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 smartphones. 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 it looks like the announced merger between T-Mobile and Sprint will go through.
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 for the new year, which will include retesting carriers for customer support and LTE speeds. We'll also be looking at 5G networks, as carriers spent much of last year rolling out the new high-speed networks; 5G expansion will continue into 2020.
And of course, should the Sprint and T-Mobile merger finally go through — we're awaiting the outcome of a court case filed by various state attorneys general that seeks to block the deal — we'll re-evaluate what the combined T-Mobile will mean for the wireless network market.
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 is shutting down in February.) 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 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.
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 a great program for international travelers. Finishing behind Verizon in our network performance and customer service tests puts the Uncarrier in second place overall.
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: 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 — and that's still true after the carrier changed its name to Metro by T-Mobile. 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 MetroPCS. At least the carrier's unlimited data plan is aggressively priced.
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.
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 is shuttering Virgin and moving remaining customers over to Boost in February.
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