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ProsIn terms of value for money, Sprint stands tall, offering generous service plans and incentives at an affordable monthly rate.
8.48
/ 10
8.33
/ 10
8.08
/ 10
7.98
/ 10
7.63
/ 10
7.38
/ 10
7.15
/ 10
6.60
/ 10
6.50
/ 10
5.95
/ 10

Coverage & Quality

PreviousNext
Network Provider
Verizon
T-Mobile
AT&T
T-Mobile
Sprint
Sprint
AT&T
Sprint and Verizon
Sprint
U.S. Cellular
Performance
A+
B+
A-
B+
B+
B+
A-
C
B+
B-
Speed
A+
B+
B
B+
C
C
C
B
C
Not Tested
Reliability
A+
B+
A-
B+
A-
A-
A-
A-
A-
Not Tested
Technology
A+
B-
B+
B-
C
C
B+
B
C
Not Tested
matrix insert 1

Pricing & Fees

PreviousNext
Overall Value
A+
B+
C
B-
B+
C
C
F
F
D
Individual Unlimited Plan
$40
$40
$70
$60
$50
$50
$60
$65
$50
$90
Family Unlimited Plan (Price for 4 Lines)
$160.00
$160
$185
$135
$160
$125
$180
$265
None
$160
Data Only (Price Per GB)
$10
$10
10
15
None
None
None
$15
None
None
Wearable, Tablet or Hotspot Add-On
2 GB for $20
$20/Tablet $10/Wearable
$20/Tablet $10/ Wearable
2 GB for $30
$25/Tablet
1.5 GB for $25
$30 for 1 GB
$15/Tablet
1 GB for $10
1 GB for $10
Activation Fee
$30
$20
$25
None
$30
Varies
$25
$36
None
None
matrix insert 2

Plan Features

PreviousNext
High-Speed Data Allowance for Unlimited Plan
22 GB
32 GB
22 GB
32 GB
23 GB
23 GB
22 GB
20 GB
23 GB
22 GB
Mobile Hotspot Allowance for Unlimited Plan
22 GB
32 GB
10 GB
8 GB
10 GB
8 GB
8 GB
No Hotspot
10 GB
22 GB
HD Video Streaming
$5
$20
480p
480p
$20
International Calling Plans
$30
$25
$15
$10
$15
$10
$5-15
$3.99
$10
$3.99
matrix insert 3

Device Selection

PreviousNext
Flagship Phones
A-
A-
A+
D-
B
C
D+
C+
D-
B
Midtier Phones
A+
B-
B+
D-
C-
C
D-
D
D-
D+
Budget Phones
D+
A-
C-
C
A
A+
B+
C-
F
B+
Maximum Phones on Plan
10
10
6
5
10
5
5
5
1
10
Phone Payment Plans
matrix insert 4

Help & Support

PreviousNext
Customer Service
B
B
C
D
D
C-
C-
B
D
B
Telephone
Live Chat
Social Media

Best Cell Phone Providers

Why Find the Best Cell Phone Provider?

We’ve reviewed the best cell phone providers for 11 years. Recently, we spent over 150 hours researching and testing the best service providers, and based on the data we gathered, we think the best one in the nation continues to be Verizon Wireless. The brand’s extensive coverage, speed and reliability, as well as its top-of-the-line tech selection, edge it in front of its competitors. The company also recently made its pricing more competitive, and its unlimited plan includes a 10GB mobile hotspot and HD video streaming.

If you’re looking for the best value, you should consider T-Mobile. The service’s customer incentives make it our second choice. T-Mobile’s network and coverage still don’t quite match Verizon’s, but it has a lot of specialized plans that make it a good value. For example, the senior’s unlimited plan gets you two lines for $55 a month. The company also offers to pay for your Netflix subscription when you have two or more lines on its unlimited ONE plan.

Based on our testing, we think MetroPCS is the best budget pick because it works off T-Mobile’s larger network but has lower prices. You can’t buy the flagship phones the big four carriers stock, but MetroPCS is a solid choice if you’re trying to lower your monthly cell phone bill.

How We Evaluated the Carriers

As we reviewed traditional carriers, we considered coverage and quality of service above all else. While we factored in price when comparing providers, it wasn’t our main consideration. 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.

Since the carriers can't be trusted 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. However, RootMetrics is the gold standard for providing accurate, independent, unbiased impressions of mobile network coverage quality and reliability. RootMetrics drove nearly 250,000 miles to test data speed and reliability, call quality, and text performance.

We use RootMetrics' RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality as well as crowdsourced data and our own tests and experiences 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 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.

Picking a Cell Phone Provider: What Else to Look For

The carriers we outlined above suit many people, but they aren't for everyone. There are a few other things to consider as you search for a cell phone plan that fits your lifestyle:

Coverage & Quality

As we mentioned, the quality of a carrier's coverage is the most important consideration as you compare cell phone plans. Verizon claims the top spot in terms of performance, network size and speed, though 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 ranks second for call performance, trailing slightly behind Verizon. In addition, it tied for the runner-up position in text performance with AT&T.

Except for U.S. Cellular, which operates its own regional network in the Midwest, every other carrier we reviewed is an MVNO, which means they all piggyback on one of the Big Four’s 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.

Plan Features

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 awarded extra points to providers that include 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 after you use 10GB of data, carriers typically throttle your hotspot to slower speeds.

At the moment, only Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T offer data rollover, which means they let you roll any unused data from your monthly allocation over into the next month. This perk is extremely beneficial if you aren’t on an unlimited plan.

The biggest data guzzler is video streaming. Watching one hour of high-definition video on 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, and T-Mobile allows you to watch HD video through its app for an additional $5 a month. However, because of T-Mobile's Binge-On plan, several streaming services don't count against your data limits.

Device Selection

Picking a device is much more fun that selecting a plan. We visited each carrier's online store to compare the variety of devices it sells on its website. Flagship phones are arguably the most important, since many consumers want the latest and greatest smartphone. But not everybody wants a smartphone, so we made sure the providers have midtier and budget "dumbphones," too. We also checked to see if you can purchase devices in installments or on payment plans.

There's one last consideration when picking a quality network: the communications standard it uses. 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 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.

Contributing Reviewers: Jessica Richards & Brandon Carte