When it comes to picking the best phone carrier to provide your monthly cell phone service, you may be tempted just to go for the one that offers the cheapest plan. That's not a bad strategy, as cost is a big factor, but there are other ways for phone carriers to stand out.
Network performance is a big consideration, too, and one that's tough to quantify since a carrier's network can be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Likewise, you should consider customer service — the best phone carriers can handle questions about billing as easily as helping you troubleshoot your device. And some carriers also make a mark by showering subscribers with plenty of perks.
It's a lot to keep track of when deciding which carrier should get your business. And fortunately, you don't have to, since we take all those factors into account when ranking the best phone carriers.
- Best cheap cell phone plans for $40 or less
- The best phones overall
- MVNOs: What are they and what are the best options?
It's important to keep tabs on what phone carriers are up to, because the landscape is currently shifting for both wireless providers and those of us who use 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. And right now, 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 program. 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
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. That's why we named it the best phone carrier in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021 and that's why it's listed at the top here.
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 best 5G reach and availability. T-Mobile's 5G service now reaches more than 300 million people, with half of those people able to access the carrier's faster Ultra Capacity 5G service.
What really sets T-Mobile apart is the perks it extends to customers. Currently, you can trade in any phone to T-Mobile and get a OnePlus Nord N200 5G for free. (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.
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 16 consecutive semiannual reports, including for the first half of 2021.
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. Verizon is also making it easier to experience 5G by accepting any phone — even broken ones — to reduce the cost of upgrading to a 5G phone. Depending on the device you trade in, you could get a big enough credit to qualify for a free iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21 from Verizon; you will need to commit to one of the carrier's unlimited plans.
Speaking of plans, you will find cheaper and easier-to-decipher unlimited data plans at T-Mobile, but Verizon's four different plans do include 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. A year's subscription to a streaming gaming service — either Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass — has just been added to the mix for Play More subscribers.
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 prepaid customers with unlimited plans.
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.
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 notable 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 the nod for the speediest network during the first half of 2021.
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. AT&T has removed any cap on data consumption so Unlimited Elite customers won't have their speeds slowed. 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 also allows families to mix and match unlimited plans, so that each line can feature a different tier of unlimited data. Unlimited plans also include six months of Stadia Pro streaming gaming.
AT&T's prepaid options provide a lot of data, too. 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.
Variety is not the spice of life when it comes to Visible's service options, as the discount carrier and Verizon MVNO 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. And a referral program can reduce your bill to just $5 for the month after a new customer you've referred joins Visible.
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.
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.
Metro By T-Mobile — formerly MetroPCS — remains one of the best phone carriers 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.
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. When Google releases the Pixel 5a and Pixel 6 later this year, this will be a phone carrier worth considering.
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.
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.
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. Both unlimited data plans slow your speeds after you use 35GB of data in a month.
Boost's unlimited 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.
Boost had offered a Shrink-It plan that reduced your bill the longer you stuck with the carrier, but that seems to have been dropped from the tiered plan offerings. Instead, the best tiered plan at Boost gives you 5GB of data for $25 a month, but that offer is only available to new customers. Otherwise, you've got a 10GB plan that costs $35 a month.
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.
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 S21. 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.
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.