop or other mobile device to your smartphone's internet connection. It should be noted that when 10GB is depleted, carriers typically throttle your hotspot to slower speeds.
One feature available with only three carriers is data rollover: the ability to roll any unused data from your monthly allocation over into the next month. At the moment, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are the only companies offering any sort of data rollover. This perk is extremely beneficial for users who aren't on an unlimited plan.
The biggest data guzzler is streaming video. Watching one hour of high-definition video from Netflix can consume 3GB of your data. Because of this, several cell phone providers limit video streaming to 480p resolution. Verizon includes free HD-streaming with its unlimited plan. T-Mobile allows you to watch HD video, through its app, but at an additional $5 monthly charge, but because of T-Mobile's Binge-On plan, several streaming services don't count against your data limits.
Picking a device is much more fun that selecting a plan. We visited each carrier's online stores to compare the range of devices they sell on their websites. Flagship phones are arguably the most important, since many consumers want the latest and greatest smartphone to connect with their families, friends and colleagues, but not everybody wants a smartphone so we made sure they have midtier and budget "dumbphones," too. We also checked to see if you can purchase devices in installments or payment plans.
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.
Finding a decent cell phone carrier 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 MetroPCS. 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 hopefully you'll be delighted with the cell phone plan you find.
Contributing Reviewer: Brandon Carte