Pick out the best cell phone providers with this round-up, and begin your journey to finding the right carrier for you. Packed with providers that are sure to put your needs first with excellent customer service and the technology you need, this list can guide you to make the switch without the stress.
MVNO: MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. This is the name for cell phone providers who don’t actually own their own networks. Instead, these companies pay to use the networks of the larger providers.
Any top-rated cell phone provider that you’re looking into needs to have good coverage in the area that you live in, so that you know you can rely on great service at all times. While bigger carriers such as AT&T boast up to 99% coverage across the US, you may need to ensure smaller competing providers can still provide the coverage security you need.
Fast internet speeds and 5G coverage are further factors that will transform an average carrier into one of the very best cell phone providers. So make sure to read up on the speeds available to you on your smartphone (opens in new tab), especially if you want to stream content while using data, and seek out unlimited data offers, so that you won’t get stuck paying a premium for browsing when you're out of the house.
If you don’t want to take on the extra expense of signing up for 5G just yet, then don’t worry, as there are still plenty of providers out there offering 4G coverage to keep costs down.
Of course, the kind of service you’ll receive with your provider is of paramount importance too, which is why we’ve investigated user reviews of each of our top picks too. Keep reading to find the network that will put you first, and make switching providers pain-free.
Mint Mobile | Get 3 months free when you buy any 3-month plan (opens in new tab)
The top cell phone provider as rated by us is currently having an early access Black Friday sale during which you can get three months free when you purchase any three-month plan. This means you can get unlimited data, text and talk for $90 for 6 months of service.
The best cell phone providers(opens in new tab)
Mint Mobile has recently launched a staggeringly good plan that gets you unlimited 5G (or 4G LTE if you're out of range), unlimited texts and calls, and free calls to Mexico and Canada for... $30 per month. That's a fantastic deal, and you may want to know what the catch is. Well, there kinda isn't one, although this deal isn't quite perfect. Mint only offers the $30 rate for the first three months, and it rises to $40 per month after that. Not quite as good, but still fantastic for what you actually get. Most other providers charge $70+ for unlimited 5G.
The other drawback is that Mint sits on the T-Mobile network. Technically, it's one of the best for 5G in the whole country, which is good - you're more likely to get a 5G signal that most other networks. The problem is that Mint users will suffer from deprioritization on this network, which means that in periods and areas of heavy usage, speeds will slow to allow regular T-Mobile customers priority access to data and cell signal. Again, though, this really isn't a massive deal because this only tends to happen at large-scale gatherings.
Overall, we think Mint is a serious value proposition. It has a large range of brand new handsets, it offers a free sim card for each plan, and you can go even cheaper (down to $15 per month) if you want to limit yourself to 4GB of data.
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AT&T is one of the big three 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. However, this also makes it expensive, so be warned. AT&T bests Verizon when it comes to plans for veterans and those still in the military, which they can extend to their families, so this is where it truly excels.
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.
There are currently over 230 million AT&T customers in the US, so it's a popular choice. It has decent, but not the best customer reviews, and a good rating on the BBB. It can't best T-Mobile for customer satisfaction, and doesn't outperform Verizon for coverage, but it's still a solid choice.
- Read our AT&T Wireless review (opens in new tab)
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Visible is a great option if you want to go prepaid. It's a simple, streamlined offering that is designed to be easy to use and flexible, for those who don't want to worry about end of month bills. For $40 per month you get unlimited data, calls, and texts. Your data speeds are capped between 5-12 Mbps, depending on where you are in the country, which is enough for basic streaming, social media, emails and internet access. Sure, hardcore data-hogs will want quicker speeds, and a 5G plan (which Visible doesn't offer) but most users will be fine with these speeds.
The range of phones on offer is impressive - you've got most of the latest iPhones, including the SE and 12, and Samsung's flagship models too, like the S21. There are some good mid-range options, and a handful of budget handsets too. If you go pre-paid, you need to factor in the cost of financing a handset or buying one outright, which will add monthly cost. If you already own your phone, you can bring that across with you, which definitely saves cash.
Visible uses Verizon's network, which is the best in the US, so coverage is the best of all the MVNO carriers. While priority is always given to Verizon customers, you'll struggle to notice slow-down in data speeds or network availability. Other benefits of Visible is that you can manage your account entirely via the Visible app, you can add additional people to your 'Party' and you both save money every month.
- Read our Visible review (opens in new tab)
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T-Mobile, having merged with Sprint, 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. Again, if you're looking to downgrade your home fibre and go completely 5G with unlimited data, T-Mobile is an excellent choice.
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.
What's more, T-Mobile actually scores higher than other big carriers on customer satisfaction, which is a real advantage. Smaller cell companies often achieve better satisfaction ratings, but here you get the perks of a larger provider with a big network, and the customer service of a smaller one. If you're looking to balance reliability, speed, and a carrier that cares, T-Mobile is a good bet. It's also highly rated for video streaming so is ideal for anyone that uses their data network for this regularly.
- Read our T-Mobile review (opens in new tab)
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Verizon Wireless is our best cell phone provider for 2021, and has been at the top of our guide for the past three years. Why? It's one of the biggest, sure, but it gets superior scores for reliability, speed, and network coverage. With solid coverage throughout the majority of the country (although there are few patchy zones in the north west and mid-west), and a large 5G network, Verizon will suit anyone looking for a strong signal and consistent data service. It rates a little lower for customer service than others, but it does have a larger customer base too, so we'd expect a variance of opinions and satisfaction ratings.
Verizon isn't a cheap carrier: in fact it has some of the most expensive plans on the market, but they do offer decent value if you are happy to invest in your cell phone. Pricing starts at $30 (for multiple lines) and run up to $90 per month. You do get what you pay for, but not everyone can afford to commit to such expensive cell phone plans each month.
If you want to pay as little as possible and still enjoy the benefits of such a strong network, you can pay $30 per month and get about 500MB of data. International calling can be bolted on for an extra $5 per month for unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada, or $10 for calls to 185 countries worldwide.
Given the reliability of Verizon's 5G network, you can look to offset costs with your home internet provider by getting an unlimited 5G plan from Verizon and using it for the majority of your home broadband needs. If you find yourself out of the home more often than in it, this is a good way to get a fantastic cell service and save a little money elsewhere.
- Read our Verizon Wireless review (opens in new tab)
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One thing our service providers love is loyalty. So, if you're an Xfinity customer - or plan to be - for your home internet, then you get a damn good deal on your cell plan too. Xfinity gives you unlimited 5G network access (so, data, calls, texts etc) for $45 per month, which is far lower than most plans on the big three networks. Sure, you're adding it to your fiber bill, so the total at the end of each month may seem eye-watering, but you're probably saving money overall on two essential services.
What's even better is that Xfinity runs on Verizon's network, so you get access to the quickest and broadest-covering network in the US. Verizon was rated as the best for 5G this year making this a big draw here. It's such a small downside but, honestly, it's tough to fault Xfinity's offering on the Verizon network.
The range of phones is good and, if you don't want to go for the unlimited data option, you can choose to pay for your cell plan on a download basis - starting at $15 for 1GB of data. You still get the unlimited calls rolled into that. For anyone currently with Xfinity, it's a no-brainer, and if you're planning to sign up for your internet, you really should consider adding your cell plan too.
- Read our Xfinity review (opens in new tab)
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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 US. These networks span both types of cellular technologies used in the US, 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 three 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.
One downside is that you are limited when it comes to the actual selection of phones, so if you have your eye on a particular handset, you do need to check whether or not US Mobile stocks it.
- Read our US Mobile review (opens in new tab)
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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 deprioritization 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.
- Read our Metro by T-Mobile review (opens in new tab)
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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 10GB plan and two 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 top unlimited plan won't cap download speeds, 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 our Cricket Wireless review (opens in new tab)
A lot of cell phone providers try to be all things to all people, but Google Fi takes a different approach. It sets out to be the absolute best network for some people. This means it might be the absolute top choice for you, but many others will find it lacking.
Google Fi is an MVNO provider, meaning it doesn’t have its own network and so it relies on others. While many companies do this, Google Fi takes things a step further by using multiple other networks and switching you between them depending on which gives you the best coverage at any given time. This sounds great in theory, and it is, providing you’re using one of the very limited number of smartphones that support this feature.
If you can take full advantage of what Google is offering here though, you’ll get a lightning fast service with unlimited data and exceptional nationwide coverage at a very reasonable price. These savings can go even further if you sign up for a family plan, but good luck convincing your entire family to ditch the iPhone life.
- Read our Google Fi review (opens in new tab).
What to look for in the best cell phone providers
The right cell phone provider for you depends on how you use your cell phone and your personal priorities. If you know that you want to receive in-store assistance from your provider or to be able to reach them via phone, then customer service ratings should be of paramount importance. Or, if you care more about excellent coverage all of the time, make sure to guarantee that you’re signed up with a provider that has signal absolutely everywhere.
Below you’ll find key factors to think about as you browse, so you can think about how important each one is to you.
1. Cell Phone Plan Price
Your budget will help you to define the kind of providers and plans you opt for. Ballpark figures range from around $30-$60 per month for a limited data plan or $60-$90 for an unlimited plan with mobile hotspot tethering. Looking for a family plan? You should aim to spend around $150-$220 for unlimited or $115-$150 for limited data. These kinds of family plans can often yield better value overall, so do make sure to investigate them if they crop up.
2. Big Three Cell Phone Companies vs. MVNO
There’s undoubtedly a hierarchy when it comes to cell phone providers, and the big three have most definitely caught your attention if you’re plugged into carriers: that’s Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
In essence, all other cell phone providers piggyback off of these networks for their service, so even though you might be paying Visible or Mint Mobile, you’re restricted to the actual coverage of bigger providers. These smaller companies are called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), and they can set their own prices independently of the big three, which is why you might sometimes find a cheaper deal with them.
A more affordable provider is clearly a huge benefit, especially as it means you’re still accessing the often nation-wide coverage of bigger providers. The downside? The big three cell companies do tend to favor their own customers ahead of MVNOs, which can lead to slower download speeds.
3. Check your area's cell phone network coverage and service
Always check that your area is covered when it comes to your new cell phone provider, even if you’re choosing one of the best-performing networks like Verizon.
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.”
Wondering how to check? All providers tend to have their own coverage maps on their websites, but we would also recommend RootMetrics and OpenSignal for further insights and comparability into performance.
4. Shop cell phone companies, deals and the features they offer
It’s no secret that competition between cell phone providers is extremely fierce, which is why shopping around before you make your final decision is crucial. Providers will seek to one up eachother when it comes to things like unlimited data, so comparing prices is essential. Also bear in mind that each company’s idea of ‘unlimited data’ can vary, and there is probably an upper limit you need to be aware of.
Do you need unlimited data?
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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.
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How we tested the best cell phone providers
We’ve been reviewing cell phone carriers for a long time now and we know what to look for when it comes to finding the best choices on the market. We’ve tested all the biggest names in cell phone plans, and quite a few of the smaller companies you might not have heard of too. In the end, we’ve narrowed this list down to the ten best cell phone carriers out there.
When testing a cell phone provider, we look at LTE and 5G network coverage, download speeds, plan variety and flexibility, price, smartphone selection, customer service, and extras to provide comprehensive reviews of the service that you can expect from each company. We also analyze user reviews to pull in experience from thousands of people who have been using these cell phone providers for years to find out what people like about them, and where people think each company could improve.