There's more to finding the best phone carrier for your monthly cell phone service than just settling on the lowest-priced cell phone plan — though cost is certainly a consideration. But a top phone carrier delivers more than just a low monthly bill. There's also the matter of network performance, customer service and other perks available to subscribers. And with carriers in the midst of rolling out 5G coverage, you should also consider what your cell phone service will look like in the future.
From the cost of plans to the reach of a particular cellular network, we look at all those factors and more in order to rank the best phone carriers from top to bottom.
The T-Mobile-Sprint merger has removed one of the major players on the wireless scene, as T-Mobile has fully absorbed Sprint into its operations. But look beyond the major carriers, and you might find a wireless provider whose service better meets your needs.
If the fall phone releases — especially the latest iPhone 12 models — have you wondering whether you should switch your wireless service, we've taken a close look at the best carriers, ranking them from top to bottom.
Black Friday 2020 deals
If you're shopping for a new wireless carrier, you may also be looking for a new phone. This may be the perfect time, thanks to Black Friday deals, which are already underway. Even though you'll find phones at a discount now, look for sales to continue throughout November.
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. T-Mobile is also the first carrier to provide 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.
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.
Boost figures to have a bigger profile in the future, now that Dish has completed its $1.4 billon purchase of the discount carrier as part of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger. Boost has introduced several new plans, including a compelling limited-time offer to make a name for itself, post-merger. Cricket Wireless and Straight Talk are two other low-cost services that we have reservations about.
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 best upload speeds in its most recent report. As for 5G, T-Mobile was the first carrier to offer nationwide coverage, with service now reaching more than 7,500 cities. T-Mobile's 5G speeds have been only a little bit faster than LTE in our testing, but that's changing as the carrier works to incorporate Sprint's mid-band network into its own. Some 410 cities now feature mid-band coverage — double the amount T-Mobile served at the end of September — which has meant improved speeds over LTE.
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.
We hope T-Mobile will be able to keep all this up now that it faces one less competitor, having absorbed Sprint. We'll certainly be keeping an eye on T-Mobile to see if it can continue to set the standard now that there are just three major phone carriers in the US.
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 13 consecutive testing periods. Big Red has the fastest 5G network, launching mmWave-based service in 55 cities; more extensive coverage was just launched, though it doesn't reach the top speeds of Verizon's mmWave towers.
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) now 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) 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.
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 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, 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 both RootMetrics and OpenSignal rating AT&T as the network with the fastest download speeds. AT&T has now extended its 5G coverage to reach across the country, joining T-Mobile in offering nationwide 5G service. (T-Mobile's network covers more people, however.)
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, though a very attractive promotion on unlimited data for prepaid users is now over. Still, AT&T's 8GB prepaid plan is reasonably priced at $40 a month and offers attractive perks. You can get that plan at a discount if you pay for 12 months in advance.
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.) One trade-off you will make is that even though Verizon has launched 5G coverage in some cities, it's not available to Visible subscribers at this time, though Visible has said that service will come soon, with iPhone users getting first crack.
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's since added Android phones to the mix, from flagships like the Galaxy S20 and Pixel 4 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 such as the Pixel 4a or a fully compatible third-party phone like the Moto G Power or Moto G Stylus. Project Fi also offers the newly available Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. 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 just 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 3GB 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 8GB and 12GB plans as well as recently introduced $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. 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. And to top the T-Mobile Connect plan, Boost offers 2GB of data for $10 a month, though that plan is only slated to be available through the end of the year.
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; now, 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 some customers using T-Mobile-tied SIM cards report that 5G-ready phones enjoy faster speeds.
Our biggest issue with Straight Talk, besides a lack of perks, is that there's not a lot of variety in the carrier's different data plans. You can opt for a 5GB data plan for $35 a month or 25GB of data for either $45 or $60 a month. (The more expensive plan includes calling to Mexico, Canada, China and India, making it a better value.) True unlimited data is available for $55 a month. These plans aren't bad, but you can find lower costs 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.