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Best Cell Phone providers 2020 : Find the right carrier for you

Best cell phone providers 2020
(Image credit: ShutterStock)

Choosing between the best cell phone providers can be hard, especially with all the major cell carriers waving their latest deals and special offers in your face. It’s easy to jump the gun and dive at the first enticing offer or discounted deal that comes your way, but cost shouldn’t be your only consideration when choosing the best cell phone provider for your needs.

Editor's Choice: Verizon Wireless

Verizon provides a reliable network that offers widespread coverage, ultra-fast speed and tiered payment plans that cover all the bases.VIEW DEAL ON Verizon Wireless

Cell phone coverage is a major issue for many Americans, especially those who live in rural areas and choosing the network that best covers your area could be well worth a few extra dollars a month. After all, there’s no point having a cheap cell phone contract if you can’t actually get any signal in your area. To help you make the right choice, we’ve analyzed the biggest and best cell phone providers from across the country to see what each company offers. 

We looked at coverage, speed, reliability, customer service, user reviews, and cost. We have then ranked the carriers in the buying guide below, while also making sure to point out the key strengths and weaknesses of each carrier. Please note that we only looked at cell phone providers who offered unlimited data cell plans, since data has rapidly become the most important feature for consumers.

Best cell phone providers: how do they compare?

Verizon Wireless heads up our list of best cell phone companies, thanks to its strong network performance, excellent coverage, reliability, and speed. Sprint is the best cheap cell phone provider thanks to its low prices and regular deals. T-Mobile also fared well in our assessment, as did its sub-brand Metro by T-Mobile. For older cell phone users, we think that T-Mobile's Unlimited 55+ plan, which offers discounted rates to seniors, offers fantastic value.

Once you’ve chosen the cell phone provider that’s right for you, be sure to check out our best smartphone guide to help you choose the perfect handset. If you’re looking for something at the lower end of the budget, our best cheap smartphones guide has you covered.

1. Verizon Wireless: Best Overall

Verizon Wireless is our best cell phone provider

(Image credit: Verizon Wireless)

Verizon Wireless

The best cell phone provider in the US in 2020

Network: 5G | Unlimited price: From $70/month | Budget plan: From $30/month | International unlimited calling: From $5/month

Best network
Inexpensive to add wearable or tablet to plan
Good device selection
Can be expensive

Verizon Wireless is one of the best cell phone providers in the US thanks to superb high scores for network coverage, reliability and speed - across lots of studies. As a result it's not cheap, in fact it's one of the most expensive network providers. 

Verizon offers some superb top-tier unlimited plans where pricing starts at $30 (for multiple lines) and run up to $90 per month.

At the budget end there are still unlimited plans with endless calls and texts on a single device from $30 per month with 500MB of data. If you want to enjoy international calls then you can bolt that on for an extra $5 per month for unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada, or $10 for calls to 185 countries.

Read the review: Verizon Wireless

2. Sprint Wireless: Best value provider

Sprint Wireless is a great carrier

(Image credit: Sprint Wireless)

Sprint Wireless

The best cell phone carrier for low-priced plans

Network: 5G | Unlimited price: From $60/month | Budget plan: From $40/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

Cheap prices 
Exceptional-value unlimited deals
Coverage has improved 
Coverage less reliable in rural areas

Sprint is the fourth largest cell phone carrier in the States. Thanks to its consistently low-priced plans and great-value deals, it tends to be the most affordable cell phone provider you can choose. Take Sprint's Unlimited Basic Plan: for $60/month, you get unlimited data, talk and texts, a mobile hotspot, and Hulu bundled in. 

Even cheaper is Sprint’s Unlimited Kickstart Plan, which has sporadically run for limited periods over the last 12 months. With this, if you’re prepared to change provider and swap to Sprint, you can get unlimited data, calls and texts for just $25/month. That’s exceptional value.

With low prices come compromises, though. Sprint’s coverage isn’t as good as Verison or AT&T – it has improved in recent years, but we’d advise you to check your local area before choosing Sprint. If you live in a city or suburb, you likely won’t have any problems. But if you live in an area where Sprint doesn’t offer good coverage, or regularly visit one, we’d recommend choosing a budget plan from Metro by T-Mobile instead (further down this list). For city-dwellers or anyone on a budget though, Sprint consistently offers some of the lowest-priced cell phone plans in the US and now even has 5G coverage in some areas.

Read the review: Sprint Wireless

3. T-Mobile: Best provider for 5G

T-Mobile is superb for data and 5G

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

T-Mobile

The best cell phone company for 5G coverage

Network: 5G | Unlimited price: From $60/month | Budget plan: From $40/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

Unlimited 55+ plan is a great deal for seniors
One of the fastest networks
Superb nationwide 5G coverage
Fewer plan options than other carriers

T-Mobile offers some of the fastest 4G LTE in the US as well as 5G nationwide coverage. T-Mobile’s unlimited plans are great value when compared side by side with similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

The plans offered by T-Mobile are clear and simple with three tiers of unlimited pay monthly offerings starting from $60 per month and several prepaid plans that start at $40. There are also specific plans for those over 55, veterans and first responders, each with great deals. T-Mobile also offers banking with savings to be made for those wireless customers that use both services from the provider.

Read the review: T-Mobile

4. AT&T Wireless: Best for military and veterans

AT&T Wireless is excellent for veterans

(Image credit: AT&T Wireless)

AT&T Wireless

Best cell phone provider for veterans and military personnel

Network: 5G | Unlimited price: From $35/month | Budget plan: From $30/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

One of the fastest networks
Superb coverage
Veteran friendly
Expensive

AT&T is one of the Big Four cell phone companies and that means it owns and operates its own network of cell towers. That means it's coverage is better than most, and so is its reliability. Depending on where you live, it might be the best cell network bar none. 

AT&T  bests Verizon when it comes to plans for veterans and those still in the military, which they can extend to their families. 

Plans range from a selection of unlimited pay monthly options to data restricted as well as unlimited prepaid options. Pricing starts at around the $30 per month mark and savings can be made for multiple lines on one contract. 

Read the review: AT&T Wireless

5. Metro by T-Mobile: Best carrier for families

Metro by T-Mobile is a sub-brand, and a good one

(Image credit: Metro by T-Mobile)

Metro by T-Mobile

The best cell phone provider for families

Network: 5G | Unlimited price: From $50/month | Budget plan: From $30/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

Great deals
5G coverage
No HD streaming
Need to buy in store

Metro by T-Mobile is a prepaid cellular provider that uses its parent company’s great high-speed network. Its prices are lower, and it has more clarity on pricing than T-Mobile.

The most expensive plan costs $60 per month, and in addition to having unlimited data, it allows you to use 15GB on hotspot tethering and comes with Amazon Prime. If you don’t need that much hotspot data, you can save yourself $10 by signing up for the $50 unlimited plan, which only includes 5GB of hotspot data.

We like that Metro 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 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 higher-quality 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, Metro 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, Metro customers could see their speeds slow down. This wasn't a problem in tests conducted by Tom’s Guide, our sister site, but it is worth mentioning.

Read the review: Metro by T-Mobile

6. US Mobile: Best customized plans

US Mobile is one of the most flexible providers

(Image credit: US Mobile)

US Mobile

The best cell phone provider for the customized plans

Network: 4G | Unlimited price: From $40/month | Budget plan: From $5/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

Fast speeds
Great perks
Excellent coverage
Poor phone selection

US Mobile is an MVNO that lets you customize nearly every aspect of your plan, from the network down to the amount of talk, text and data. It uses Verizon and T-Mobile networks, two of the best and fastest networks in the U.S. These networks span both types of cellular technologies used in the U.S., which is great if you want to bring your own phone to the service. Though it does offer unlimited plans, they’re expensive compared to other carriers.

US Mobile’s value lies in its customization: you only pay for what you use. This approach can save usage-conscious customers a lot of money compared to an unlimited everything plan from a Big Four cell phone company. If, for example, you only want unlimited texting, it costs just $9 a month. You can also always add minutes, texts or data onto your account, should your needs change. 

Read the review: US Mobile

7. Cricket: Best for text and talk

Cricket Wireless is ideal for non-data usage

(Image credit: Cricket Wireless)

Cricket Wireless

The best cell phone company for text and talk

Network: 4G | Unlimited price: From $40/month | Budget plan: From $30/month | International unlimited calling: Yes

Affordable unlimited plans
Fast data when not capped
Hotspot not included
Data speeds capped

Cricket Wireless is a prepaid carrier that's owned and operated by AT&T, and it uses its parent company’s extensive cellular network. The prepaid provider offers plans ranging from $30 to $60 per month: a 2GB plan, a 5GB plan and three unlimited-data plans.

Cricket is generally a good value, with prices on a par with those of other carrier-owned prepaid services and much lower than the prices of similar plans on its parent network. Cricket offers group discounts and a $5-per-month autopay discount on plans starting at the $40 tier. The carrier often features new-customer promotions, such as discounted or free smartphones when you switch from another carrier.

The biggest downside of Cricket’s service is the data-speed caps. The Unlimited plan caps download speeds at 3 Mbps, while all other plans cap download speeds at 8 Mbps, up to the data allotment. But overall, Cricket is one of the best choices for plan savings and great customer care.

Read the review: Cricket Wireless

How we test cell phone carriers 

We’ve kept track of the ever-changing landscape of cellular plans since 2007. 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.

Current cell phone promotions 

How to choose the best cell phone company for you

There are dozens of cell phone companies 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 Republic Wireless. A few others do fit within our parameters but didn’t make the cut, including CREDO Mobile, Page Plus Cellular, Wing, Ultra Mobile and Lycamobile

Here are some key considerations to make to help you choose the right cell phone provider for your individual needs...

1. Cell Phone Plan Price

Cell phone plan prices vary depending on the amount of data and number of lines you add. An individual line costs between $30 to $60 for a limited-data plan or $60-$90 for an unlimited plan with mobile hotspot tethering. Family plans with four lines can cost $150 to $220 for unlimited or $115 to $150 for limited-data. In many cases, however, family unlimited plans are a better value, as many carriers offer discounts for multiple lines.

2. Big Four Cell Phone Companies Vs. MVNO

Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and US 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.

3. Check your area's cell phone network coverage and service

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.

4. Shop cell phone companies, deals and the features they offer

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 6 Mbps on Cricket or that video streams at a max resolution of 480p on T-Mobile’s ONE plan and with Metro.

Apple's iPhones are among the most popular in the US

(Image credit: Apple)

Our advice on the best cell phone providers

Our goal is to help you find the best cell phone plan for the least amount of money. To that end, we spent over 60 hours researching service providers’ offerings and comparing them side by side.

All our data is collected from reliable sources, including the providers’ public information and studies by independent reporting agencies. We spoke with Doug King from RootMetrics and representatives from three of the Big Four mobile networks, including Allan Samson, the senior vice president of customer acquisition for Sprint.

Do you need unlimited data? 

Every year, more people get smartphones, smartphones get smarter and, no surprise, we use more data. Most cell phone companies push their high-priced unlimited data plans, but most people don’t use enough data to necessitate the extra cost. A few years ago, the average American used 5.1GB of mobile data per month, but that has increased with more and more streaming and video content coming online. Some use much more, but most people only need about 10 to 20GB, accounting for Wi-Fi use. To find out how much data you need, track your data usage for a few months using your online account through your carrier’s website. If you have a family plan, do this for everyone on the account, as some plans count your data in aggregate, while others count data per phone line. If you use less than 10GB per line on average, you can probably find a better deal that fits your needs.

If you often use your data plan to stream content, especially at high resolutions, you probably need an unlimited plan, as streaming applications are notorious data hogs. But if you only use slightly more data each month than your carrier’s next best data plan, you may be able to shave off that excess by turning off background app refresh, setting lesser-used applications to Wi-Fi only and using your default viewing and listening quality to conserve data. You can also turn off Wi-Fi assist for iPhones and background data usage for Android, use free public Wi-Fi and disable video autoplay on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Using an old cell phone with a new plan 

Since smartphones can cost well over $1,000, you may want to keep your device longer than a couple of years to get your money’s worth. Usually, you can keep your own phone even if you switch carriers, as most cell phone companies allow you to bring your own device to a new plan. There are a few things that could impede this, however, including carrier-locked devices and different cellular technologies.

Some carrier-purchased smartphones have a software lock in place that prevents them from working with any other carrier. Factory unlocked phones do not have this problem, nor do many phones from Verizon. Your phone may have a lock if it was purchased through your carrier or if you chose a specific carrier when purchasing your phone from the manufacturer. To unlock your phone to use with a different carrier, you may need to wait a set amount of time after buying your cell or pay off the phone in full. Sprint automatically unlocks your phone after its time allotment, but AT&T requires a request. If your phone comes through a prepaid provider, it may be locked for a much longer timespan – possibly up to a year.

After unlocking your phone, make sure your device is compatible with the network you want to switch to. Within the U.S., there are two prevailing wireless technologies. Sprint, US Cellular and Verizon use CDMA, whereas AT&T, T-Mobile and pretty much the rest of the world use GSM. Some phone manufacturers build phones that support both CDMA and GSM networks, but others only have modems for one. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have simple methods to check if your phone is compatible with their networks, and we recommend consulting them before switching.

Samsung Galaxy S10 is one of our top phones

(Image credit: Samsung)

Postpaid vs. prepaid cell plans

Traditional cell phone plans operate on a postpay basis: You use your cellular service for the month and are billed for how many minutes and messages you racked up and how much data you used during the billing cycle. Prepaid plans, offered by carriers such as Metro by T-Mobile and Google Fi, have customers pay their bills prior to receiving service for the month. Some do this through prepaid service cards, while others operate online or through stores, similar to their postpaid counterparts. Both styles of cellular service have their strengths. For example, traditional service offers better deals and payment options for new phones. Also, postpaid plans tend to have extras or freebies, while prepaid plans rarely have perks. Postpaid customers’ service is also prioritized over prepaid customers’ during times of network congestion.

Still, prepaid plans can save you money compared to plans from the Big Four, and they give you the benefit of knowing exactly how much your phone service costs each month without bill-time surprises. Prepaid plans prevent any unexpected data overage charges. All of the Big Four carriers have their own prepaid plans, but they are usually more expensive compared to plans offered by network subsidiaries like Boost, Cricket or Metro by T-Mobile, which are owned by the network carriers (Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively). Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, also offer cheaper service by buying network service wholesale from the Big Four carriers.

Network congestion & data deprioritization 

Cellular networks all have a threshold for how much data they can handle at any given time. If there are too many people on the same network in the same place, it causes network congestion. You’ve probably experienced the effects of network congestion at huge events where your wireless service, particularly data, acted sluggish. Think of your data as a car merging onto a freeway; when the network is acting normally, there is little traffic, and the car can merge directly without slowing down. Congestion is like a traffic jam, where more people are trying to get the same amount of data through the network at the same time. Because there isn’t enough room for all the cars on the freeway at the same time, each has to wait in a queue for its turn to move forward.

In cases such as this, everyone’s data service is slow, but in times of lighter congestion, the cellular network has a hierarchy of whose service gets top priority. Generally, the network’s direct, postpaid customers get first dibs on data. A Verizon customer with a traditional plan who has not exceeded their high-speed data limit for the month has prioritized service over someone using Verizon’s prepaid MVNO service, a Verizon prepaid plan or a traditional Verizon plan that has exceeded its data limit for the month. If you are not on a postpaid plan with your network and experience quality of service issues often, it’s worth it to pay extra to have service priority when the network is congested or to switch to a network with fewer users in your area.

Scams and robocalls 

According to a report released by First Orion, fraudulent calls have increased drastically, from 3.7 percent of all calls in 2017 to almost 30 percent in 2018, and that number is increasing. Many of these calls appear to come from local numbers, a practice called "neighborhood spoofing" spammers use to trick you into thinking the call might be important. Often, these calls appear to come from legitimate phone numbers, which are temporarily hijacked. These spoofed numbers are also a large part of why many call blocking techniques are ineffective at stopping the onslaught of robocalls, as many call-blocking tools only prevent calls from known spam numbers. Adding your number to the Do Not Call List prevents certain legitimate telemarketers from contacting you but does little to deter illegal calls.

If you receive an illegal spam call, hang up. Don’t say anything, especially any personal information, since the call may be recorded. Don’t press a button to remove yourself from the list or to talk to a live person because these interactions encourage spammers to keep calling you. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently called phone providers to arms against robocallers, encouraging adoption of two authentication frameworks designed to catch spam calls before your phone rings.

The future is 5G 

U.S. wireless carriers Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced plans for 5G rollouts. Each is vying for its own first: Verizon was the first to roll out 5G for home use in four cities and exclusively sells the Motorola Moto Z3, which was advertised as the first 5G-ready phone. Sprint teamed up with LG to announce the first true 5G phone, which doesn’t need additional hardware to connect to the new technology, unlike the Z3. AT&T aims to launch the first mobile 5G to consumers.

5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile wireless technology, and it promises faster speeds and lower latency. It works differently than 4G LTE, the current wireless standard, in that it’s faster but over shorter distances. This requires infrastructure in the form of new 5G cells, which the FCC recently protected against prohibitive upkeep fees. Mobile customers on 5G networks should see faster download times and overall better network performance, but the tech benefits more than just smartphones, including smart devices, self-driving cars and virtual reality. Of course, all of this doesn’t happen immediately. With 5G only just rolling out, we can expect to see more developments over the next few years.

Read more: What is 5G?

2019 mobile network experience report 

OpenSignal’s Mobile Network Experience Report for January 2019 reports on data collected from more than 10 billion measurements taken between Sept. 16 and Dec. 14, 2018. It is the most recent published report on the state of wireless networks in the U.S. and offers keen insight into the competition among the big four cell phone providers.

Mobile network providers are currently expanding their infrastructure and investing in widespread network improvements in preparation for 5G rollouts. Although mobile 5G isn’t available yet, these improvements have had positive effects on the state of mobile networks as a whole. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has taken advantage of the transitional period. In the July 2018 report, T-Mobile led all of OpenSignal’s categories except latency. However, in the most recent report, Verizon beat T-Mobile in most categories, except latency, in which AT&T has continued to lead.

This puts OpenSignal's and RootMetrics’ most recent reports more in line with each other. In the past, the two network-reviewing companies have published seemingly contradictory reports on U.S. wireless carriers. Verizon held RootMetrics’ top spot overall for several years, whereas OpenSignal’s findings favored T-Mobile. These discrepancies are due to the companies’ differing data-collection methods. RootMetrics collects its own data in expansive drive tests throughout the U.S., and OpenSignal collects data from user speed tests. Both methods have their merits; RootMetrics' report shows a better overall picture when you consider the distribution of network service geographically, and OpenSignal's report better represents the service available where people use their phones the most. Either way, Verizon has the best network, but by a narrow margin. The other three wireless networks have improved as well, and T-Mobile came in a close second place in many of OpenSignal’s categories.