Best Cell Phone Providers of 2018

Rebecca Armstrong ·
Phones & Networking Writer
Updated
We maintain strict editorial integrity when we evaluate products and services; however, Top Ten Reviews may earn money when you click on links.

We spent over 60 hours researching dozens of cell phone service providers to find the best ones. Verizon Wireless is our top pick thanks to its strong network performance. It has the best coverage, reliability and speed of any carrier we evaluated. T-Mobile also fared well in our assessment. In particular, we are huge fans of its Unlimited 55+ plan, which offers discounted rates to seniors. T-Mobile’s prepaid subsidiary, Metro by T-Mobile, is our pick for the best value cell phone provider because of its great performance and budget-friendly prices.

Best Overall
Verizon Wireless
Verizon Wireless has the best network in the U.S. Its combination of great 4G coverage, reliability and speed make it the best phone carrier.
View on Verizon
Best Value
Metro by T-Mobile
Metro by T-Mobile is a prepaid provider that offers great prices on a wide variety of plans, all running on T-Mobile’s fast network.
View on MetroPCS
See Plans@MetroPCS
Best Value
Metro by T-Mobile
Best for Seniors
T-Mobile
T-Mobile’s unlimited plans are a great value compared to the other Big Four networks’ options, and it has one of the fastest networks in the U.S.
View on WhistleOut
Product
Price
Overall Rating
Network Performance
Unlimited Plans
Budget Plans
Add-Ons
Carrier Features
Network
Coverage
Reliability
Speed
Individual Unlimited Plan
Family Unlimited Plan (4 Lines)
High-speed Data Cap (GB)
Mobile Hotspot Allowance (GB)
Base Individual Plan
Base Individual Plan Data (GB)
Base Family Plan (4 Lines)
Base Family Plan Data Per Line (GB)
Extra Data (for 1 GB)
Carryover Data
Wearable
Tablet
International Calling
Activation Fees
Autopay and Paperless Billing Discount
Max # of Lines per Plan
Device Selection
Check Price
9.1 10 7.8 8.5 9.8 9.5
Verizon
A+
A+
A+
$90
$220
22
15
$60
5
$115
0.5
$15
$10
$10
$15
$30
$5
10
A
Check Price
8.7 9 8 9.3 7.8 8.3
T-Mobile
B+
A
A+
$85
$220
50
10
$55
10
$140
2.5
$10
-
$10
$20
$25
$25
$5
5
B+
Check Price
8.4 9.5 8 5.8 9.8 10
AT&T
A
A
A
$90
$210
22
15
$55
1
$115
0.25
-
$10
$10
$15
$30
$10
10
B+
Check Price
8.1 8.3 9.3 7 5 8.5
T-Mobile
B+
A
A
$60
$150
35
10
$30
2
$120
2
-
-
-
$15
$10
-
-
5
A-
Check Price
7.7 7.8 8.8 5.8 7.3 9
Sprint
B-
A-
B
$65
$160
23
10
$45
2
$125
1
-
-
$10
$25
$15
$30
$5
5
A+
Check Price
7.6 6.5 10 8 1.8 8.3
Sprint
B-
B+
C+
$60
$180
23
20
$35
3
$120
3
$5
-
-
-
$10
$10
-
5
B+
Check Price
7.5 7 8.3 8.3 1.5 8.8
AT&T
A-
A-
F
$60
$190
22
8
$30
2
$120
2
$10
-
-
-
$15
$25
$5
5
A-
Check Price
7.5 7 8.3 10 2 4.8
Sprint
B-
A-
C
$60
$210
23
10
$50
Unlimited
$200
Unlimited
-
-
-
-
$5
-
-
1
D
Check Price
7.1 8.8 6.8 7 0 5
Verizon and T-Mobile
A
A-
A-
$79
$316
16
16
$37
1
$148
1
$5
-
-
-
$4
-
1
D+
Check Price
6.8 4.8 9.5 5.3 10 9.5
US Cellular
D
C-
C-
$70
$210
22
22
$55
2
$150
2
-
-
$10
$10
$10
$40
$10
10
B+
Best Overall
Verizon Wireless has a reputation for being the best wireless network in the U.S.
It scores higher on network coverage, reliability and speed than any other cellular network, according to multiple independent studies. However, it’s also among the most expensive. Across the board, Verizon’s prices are on the higher end of the spectrum. Its top-tier unlimited plans cost up to $90 per month for one person, and it doesn’t offer an individual budget plan. Whether or not the extra cost is worth the improved network depends on where you live. Though we wouldn’t quite call it a budget plan, Verizon’s $60 individual plan is a decent mid-tier option. It gives you 5GB of data and lets you carry over unused gigs to the following billing cycle. Adding more data is a bit expensive at $15 per gigabyte, but it’s a good option if you don’t quite need an unlimited plan. The family plans with limited data follow the shared data bucket model, allowing two to five lines to split 2GB, 4GB or 8GB.
Pros
  • Best network
  • Inexpensive to add wearable or tablet to plan
  • Good device selection
Cons
  • Individual plans are expensive
  • Data top up is expensive
  • Expensive activation fees
Visit SiteVerizon
Read the full review
Best Value
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 plan options than T-Mobile. The cheapest plan at Metro by T-Mobile costs $30 per month, and the price goes up $10 for each higher data tier. Technically, all the plans have unlimited data, but the two lowest-tier plans throttle your speeds after you use your 2GB or 10GB 4G LTE allotment. 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. Even on unlimited plans, it costs $30 to add each additional line, unless you happen to catch a promotional price. 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.
Pros
  • Cheapest unlimited family plans
  • No activation fees
  • Higher threshold for high-speed data than most
Cons
  • Data can’t be added mid-cycle
  • Possible data de-prioritization
  • Low 480p video resolution
See PlansMetroPCS
Read the full review
Best for Seniors
T-Mobile’s unlimited plans are a great value when compared side by side with similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Its Unlimited 55+ plan gives customers ages 55 and older a discount on the T-Mobile ONE unlimited plan for up to two lines – instead of $130 for two lines, it costs $80 for the same service. Though this discount is restricted to two lines, only the primary account holder has to fit the 55+ requirement. If you’re under 55, the T-Mobile ONE and ONE Plus plans are still solid unlimited-data options. T-Mobile’s network is one of the fastest in the country, and you can use up to 50GB of data before hitting the de-prioritization threshold. On top of things you expect from an unlimited plan, such as unlimited talk, text and data, T-Mobile ONE adds extras like unlimited text and data use in more than 140 countries, in-flight texting and an hour of free in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights. The $10 ONE Plus addition adds HD streaming, 10GB of 4G LTE hotspot tethering, unlimited Gogo flight data and visual voicemail. T-Mobile doesn’t offer many limited-data plans. It offers cheaper, no credit check plans that include 10GB of data, but they come with some disadvantages, including activation fees, deposits, ineligibility for discounts and lack of customization options. The ONE plans don’t have these problems, though if you’re new to T-Mobile, you pay $25 for a SIM card.
Pros
  • Unlimited 55+ plan is a great deal for seniors
  • One of the fastest networks
  • Highest de-prioritization threshold on unlimited plan
Cons
  • Fewer plan options than other carriers
  • $25 for SIM card
  • Few options for limited-data plans
$70WhistleOut
Read the full review
Best Custom 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 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 carrier. 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. The main drawbacks of US Mobile are that only one line per plan is allowed, and there aren’t any discounts available for families.
Pros
  • Completely customizable plans
Cons
  • Only one line per plan
$0.00US Mobile
Read the full review
Best Device Selection
Sprint’s expanding nation-wide network and low prices make it a good option if there’s coverage in your area.
Its wide selection of available phones gives you plenty of choices for budget, mid-tier and flagship devices. Sprint is one of the Big Four wireless companies in the U.S. Historically, its network lagged behind competitors, but recent updates and improvements are closing the gap. This makes it a great deal in certain markets where the network performs well, as its prices are generally more affordable than Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, especially for unlimited data plans. Sprint doesn’t have tiered unlimited plans. Instead, it puts everything into one, well-crafted option that includes mobile hotspot and HD streaming. At the time of our evaluations, Sprint had the widest selection of phones available for purchase through its website. In addition to expected devices such as recent flagship phones, Sprint offers a wide variety of mid-tier and budget smartphones, as well as a few deals on pre-owned devices and basic phones.
Pros
  • Lowest prices of Big Four
Cons
  • Slowest network of Big Four
$0.00-
Read the full review

Why Trust Us

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.

How We Tested

We’ve kept track of the ever-changing landscape of cellular plans for 12 years. 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.

How to Choose a Cell Phone Provider

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

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.

Big Four Vs. MVNO
Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. 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.

Check Your Area
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.

Shop the Features
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 providers push their high-priced unlimited data plans, but most people don’t use enough data to necessitate the extra cost. In 2016, Ericsson published its annual Mobility Report, which found that North Americans use an average of 5.1GB of mobile data per month. Some use much more, but most people only need about 3 to 5 gigabytes, 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 5GB 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.

Bringing Your Own Device

Since smartphones can cost well over $1,000, you may want to keep your device longer to get your money’s worth. Usually, you can keep your own phone even if you switch carriers, as most wireless 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 device or pay off the device 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.

Holiday Deals

It’s the time of year where all major retailers are discounting stock for the holidays and end of the financial year. The Big Four and several MVNOs have a variety of offers spanning from free phones to discounted service. Here’s what to look for when shopping.

Verizon

If you switch to Verizon from another carrier or add a line to your plan, you can get up to $300 off a new iPhone X, XS, XS Max or XR when you trade in your phone. Also, get $100 of trade-in value if you’re eligible for an upgrade and you don’t add a line. Same deal applies for best-selling Android devices, including the Google Pixel 3 line, Samsung Galaxy Note 9, LG V40 ThinQ and Samsung Galaxy S9 line.

T-Mobile

The Uncarrier is offering a free 50-inch Samsung 4K TV when you join the service in-store with two or more lines and buy at least one of the “latest Samsung phones.” Eligible phones include the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S8 Active, Galaxy S9, Galaxy S9+ and the Galaxy Note 9. The Galaxy S8 is the cheapest phone at $600, and though the phones themselves aren’t discounted, the TV is worth about $450. It’s a good deal if you need a smartphone upgrade and a new TV.

Sprint

Sprint’s holiday deals include a discount on the Unlimited Kickstart service, starting at just $24 per line per month for five lines when you switch. The discounted rate remains in effect through January 2020 before returning to non-promotional rates. Though it is an unlimited plan, the Kickstart service has a few caveats - you must pay full price for your device or bring your own phone to the plan, and it does not include hotspot data. Still, that’s $125 per month for five lines of unlimited talk, text and data.

Metro by T-Mobile

The T-Mobile-owned MVNO’s four lines of unlimited for $100 deal is back. That price includes all taxes and fees, and it costs $40 less than usual rates. Plus, the carrier is offering up to four free Samsung Galaxy J7 Star or LG Stylo 4 phones for your family when you switch. 

Scams & 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. Spam calls are projected to make up nearly 50 percent of all mobile traffic in the U.S. in 2019. 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. In an announcement on Nov. 8, T-Mobile declared itself fully prepared to implement these standards. Additionally, the carrier’s Scam ID and Scam Block features have already blocked over a billion scam calls for its customers. 

Big Four to Big Three?

In April 2018, wireless carriers Sprint and T-Mobile announced plans to merge under the name T-Mobile. The FCC put a pause on the plan’s 180-day transaction clock in mid-September to allow for more time to review recently submitted materials, including an engineering model, business model and additional economic modeling. Essentially, the FCC is waiting on the companies to turn in their homework before deciding whether to let the merger continue.

Fewer mobile carrier options equals less competition. When we spoke with Allan Samson of Sprint earlier this year, he told us, “Being a smart shopper, I think it’s a great time. The industry is competitive, and that’s good for consumers.” Sprint and T-Mobile are the smaller of the Big Four carriers and have competed directly with each other. Sprint offers lower-cost plans, and T-Mobile has its industry-disrupting un-carrier moves, like nixing the two-year contract. Combining the two companies into one major player may very well improve the overall network and quality of service, but it could also eliminate cheap cell service and stagnate the industry. The American Antitrust Institute believes the proposed merger goes against the public interest, as does Peter Adderton, the founder and former CEO of Boost Mobile (now owned by Sprint).

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, due in the first half of 2019, 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 really starting in 2019, we can expect to see more developments over the next few years.

Google Fi

As of 28 November 2018, Google’s Project Fi was renamed Google Fi. The rebranding comes with changes beyond the moniker, including support for most Android devices and beta support for iPhones with the help of the Google Fi iOS app. This is a huge leap from the small handful of Fi-supported phones available earlier this year, something that factored heavily in our decision to leave it off our side-by-side comparison.

Launched in 2015, Google Fi is an MVNO with a single plan option that has a simple design. Unlimited calls and texts cost $20 per month, and each gigabyte of data costs $10 up to 6GB, with free data after that. Fi’s Bill Protection prevents an individual from paying more than $60 per month for data, with different thresholds when you have multiple lines on your plan. For example, a two-line plan’s threshold is 10GB or $100, and a four-line plan’s threshold is 14GB or $140 max per month. Google’s deprioritization threshold is just 15GB, which is lower than several other options we reviewed, but it does offer the option of paying for more high-speed data if you go over the set amount. Excess high-speed data costs $10 per GB. According to Google Fi’s FAQs, less than 1 percent of customers use enough data to even worry about the extra charge. Though, as a cornerstone of the service is using Wi-Fi networks for everything, there is also backup data available from T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular’s networks.