When you compare cell phone carriers, you normally think of the cell phone plans of the four major carriers - Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.
However, there are plenty of smaller cell phone carriers - known as mobile network virtual operators (MVNOs) - like Straight Talk, Boost Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. Because there are so many wireless providers out there, it may be a bit difficult to select the perfect one for you.
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This is why this guide exists. Not only will we compare cell phone carriers but you'll find out whether big phone carriers or small phone carriers are right for you.
Inside this guide, you'll find the pros and cons of both big and small cell phone carriers, what types of users may gravitate toward either type of carrier, and tips on switching carriers. Finally, you'll be directed to our cell phone savings calculator, so you can see how much you'll save by switching carriers.
Table of Contents
Why Choose a Major Cell Phone Carrier?
Both large and small cell phone providers have their own set of pros and cons. Let's first take a look at the pros of the major carriers.
- Prioritization: Customers on the major networks may (or may not) receive higher priority compared to MVNOs. For instance, those on AT&T's service will experience speeds of more than 20Mbps, depending on the area, but those using Cricket Wireless' service will only have speeds up to 8Mbps.
- Phone Selection: You can choose between a large number of phones with any of the big four carriers. At the time of this writing, Verizon Wireless offers 32 postpaid smartphones, 31 prepaid phones, and three basic phones. All four carriers feature the Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPhone series.
- Varied Cell Phone Plan Selection - Depending on the cell phone provider, you may be able to take advantage of the numerous no-contract plans the major carrier may offer. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have downsized their plan offerings (AT&T still offers mobile share flex plans) in favor of simplicity, especially since all four providers now offer unlimited plans. Furthermore, the family plans have been integrated into the typical postpaid and prepay plans.
- Beneficial Features: All four carriers now offer a variety of enticing features. If you opt for any of the available no-contract plans you won't face any overage charges. Not only that, but depending on the service, you'll receive international long-distance calling, no activation fees, a mobile hotspot, and more.
Related: Are you overpaying on your cell phone bill? We'll show you how to cut your cell phone bill by up to 50%!
- Hefty Pricing: The available plans from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint can be expensive. For instance, the unlimited T-Mobile plan, dubbed T-Mobile ONE, starts at $70. That same T-Mobile plan can increase in price due to international and HD add-ons. There are MVNOs out there that charge much less per month.
- Customer Service - Unfortunately, while the four major networks are constantly improving, there are still issues with customer service.
Let's take a look at the customer satisfaction index for the big four companies during 2017:
- T-Mobile: 73
- Sprint: 73
- Verizon Wireless: 74
- AT&T: 72
There are MVNOs that feature higher customer satisfaction compared to the big four providers. But more about that in a bit.
- Early Termination Fees - While early termination fees are more of a thing of the past - as they require contracts and all four carriers have ditched the contract - there are still customers who are bound by a two-year contract. This means early termination fees if you decide to cancel. Fortunately, carriers have been offering to buy out your contract if you join any of said carriers.
Why Choose a Small Carrier?
Of course, there are pros and cons to the MVNOs as well:
- Cheaper Pricing: Small carriers are typically much cheaper compared to the major carriers. Take, for example, Republic Wireless' basic plan. For unlimited talk and text, you'll only pay $15. This is far cheaper compared to the $30 basic phone plan from Verizon Wireless. And let's not forget about the unlimited plans. Boost Mobile, for instance, offers unlimited plans that are cheaper even when compared to Sprint's Unlimited Freedom Plan.
- More Coverage: A small carrier can utilize all four networks (though this doesn't apply to all MVNOs). This means maximum LTE network coverage for you.
- Better Customer Satisfaction: There are several MVNOs that feature better customer satisfaction compared to the major carriers. For instance, Tracfone Wireless scored a 77, 3 points higher than the highest scoring provider (Verizon). Consumer Cellular, Ting, and Project Fi are other examples that have earned high customer satisfaction scores, as these companies offer low prices and responsive customer support. Furthermore, the customers of smaller providers reported receiving far fewer telemarketer calls compared to the customers belonging to the big four networks.
- Demographically Focused: Well, some MVNOs are demographically focused. For instance, Great Call and Consumer Cellular are focused on senior citizens. Some MVNOs are for those seeking flexibility while others are perfect for the student budget.
- Flexible Plans: The good news is that there is an MVNO for everyone out there. Some MVNOs, like US Mobile, offer fully customizable plans. These MVNOs can be enticing for many customers. Others, like Boost Mobile, offer a severely limited plan selection. However, there are so many MVNOs out in the wild, each with a variety of plans, that flexibility is of no concern. Do note that each MVNO has their own set of features and limitations. One MVNO could charge activation fees and commit to overage charges. Another may offer monthly installments - depending on credit approval - for their phones and charge you for mobile hotspot access.
- Poor Phone Selection: Unfortunately, a lot of MVNOs do not have the best phone selection. For example, Google's Project Fi only offers three devices. However, there are plenty of MVNOs out there that feature bring your own phone programs and you'll be able to - depending on the carrier - take advantage of a free SIM card.
- Deprioritization - Okay, so this isn't the case with many MVNOs. Some, however, will be deprioritized compared to the big four networks. As I've stated earlier, Cricket Wireless cannot utilize the maximum speeds its host network, AT&T, offers. And that's just one example.
Related: There are different types of SIM cards offered. Different phones require different SIM cards. You can learn more by reading our guide here.
Who Would Adopt a Big Carrier?
Consumers with Phones
That's right, consumers with their own phones can bring them to a big carrier. All four major carriers now offer a bring your own phone service, meaning that you can save on your phone bill while taking advantage of any of the big four's services and coverage maps.
There are plenty of people who are absolutely loyal to their phone company. In fact, they will refuse to budge, especially if they have been with the company for a long while (e.g. five years or more). If the service and coverage map are reliable and the provider hasn't (completely) ripped you off, then why switch?
Consumers Who Want a Specific Phone Model
Those who want a specific phone model, i.e. the Google Pixel, can have an easier time searching for the latest smartphones with any of the big four carriers. With small carriers, like Straight Talk, the smartphone selection may be either extensive or severely limited.
It's simply easier to browse for the latest and more specific smartphones on the big four sites, as the phones may or may not be available with MVNOs.
What if I Want to Switch?
If you find yourself more interested in small carriers - or large carriers, depending on who you're with - you may want to consider switching providers. Fortunately, there are ways to switch, but you'll have to look into the specific carrier policies. Nevertheless, here are some tips on switching carriers:
Look into buyout policies
All of the major carriers will buy out your contract or pay for your phone and early termination fees. However, the payment will only be completed after you switch. Furthermore, only certain MVNOs will pay your early termination fees, and they might not be able to give you as much credit back as one of the major carriers.
You can keep your cell phone number when you switch
This is a tip to keep in mind when you switch cellular providers. Many prepay carriers and all of the big four carriers will allow you to port your phone number to their service.
Do your research before you switch.
Of course, make sure to take the time to research plans, services, and coverage maps, so that you can choose the carrier that will best suit you. Don't let your frustrations and other emotions get in the way of choosing a plan.
Learn More: Check out our article where we dispel the reasons why so many people are scared to switch.
See if your device is compatible with the service.
You should definitely check to see if your device is compatible with the service if you plan on bringing your phone to said service.
If you're still unsure as to whether or not you'd like to switch carriers, you should at least find out how much you could save via switching with our cell phone savings calculator. You might be surprised as how much you could potentially save.
There are advantages and disadvantages that both small and big carriers offer. While big carriers typically offer a better phone selection and more features, small carriers are often easier on the consumer's wallet. Hopefully, you'll be able to decide which carrier is best for you with this guide.