You may not know this: There are well over 100 different cell phone carriers in the United States.
Aside from the big four - AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless - the vast majority are smaller carriers. You might not know that because the major cell phone carriers you're familiar with have the size and the clout to, well, make their voices heard.
While it can be challenging to sort out all the options, the good news is that you have plenty of choices if you plan on switching to a new carrier.
In this guide, we rank and evaluate our top picks for the best cell phone carriers based on coverage, plans, and overall value.
Read on to find the best cell phone carrier for your budget and needs!
The Best Cell Phone Coverage
Verizon Wireless Coverage
Verizon has long enjoyed a reputation for being the most reliable wireless network available. Mobile performance analyst RootMetrics agrees, rating Big Red first in reliability, speed, and overall service quality.
As far as Verizon Wireless coverage, however, OpenSignal reports that T-Mobile has edged Verizon out in terms of availability. The gap is tiny though, with T-Mobile customers receiving a 4G signal 93.14% of the time and Verizon customers sitting at 92.72% 4G availability.
In terms of AT&T coverage, the carrier comes in third among the big four networks. Customers have a 4G LTE signal about 87% of the time, putting AT&T just ahead of Sprint coverage. AT&T's main coverage struggle is in rural areas.
As far as speed, reliability, text and call quality, and overall performance, RootMetrics puts AT&T in second place in every category it measures.
Sprint has battled for years to lift itself out of last place, not only in terms of coverage but reliability and speed as well.
Sprint coverage gives you a 4G signal 85.66% of the time. Even though Sprint customers enjoy a fairly high percentage of 4G availability, the network labors under its lack of widespread 4G LTE service.
In fact, in September 2018 Sprint made a drastic move by publicizing graphics of its LTE coverage overlaid onto the other three major carriers' LTE maps. The results were abysmal, to say the least. Still, if you live in an area with strong Sprint coverage and don't travel throughout the US very much, using this carrier's network should be fine.
As I mentioned earlier, T-Mobile has made great strides and by some measurements has overtaken long-time leader Verizon in terms of coverage and speed. This is all thanks to several technology upgrades the network continues to invest in.
T-Mobile boasts over 93% consistency with its 4G signal, and covers more than 99% of the US population. T-Mobile download speeds are no joke either, with OpenSignal reporting averages of more than 19.4 Mbps, a hefty advantage over Verizon's 17.8 Mbps.
The Best MVNOs
MVNOs - Mobile Virtual Network Operators - rent tower usage from the major carriers in order to provide you with the same LTE coverage, but at a lower premium.
For example, Metro by T-Mobile (formerly known as MetroPCS) is a T-Mobile MVNO. This means that if you're on MetroPCS, your phone runs on the T-Mobile network. Consumer Cellular is another T-Mobile MVNO, however, Consumer Cellular utilizes a combination approach, using the AT&T network as well to enhance carrier coverage. Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are both solely on the Sprint network.
Benefits of MVNOs:
There are multiple reasons to go with these alternative wireless carriers:
- Service on the same reliable network you're used to
- Cheaper by 50% or more
- Custom plans so you don't overpay for features you don't need
- No contracts or overage charges
- Easy to bring your own phone and keep your phone number
- Great customer service ratings
- Simple to switch by ordering a SIM card online
Now let's look at the best cell phone carriers available on each of the four major networks.
The Best Verizon MVNOs
Switch to Verizon Wireless with one of these carriers and save over half off your wireless bill.
- Plans from Wi-Fi only up to 10 GB of high-speed data
- Unlimited global texting included with all plans
- Introductory discounts
- Mobile hotspot usage permitted
COMPARE NOW: Twigby plans
- Free calling to over 70 countries
- Extremely flexible custom plans
- Unlimited data plans in three speed options
COMPARE NOW: US Mobile plans
The Best AT&T MVNOs
These are our favorite MVNOs if you want to switch to AT&T.
- Several affordable plans, up to 12 GB of high-speed data
- Unlimited talk and text on 1 GB plans and above
- Free international calling to over 70 countries
COMPARE NOW: Red Pocket Mobile plans
- Great value for moderate data users
- Discounts for AARP members
- Unlimited texting with all data plans
COMPARE NOW: Consumer Cellular plans
The Best Sprint MVNOs
Ready to make the switch to Sprint? These providers will save you a bundle.
- Unique system that switches between Wi-Fi and cellular network to save data
- Affordable unlimited data plan available
- Cheap international calling to over 230 countries
COMPARE NOW: TextNow plans
- Super flexible custom plan options
- Up to 10 GB of high-speed data
- Unlimited text messaging with all plans
COMPARE NOW: Tello plans
The Best T-Mobile MVNOs
These carriers offer amazing value if you want to switch to the T-Mobile network.
Mint Mobile (formerly Mint SIM)
- Huge savings by buying service in bulk - 3, 6, or 12 months at a time
- Free unlimited texting with all plans
- Affordable international roaming available
COMPARE NOW: Mint Mobile plans
- Great value for medium to heavy data users
- Unlimited data plan available
- Unlimited calling to 75+ countries
- Mobile hotspot usage permitted
COMPARE NOW: Ultra Mobile plans
The Best Cell Phone Plans
As I said before, due to the massive number of wireless carriers out there, there are a lot of factors to consider.
Do you need a family plan with multiple lines? What about international calling? Then there are low data users like senior citizens. What's the best plan for them?
We've compiled a collection of the best cell phone plans from our favorite MVNOs. There's truly something to fit everyone's needs!
The Best Family Cell Phone Plan: Mint Mobile
Even though it doesn't technically sell "family plans", we still love Mint for the whole family for several reasons:
- You can customize the amount of data for each line.
- It's insanely cheap for the amount of high-speed data you get.
- You can add more data to a line any time you want.
- The data isn't shared - if your teenager rips through all theirs, you don't suffer for it.
- The T-Mobile network is reliable and fast.
The Best Unlimited Data Plan: TextNow
- They have very affordable international rates.
- You can use your phone number on your other devices, like your computer.
- You can watch ads or videos to earn credit toward your bill.
- TextNow uses a unique technology that allows you to get service via Wi-Fi if you're in a building or area with a weak cellular signal.
The Best Cell Phone Plan for Senior Citizens: Twigby
- You can choose basic service for devices like flip phones.
- Smartphone data is available in small increments, which means you don't pay for unnecessary data.
- Twigby offers an introductory discount for the first six months of service.
- Global texting is included with all plans.
The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plan: Tello
- Plans start at $5 a month.
- Choose between zero and 10 GB of high-speed data.
- Texting is free with all plans.
Related: Not sure how much data you actually need? Find out with our handy data usage calculator.
So, who is the best cell phone carrier in your opinion? Leave me a reply in the comments regarding your experiences with any service mentioned in this article.
I hope you feel you have enough information to go out and make a purchase. If not, feel free to ask additional questions.
Regardless of whether your priority is top-notch customer service, unlimited talk and text, or a cheap prepaid plan, you can look at every cell phone carrier and plan we've researched using our cell phone plan comparison tool.
Take a look at the cell phone coverage maps first to make sure you have service where you live.
Don't forget you can also save over half on your device when you buy a refurbished smartphone!