For most people, picking a wireless carrier comes down to one simple question: Who provides the best coverage in my area? That's certainly a key consideration for choosing your cell phone service provider — but it's not the only thing to think about. When it comes to picking the best wireless carrier, the cost of cell phone plans and the quality of customer service are some of the other factors you should consider along with network performance.
Overall, T-Mobile topped our rankings of nine wireless carriers. The Uncarrier distinguishes itself with attractive plans, solid customer service and appealing bonuses like a generous approach to rollover data and extensive international coverage. Add in a strong second-place showing in our nationwide 4G tests, and T-Mobile came out as the best cell phone service provider.
Verizon finished just behind T-Mobile on the strength of Big Red's extensive LTE network, which offered the best overall performance in our tests. AT&T finished third, thanks in part to its first-place finish in customer service.
Besides grading the big-four carriers — AT&T and Sprint in addition to T-Mobile and Verizon — we also evaluated five major discount carriers. Even the worst-performing major carrier is ultimately a better choice than a discount carrier, thanks to more flexible plans, better phone selection and more extensive customer service. However, if prepaid options appeal to you, the choice for best prepaid carrier comes down to MetroPCS and Boost Mobile. The former has the best-performing network of any discount carrier, even topping Sprint in our tests. The latter offers better customer service on top of a wider selection of phones.
How We Tested (100-Point Scale)
In evaluating the best cell phone carrier, we took five factors into account, giving greater weight to the categories we consider the most important.
Performance (50 Points): While many factors go into deciding which cell phone provider is best, performance remains the key consideration. That's why network performance, measured by speed, makes up more than half of our grade for wireless carriers.
We based our rankings on our nationwide 4G tests, in which we traveled to six cities across the country to see how the carrier performed. We measured download and upload speeds at select locations in each city, using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, and we also timed how fast we could download an app on each carrier's network.
Verizon won our performance tests conducted in 2015, with the best overall speeds. T-Mobile finished a close second, with AT&T and MetroPCS rounding out the top four. We're currently in the process of testing cities and we'll update the results as soon as this year's round of testing is complete.
Plans (20 Points): We looked at the plans offered by each carrier, to see which one offered the most data at the lowest prices. We evaluated plans for individuals and families as well as prepaid options, rewarding carriers who offered the best mix of value and variety. Our picks for best plans are based on what the carriers are offering as of the end of September 2016.
Top carrier plans depend on the kind of offering you're shopping for, but T-Mobile took top honors for best unlimited data plan, best family plan and best offerings for international travel. AT&T is the top choice for individual postpaid plans. MetroPCS and Cricket split honors among prepaid carriers.
Customer Service (15 Points): When you have a question about your wireless plan or your device, you don't want to have to navigate through a convoluted phone tree or search fruitlessly on a cluttered website to get an answer. We went undercover to evaluate the customer service offered by each carrier.
In addition to phone calls to each carrier, we evaluated online troubleshooting resources, such as FAQs and online chat features. We also took to social networks, posing questions to carriers over Facebook and Twitter to see how fast and accurately they responded.
AT&T topped our customer service rankings, with Sprint and Verizon finishing just behind. Those rankings reflect undercover testing conducted in 2015; we're wrapping updated tests right now and will update this story with the new scores soon.
Phone Selection (10 Points): A top carrier needs to offer a wide selection of phones, balancing both quality and quantity. To evaluate the former, we took some of the devices that make up our picks for best smartphones and added some other popular models to come up with a list of a dozen essential smartphones. We also took into account how many phones each carrier offered, giving weight to more recent releases. Finally, we looked at whether a carrier gives customers the option of bringing their own phone and what kind of unlocked phones each carrier supports.
Extras (5 Percent): The final 5 percent of each carriers' grade was determined by what kind of extras they offered subscribers. Extras can include everything from rates for international calls, text and data, to special services offered to subscribers. You may not pick your wireless carrier based on these perks, but they are factors that can separate a good carrier from the rest of the pack.
T-Mobile (91/100): 1st Place
The Uncarrier's many moves to upend the cell phone industry have done more than just grab headlines; they also vaulted T-Mobile to the top of our wireless-carrier rankings. T-Mobile's aggressively priced unlimited data plan is particularly appealing to families, and the carrier augments its service with consumer-friendly features like weekly giveaways and attractive international pricing for travelers.
T-Mobile didn't top our network performance tests, but it finished second to Verizon, making it a great choice in cities where customers can best enjoy its mix of performance, price and customer service. (T-Mobile's network has not traditionally fared as well outside of cities, but it is making progress with extended range LTE.) T-Mobile CEO John Legere likes to accuse other carriers of following his company's lead. Based on our evaluation, that would be a wise strategy.
Verizon (89/100): 2nd Place
Verizon can boast of an extensive network, covering plenty of markets. And our tests suggest that you can expect plenty of performance should you sign on with Big Red, as Verizon topped our testing of 4G network performance.
But it would be a mistake just to think that network reach and performance are all that Verizon has to offer. The carrier fared well in our customer-service rankings, largely on the strength of its online and phone support. Verizon has beefed up the amount of data you get with its monthly plans, with its newly unveiled 4GB, $70 monthly plan looking particularly attractive for individuals. Verizon also tacks on 2GB of data per line for plans of 8GB and larger.
3rd Place: AT&T (85/100)
AT&T offers the best customer service and phone selection of any carrier we evaluated. Throw in its solid performance in our network tests — AT&T finished third there — and you've got a solid alternative for your wireless needs. AT&T has also worked to improve its cell phone plans, eliminating overage fees and charging just a single device access fee, instead of varying it by how much data you use.
4th Place: Sprint (77/100)
Sprint is working hard to improve its status among the major carriers, and we saw some evidence of that, both in terms of its second-place finish in our customer-service tests and its aggressively priced unlimited data plan for individuals and families. But Sprint's network continues to be its undoing: It even finished behind discount carrier MetroPCS in our speed tests, making it hard to recommend Sprint when better options are available.
5th Place (Tie): MetroPCS (69/100)
MetroPCS's strong showing in our network-carrier tests — it was the fastest discount carrier and its download and upload speeds even topped Sprint's — makes it a top choice among prepaid carriers. We also like the range of plans MetroPCS offers subscribers, from a $30 1GB plan for people who don't need a lot of data to a $60 unlimited plan. But poor customer service — MetroPCS finished last in our tests — coupled with the limited number of phones and features you typically get from a discount carrier, failed to push MetroPCS past its closest rival, Boost.
5th Place (Tie): Boost Mobile (69/100)
Boost Mobile's performance is hampered by the fact that it relies on the network of parent company Sprint. But there are other positives to this network. The carrier has the best selection of phones among prepaid providers and strong customer service. It's also shifted to unlimited data plans, though it place limits on video, music and gaming streaming. Still, Boost's strengths were enough to make it tie with MetroPCS as the best choice for prepaid carrier, despite the latter's vastly superior network performance.
7th Place: Virgin Mobile (61/100)
Like Boost, Virgin Mobile is held back by its reliance on Sprint's mediocre network. Unlike Boost, Virgin can't count on other aspects to bolster its profile. Virgin has a limited section of plans, especially compared to other prepaid carriers, though it recently lowered rates while boosting the amount of LTE data in its plans. It offers the worst selection of phones among all the carriers we evaluated; and there's no way to bring your own device. Only decent customer support helps keep Virgin out of the very bottom of our rankings.
8th Place: Straight Talk (57/100)
Straight Talk offers a wide selection of discount phones and lets you bring your own device if you prefer. But it has the least attractively priced plans of the prepaid carriers we evaluated, with only its $60-a-month 5GB plan appealing to people who make a lot of calls to Canada, China, India and Mexico. Despite the fact that it can tap into the networks of multiple carriers, it had the second-worst performance in our carrier tests.
9th Place: Cricket Wireless (55/100)
It's all about the network performance: Cricket not only delivered the worst speeds of any carrier we tested, it was also well off the pace of its parent network AT&T. It's a shame, because the prepaid carrier has a stellar offer for families, with escalating discounts on multiple lines, and solid customer service. But Cricket's network speed is just too slow to recommend it as a wireless provider.