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The best and worst phone carriers of 2020

What determines who the best phone carrier is? It's more than just the amount on your cellphone bill every month, or whether they offer the best phones. While cost is certainly important, you also want a carrier that offers outstanding coverage and performance, friendly customer support and enough extras to make you feel appreciated.

In our second ever Best and Worst Wireless Carriers special report, Verizon is our top pick precisely because it gets so many things right. The carrier has the best performing network with the widest reach, and it won our customer-support showdown, beating out eight other carriers. While some rivals offer lower monthly bills, Verizon's plans remain appealing, especially after adding an unlimited data option.

All those factors were enough to push Verizon past former champ T-Mobile, though the margin between the two carriers is quite thin. T-Mobile fared well in our customer-support and network- speed testing — though it finished behind Verizon in most cases — and it sets the pace for both plans and special features. It's something we hope will continue now that the T-Mobile-Sprint merger has been completed and the merged T-Mobile looks to take on both AT&T and Verizon.

With more wireless users looking to discount carriers as a way to save money on our their monthly bill, we recommend Metro by T-Mobile (formerly Metro PCS). The prepaid carrier has the best performance thanks to T-Mobile's strong network, and its attractive mix of plans overshadows its lackluster showing in our customer-service testing.

One carrier we can't recommend is Straight Talk, which brought up the rear in both speed and customer-service testing (though the carrier has since improved its performance in subsequent testing). We also think its prepaid plans just don't measure up to other options regarding value.

We're in the process of revamping our ratings , which will include retesting carriers for customer support and LTE speeds. We'll also be adding 5G service to the mix, as carriers spent much of last year rolling out the new high-speed networks and will continue to expand 5G coverage in 2020.

Now that Sprint is part of T-Mobile, we expect big changes to what the combined carrier will offer, especially with T-Mobile is planning to fully absorb Sprint this summer. Thus far, the combined carrier has introduced a new low-cost plan and launched other initiatives to offer a decade of free coverage to first responder agencies. Existing Sprint customers will be able to keep their current plans, but we'd imagine other changes are in store for T-Mobile's overall service. The same holds true for Boost — as a condition of the merger, Dish is buying up the service with an eye toward turning it into a fourth carrier to compete with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. 

Until those changes happen, though, here's a closer look at our rankings for the best and worst phone carriers.

How we test phone carriers

We evaluated nine carriers for our rankings: besides AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, we broadened our search beyond the Big Four to include the major discount carriers Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, Straight Talk and Virgin. (Metro has since been rebranded as Metro by T-Mobile, though it's essentially the same service; Virgin, meanwhile shut down earlier this year, with customers shuffled over to Boost.) To rank each carrier, we took five factors into account, giving greater weight to the categories we consider the most important.

Performance (40 Points): While many factors go into deciding which cellphone provider is best, performance remains the key consideration. That's why network performance, measured by speed, makes up nearly half of our grade for wireless carriers.

We based our rankings on our nationwide LTE tests, in which we traveled to multiple cities across the country to see how each carrier performed. We measured download and upload speeds at select locations in each city, using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, and we also timed how fast we could download an app on each carrier's network.

Our report covers our last two nationwide tests, conducted in 2017 and 2018. We plan on retesting LTE speeds in those cities soon, and we'll be adding 5G tests to our evaluations as well.

Plans (25 points): We constantly review the best cell phone plans, looking at which one offers the most data at the lowest prices. We evaluated the best unlimited data plans, the best family cell phone plan and best prepaid phone plans, rewarding carriers who provide the best mix of value and variety. 

T-Mobile features our favorite unlimited plan, whether it’s for families or individuals. If you don't need unlimited data, Verizon has the best tiered data plan for individuals. We like Metro's prepaid options for unlimited data, individuals and families, although Virgin has the best bargain plan.

Customer Service (20 points): When you have a question about your wireless plan or your device, you don't want to have to navigate through a convoluted phone tree or search fruitlessly on a cluttered website to get an answer. We went undercover to evaluate the customer service offered by each carrier.

In addition to phone calls to each carrier, we evaluated online troubleshooting resources, such as FAQs and online chat features. We also took to social networks, posing questions to carriers over Facebook and Twitter to see how fast and accurately they responded.

Verizon currently sits at the top of our rankings, thanks to its strong online tools and friendly reps, narrowly beating out T-Mobile. (We're about to update our rankings for this year, though, so stay tuned.) Former champ AT&T tumbled to third place as a result of changes to its phone support, while Cricket ranked as the best prepaid provider for its customer service.

Phone Selection (10 points): A top carrier needs to offer a wide selection of phones, balancing both quality and quantity. To evaluate the former, we took some of the devices that make up our picks for best smartphones while also looking at how many sub-$300 handsets were on offer at each carrier. We also took exclusives into account.

Extras (5 points): The final portion of each carrier's grade reflects what kind of extras they offer subscribers. Extras can include everything from rates for international calls, text and data, to special services offered to subscribers. You may not pick your wireless carrier based on these perks, but they are factors that can separate a good carrier from the rest of the pack.

First Place: Verizon (91/100)

Big Red improves from second place to No. 1 in our rankings by taking the top spots in our network-performance and customer-support tests. It also helps that Verizon offers multiple unlimited plans (even though its latest iteration of four plans can be pretty hard to decipher).

Verizon plansView Deal

Second Place: T-Mobile (90/100)

Once our top pick, T-Mobile is now the runner-up to Verizon, but it was a close battle. T-Mobile can point to having the best unlimited plan and the most alluring set of customer perks, including appealing options for international travelers. Finishing behind Verizon in our network performance and customer service tests puts the Uncarrier in second place overall.

MORE: T-Mobile vs. Verizon: Which Is Best for You?

T-Mobile plansView Deal

Third Place: AT&T (84/100)

AT&T's network and its customer support are both solid, though not nearly as noteworthy as what Verizon and T-Mobile have to offer. While the carrier now features unlimited data plans, those don't measure up to its rivals. (Prepaid customers will like the data amounts and prices they can get from AT&T, though.) That said, AT&T does a lot of things well to land squarely in third place.

AT&T plansView Deal

Fourth Place: Metro by T-Mobile (80/100)

A subsidiary of T-Mobile, Metro by T-Mobile (formerly MetroPCS) rode its parent company's network to a top-three finish in our performance testing. Throw in a great mix of prepaid plans that either let you save money or max out data, and Metro establishes itself as our pick for top discount carrier. Just try to use its phone support as infrequently as possible.

MetroPCS plansView Deal

Fifth Place: Sprint (79/100)

Sprint's network has improved based on our LTE test results, but it still trails its Big Four rivals, and a low customer-support score caused it to slip behind Metro by T-Mobile. At least the carrier's unlimited data plan is aggressively priced, which is good news for existing customers who keep that plan now that Sprint is part of T-Mobile. That also means future improvements to network performance as Sprint customers eventually get migrated to T-Mobile.

Sprint plansView Deal

Sixth Place: Boost (71/100)

Boost relies on Sprint's network, which means it can't match fellow prepaid carrier Metro on performance. Its prepaid unlimited plan is attractively priced, though (albeit with limitations on video, music and game streaming), and a decent performance in our customer-service test puts it ahead of fellow Sprint subsidiary Virgin. Be aware that Boost is on the verge of being sold off to Dish in the aftermath of the completed T-Mobile-Sprint merger.

Boost plansView Deal

Seventh Place: Cricket (66/100)

Like Metro, Cricket offers a good mix of plans. Unlike Metro, Cricket's network performance is severely hampered by its parent carrier. Though Cricket is owned by AT&T, its download speed is capped at 8 Mbps on most of its plans. And that overshadows some of Cricket's positives, such as friendly customer service.

Cricket plansView Deal

Eighth Place: Virgin (62/100)

Virgin tried switching its focus to the iPhone, only offering Apple's phone to new customers for a time. But Android phones are now back on offer, and Virgin reshuffled its wireless plans, adding tiered data to its unlimited plan. Virgin's multiple reboots during the past year and a half didn't exactly inspire confidence, and our concerns proved well-founded — Sprint has closed down Virgin and moved remaining customers over to Boost in advance of that brand being spun off.

Virgin plansView Deal

Ninth Place: Straight Talk (53/100)

Straight Talk has been a disaster in our ratings, with poor marks in our speed testing and customer-serving ratings. Things are looking up on the performance front at least, where Straight Talk improved the last time we tested network performance (and we'll be retesting again soon, to see if Straight Talk has continued to improve). Still, Straight Talk's plans and special features haven't been enough to get it out of the cellar, though the carrier has at least bolstered the data allotments on current plans, which gives customers more options.

Straight Talk plansView Deal

  • PhilipMichaels
    Archived comments are found here: http://www.tomsguide.com/forum/id-2873661/wireless-carrier-2015.html
    Reply
  • tyronesuerpype
    I have had all of your top rated phone carriers and most may be fine if you stay in your "home" area. If you plan on traveling in the U.S., the only carrier I and my friends have had that works the best is Verizon. I had T mobile that worked great as long as I stayed home, but traveling it sucked. All the other features of these carriers do not matter if you have no cell or data service. I hated going back to Verizon, but now they have prepaid plans that are very competitive.
    Reply
  • bounds
    Really stay away from AT&T att.com. We were long time (10 year) customers who in the end their customer service lied to us and then the company did not stand behind what their reps said they would do. In the end try someone else.
    Reply
  • Rob1C
    I disagree with the way Points are divided.

    Performance taking up 40 points is too much and it's based only on Data Speed. It's essential that you never get dropped and important that you can walk or drive around without ever being in a dead spot.

    Plans is 'OK' allocated 25 points, I guess. It should be more about what would be the so-called 'Perfect Plan' that various Groups might want and how far does what is offered stray from that.

    Presumably there are 3 or 4 Groups with 3 or 4 Add-on Extras. The 'Plan Choices' being "Free and Cheap" where the reasonable number of free phones are offered with a low cost Plan. Next up is pay something towards the phone and towards the monthly rate, receiving a 'decent' phone (last year's higher end or this year's upper-mid) with some Data. Third pay a couple of hundred towards the phone and an extra $10 month to get a fair bit of Data (but not crazy, that's what the Add-ons are for). Forth Tier would be no holds barred 2-5 hundred towards the phone and 15 or 20 extra a month for lots of Data. The Add-ons could be 'Phone Upgrade' (where the cheaper Plan can get a better phone), 'Data Upgrade' (where you can bump up your Data, maybe increase Upload Speed if you upload more than the average person), and a 'Jetsetter Upgrade' for double price where you're uncapped for Roaming and Data - OR whatever you think would be a bunch of desirable options.

    The question then would be how does each Carrier's Plans differ from what it is assumed that people would want.

    Where I am we have 3 or 4 Tiers of Carriers. Number one is the richest some of whom put down Landlines back in the day, or Cablevision (either way they have the Wire or Fiber going to the Towers). Number two is owned by #1 but charges half as much, so you might as well sign with #2; they have a few fewer phones on offer or are second to get a particular phone but you can bring your own. Third Tier are the ones who discussed with the Regulators the benefits of competition and the detriment of the former monopoly. Third Tier gets to use 1st Tier's Towers for a reasonable Fee (yet charge less than half as much monthly). The 4th Tier being 'Johnny come lately' who simply showed up last with a promise of a Bankroll and an acceptable Business Plan, they're all over the map for Service and Plans ranging from copying the Big Guys to selling 'Monthly Cards' from Gas Stations and Convenience Stores (still around 50-60% of Tier 1 rates).

    If you can divide all that into 25 points ... good going !

    For the other sectors the Customer Service HAS to be good enough, I was with one of the biggest Tier 1s, damn you if you wanted something - 20 minutes of Elevator Music interspersed with telling you what spot in line you were and an estimated wait time. Once I waited 40 minutes, when they asked how they could help I explained that I had waited over a half hour and asked that they hire more people politely mentioning that if other callers were grumpy that would be the reason why - they replied that they had just hired over 500 people to which I replied that it must be insufficient as the wait was unrealistic but they didn't seem to get my point.

    Speakerphone was your only friend, it kept you from losing the circulation in your arm (speaking of which).

    If they're Tier 1 and charge the max for everything they had best not be ripping you anywhere be it a limited selection of phones, the extortion pricing for years or extended waits for lousy service - all that should lump into Service and drop the score.

    Lastly (because I'll type no more and the reader is likely nodding off) the Phone and Extras should score more.

    The selection of phones should be decent from bleeding edge to refurbished for free.

    Bring your own phone and get a discount is an important feature - some dogs only sell you a phone with a Plan and every couple of years it's a new Plan at an increased cost.

    As for Extras what are those, Tech Support comes from the Internet and it's not like I need phone lessons or an oil change - if they'd take 4 year old phones for a $100 tradein that would be something but they don't ...

    Want me to Manage your Cellular Provider? tell them they need Rob not you need to be robbed.
    Reply
  • morty8908
    TL;DR-tests were a joke and not objective, Look at Ooklas site to see who has the has the fastest service

    Verizon Has consistently lost in the data speed category (according to Okla, the site you claim to have used.) you also offer no information about the devices or settings you used. if you are using 2 of the same phones with the exact same settings,battery life, and even cell phones cases, then maybe this could be called a fair trial. but you went to only six cities, why not just look on Ookla's actual site for who has the fastest? T-mobile every time. I understand Verizon has to pay saps like you to say they are the best. The only way you could get anyone to maybe believe this is the fact that you only let them win by 1 point. Any more and you would have been laughed at (more so than right now anyway.)

    Also, as someone who as used both services, T-mobile has fantastic customer service. Every provider has Philippines call centers, so depending on when you are calling in (maybe one provider has a promotion going on and they are busier than usual so you get routed more often to those crap centers in the Philippines) and judging performance of customer service, you need to remove the calls from the Philippines and instead only rate those calls from the corporate customer service, not third party overflow.
    Reply
  • sakman74
    For the past 6 months, one of our verizon wireless lines has been charged international outgoing calls.
    I have explained to verizon multiple times, that the line is using a calling card based in the US (a US number) and that the call log of the device (which is never touched) does not show these outgoing direct international calls.

    in the past there used to be no way for someone to make a direct international call from a verizon wireless phone, at least this was not possible on our lines. it seems in recent times that has changed and the representative said there is no way to turn that 'feature' off.

    we are basically being told the verizon bill log never lies. we have - to date - been charged $ 300 for such calls which were not made directly from the phone to an international number.

    before you decide who to choose simply based on who comes out number 1, look at this example of what the carrier is doing to it's customers - before you choose verizon wireless.
    Reply
  • jerbigge
    I have Tracfone. I'm a long term member and quite satisfied with Tracfone. However if you want to make a lot of calls, text a lot, or download data,
    Tracfone isn't for you. It is best for the individual who only carries a cell phone for occasional use, accidents, etc. I'm quite happy with my iPhone SE
    I purchased from Tracfone for a very good price. However dealing with Apple makes you feel like you are dealing with a government agency where
    everything is done the way "they" decide. Most businesses that I deal with online put some sort of "cookie" on your computer so after this is done,
    you just "sign in" with your user name and password already stored. My user name and password I use on Amazon dates back to the start of this
    century. I've never had a bit of trouble with them. Apple? Like signing in to the CIA... The people who work the customer service lines do their
    best, but the entire experience dealing with the company is about like dealing with some government agency that doesn't give a damn about
    customer satisfaction. They do make a very good product, but I have no intention of buying say a book or music or anything else from Apple.
    Reply
  • bulkbuy
    I highly recommend adding a measure to the analysis for coverage in rural areas. Educators, Consumers, & Businesses located in rural areas have been widely shorted by wireless providers in rural areas. Its 2017 and time 4G wireless data and voice truly be a reliable nationwide benchmark. Education systems nationwide including ones in rural areas count on the fact, children will have access to the latest technologies available today. But the truth is, some simply do not due to the FCC preventing actions to require carriers to provide complete coverage for areas they market in.
    Reply
  • the2ndflood
    Verizon is by far the best carrier, especially here in Tennessee. Everyone that I know who lives in a remote area, is only able to use Verizon. I am surprised though, that Straight Talk has such slow data speeds, even when on Verizon's network. I have been reading that Verizon has lifted its policies on limited data speeds on for MVNO's using their carrier. But definitely, by far, MVNO's have the worst possible customer care! Holy **** is it bad! You have to tap through tons of menu options and if you do manage to get a hold of someone, they either will not help or just hang up on you! Verizon also wins in customer care as well. Each reply will even give you their work email address, so you can contact them when you need more help.
    Reply
  • 89startup
    thanks for the info! I use Verizon and I'm completely satisfied with its work
    Reply