Getting the best cell phone provider for your needs is essential in 2020. We use our cell phones in so many aspects of every day life, so getting a reliable carrier, with a wide-reaching cell network, on a plan that you can afford is incredibly important. When selecting plans from the best cell phone providers, you have the choice between pre-paid and post-paid - each comes with various advantages and disadvantages, and we've listed options of both types below.
When rating the best cell phone providers we considered a handful of important aspects for each review. Network coverage is very important, and whether or not the carrier offers 5G service, which is becoming more and more available across America. We also looked at price of plans, and their flexibility, because we all demand good value from our network, even if we're paying more per month. The selection of phones is another key factor, because not only do you want a selection of the best smartphones available to buy... you also like to see good prices on older phones, mid-range devices, and budget handsets. While the big four networks carry most phones, smaller carriers have a more limited choice.
Many of the top rated cell phone carriers also offer special plans and discounts. Some are joining discounts available to everyone, but others have special prices for military service personnel, seniors, or low-income households. If you fall into any of these groups, it's worth investigating your carrier of choice to see if you can save some money. If you need more advice, check out our guide to cell coverage maps across the US.
1. Verizon Wireless: Best cell phone provider overall
Verizon Wireless is our best cell phone provider for 2020. 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
2. T-Mobile: Best provider for 5G
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. 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.
- Read our T-Mobile review
3. Visible: Best prepaid carrier
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 11, and Samsung's flagship models too, like the S20. 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, and there's currently a $15 discount on your first month of use.
- Read our Visible review
4. AT&T Wireless: America's most popular network
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. 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 160 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 out perform Verizon for coverage and speed, but it's still a solid choice.
- Read our AT&T Wireless review
5. Sprint Wireless: Best value cell plans
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 our Sprint Wireless review
6. Metro by T-Mobile: Best carrier for families
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.
- Read our Metro by T-Mobile review
7. US Mobile: Best customized plans
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 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.
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
8. Cricket: Best for text and talk
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 our Cricket Wireless review
How we test to find the best cell phone carriers
We’ve kept track of the ever-changing landscape of cellular plans since 2007, and we've retested every year since, including 2020. 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, Boost Mobile, Ting Mobile and U.S. Cellular.
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.
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.
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
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 protected against prohibitive upkeep fees. Mobile customers on 5G networks 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 still relatively new, we can expect to see more developments over the next few years.
Read more: What is 5G?
2020 mobile 5G network experience report
OpenSignal’s Mobile Network Experience Report for June 2020 reports on speeds and network coverage across the US. It is the most recent published report on the state of wireless networks and offers keen insight into the competition among the big four cell phone providers.
Right now Verizon and AT&T are the top providers for average 5G network speeds across the US, with an average download speed of around 41Mbps (this is when you combine actual 5G speeds and 4G speeds, when 5G isn't possible). In terms of real-world speeds, Verizon is the best here - you can get up to 420Mbps in its best 5G coverage areas. However, if you're looking for consistent 5G coverage T-Mobile wins here, as its users are constantly connected to 5G for over 22% of the time, compared to 14% and 10% via Sprint and AT&T respectively. That's a big jump.
Looking at other notable findings, Verizon's 5G coverage is incredibly limited, but expanding. Overall, Sprint hasn't quite embraced 5G in the same way as the other 'big four' but it metrics are improving.