Finding the best phone carrier for your monthly cell phone service involves 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 has shifted in other ways during the past year or so. For one thing, carriers are continuing to build up their 5G coverage, which can impact your phone service. And there's one less phone carrier than there used to be now that T-Mobile has absorbed Sprint.
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 latest 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. Or maybe if you're holding on to your current phone, it's just time for a change.
Who is the best phone carrier?
Based on our criteria for evaluating wireless providers, T-Mobile and Verizon remain neck-and-neck as the best phone carriers. We give the edge to T-Mobile, thanks to the Uncarrier's attractively priced unlimited data plan and its strong network performance in major cities and its coast-to-coast 5G coverage.
Verizon remains a compelling alternative to T-Mobile, even if its plans are more expensive. The carrier offers great coverage, with expanding 5G service, and it's fared well on our customer service survey in consecutive years. AT&T is increasingly making its presence felt with deals on new phones that are even available to existing customers.
The arrival of low-cost mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, mean that you've got choices beyond the major carriers. In this group, we like Visible's low-cost unlimited plan which is available over Verizon's cellular network. Metro by T-Mobile also stands out as a low-cost option, especially since customers can take advantage of T-Mobile's nationwide 5G coverage with a compatible phone. Google Fi is a compelling alternative, too, especially if you commit to one of Google's Pixel phones.
The best phone carriers overall
When it comes to the best mix of data plans, coverage and perks, T-Mobile is the 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 2GB and 5GB prepaid plans are among the cheapest you'll find.
In our network testing, we found T-Mobile's LTE download speeds were fast, even if Verizon and AT&T both finished ahead of the Uncarrier. Third-party testing firm OpenSignal says that T-Mobile has the 5G speeds for both downloads and uploads as well as the most 5G availability. T-Mobile's 5G service now reaches more than 270 million people.
What really sets T-Mobile apart is the perks it extends to customers. Weekly T-Mobile Tuesday giveaways include prizes and benefits like free trial subscriptions to Tidal Premium and Google Stadia Pro. T-Mobile's Team of Experts program also provides excellent customer service to subscribers. To deal with the scourge of robocalling, T-Mobile has added a free Scam Shield service that offers call blocking and enhanced caller ID that identifies verified numbers; you can also get a second proxy number to weed out robocalls and keep your real phone number private. It's also launched TVision, a streaming TV service, with T-Mobile customers getting first crack at a lower rate than others.
T-Mobile's cheaper plans and more extensive perks give it an overall edge over Verizon. 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 14 consecutive testing periods, including for the second half of 2020. Big Red's mmWave-based Ultra Wideband 5G reaches more than 60 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.
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. Prepaid plans with unlimited data now include 5G service, too.
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 as Sprint is absorbed into T-Mobile. 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 Ookla recently claiming that AT&T had the fastest 5G service. AT&T was the second carrier to turn on coast-to-coast 5G, though both T-Mobile and Verizon now reach more people.
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.
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 S20 Plus, Galaxy S20 Ultra 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 S20 and Pixel 5 to budget offerings like the Pixel 4a. You can also bring your own device.
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.
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.
International travelers will find another reason to opt for Google Fi, as the service lets you use your data and text when you're abroad in 200-plus countries. Data is also available at decent speeds overseas.
Google has introduced a new phone subscription plan where you can pay $9 a month for the Pixel 4a for two years — a savings of $133 over the cost of buying the phone outright. At the end of two years, you can upgrade to a new model. Adding device protection adds $6 a month, bringing the two-year cost to $360, which is $11 more than just buying the phone on your own.
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 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.
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 the Sprint-T-Mobile merger. Boost will keep 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.
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 is less appealing if you need more than one line of data, as each line of unlimited service costs $45. Tiered data plans are less appealing than what you can find from discount providers like Mint and Metro by T-Mobile.
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.
When we test network performance, Cricket Wireless routinely finishes at the bottom of the pack, and it's no mystery why. On all but one of its monthly plans, Cricket caps data speeds. That means even though the carrier uses the extensive network of parent company AT&T, your download speeds will never top 8 Mbps on Cricket's tiered plans and a pokey 3 Mbps on the cheapest unlimited plan.
The only plan available from Cricket that escapes these caps is the carrier's most expensive offering — its $60-a-month unlimited option. This plan also comes with 15GB of LTE hotspot data, so it's the option to go with if you feel you must go with Cricket. It's also the only Cricket plan to offer 5G service, provided you've got a compatible phone. (Cricket sells the Galaxy S20 Plus.)
We'll say this about Straight Talk — we noticed an improvement in service the last time we tested network performance now that you can use SIM cards tied to specific networks for Straight Talk's service. We tested Straight Talk using a Verizon-tied SIM card, and service was faster than in our previous testing (though slower than when we tested with a Verizon-supplied phone). There's no official word on 5G coverage through Straight Talk, though that's likely to change now that Verizon owns Straight Talk's parent company TracFone.
New Straight Talk customers have new plans to consider, and they may be attractive if you need a lot of data — you can get 25GB for $45 a month and unlimited data for $55. (Autopay saves you $5 on the unlimited plan, but just $1 on the 25GB plan.) You'll find few perks, as the unlimited plan only offers 10GB of hotspot data (and even that's not available if you opt for an AT&T sim card). If you use very little data, the most affordable plan is a $35 monthly option that gives you 5GB. These prices aren't bad, but you can find lower-cost options elsewhere, either from major carriers or other discount operators.
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.