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MVNOs: what are they and what are the best options?

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(Image credit: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mobile virtual network operators — also known as MVNOs — make up the large majority of available U.S. phone carrier options. In fact, it's highly likely you've used an MNVO for your wireless phone service without even knowing it. But the more important question is what MVNOs actually are they, whether they're any good, and which one should you use? Answering that is especially pressing, given how many new phones like the iPhone 13 have arrived, prompting people to consider new options for wireless coverage.

Simply put, MVNOs are carriers that don't have their own wireless network; instead, they piggyback off another carrier's platform for coverage through their cell phone plans. That translates to benefits for you such as lower costs, but you might experience slower traffic when parent networks prioritize their own customers over MVNO subscribers.

With dozens of options under the mantle of MVNO and some of the most popular carriers like Mint Mobile fitting into this category, what exactly are you getting for your monthly fees?

In this guide we've broken down what an MVNO is, whether they're worth your investment and which of the three main carriers they use to get their connections and speeds.

What is an MVNO?

As noted above, a mobile virtual network operator is simply a carrier that does not have its own wireless network. Instead, it borrows the signal, coverage and network of a larger carrier.

There are three main carriers that run their own network — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. Sprint used to be the home for a large number of MVNOs, but after merging with T-Mobile, its towers are going away, forcing MVNOs to find a new home. (TextNow, for instance, ditched Sprint for T-Mobile.) Almost every MVNO runs their network off of these three options, though some turn to US Cellular and its network of regional cell towers.

The best MVNOs at a glance

1. Best value: Mint Mobile
2. Best family plan: Visible
3. Best seniors: Consumer Cellular
4. Best for cheap bills: Tello
5. Best for Comcast customers: Xfinity Mobile

Some MVNOs will use multiple networks for their signal with a lot of them relying on a combination. For example, Straight Talk uses Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. In these cases, you'll likely be signed up to the network with the best speeds where you live. In the case of Google Fi, Google's wireless service, the services uses a combination of networks run by US Cellular and T-Mobile (and what's left of Sprint). If you buy an optimized phone from the carrier — typically one of Google's Pixel devices — you can seamlessly switch between networks for the best connection.

While MVNOs receive the same speeds, connections and overall benefits, they don't always get the same priority on their parent networks. For example, T-Mobile customers will always be prioritized at peak times but with Mint Mobile, an MVNO that uses T-Mobile's network, customers can see their speeds slowed at peak times.

However, this lack of their own network means they can offer better cheap cell phone plans, bringing the costs down significantly.

T-Mobile and Sprint MVNOs

T-Mobile has the largest collection of MVNOs... technically. This is because T-Mobile merged with Sprint in 2020, another big carrier, to form one company.

Like T-Mobile, Sprint had a number of MVNOs including the popular Boost Mobile. Boost, now spun off to Dish, has migrated to T-Mobile's network, with plans to eventually launch its own nationwide coverage.

The T-Mobile MVNO that will stand out most is Mint Mobile. It is one of the cheapest carriers around and has a wide variety of flexible prepaid plans. However, T-Mobile actually has quite a few MVNOs, these include:

  • Mint Mobile
  • Consumer Cellular
  • Metro by T-Mobile
  • Google Fi
  • Simply Mobile
  • Ultra Mobile
  • Tello (Sprint)
  • Boost Mobile
  • Unreal Mobile (Sprint)
  • TextNow
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Mint Mobile
While there are a lot of MVNOs under the combined umbrella of T-Mobile and Sprint, Mint Mobile offers some of the best overall value. Offering a host of prepaid plans, ranging from 4GB through to unlimited and a number of great phone deals on a budget, Mint is one of T-Mobile's better value choices.

Verizon MVNOs

Verizon is currently the second largest wireless carrier, and for speeds and coverage —  easily a top choice for many. It has a wide range of MVNOs but some of the most popular include Xfinity Mobile and Twigby. 

Verizon as a carrier can become expensive very quickly, so an MVNO is a great way to get its speeds and coverage, without the blinding costs that usually come with it.

The popular carrier Visible is also part of the Verizon family but not technically an MVNO (more on that below).

Verizon's key MVNOs include:

  • Xfinity Mobile
  • Twigby
  • Ting
  • Spectrum Mobile
  • Page Plus
  • Pix Wireless
  • Credo Mobile
  • Lively
  • Net10
  • Reach Mobile
  • Red Pocket
  • Straight Talk
  • Total Wireless
  • TracFone
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Visible
Visible is in a big of a unique situation. It isn't actually an MVNO but instead its own full stack wireless carrier. Because Visible is part of the Verizon company, it is essentially an extension of Verizon but not an MVNO. It offers one of the best unlimited data plans in the US right now and is a great choice for families.

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Xfinity Mobile
Xfinity Mobile is a full-fledged MVNO that relies on Verizon's network, including its 5G coverage. The cell phone service is open to customers who also get their internet from Comcast. The benefit here is low cost unlimited plans — just $45 a month for one line — and discounts when you add more lines. Xfinity also offers newer phones like the iPhone 13 to its customers.

AT&T MVNOs

Not only the largest carrier in the US, AT&T is the biggest telecommunications business in the world. And yet, it has a surprisingly limited supply of MVNOs.

The key ones are Consumer Cellular and Cricket, but you'll find a few other options using AT&T's network. AT&T also has FreedomPop which specializes in international calls.

  • Consumer Cellular
  • Cricket
  • FreedomPop
  • FreeUP Mobile
  • Good2Go Mobile
  • H20 Wireless
  • Net10
  • Red Pocket
  • Straight Talk
  • TracFone
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Consumer Cellular
Consumer Cellular has a wide variety of plans and is an especially great choice for senior cell phone plans. If you're a member of AARP, you can get a further 5% discount on your plan, making for some really cheap offers.

What are the pros and cons of MVNOs?

MVNOs

(Image credit: Tim Robberts)

Overall, there are very few differences between an MVNO and one of the main best phone carriers. As these smaller networks are using their networks, they are getting the same speeds, coverage, and connections of the main providers.

However, the main issue is around a lack of prioritization. What this means is that in times of peak traffic, MVNOs will often have their data speeds slowed down as the main network operator (like T-Mobile) prioritizes its own customer's data speeds.

While this is rare, it can be frustrating when it does happen. On top of that, MVNOs are often more limited in the plans and phones they can offer. Unlike the variety of plans and phones on offer at AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, most MVNOs will offer just a few cell phone plans and the main handsets.

On the flip side, MVNO customers do benefit from cheaper monthly bills. Because MVNOs don't have to run their own network, they can charge you a lot less for your wireless service. The likes of Tello and Mint Mobile have some incredibly affordable plans compared to their parent companies.

On top of this, MVNOs often have to come up with additional benefits and promotions to stand out in a crowded market. This can mean hotspot data, pricing promotions or even free gifts.

Which carrier offers the best MVNOs?

There is no clear-cut answer here, as the answer depends on what you're looking for. All of the main carriers — Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T — have excellent set-ups and therefore, you can't go wrong with an MVNO on any of them.

What it will really come down to is the kind of plan you're looking for and which carrier has the best service in your area. On the pricing front, Mint Mobile and Ting feature great cheap plans despite using the networks of different carriers.

Xfinity use Verizon's network, but they offer some of the best family cell phone plans. While going for an MVNO that uses Verizon will offer top-of-the-line speeds, or a carrier using T-Mobile will reward you with excellent coverage, it's best to focus on the features of the MVNO itself instead of its parent company.

Alex is an editor at Future with a focus on phones and broadband. With an eye on the best prices across both of these areas, Alex is bringing you the must-have bargains right now.