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Best phone carriers of 2021

best phone carrier
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The best phone carrier for your monthly cell phone service comes down to more than just picking the cheapest cell phone plan — though cost is certainly a big factor. Beyond price, phone carriers distinguish themselves with everything from customer service, network performance and other perks.

The landscape is shifting in other ways for phone carriers — and for people like us who make use of their wireless networks. For one thing, 5G networks continue to expand, impacting both the coverage networks provide as well as what kind of 5G service is included in the best cell phone plans. Just as significantly, you have one less carrier to choose from — Sprint was absorbed into T-Mobile last year.

So it pays to look at the big picture when trying to find the best phone carrier, especially with a lot of new phones now on the market. Whether you're picking up one of the best phones like the Galaxy S21 models or you're upgrading to an iPhone 12, a close look at the top phone carriers can help you find great service to go with your new handset.

It's a battle between T-Mobile and Verizon for the title of best phone carrier, with the Uncarrier just edging out Big Red. If you're willing to look beyond the major wireless providers though, you can find good value from smaller operators like Mint Mobile and Visible.

Today's top three best value phone carriers

1. Mint Mobile - Best carrier on a budget
Mint Mobile is a great carrier to choose if you're after an affordable phone plan. While Mint plans include only four options, these span from 4GB through to unlimited data, all offering some of the cheapest prices in the US right now. However, with prices this low, Mint is light on added features, and to get the price, you need to commit to a year of service.View Deal

2. Visible - Best value carrier for unlimited data and families
Visible offers just one plan, but it's unlimited data for just $40 a month, second only to Mint Mobile in price. Visible's pricing gets better thanks to its 'Party Pay' scheme. This is a set-up where you can join a party with your friends to get a major discount, with monthly prices as low as $25 per line. And your service comes through Verizon's top-ranked network.View Deal

3. Verizon - Best value carrier if you can spend a bit more
On the opposite end of the spectrum to the above deals, Verizon is one of the priciest networks around. But its plans are feature packed, and its coverage is extensive and fast. 5G remains a work in progress, but Verizon is looking to increase the speed of its nationwide 5G network by year's end.View Deal

The best phone carriers overall

best phone carrier: T-Mobile

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

1. T-Mobile

The best phone carrier overall

Best Unlimited Plan: $70/month Magenta plan | Best Tiered Data Plan: N/A | Best Prepaid Plan: $15/month 2.5GB plan | 5G Coverage: 287 million people (nationwide) | Parent Network: T-Mobile

Attractive unlimited plans
Low-cost tiered data plans
Excellent perks for subscribers
2GB, 5GB prepaid plans have a hard cap on data

When it comes to the best mix of data plans, coverage and perks, T-Mobile is a tough phone carrier to beat. The Uncarrier has spent years upending the wireless business, forcing its rivals to follow suit on generously priced unlimited data plans and aggressive promotions. But T-Mobile always seems to be one step ahead of the competition.

T-Mobile offers the best unlimited data plan in the business, with its $70 Magenta plan that bakes taxes and fees into the cost of the plan and also lets you use your data when you're overseas (albeit at slower speeds). Hearty discounts as you add lines also make Magenta the best family cell phone plan. And if you don't need all that data, T-Mobile's 2.5GB and 5.5GB prepaid plans are among the cheapest you'll find. T-Mobile is upgrading all of its monthly plans to include 5G coverage.

In our LTE network testing, we found T-Mobile's LTE download speeds were fast, even if Verizon and AT&T both finished ahead of the Uncarrier the last time we tested. Meanwhile, third-party testing firm OpenSignal says that T-Mobile has the fastest 5G speeds for both downloads and uploads as well as the most 5G availability. T-Mobile's 5G service now reaches more than 287 million people, with the company increasing speeds by incorporating Sprint's 5G spectrum into its network.

What really sets T-Mobile apart is the perks it extends to customers. Currently, you can trade in any phone to T-Mobile and receive a free Galaxy A32 5G in return. (You will have to commit to two years of service, as T-Mobile spreads out those bill credits for the phone over 24 months.)  Weekly T-Mobile Tuesday giveaways include prizes and benefits while T-Mobile's Team of Experts program also provides excellent customer service to subscribers.

best phone carrier: Verizon

(Image credit: Verizon)

2. Verizon

A good alternative to T-Mobile

Best Unlimited Plan: $80/month Play More plan | Best Tiered Data Plan: $55/month 5GB plan | Best Prepaid Plan: $45/month 15GB plan | 5G Coverage: 230 million people (nationwide); 71 cities (mmWave) | Parent Network: Verizon

Network has extensive reach
Fast 5G speeds thanks to mmWave
Excellent prepaid plans
Best unlimited plans are pricey
Fastest 5G speeds limited to select areas

Verizon's plans may be pricier than the competition. But there's plenty to like about the nation's biggest wireless carrier, starting with the reach and performance of its network. When we've tested LTE speeds, Verizon has come out on top, with third-party testing firm RootMetrics has placed Verizon in its top slot for 15 consecutive semiannual reports, including for the second half of 2020. 

Big Red's mmWave-based Ultra Wideband 5G reaches more than 70 cities and can routinely deliver 1 Gbps download speeds. More extensive coverage reaches 230 million people, though that flavor of 5G isn't nearly as fast as Ultra Wideband. Verizon's purchase of C-band spectrum figures to increase the reach of its speedier 5G toward the end of this year.

You'll find cheaper and easier-to-decipher unlimited data plans at T-Mobile, but if you're willing to dig through Verizon's four different plans, you'll find some interesting perks. Verizon's Do More plan, which costs $80 a month for one line (and $180 for four) includes 600GB of cloud storage and a 50GB ceiling before Verizon will throttle your speeds. Play More, which costs the same, includes access to a bundle of Disney streaming services (Disney Plus, ad-supported Hulu and ESPN Plus) along with a year of Discovery Plus as part of your wireless plan.

Verizon's prepaid plans are especially attractive, now that the carrier has increased the amount of data you get. There's a 15GB plan that costs $45 a month after a $5 autopay discount, and loyalty rewards lower the price even further. After three months of service, the rate falls to $40, and nine more months takes the cost down to $35. All Prepaid plans get 5G service, too, though Ultra Wideband coverage is reserved for unlimited subscribers.

Verizon has fared well when we've tested customer service for phone carriers, and it continues to offer an extensive selection of phones, including exclusives. (You'll find the 5G-capable Motorola Edge Plus and the super cheap TCL 10 5G UW only on Verizon, for example.) On the downside, some of the 5G phones Verizon offers cost more than models at other carriers, as they're tailored to work with Verizon's mmWave towers. If you don't mind paying a little more on your monthly bill, Verizon provides the performance and service that justifies the extra cost.

best phone carrier: AT&T

(Image credit: AT&T)

3. AT&T

Third place among the major carriers

Best Unlimited Plan: $85/month Unlimited Elite | Best Tiered Data Plan: $50/month 4GB | Best Prepaid Plan: $50/month 8GB plan | 5G Coverage: 230 million people (nationwide) | Parent Network: AT&T

Extensive network
Growing 5G coverage
Best unlimited plan is expensive
"5GE" is actually LTE coverage

AT&T finds itself in an awkward position among the remaining major carriers. AT&T's monthly rates and promotions can't match what T-Mobile offers, and Verizon still has the larger network. That leaves AT&T in third place in our best phone carrier rankings, but there are some bright spots for the carrier.

For one, when we last tested network performance, AT&T finished second for LTE download speeds. Other tests from third-party firms paint a rosier picture, with RootMetrics giving AT&T top marks for 5G. (Ookla ranks AT&T behind T-Mobile for 5G performance.) AT&T was the second carrier to turn on coast-to-coast 5G, though T-Mobile reaches more people and Verizon's network is about as far-reaching as AT&T's.

As for plans, AT&T's most appealing unlimited data option is its most expensive offering — an $85-a-month Unlimited Elite plan that includes the HBO Max streaming service and a huge 100GB cap before AT&T slows down data speeds. The cheaper unlimited tiers at AT&T don't compare as favorably to T-Mobile and Verizon plans, though all AT&T unlimited plans now include 5G coverage at no extra cost. AT&T has also started letting families mix and match unlimited plans, so that each line can feature a different tier of unlimited data.

AT&T's prepaid options provide a lot of data, too, especially after AT&T retooled a couple of its plans. The best option now gives you a sizable chunk of data — 15GB — for $40 a month, but the more attractively priced $30 prepaid plan still provides a generous 5GB of data.

best phone carrier: Visible

(Image credit: Visible)

4. Visible

A cheaper way to get unlimited data

Best Unlimited Plan: $40/month **Best Tiered Data Plan:** N/A | Best Prepaid Plan: N/A | 5G Coverage: 230 million people (nationwide); 71 cities (mmWave) | Parent Network: Verizon

Unlimited data for $40
Discounts on multiple lines
Services uses Verizon's network
Speeds can be slowed if network's congested
5G coverage limited to iPhones

Variety is not the spice of life when it comes to Visible's service options, as the discount carrier offers only one service plan. But it's a really good option — you get unlimited data for $40 a month over Verizon's LTE network, which has been the top performer in our testing.

Visible used to place a cap on data speeds when the carrier debuted, but that restriction has since been lifted. That means you can enjoy the full power of Verizon's network, with your speeds slowing only should the network get too congested. (That's standard operating procedure for networks like Visible that use another carrier's towers for their coverage, though.) 5G service is now available through Visible using Verizon's coverage, with iPhone 12, Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 and Blade X1 5G users able to access 5G at no extra cost.

Compared to the best cheap cell phone plans, Visible has the best option for families thanks to the generous discounts as you add lines to your plan. Two lines of unlimited data at Visible reduces the per-line cost to $35, while a family of four pays a total of $100 (or $25 per line) each month. Your Visible Party Plan isn't limited to people living at the same address — it can cover friends, distant relatives or roommates.

Visible got its start as an iPhone-only carrier, though it subsequently added Android phones to the mix, from flagships like the Galaxy S21 and Pixel 5 to budget offerings like the Pixel 4a. A new early upgrade program lets you switch to a new device after you've paid off 50% of your phone. You can also bring your own device at Visible.

best phone carrier: Mint Mobile

(Image credit: Mint Mobile)

5. Mint Mobile

Low rates if you pay upfront

Best Unlimited Plan: $30/month unlimited data plan | Best Tiered Data Plan: N/A | Best Prepaid Plan: $20/month 10GB plan | 5G Coverage: 287 million people (nationwide) | Parent Network: T-Mobile

Low monthly rates, especially for unlimited data
Uses T-Mobil's network
Low rates require a year's commitment
Minimal perks

Mint Mobile offers some of the lowest rates around, provided you're willing to pay for coverage up front. Pricing starts at $15 a month for 4GB of LTE data — that's better than even T-Mobile's Simple Connect plan. But that price is only available through the first three months of your service. To maintain that low rate, you've got to sign up for a year of coverage, limiting your flexibility to change carriers if you're not satisfied. (That approach also holds true for Mint's 10GB and 15GB plans as well as the carrier's $30-a-month unlimited data plan.)

Mint uses T-Mobile's network to provide coverage, so you should expect fast performance, particularly if you live in an urban area. Mint says you'll get 5G or 4G coverage depending on which signal is stronger — assuming you've got a 5G-compatible phone, of course.

Speaking of devices, Mint sells both iPhones and Android handsets, at a wide range of prices. You can also bring your current phone to Mint if you prefer.

best phone carrier: Metro by T-Mobile

(Image credit: Metro by T-Mobile)

6. Metro by T-Mobile

A good discount phone carrier

Best Unlimited Plan: $50/month Unlimited plan | Best Tiered Data Plan: N/A | Best Prepaid Plan: $40/month 10GB plan | 5G Coverage: 287 million people (nationwide) | Parent Network: T-Mobile

Good variety of plans
Uses T-Mobile's network
5G coverage with compatible phones
Few perks
Data speeds can be slowed if network is busy

Metro By T-Mobile — formerly MetroPCS — remains the best phone carrier if you don't want to spend a lot of money on your cell phone service. That said, Metro is facing stepped-up competition from big-name rivals and obscure discount carriers alike. Parent company T-Mobile stole some of Metro's thunder by offering a super-cheap $15/month cell phone plan, while Verizon has doubled the amount of data it packs into its prepaid packages.

Still, there's plenty to like about Metro, which benefits from using T-Mobile's cellular network for its coverage. Even though Metro traffic can slow down when T-Mobile's towers get congested, in our testing, that's been a rare occurrence. More importantly, Metro customers with 5G-capable phones can enjoy T-Mobile's 5G coverage, which now stretches coast to coast.

Verizon may offer more data to prepaid customers, but Metro's $40-a-month plan still includes a generous helping of 10GB of data, with streaming music from more than 40 services not counting against your cap. Metro's unlimited plans — $50 for the entry level plan and $60 for a plan that includes an Amazon Prime membership and more hotspot data — are pretty attractive, too. Metro customers also benefit from the Scam Shield service T-Mobile launched to reduce the amount of robocalls you're subject to.

Metro has a good selection of phones, with around a third of the handsets on sale costing less than $200. You can find additional savings if you port over a phone number when signing up for service with Metro.

best phone carrier: Google Fi

(Image credit: Google Fi)

7. Google Fi

The best phone carrier if you go with Pixel

Best Unlimited Plan: $70/month unlimited | Best Tiered Data Plan: $20/month for talk and text plus $10/GB | Best Prepaid Plan: N/A | 5G Coverage: 287 million people (nationwide) | Parent Network: T-Mobile, US Cellular

Only pay for the data you use
Use data and text overseas
Optimized for Google Pixels, select Moto phones
Cheaper unlimited data is available elsewhere

No longer restricted to just Google's own phones, the Google Fi wireless service now supports just about any kind of handset (including iPhones). But it's really the best option if you have a Google Pixel device or a fully compatible third-party phone like the latest Samsung Galaxy flagships, the Moto G Power or Moto G Stylus. Those phones seamlessly switch between the carriers that provide Google Fi's coverage — Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular — so you'll always have the best connection available. You give that up if you bring your own device to Google Fi.

Google Fi's pricing is pretty compelling if you don't use a lot of data. Google charges you $20 for unlimited talk and text and then just $10 for each gigabyte of data you use. But that's adjusted to the precise amount of data you consume — if you use 2.5GB, say, you'll pay $25 instead of Google rounding up to $30. You can opt for unlimited data if you prefer, but at $70 a month, Google's pricing matches what T-Mobile charges for the best unlimited data plan. There's a $60 unlimited data option at Google Fi, but it drops the ability to use your data overseas, a feature that makes Google Fi so appealing.

That feature lets you use your data and text when you're abroad in 200-plus countries. Data is also available at decent speeds overseas. It's available in Google Fi's $70 unlimited plan as well as its by-the-gig pricing, but not in the new $60 option.

Best phone carrier: Consumer Cellular

(Image credit: Consumer Cellular)

8. Consumer Cellular

The best phone carrier for seniors

Best Unlimited Plan: $60/month Unlimited Shared Data | Best Tiered Data Plan: $30/month 3GB plan | Best Prepaid Plan: N/A | 5G Coverage: Yes | Parent Network: AT&T, T-Mobile

Discounts for AARP members
Low rates if you don't need much data
Cheaper plans elsewhere if you use lots of data
Some criticism of customer service

Consumer Cellular is a good option for your cell phone service if you don't need a lot of data each month or you don't need unlimited talk minutes. (Or both!) The carrier has small data tiers available at reasonable prices, and you can switch around your data allotment on a monthly basis if you anticipate needing more data. 

You can also save money on your bill by restricting your talk time to 250 minutes each month. That lowers the cost of the 3GB plan by $5 to $25 per month.

Because Consumer Cellular offers a 5% discount on monthly rates to AARP members, it's become a hit with seniors. The carrier uses both AT&T and T-Mobile for its coverage, so it's likely you'll get good network performance no matter where you are. (And if you buy an iPhone 12 or Galaxy Note 20 model through the carrier, you can enjoy 5G coverage.) Consumer Cellular does take some criticism for customer service, but it's generally regarded as any easy service for managing your plan and keeping your cell phone costs low.

best phone carrier: Boost Mobile

(Image credit: Boost)

9. Boost Mobile

A new era of the discount carrier

Best Unlimited Plan: $50/month Unlimited Gigs | Best Tiered Data Plan: N/A | Best Prepaid Plan: $45/month 15GB plan | 5G Coverage: Select cities | Parent Network: T-Mobile

Unlimited plans compare nicely to Metro's
Good selection of low-cost phones
Future uncertain after T-Mobile-Sprint merger
Limited perks

Boost Mobile is beginning to emerge from uncertain times. Previously owned and operated by Sprint, the discount carrier is now the property of Dish in a $1.4 billion purchase spurred by last year's Sprint-T-Mobile merger. Boost is keeping its name and operate using T-Mobile's network for the next seven years, as Dish looks to build out its own network.

Boost continues to offer the same plans as before, with your best option being one of the company's two unlimited plans. The $50 plan features 12GB of hotspot data and a six-month subscription to Tidal's streaming music service. For $60 a month, you get HD video streaming and 30GB of hotspot data. Those prices compare favorably to what you get from Metro by T-Mobile, though T-Mobile's prepaid service doesn't put caps on music and game streaming like Boost does.

Now that it owns Boost, Dish launched two new tiered data plans. A Shrink-It plan revives a popular Boost feature from a few years back where you can get discounts the longer you stick with the carrier. This 15GB plan will cost $45 a month, with $5 discounts after three and six months of continuous service. Boost also features a $35, 10GB monthly plan. There are also low cost plans that start at $10 a month for 1GB of data.

Boost's service should perform fairly well on T-Mobile's network, though like any prepaid carrier, speeds could suffer if the network gets congested. We expect Boost will continue to offer a mix of iPhones and Android devices with an emphasis on lower-cost handsets.

best phone carrier: Xfinity Mobile

(Image credit: Xfinity Mobile)

10. Xfinity Mobile

A good option if you believe in bundles

Best Unlimited Plan: $45/month Unlimited plan | Best Tiered Data Plan: $30/month 3GB plan | Best Prepaid Plan: N/A | 5G Coverage: 230 million people (nationwide); 71 cities (mmWave) | Parent Network: Verizon

Low unlimited rate
5G coverage on Verizon's network
Now offers discounts on multiple lines
Requires Xfinity internet subscription

If you already get your internet service from Comcast — and since it's the nation's biggest internet service provider, you probably do — Xfinity Mobile offers you the opportunity to save money on your monthly phone bill. The Comcast-backed phone carrier uses a combination of Verizon's cellular towers and Xfinity hotspots to offer nationwide phone coverage.

Xfinity's best plan for individuals is its $45 unlimited plan. Not only is that cheaper than what you'll pay for unlimited coverage at the major phone carriers, it also includes access to Verizon's 5G network if you have a 5G-capable phone. That means you can get 5G for nearly half the cost of what you'd pay for a Verizon unlimited data plan.

Xfinity Mobile has added discounts on additional lines, eliminating one of the big cons against this best phone carrier option. While a single line of unlimited services costs $45 a month, a second line of data brings the per line cost down to $40. A family of four pays $120 each month, or $30 per line.

You'll find a good selection of phones at Xfinity, including the latest iPhone and Android flagships, such as the iPhone 12 and Galaxy Note 20. Xfinity has started to broaden support for bringing your own device beyond just the iPhone; recent Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel devices are supported, too, if you already own those phones.

What to look for when choosing a phone carrier

The first thing to consider when determining the best phone carrier for your needs is to figure out who has the best coverage in your area. Concentrate on the places where you spend a lot of time and need cell phone service, such as your home, office and frequent hangouts. Our network performance testing looks at download speeds in select cities, and third-party testing can give you an idea of how networks perform on average. But to truly get a picture of local network coverage, you'll need to ask friends and family about their experience.

If you're comfortable looking beyond one of the major cell phone providers, you can always try a discount carrier. These MVNOs turn to the larger networks to provide cellular service, so be sure to find out which network a discount carrier uses to make sure it's one that provides good service to where you live and work.

Once you've figured out which phone carriers offer the best coverage in your areas, look at plans and pricing. You'll need to figure out how much data you need — whether an unlimited plan is required or if you can opt for a cheaper plan with tiered data. We've analyzed the best cell phone plans overall to help you find one that fits your needs.

phone carriers

(Image credit: 10'000 Hours)

One other thing to consider when picking carriers is perks that come included with a monthly subscription. You'll find more of these with larger carriers, while discount carriers and prepaid cellular service tends to skimp on the extras. Popular perks include streaming service subscriptions, high-speed hotspot data and the ability to use your plan while traveling overseas. (Speaking of overseas travel, we've also got a look at the best international phone plans from the major carriers.)

How we test phone carriers

We evaluate network performance by heading out to eight US cities and running Ookla's Speedtest app to measure download speeds. For real-world testing, we download a sizable app off of Google Play and time how fast it takes to get the app on a smartphone. We augment our own testing by looking at network performance reports from third-party firms including RootMetrics, OpenSignal and Ookla. All that data helps us evaluate a carrier's network performance.

We continuously review cell phone plans to compare how much data each carrier offers and how unlimited plans vary at each provider. We also look at the best prepaid phone plans, including extras you have to give up for the lower price to evaluate whether those are good deals or not.

We've done customer support testing in the past where we contact carriers incognito to ask them questions both about their service as well as phones they offer. We conduct this undercover testing both over the phone and through social media support accounts on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Julius544
    While a lot of this is correct, you missed some huge points.

    Verizon currently only has a 2% market depth penetration for 5G, making them the slowest provider to get 5G out as well as farthest behind.. They are slow because they are a CDMA network (as Sprint was) and the architecture for the network is closer to GSM (At&t and Tmobile) than CDMA.

    T-Mobile put Sprint out of their misery being on the bring of bankruptcy by buying them out, so they don't have to solve the CDMA as they still to this day could not make calls and use data at the same time! Now T-mobile has to figure out how to put all of Sprints wireless spectrum and integrated with their network. The bad part is they assumed all of Sprint's debt as well, so now they have to try to keep up with Verizon and At&t weighed down by debt as well. But hey, and least Sprint didn't fall into a too big to fair category with the US Government. Amirite?

    I'm not saying these other companies don't have debt too, but I am saying that Sprint's debt is a crushing debt and should be factored in as its in a LOT of peoples best interest that Tmobile does well as a lot of palms have been greased to insure it.

    At&t, according to Speedtest.net and Ookla is the fastest network on average in the nation, and Speedtest has been the speediest bar for decades! They also have had two services, At&t Call Protect and At&t Mobile Security, that have been getting rid of spam calls for years before T-mobile even thought of this idea.

    There is also no mention of Dish Network, and how the tmobile deal came into play in the first place. For fear of making this run long, I will leave you all to do your research.

    I am saying all of this to say this piece reads as a piece written off of potential of networks, and not of well researched current facts. This piece should be valid in seven years or so, but there were obviously certain carriers who were not properly researched, or tech trends properly measured. Please do better. Thanks.

    In case you're wondering, if this evolves into a piece regarding current state and not a potential piece, between At&t's Firstnet commitments and government required investments in their network, Verizon coverage getting smaller as VoLTE evolves, and T-mobile's lack of rural market coverage, this is all kind of a no brainer. At&t is winning the day currently and should for at least the next 4 years.
    Reply
  • ember1205
    For the Straight Talk section, the statement "now that you can use SIM cards tied to specific networks for Straight Talk's service" was included. Now? I'm curious to better understand this comment because my experience with ST (goes back to at least 2016) is that they have always used carried-tied SIM cards and you had to choose the correct one when activating a BYO device.
    Reply