T-Mobile - The #2 Phone Carrier
Editors' Note: T-Mobile has announced plans to merge with Sprint, though that deal still requires regulatory approval. Should the merger move ahead, look for us to update our evaluation of the combined carrier, but until then, you can look at our guide to the T-Mobile-Sprint merger to see how it might impact the wireless market.
Verizon may have passed T-Mobile to become our top wireless carrier, but that's not for lack of effort on the Uncarrier's part. A lot of other carriers seem to follow T-Mobile's lead: Just look at how many now offer unlimited-data plans after T-Mobile announced it would offer only unlimited data.
T-Mobile continues to offer a fast-performing network in most major cities, and its customer-focused reputation extends to the way the carrier handles tech support. In addition, T-Mobile continues to set the standard for how a wireless carrier should reward its customers.
Carrier Performance (37/40 points)
T-Mobile finished behind Verizon when we tested LTE speeds in six cities, achieving an average download speed of 23.5 Mbps compared to Verizon's national average of 36 Mbps. T-Mobile's upload speed was a shade faster than Verizon's, though, (16.3 Mbps to 14.7 Mbps), and the Uncarrier turned in the best performance in Seattle while finishing as runner-up (to Verizon, natch) in New York. The biggest thing holding back T-Mobile in our testing? Its speeds when we tested indoors were noticeably slower than when we tested T-Mobile at outdoor locations.
OpenSignal rates T-Mobile's network very highly, with the carrier topping five categories outright, including download and upload speeds; it tied Verizon for 4G availability. T-Mobile also had the highest scores in Ookla's latest rankings. Even RootMetrics, which typically dings T-Mobile's performance, now ranks the carrier third, after it jumped ahead of Sprint during the first half of 2018.
T-Mobile likes to crow that other carriers follow its lead, and in the case of unlimited data plans, the company definitely has a point.
Plans (23/25 points)
T-Mobile likes to crow that other carriers follow its lead, and in the case of unlimited data plans, the company definitely has a point. T-Mobile unveiled its T-Mobile One plan in 2016 and soon made this the only option available to new customers; other carriers, even Verizon, soon followed suit with unlimited plans of their own.
Of course, T-Mobile has taken one cue from its rivals, by splitting its unlimited plan into two tiers. It just introduced T-Mobile Essentials, a cheaper version of its unlimited plan at $60 a month that removes some of the perks you get with the $70 T-Mobile One. The latter plan absorbs all your taxes and fees, and Essentials customers don't get to use their data when traveling in 210 countries as T-Mobile One subscribers can. Still, a family of four would only pay $120 for T-Mobile Essentials, the cheapest unlimited option among the Big Four carriers. T-Mobile One costs $160 for four lines of data.
If there's a downside to T-Mobile's switch to unlimited data-only, it's that low-data users may feel shut out by the carrier. T-Mobile does have a kickback program that gives you a $10 credit on your bill if you use less than 2GB during a month; that's extremely attractive to those on family plans in which one user may not consume as much data as the other people on the account. Otherwise, low-data users need to turn to one of T-Mobile's prepaid plans, which start at $45 a month for 4GB of data. That's not a terribly appealing price considering that T-Mobile's MetroPCS subsidiary currently offers 5GB of LTE data for $40 a month.
Customer Service (18/20 points)
Our undercover testing suggests you can expect friendly conversations and helpful advice when you turn to T-Mobile for tech-support help. That's true if you approach the carrier through Twitter or Facebook, call up its tech-support line, or take advantage of the company's online-chat feature. We just wish that T-Mobile's tech support reps used more precise language, to avoid creating confusion when dispensing advice.
Our only other beef with T-Mobile's customer support? While the carrier's online documentation is solid, T-Mobile buries support links on its website. Other carriers make it easier to find what you're looking for.
Just be aware that our customer service testing was done before T-Mobile launched its new Team of Experts program aimed at ensuring you'll talk to a real person when you call for help. We'll be evaluating that new service soon.
Phone Selection (7/10 points)
T-Mobile boasts the kind of selection you'd expect from major carriers: the latest flagships from Apple, LG, Samsung and others, along with previous generations of the iPhone and Galaxy. This carrier sells the smallest number of smartphone types among the Big Four carriers, by our count, and it can't claim some of the more marquee phones that its rivals sell exclusively. T-Mobile does offer a decent selection of phones for less than $300. That includes budget devices like Moto's E5 Play and Plus as well as a pair of T-Mobile branded devices, the Revvl and Revvl Plus.
Featured T-Mobile Phones: Galaxy S9, iPhone X, 8 and 8 Plus, Galaxy Note 9, LG V30
T-Mobile really distinguishes itself from the carrier crowd with special features.
Special Features (5/5 points)
Here's where T-Mobile really distinguishes itself from the carrier crowd. Every week, T-Mobile gives away freebies to customers through the T-Mobile Tuesdays app. Frequent prizes include discounts on Lyft rides and free Frostys from Wendy's; more elaborate giveaways have featured valuable prizes like free access to MLB.TV Premium.
T-Mobile remains a top choice if you do a lot of international travel. With a T-Mobile One plan, you now get unlimited data and texting in 210 countries, though at 2G speeds. (Note that T-Mobile Essentials customers only get unlimited texting when they travel.) T-Mobile One customers also can use 5GB of high-speed data when they travel in Mexico or Canada. You can opt for T-Mobile's One Plus International plan for an extra $25 a month to speed up your data overseas.
On flights equipped with Gogo internet service, T-Mobile One gives you an hour of free Wi-Fi plus unlimited texting. Unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi via Gogo is available through the T-Mobile One Plus add-on that also adds HD video streaming. That's $15 extra for individual plans (a hike from before) and $10 extra per line for families with T-Mobile One.
Since we last updated our rankings in May 2017, T-Mobile formally launched Digits, a new service in which its customers can use their T-Mobile phone number on multiple devices including older phones and PCs. And in September, T-Mobile started paying your $9.99 monthly Netflix subscription if you have two or more lines with its T-Mobile One plan. That offer isn't available to anyone with the T-Mobile One Unlimited 55+ Plan for seniors, but anyone 55 years or older can get two lines of unlimited data for $70 a month. Members of the military and their families now qualify for a discounted unlimited plan that costs $55 a month for the first line, with additional lines available at half off.