If you've ever seen a commercial for wireless service then you know that the rivalries between the major cell phone providers are fierce.
Being constantly badgered by cellphone advertisements only achieves one thing: confusion. With all of the competition, it can be tough to decide on the best choice for your mobile service needs.
What you may not know is that if you're weighing the pros and cons of AT&T vs. Sprint there are plenty of cheap cell phone plans available on both of these networks.
In this guide, I'm going to clarify each network's strengths and tell you how to get the best deal on your talk, text, and data.
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How to Switch to a Big Network without Paying Big Prices
Believe it or not, there's a way to stay on the same great network you love without paying premium prices. By going with a smaller, alternative carrier you can enjoy the coverage you need at lower rates.
These carriers are called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs. You might know a few of them, like Tello, Textnow, US Mobile, etc. MVNOs lease usage of the big four networks' towers and resell it to you at a discount.
Benefits of using an MVNO:
- No contracts or early termination fees.
- Bring your own device and phone number.
- Lower prices.
- Customizable plans that let you pay only for what you need.
- Simple to switch by ordering a SIM card online.
- Solid customer support, often available seven days a week.
MVNOs bring a whole new level of choice to the cellular service game - with the consumer coming out the big winner.
Sprint vs. AT&T Plan Comparison
Now that you know you don't have to pay brand-name prices for brand-name service you're probably wondering how much you will pay and what you'll get for your money.
Here's a look at some of the best cell phone plans on the AT&T and Sprint networks. Whether you need a single line, multiple lines, unlimited calling, or unlimited LTE data, there's a carrier and plan for you.
Best Unlimited Data Plan - Textnow (Sprint Network)
Want unlimited data? Textnow currently offers the best deal on the market:
The important thing to keep in mind here is that the average smartphone owner uses less than 4 GB of data per month. Use our handy data usage calculator to check the amount of data you actually need. You can likely save money by going with a smaller plan.
Best Cheap Cell Phone Plan - Tello (Sprint Network)
Don't use a lot of data? Then, this Tello plan offers great value:
Best Family Phone Plan - Textnow (Sprint Network)
Want to put all your family on one plan? Textnow offers discounts for multiple lines:
Best Prepaid Phone Plan - Textnow (Sprint Network)
Don't want to commit yourself? Textnow offers great value no contract plans:
Even if a plan says it offers unlimited data, most providers throttle your data speed if you exceed a set amount of high-speed data per month (typically around 22 GB).
Network Coverage Comparison
You want reliable service that keeps you talking, texting, and streaming music. How do you make sure you get just that?
There are a few things to consider when you look at a wireless network coverage map:
- Percentage of 4G LTE coverage vs. 3G speeds
- Where you spend the most time
- Areas to which you travel frequently
When a wireless carrier says they cover a certain percentage of the U.S., keep in mind that what that number actually refers to is the percent of populated areas which they serve. It doesn't include extremely remote areas with low or no human population.
The AT&T network maintains a close second to Verizon in coverage, speed, and reliability. The carrier earned the top spot for text reliability in the 2017 mobile performance assessment by RootMetrics.
OpenSignal, which uses crowd-sourced data in its State of the Mobile Network report, found that users on the AT&T network get a 4G LTE signal about 87% of the time. Although this puts them in third place among the big four networks it's important to remember that there are only a few percentage points separating each carrier.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Middle/western Nebraska
- Middle/northern Montana
- Northern Arizona
- Southern/northwestern Nevada
- Southeastern/central western Utah
- Central western New Mexico
- Central Idaho
- Spotty areas throughout California
- Spotty areas throughout Oregon and Washington
- Spotty areas in Maine
For the most part, these areas are minor and largely unpopulated. Still, it's important to examine the areas where you'll need to use your cellphone on a regular basis.
There's no way around it - Sprint trails AT&T in virtually every aspect of cell coverage. That doesn't mean the Sprint network is wrong for you, however. All four of the major carriers are very close in quality and coverage, meaning the Sprint network is still a very competitive choice.
RootMetrics gives Sprint an overall rating of 87.9 compared to AT&T at 92.9. Sprint users experience a 4G LTE connection 85.7% of the time, less than two percent below AT&T's 87%.
Weak/No Coverage Areas:
- Large portions of the Midwest and West, from the Dakotas to Nevada
- Non-metropolitan areas of California
- Widespread spotty areas throughout the middle South and New England
Sprint's strong point is its strong LTE network in large metropolitan areas. The network excels in highly populated locales, with less reliable wireless coverage throughout the Great Plains and western states.
Related: Who Has the Best Cell Phone Coverage?
So - alternative carriers have competitive coverage and great prices. But how do they compare to Sprint and AT&T in the customer care arena?
The verdict is in - smaller carriers are stomping the big four in terms of customer satisfaction. In fact, the top three spots in the Consumer Reports 2017 Cell-Phone Service Survey went to Consumer Cellular, Project Fi, and Ting.
This annual report from CS measures how happy consumers are with a cell phone company's customer support, reliability, and overall customer satisfaction. Many alternative carriers offer more personalized service at lower rates.
How to Save on Your Next Smartphone
The best way to save money on a smartphone is to keep your existing device or buy a used phone. Some alternative carriers sell devices, but your current phone probably has a lot more life in it than you think. If you really want or need to upgrade, you'll get much better value from a refurbished device.
COMPARE PRICES: Save up to 50% on nearly new devices by using our comparison tool to get the best deal on a refurbished phone.
How Much Can You Save?
Let's look at the cost of a new iPhone 8 vs a refurbished iPhone 7:
- New iPhone 8 through a carrier: $700
- Refurbished iPhone 7 with 32-month warranty through Decluttr: $365
In addition, you can sell your old phone for more than your carrier will give you on trade-in and have even more money to put toward another.
Here are a couple of last-minute tips before you make the switch:
- If you're bringing your own phone with you, make sure it's unlocked. Check out our guide on how to unlock your phone.
- Shop around for the best fit - do you need calling to Canada and Mexico? Is HD video streaming important to you? Make sure the carrier you choose offers the add-ons you need.
- Remember to check device compatibility on the carrier website.
- You can typically save more by signing up for auto pay.
Due to the influx of alternative carrier plans in the mobile marketplace, you are no longer restricted to choosing among four (expensive!) cell providers.
With MVNOs providing service on the most reliable networks in the United States, there's no reason not to take advantage of the incredible savings they offer on plan costs.
Finally, we make finding the right plan easy. Compare cheap cell phone plans side-by-side.