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Who’s got the best free 5G phone deal? AT&T vs. T-Mobile vs. Verizon

best free 5g phone deal
(Image credit: SOPA/Getty)

The best phone carriers are so eager for you to hop on to their new 5G networks, they're even willing to give you a free phone to get you to check out the faster wireless standard. But which one is offering the best free 5G phone deal?

That depends entirely on what kind of phone you want, the device you have on-hand for a trade-in and — above all — the quality of the 5G coverage in your area.

You can understand why carriers are willing to part with a phone if it means more people using their networks. In the two-plus years since 5G networks started going live, the major carriers have expanded aggressively, bringing coverage to a wider number of people. With 5G set to be with us for years to come, those same carriers want to plant their flag now and lock in subscribers. It also helps that many of these 5G phone deals require an unlimited data plan, thus securing recurring revenue for the cost of a smartphone freebie.

But customers can benefit from these deals, too. While we have a long way to go before 5G coverage is ubiquitous, it reaches enough areas to make upgrading worth your while. And when switching to a new phone, getting something for free is usually preferable to paying full price, especially if you're eying one of the more expensive entries on the list of best 5G phones.

Here's a closer look at the free 5G phone offers from each phone carrier and whether they're the right fit for your needs.

T-Mobile free 5G phone deal: The most straightforward offer

best free 5g phone deal

OnePlus Nord N200 5G (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

T-Mobile’s best free 5G phone offer: Trade in any functioning cell phone (or activate a new line of service on an eligible wireless plan), and T-Mobile will give you a free 5G phone.

The eligible phones: You have a choice of two phones under this plan — either the OnePlus Nord N200 5G or the Revvl V+ 5G.

We can't speak to the quality of the Revvl V+, which is T-Mobile's in-house brand of phones built by TCL. But we do have a OnePlus Nord N200 5G review in which we declared that this $239 phone was the best 5G value out there.

With the Nord N200, don't expect great performance or cameras that measure up to the best inexpensive camera phones like the Pixel 4a. But OnePlus did equip this phone with a 90Hz refresh rate, and it lasts a long time on a charge.

No matter what phone you get in this deal, you pay the sales tax up front and receive monthly bill credits for 24 months. Leave T-Mobile before then, and you're on the hook for the balance of the phone.

OnePlus Nord N200 5G: Now free @ T-Mobile
Turn in any working phone to T-Mobile, and the carrier will give you a free OnePlus Nord N200 5G. You'll get bill credits toward the phone spread out over 24 months. View Deal

The 5G network: T-Mobile 5G is, without question, the most extensive 5G network, reaching more than 300 million people. T-Mobile is in the process of converting its far-reaching Extended Range 5G network into a faster Ultra Capacity 5G network, with a goal toward completing that transition by year's end.

At least one testing firm already rates T-Mobile as the top-performing 5G network in the U.S. Opensignal says T-Mobile delivers faster download speeds than both AT&T and Verizon. In its reports, though, RootMetrics places AT&T ahead of T-Mobile in terms of speed.

Other T-Mobile free 5G phone deals: The OnePlus Nord N200 may be a good 5G value, but it's hardly the flashiest phone. T-Mobile also has a deal where you can pick up an iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21 for free, though you have a lot more hurdles to clear.

First of all, you have to trade in a relatively recent phone to get the full credit that would give you either the iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21 free. In the case of Apple phones, that trade-in has to be an iPhone X or later; the iPhone 8, released at the same time as the iPhone X, only nets a $730 savings. For Samsung phones, you'll need a Galaxy S20 or later to reap the maximum trade-in value. 

In addition to trading in a device, you must sign up for a Magenta Plus unlimited plan to get a big discount on the iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21. That's T-Mobile's most expensive unlimited data plan, at $85 a month, though you do get truly unlimited data plus HD video streaming among other benefits.

As before, the rebate value is paid out to you in bill credits spread over 24 months. You'll enjoy a much better free (or more accurately, "discounted") phone, but T-Mobile's other free 5G phone deal is a little bit more straightforward.

The verdict: Unless you need the latest and greatest device, a simple trade-in can get you a OnePlus Nord N200 5G, which is a perfectly fine phone for enjoying T-Mobile's 5G network.

Verizon free 5G phone deal: Generous trade-ins for good phones

best free 5g phone deals

Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Verizon’s best free 5G phone offer: Trade in your old phone, even if it's damaged, and get money back on your 5G phone purchase.

The eligible phones: Verizon lets you apply that credit to the four iPhone 12 models as well as any Galaxy S21 or Galaxy Note 20 device. In the case of the iPhone, you can get a maximum credit of up to $1,000, while Galaxy shoppers can get up to $1,100 back.

As with T-Mobile, you'll need a recent phone to get the biggest return, though Verizon is pretty generous with its rebates. My iPhone SE from 2016, for example, qualifies for a $350 credit spread out over 24 months. T-Mobile doesn't even offer a rebate when you trade in an original iPhone SE. It's also worth emphasizing that Verizon accepts broken phones, something other carriers do not. 

The iPhone 8 nets a savings of $700, essentially letting you get an iPhone 12 mini for free or an iPhone 12 for $99. 

You'll need to sign up for one of Verizon's unlimited data plans, but you'd need to do that anyway if you wanted to use the carrier's 5G network.

Galaxy S21: Get it for free @ Verizon
Trade in any phone at Verizon — even if it's broken — and you can get credit to use for a Galaxy S21. The newer the phone, the more credit you can receive — enough to get the Galaxy S21 for free. Verizon has similar deals on the iPhone 12 or Galaxy Note 20.View Deal

The 5G network: Verizon's nationwide 5G network reaches 230 million people in 2,700 cities. The carrier's Ultra Wideband service doesn't have that wide a reach — it's currently in parts of more than 70 cities.

Opensignal says Verizon 5G download speeds are equal to AT&T's, with both carriers trailing T-Mobile. Verizon also has the lowest 5G availability in Opensignal's rankings. That said, RootMetrics' last report rated Verizon the best for 5G availability.

Other Verizon free 5G phone deals: While Verizon's trade-in program favors current flagships, you can get a completely free 5G phone from Big Red, without even bothering with a trade-in.

Sign up for an unlimited plan with the carrier and activate a new line, and you can get a Galaxy S20 FE for free. (You'll receive bill credits over 24 months.) The Galaxy S20 FE offers the best features of Samsung's Galaxy S20 flagships, with few compromises. But it may soon be replaced by the Galaxy S21 FE, so you're not exactly getting a cutting edge phone.

The verdict: If you've got a broken phone, Verizon's trade-in deal makes perfect sense for upgrading to a new 5G phone. And you may be surprised by just how much your older phone can reduce the price of a 5G upgrade.

AT&T free 5G phone deal: Good phones and a strong network

best free 5g phone offer

iPhone 12 mini (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

AT&T’s best free 5G phone offer: Get a free 5G phone from AT&T when you trade-in your current phone — it needs to be working — and you sign up for an unlimited plan.

The eligible phones: The free phone in question can either be a Galaxy S21 or iPhone 12 mini. Be aware, though, that not every trade-in device qualifies for the full discount; in other words, if you have a much older phone, you'll be getting your S21 or iPhone 12 mini at a reduced rate, but not free.

For example, the iPhone 8 or higher gets you the full trade-in value; anything older than that — as well as the iPhone SE (2020) merits just a $350 discount. A Galaxy S9 or later gets you the full rebate as well.

iPhone 12 mini: Free with any trade-in @ AT&T
AT&T will give you enough credits to get a free iPhone 12 mini when you turn in a working phone. You'll need to sign up for unlimited data with the carrier. The Galaxy S21 is also eligible under AT&T's deal.View Deal

The 5G network: AT&T 5G now reaches 250 million people with its nationwide network. The faster 5G Plus service is currently available in 38 cities and 20 venues, with plans to hit 40 cities and 40 venues by the end of the year.

AT&T's 5G performance has gotten high marks from network testing firms, with RootMetrics previously saying the carrier has the fastest 5G speeds. OpenSignal says that AT&T trails T-Mobile in average download speed, but that its 5G reach is on the rise.

Other AT&T 5G phone deals: AT&T doesn’t have any other free promotions at the moment. But if you don't need a flagship phone, AT&T offers both the Moto G Stylus 5G and the Samsung Galaxy A32 for $5 a month over 36 months. The key appeal here is that you don't have to trade in any phone — just sign up for an unlimited data plan with AT&T.

The verdict: AT&T's 5G network impresses, and if you've got a phone that qualifies for the full rebate, a free Galaxy S21 or iPhone 12 mini can be yours.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.