What determines who the best wireless carrier is? It's more than just the amount on your cellphone bill every month. 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 annual 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 now that it's added 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.
With more wireless users looking to discount carriers as a way to save money on our their monthly bill, we recommend MetroPCS. 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. We also think its prepaid plans just don't measure up to other options regarding value.
Latest News and Updates (Updated March 9)
We've updated this guide to reflect these latest developments:
- AT&T has adjusted the pricing on its unlimited plans — Unlimited Plus has dropped by $10 to $80 a month, while Unlimited Choice costs $5 more at $65. More importantly, AT&T adjusted features for those plans. You get more LTE hotspot data with Unlimited Plus, while Unlimited Choice no longer caps data speeds. (Similar to Verizon's least expensive unlimited option, AT&T Unlimited Choice Enhanced users may have their speeds slowed down if there's a lot of traffic on AT&T's network.)
- T-Mobile is raising the price on its Unlimited 55+ plan for seniors later this month. The plan used to feature two lines of unlimited data for $60 a month, but that's going up by $10 to $70 as of March 15. (Existing subscribers pay the old rate.) Even with the price increase, the plan still costs much less than T-Mobile's regular pricing for two lines of unlimited data.
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. 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 six 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.
In our most recent round of testing completed in early 2017, Verizon finished on top with the best average download speed and the fastest app download time. T-Mobile and its MetroPCS subsidiary came in second, thanks to the best upload speed.
Plans (25 points): We constantly review the plans offered by each carrier, looking at which one offers the most data at the lowest prices. We evaluated plans for individuals and families as well as prepaid options, rewarding carriers who provide the best mix of value and variety. Our picks for best plans are based on what the carriers are offering as of May 2017.
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 MetroPCS'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 leapt to the top of our rankings as of April 2017, thanks to its strong online tools and friendly reps, narrowly beating out T-Mobile. 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 now offers an unlimited plan (though recent changes make its unlimited options less appealing to families) along with welcome features like rollover data on tiered plans and an option for avoiding overage fees.
Second Place: T-Mobile (90/100)
After a year in the top spot, 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 a great program for international travelers. Finishing behind Verizon in network- performance and customer-service tests puts the Uncarrier in second place overall. Because of its lower-priced plans, T-Mobile earned a nod in our Tech Value Awards for phone service.
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. The carrier added unlimited plans to its offerings this year, but those don't measure up to its rivals, even after a price cut to its most expensive unlimited plan. Still, AT&T does a lot of things well to land squarely in third place.
Fourth Place: MetroPCS (80/100)
A subsidiary of T-Mobile, 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 MetroPCS establishes itself as our pick for top discount carrier. (Customers looking to save money on their monthly bill might even argue MetroPCS to be a better choice than T-Mobile.) Just try to use its phone support as infrequently as possible.
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 MetroPCS. At least the carrier's unlimited data plan is aggressively priced.
Sixth Place: Boost (71/100)
Boost relies on Sprint's network, which means it can't match fellow prepaid carrier MetroPCS 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.
Seventh Place: Cricket (66/100)
Like MetroPCS, Cricket offers a good mix of plans. Unlike MetroPCS, 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. And that overshadows some of Cricket's positives, such as friendly customer service.
Eighth Place: Virgin (62/100)
Virgin has switched its focus to the iPhone, only offering Apple's phone to new customers. Its lone data plan is an unlimited plan that will cost you $50 a month, with the same restrictions on video, music and game streaming as Boost. iPhone fans may find the service appealing, though the lack of tiered data plans feels restrictive.
Ninth Place: Straight Talk (53/100)
It's hard to put this politely: Straight Talk is a disaster. It finished last in our speed test. It ranked at the bottom of our customer-service ratings. And its plans and special features aren't enough to get it out of the cellar here. Straight Talk has at least bolstered the data allotments on current plans, which gives customers more options.