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.
Recent Updates to This Guide (Updated June 13)
Our carrier rankings are based on testing and evaluation we completed on May 9, 2017. But with wireless providers constantly updating their plans and services, we keep this guide updated to reflect the latest information about plan pricing and special features.
AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have all updated their prepaid plan pricing in recent weeks, and Straight Talk has introduced new plans while increasing the amount of LTE data it offers to subscribers. New services added since our last update include T-Mobile's Digits, which lets you use your phone number on multiple devices, and Sprint offering six months of Tidal music streaming to its customers.
How We Tested
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 (with a little nudge from T-Mobile) 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.
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. 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. 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: Virgin (67/100)
Virgin has the best plan for smartphone users on a budget — a $35-a-month, 5GB option — but like Boost, it relies on Sprint's slower network. Virgin also finished near the bottom when we tested customer support among carriers.
Eighth 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.
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. Since we published these rankings in May 2017, Straight Talk has added new data plans while also increasing the data allotments on current plans, at least giving customers more options.
Verizon - The #1 Phone Carrier
Verizon had the fastest network in our carrier speed tests. It had the best customer service when we went undercover to grade how carriers handled tech support questions. Throw in an attractive mix of plans and phone selection that outshines what its rivals offer, and it's easy to see how Verizon landed on top of our rankings as the best U.S. phone carrier.
Verizon leapfrogs from second place over last year's champion, T-Mobile, to claim the wireless carrier crown. And this really is an instance where Verizon put in a little extra effort to grab the top spot. Here's how Big Red won the day.
Carrier Performance (38/40 points)
When we went to six cities across the country to test LTE speeds for nine different carriers, Verizon recorded the fastest national download average download speed, at 36 Mbps. It claimed the top performance in two cities outright (New York and Chicago) and never finished outside the top four in any city we tested. Most impressively, it had the best app download times in every city where we tested, averaging just over a minute nationally to download Pokemon Go.
Feeling pressure from its rivals, Verizon finally reversed course to offer an unlimited data plan — and it's a winner.
Verizon also rates highly in performance by third-party testing companies. OpenSignal says Verizon is essentially tied with T-Mobile for speed, though it maintains the slightest of edges in coverage area. RootMetrics is more bullish on Big Red, saying Verizon is the clear leader for both coverage and reliability.
Plans (22/25 points)
Feeling pressure from its rivals, Verizon finally reversed course to offer an unlimited data plan — and it's a winner. While not as cheap as similar plans from Sprint and T-Mobile, Verizon's $80-a-month unlimited plan allows for HD video streaming and includes 10GB of LTE hotspot data. You have to tack on $5 per month per line to T-Mobile's $70 unlimited plan to match those features. (However, note that Verizon's plan doesn't include taxes and fees; T-Mobile's does.)
Unlike Sprint and T-Mobile, which only offer unlimited data now, Verizon still has tiered data plans, and if you're an individual user who doesn't need limitless data, Verizon's 5GB-for-$55-a-month offering is pretty compelling. Vwerizon also lets you roll over unused data to the next month — another welcome change in policy — and if you enable Safety Mode, Verizon merely slows down your data speeds to 2G when you go over your allotment rather than charge you overage fees.
For prepaid customers, Verizon also offers a wide range of options, starting at 3GB ($40 a month) and going all the way up to unlimited data ($80 a month, the same as its post-paid plan). Verizon's tiered data plans let prepaid customers roll over unused data, too.
Customer Service (19/20 points)
In our undercover testing, Verizon topped our customer service rankings by nailing every aspect of tech support. The carrier fielded questions posted to Twitter and Facebook with alacrity. The company's phone support reps were courteous and helpful — one even wound up saving our undercover tester money on her monthly bill. But it's Verizon's online support that really stands out, thanks to thorough documentation and helpful online tools like a device simulator to help you learn about how to use your smartphone.
Phone Selection (9/10 points)
Verizon's CDMA network is no longer the barrier it once was, especially with the carrier lining up so many noteworthy exclusives to offer its subscribers. Verizon is the only carrier to offer the Google Pixel (though you can get that phone unlocked directly from Google) and the modular Moto Z Droid. Verizon also offers one of the widest selections of phones, and if there's a flagship device from a major phone maker, it's likely to be available through Verizon.
Special Features (3/5 points)
Verizon can't quite match the special features that T-Mobile provides to its subscribers — few carriers can — but it rewards customers in a few different ways. That unlimited data plan Verizon added this year includes calling from the U.S. to Mexico and Canada. Travel in those two countries, and you'll pay just $2 extra per day to use your phone's existing data plan. (It's $10 a day if you travel to more than 100 other countries.)
Verizon's Smart Rewards program lets you earn points for paying your bill and sticking with the carrier. You can redeem those points for Visa gift cards, travel deals and other merchandise. It's not nearly as generous as T-Mobile Tuesdays, but it's OK.
Verizon's apps are a mixed bag. There are duplicative offerings like Family Locator ($9.99 per month to track device location, which other services will provide for less or even free, if you've got an iPhone) or VZ Navigator, a $5-per-month assisted GPS service. Verizon Cloud's 5GB of free storage is OK, though not nearly as vast as the 15GB that Google Drive gives you.
At least Verizon's NFL Mobile app will appeal to sports fans, thanks to its streaming of live local and prime time games. And the content on go90 is starting to feature more sports action, too.
T-Mobile - The #2 Phone Carrier
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, though the coverage mapper's most recent report placed T-Mobile in a dead heat with Verizon for top network speed. (T-Mobile had been tops the last time OpenSignal tested, in August 2016.) RootMetrics was less complimentary, giving T-Mobile its lowest ranking among the Big Four carriers for overall performance.T-Mobile disputes that network-testing firm's methodology, however.
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.
T-Mobile's unlimited plan isn't the cheapest; that would be Sprint. And if you want the HD video streaming and 10GB of LTE hotspot data that Verizon offers to its unlimited users, you've got to tack on $5 per line to your monthly $70 rate. But T-Mobile's plan does absorb all your taxes and fees, so that the rate on your plan is exactly what you'll be charged each month. Other carriers can't say the same.
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 pricing when compared to what dedicated prepaid carriers charge (Virgin offers 5GB for $35 for example) or even AT&T's GoPhone prepaid pricing, in which $45 gets you 6GB of data.
Customer Service (18/20 points)
Our undercover testing suggest 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.
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 while T-Mobile can offer some exclusives, like the ZTE Zmax Pro, 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.
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's the best choice if you do a lot of international travel. With a T-Mobile plan, you get unlimited data and texting in 140 countries, though at 128-kKbps speeds. You can opt for T-Mobile's One Plus International plan for an extra $25 a month to speed up your data overseas. You get unlimited 4G LTE coverage in Mexico and Canada under T-Mobile's standard unlimited plan.
On flights equipped with Gogo internet service, T-Mobile gives you an hour of free Wi-Fi plus unlimited texting. Unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi via Gogo is covered under the same extra $5 per month per line that gives you HD video streaming.
After we published 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.
AT&T - The #3 Phone Carrier
While Verizon and T-Mobile slug it out for the top spot in our carrier rankings, AT&T quietly put in a solid all-around performance that landed the company in third place.
The carrier slipped a little in our customer service ratings this year, and its recently unveiled unlimited-data plans are the least appealing of any of the major carriers. But AT&T also offers an attractively prepaid plan, and its network performance remains strong, firmly keeping this carrier in the upper rank of cellphone service providers.
Network Performance (36/40 points)
In our latest LTE speed testing, AT&T had the second-fastest download speed nationally, at 25.6 Mbps, trailing only Verizon's 36-Mbps average. T-Mobile (and its subsidiary, MetroPCS) both had faster upload averages than AT&T, though, and AT&T had the third fastest time in our app-download test. Put it all together, and it adds up to a fourth-place finish for the carrier in our speed rankings.
Still, AT&T can point to some bright spots in our testing. It had the best performance in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with solid numbers in New York and Houston, as well.
Anyone can get an unlimited-data plan from AT&T, though there's a question about just how good AT&T's new plans are.
Third-party network-testing firms also see AT&T's network as a solid, though not leading performer. OpenSignal puts the carrier third behind Verizon and T-Mobile for network speed in the firm's most recent report. RootMetrics ranks AT&T as a strong performer, finishing second behind Verizon.
Plans (20/25 points)
AT&T was a latecomer to the unlimited-data-plan game, previously offering limitless data only to customers who also subscribed to the company's DirecTV service. Now, anyone can get an unlimited-data plan from AT&T, though there's a question about just how good AT&T's two unlimited offerings are.
AT&T Unlimited Plus is the better option, though at $90 a month for one line, it's also the most expensive. However, this plan allows for HD-video streaming, includes 10GB of LTE hotspot data and throws in free HBO. AT&T's $60 Unlimited Choice plan is as inexpensive as Sprint's regularly priced unlimited plan, but streams video only at 480p resolution and caps data speed at 3 Mbps. Both of AT&T's unlimited plans now let you add on the DirecTV Now streaming service for a discounted rate. AT&T still has tiered-data plans, but they're not terribly compelling once you factor in the carrier's $20 monthly access fee, and they're really only available if you set up your service in one of AT&T's retail outlets or switch from an existing plan.
Prepaid plans through AT&T's GoPhone program are much more compelling at least in terms of the amount of data you get. AT&T's best prepaid option offers 6GB of LTE data for $45 a month, and autopay enrollment can save you another $5 off that plan. That's double the data MetroPCS offers its subscribers for the same price. AT&T does cap speeds on its GoPhone plans, though, which MetroPCS does not.
For families, AT&T offers escalating discounts on its prepaid plans as you add more lines: You can take $5 off a second line of data, $10 off the third and $15 off the fourth.
AT&T's online help is extensive, and the company's phone reps are knowledgeable.
Customer Service (17/20 points)
AT&T had been our top-rated carrier for customer service before instituting a new automated phone-tree system. When we tested phone support, this new system routed us to the wrong department on a couple occasions, marring an otherwise positive experience. So AT&T tumbled below Verizon and T-Mobile in our latest rankings.
AT&T still has plenty going for it on the customer service front. The carrier's online help is extensive, its phone reps are knowledgeable, and its Twitter and Facebook accounts provide basic, if delayed, answers to support questions.
Phone Selection (8/10 points)
If there's a major flagship phone out there, chances are it's going to be available on AT&T. Not only will you find the latest iPhone and Galaxy models, but AT&T also sells the previous generation of these phones if you're looking to save a few bucks. Verizon's wrapped up a greater number of noteworthy exclusives, but AT&T can boast a few "gets" of its own, such as last year's Galaxy S7 Active.
MORE: Best AT&T Phones
Special Features (3/5 points)
If you have a tiered-data plan, you can watch DirecTV content — including the much-maligned DirecTV Now streaming service — and it won't count against your monthly allotment. AT&T Locker offers 50GB of free storage, which is more than you can get with a service such as Google Drive. Other AT&T apps, including AT&T Navigator and Family Map, duplicate navigation and device-finding features offered elsewhere, while charging you $9.99 a month.
If you've got an unlimited plan, you can roam in North America without worry, as AT&T offers text, talk and data in Canada and Mexico. As for other international plans, AT&T's $10 per day International Day Pass allows users to take their existing plans with them to more than 100 countries. For travelers on longer trips, AT&T offers the Passport travel plan, which starts at $40 and lasts 30 days.
MetroPCS - The #1 Low-Cost Phone Carrier
Thanks to a fast mobile network and appealing plans that satisfy both data demands and budget concerns, MetroPCS is our top-ranked prepaid carrier. In fact, MetroPCS has enough going for it that we'd even recommend it over Sprint. Opting for MetroPCS means accepting some trade-offs, particularly in the area of customer service, where the carrier continues to struggle, but MetroPCS' mix of performance and plans is hard to overlook.
Carrier Performance (37/40 points)
MetroPCS relies on the network of its parent company, T-Mobile, and that's fortunate, considering that T-Mobile finished just a hair behind speed champ Verizon in our LTE network speed testing. We found that MetroPCS essentially matched the download and upload speeds of T-Mobile; MetroPCS averaged 22.1 Mbps down and 16 Mbps up, compared to 23.5 Mbps down and 16.3 Mbps up for T-Mobile. In three of the cities where we tested, MetroPCS actually posted faster download speeds than its parent company.
Thanks to its use of T-Mobile's network, MetroPCS is far and away the fastest prepaid carrier. It outpaced the download averages for both Virgin (18 Mbps) and Boost (16.8 Mbps), while leaving Cricket and Straight Talk in the dust.
Whether you want a low monthly bill or a big bucket of data, MetroPCS has a plan that will deliver what you're asking for.
Plans (21/25 points)
Whether you want a low monthly bill or a big bucket of data, MetroPCS has a plan that will deliver what you're asking for. Plans start at $30 a month for 2GB of data, which is a bargain, even stacked against other low-cost prepaid plans. Add an additional line on that plan or MetroPCS' $40 3GB plan, and the carrier will knock $5 off each line. That's not as generous as the escalating discounts Cricket offers families, but MetroPCS can point to its superior network performance.
MetroPCS really shines in its unlimited data plan. You can get unlimited data for $50 a month if you don't mind restricting your video streams to 480p. (That's DVD-quality, MetroPCS says, and on a phone-size screen, this quality may satisfy most users.) Pay $60 a month, and you can get HD video streaming plus 8GB of LTE hotspot data with your unlimited plan. Boost charges $50 a month for its unlimited offering, but that carrier restricts video, music and game streaming, making either MetroPCS plan the better option.
If there's one area where MetroPCS continues to struggle, it's in handling customer service questions.
Customer Service (13/20 points)
If there's one area where MetroPCS continues to struggle, it's in handling customer service questions. While MetroPCS' online support site has improved — it now includes documentation for various phones — the carrier doesn't always answer questions promptly on social media. Phone support features a maze of automated voice-recognition options that you have to navigate, adding time to support calls. MetroPCS reps struggled to answer our questions, and we struggled to understand the answers. If you anticipate needing to interact with support a lot, that may be reason enough to give MetroPCS a pass.
Phone Selection (6/10 points)
For a discount carrier, MetroPCS offers a pretty decent selection of phones. While not great in number — we counted 27 models on offer, which tops only Virgin among discount carries — you do get a variety of phones, from flagships like the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 to exclusives like the ZTE Zmax Pro. MetroPCS also features around 20 phones selling for less than $300, which is good if you want to spend as little on hardware as you do on cellular service.
Special Features (3/5 points)
MetroPCS has stepped up its perks considerably since the last time we evaluated carriers, taking a cue from parent company, T-Mobile. Customers with tiered data plans can take advantage of a Data Maximizer feature, which streams video at lower resolution, allowing you to squeeze more data out of your monthly allotment. The carrier's Music Unlimited program lets you stream music from more than 40 services without touching any of your data.
Like the $60 unlimited plan, MetroPCS' 2GB and 3GB plans let you use LTE hotspot data, although with these tiered data plans, hotspot data comes from your monthly allotment.
For $5 a month, you can get an add-on to your plan that allows unlimited calling in either Mexico or Canada. The Unlimited Canada package also includes unlimited texting to the United States' neighbor to the north, and you can use your LTE data plan when traveling in Canada. Mexico Unlimited offers the same benefits, except you don't get unlimited texting to or from that country. A $10 World Calling package allows for unlimited calls to landlines in more than 75 countries, plus 200 minutes of mobile calling in select countries.
Sprint is making an effort to close the gap between itself and its Big Four rivals, rolling out an aggressively priced, unlimited data plan and making an effort to improve its fourth-place network. But other competitors aren't standing still either, and Sprint now finds itself looking up at prepaid provider MetroPCS after dropping in our rankings.
Carrier Performance (33/40 points)
First, the good news for Sprint: It performed better this year when we tested LTE speeds in six cities, turning in one of the fastest average download speeds in Houston (it only trailed Virgin, which uses Sprint's network), and outperforming AT&T and T-Mobile's download speeds in Chicago.
Now, the bad news: Sprint still lags behind the other major carriers in LTE speed; its national download average of 17.7 Mbps places it fifth in our rankings. Because MetroPCS' speed so closely matches that of parent network T-Mobile, Sprint found itself finishing behind MetroPCS in addition to Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T.
Sprint can point to offering the lowest-priced unlimited data plan.
RootMetrics had some encouraging words for Sprint in its most recent report on network performance, praising the carrier for investing in its network and noting the company's ongoing technological initiatives. OpenSignal noted in its most recent report that Sprint's speed declined, though the network-testing company said that 4G availability has improved for the carrier.
Plans (21/25 points)
Sprint can point to offering the lowest-priced unlimited data plan. Sprint charges $60 for a line of unlimited data, though a current promotion lowers that cost to $50 per month until June 2018. (At that point, the rate reverts to the standard $60 monthly charge.) Even before the discount, Sprint's unlimited plan cost less than similar offerings from T-Mobile ($70) and Verizon ($80). AT&T offers a $60-per-month unlimited plan, but it has caps on data speed and video streaming that Sprint doesn't impose on its users.
Sprint's discounts also apply to family plans. Normally, a family of four would pay $160 per month for unlimited data — the same amount T-Mobile charges — though Sprint's current promotion lowers the monthly cost to $90 through June 2018.
Note that Sprint has essentially eliminated tiered data plans for post-paid customers, hoping to win you over with unlimited data. (There's a 2GB option available for individual customers, but at $40 a month, it's not a very compelling one.) If you really don't want an unlimited plan, you could try Sprint's prepaid service, where $40 a month gets you 4GB of LTE data; Sprint offers a $10 discount on each additional line of 4GB for families on its prepaid plans.
Customer Service (14/20 points)
Sprint took a step back when we went undercover to test customer service this year. The carrier's agents certainly answered questions promptly and politely when we approached them on social media and over the phone, but the answers weren't always accurate.
We had better luck online, where Sprint's chat feature provided informative responses in a timely fashion. It's also easy to look up information on Sprint's support site.
Phone Selection (8/10 points)
Sprint offers a respectable mix of phones. You'll find all the major flagship phones at the carrier, as you would expect, along with the previous generation of Apple, Samsung and LG flagships. Verizon has assembled the more impressive array of exclusive phones, though Sprint was the only carrier to offer the HTC Bolt, which was designed specifically to take advantage of Sprint's carrier aggregation. (Now if only more markets would support that capability.) When the Essential Phone debuts later this year, it will be a Sprint exclusive as well.
The rise of unlimited plans means that one of Sprint's best promotions — its willingness to cut your bill in half if you switch from a tiered data plan with another carrier — is no more.
Special Features (3/5 points)
The rise of unlimited plans means that one of Sprint's best promotions — its willingness to cut your bill in half if you switch from a tiered data plan with another carrier — is no more. Sprint still offers a few perks, though.
Sprint subscribers can sign up for Amazon Prime through the carrier for $10.99 a month. That's not attractive pricing if you keep the subscription for a full year — Amazon only charges $99 — but if you just need the service for a month here and there, it's an appealing offer. After we published our rankings in May 2017, Sprint announced that its customers can get six months of Tidal HiFi streaming music for free. (That service normally costs $19.99 a month.)
On the international front, Sprint's Open World Program should appeal to anyone who travels frequently to Central and South America, since you get unlimited talk and text plus 1GB of high-speed data when you're in that region. (You'll pay extra should you travel in Europe or China, though.) Sprint Global Roaming offers free text and data, but only at 2G speeds in most countries.
Other Sprint specials don't seem as special as the carrier probably thinks they are. Sprint Music Plus is a music player that's unlikely to have you singing its praises, and Sprint TV's promise of live or on-demand video only takes off if you skip the free service and pay up for the $9.99-a-month Xtra version. Sprint's Scout personal navigator and Family Safety Essentials mirror services you can find elsewhere, and the 5GB of free cloud storage you get through Pogoplug doesn't match the 15GB you'll get with Google Drive.
It would be tempting, and not entirely wrong, to think of Boost Mobile as the Mini-Me to its parent company, Sprint.
Boost uses Sprint's network and essentially offers the same performance. And like Sprint, Boost is pushing unlimited plans, though with a few more restrictions than what Sprint now offers.
Carrier Performance (33/40 points)
As noted above, Boost relies on Sprint's network; as a result, you'll deal with the same limitations in performance and reach that Sprint customers face. On the bright side, there's no significant difference in network speed whether you use Sprint or Boost. When we tested LTE speeds around the country, we recorded an average download speed of 16.8 Mbps for Boost, compared to the close-enough-for-government-work average of 17.7 Mbps for Sprint.
Boost's unlimited plan is not as limitless as it seems.
Compared to other prepaid carriers, Boost was slow. It lagged a tick behind its fellow Sprint subsidiary Virgin in download speed and well behind the 22.1-Mbps average that MetroPCS put up. However, Boost is much speedier than both Cricket and Straight Talk based on our testing.
Plans (16/25 points)
Boost used to reward subscribers for on-time payments by letting them build up the size of their monthly data allotment. But the newfound popularity of unlimited plans prompted Boost to scrap that program. Instead, the carrier offers two plans: one with 2GB of LTE data for $35 a month and an unlimited data plan for $50. You can knock $5 off the cost of Boost's 2GB plan by signing up for autopay, and you can add additional LTE data for $5 per GB.
The unlimited plan is not as limitless as it seems, though. Boost restricts your video streaming to 480p resolution; in addition, you'll be able to stream music only at 500 Kbps and games at just 2 Mbps. MetroPCS' $50 unlimited plan has the same restriction on video (though not on music and games), and that carrier charges just $10 extra a month for HD-video streaming. Boost also lets you pay up to remove streaming restrictions, but charges $20 per month for that privilege.
Additional lines on Boost cost $30 each. That's no discount if you've got the 2GB plan, but you save $20 per line if you tack on additional unlimited lines to your account.
When calling Boost for tech support, be prepared for a lot of automated menus.
Customer Service (14/20 points)
To get answers to questions during our undercover customer-support testing with Boost, we had the best luck using Twitter and Facebook. Responses on social media are prompt, though you should expect a little back and forth, especially on Twitter. Boost offers some fairly thorough online resources, too, but the carrier lacks an online chat feature for getting more detailed responses.
Our biggest frustration came from Boost's phone support, which is seemingly set up to discourage you from talking to an actual person. Be prepared for a lot of automated menus, which will try to answer questions about your account.
Phone Selection (6/10 points)
Expect a solid mix of phones from Boost. Among dedicated prepaid carriers, it has the second largest selection, after Straight Talk, with most phones available for less than $300. The biggest knock here is that Boost's bring-your-own-device offer is restricted to devices that work on the carrier's CDMA network.
Special Features (2/5 points)
If you opt for Boost's tiered-data plan, you can stream music from six different services, including Spotify and Pandora, without it hitting your monthly allotment. Boost also offers a free video-streaming app called Boost TV, but to take advantage of content from ABC, A+E Networks and Fox, you'll need to upgrade to the premium package, for $10 a month.
For international use, Boost sells a $5-a-month add-on that lets you make unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico and text internationally. You also get up to 8GB of data roaming while traveling in Mexico. The $10 package includes all of that plus calls to landlines in more than 70 countries and 200 minutes of mobile calling to more than 50 countries.
If you want to knock some money off of your bill each month, you can sign up for Boost Dealz. You'll be exposed to ads and offers whenever you unlock your phone and, in exchange, will get a $5 account credit every 30 days.
Virgin Mobile has made a few recent strides in its attempts to break out from the rest of the prepaid pack. It offers a lot of data at a compelling price in one of the more attractive prepaid plans for less than $40 a month. But Virgin is still saddled to Sprint's less-than-stellar network and it fails to distinguish itself on the customer-service front.
Network Performance (33/40)
A subsidiary of Sprint, Virgin relies on Sprint's network for its coverage. While that means Virgin is subject to the same limitations as Sprint's coverage, at least the carrier was able to match Sprint's performance when we tested the speed of mobile carriers' LTE networks.
Virgin tallied an average national download speed of 18 Mbps, decimal points ahead of Sprint's 17.7 Mbps average. Virgin was the fastest carrier we tested in Houston, thanks to Sprint's network there. That said, Sprint finished a second faster on our app download test than Virgin did, but the bottom line is that you can turn to Virgin and expect virtually the same performance you'd get from Sprint.
Virgin is subject to the same limitations as Sprint's coverage, but it was able to match Sprint's performance.
Plans (19/25 points)
Virgin offers the most compelling prepaid plan for less than $40, with its plan promising 5GB of LTE data. That will set you back $35, giving you much more data than the 3GB Cricket offers for the same price (assuming you enroll in Cricket's autopay program.)
Virgin offers the most compelling prepaid plan for less than $40, with its plan promising 5GB of LTE data.
You can double your data to 10GB by paying $10 more to Virgin. The carrier also offers an unlimited data plan for $60 a month, though it has restrictions on video, music and game streaming. In fact, Virgin's unlimited plan has the same restrictions as fellow Sprint subsidiary Boost, though Boost's unlimited plan costs $10 less.
Customer Service (10/20 points)
If there's one area where Virgin really comes up short, it's customer service. And that’s because of the carrier's lackluster phone support. Like Boost, Virgin does all it can to dissuade you from talking to an actual person, though Virgin's service provided more unsatisfying answers when we went undercover to test carriers' support offerings.
The carrier offers better support tools online and through social media. Its Facebook account was particular responsive when we posed a tech-support question during our research. Like Boost, Virgin doesn't offer online chat support, which seems an odd omission given the carrier's reluctance to talk to you over the phone.
Phone Selection (3/10 points)
Virgin's phone selection is the most limited of the carriers we evaluated. We count 22 phones available through the carrier, though it does offer both the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 7. If you're bringing your own phone, Virgin only supports devices that can run on its CDMA-based network. That said, Virgin does a decent number of phones for less than $300, though other prepaid carriers have a wider selection of budget phones.
Special Features (2/5 points)
Many of the special benefits Virgin dangles at subscribers mirror those offered by fellow Sprint subsidiary Boost. Like Boost, Virgin lets you stream music from six providers, including Spotify and Pandora, without any impact on your monthly data allotment. Virgin also lets you increase the amount of your data plan by paying $5 per GB, just like Boost.
Virgin's international offerings are not that different from what Boost offers. A $5-per-month add-on gives you unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico (Mexico includes mobile calling), plus unlimited texting. The $10-a-month international package adds unlimited calls to landlines in more than 70 countries, plus 200 mobile minutes in more than 50 countries.
Opting for prepaid service can feel like a series of trade-offs, and no company illustrates this better than Cricket. On the one hand, Cricket offers subscribers a wide array of attractively priced plans, particularly if you've got multiple lines. On the other, you have to suffer through some seriously constrained wireless service to reap any savings.
Carrier Performance (27/40 points)
A subsidiary of AT&T, Cricket takes great pains to tout the reach of its parent network. Look at the finer print on the Cricket website, though, and you'll see that Cricket caps download speeds at 8 Mbps. We've tested LTE network speeds, and we can assure you: Cricket's not kidding.
The carrier averaged a 6 Mbps download speed in our testing, and only in Houston and Chicago did Cricket hit that 8 Mbps ceiling with any consistency. Only Straight Talk turned in slower speeds.
Other prepaid services don't face Cricket’s restriction on data speed.
Other prepaid services don't face that restriction on data speed. MetroPCS matches the superior speed of its parent company T-Mobile, and both Virgin and Boost mirror the performance of Sprint, which owns both carriers.
Plans (18/25 points)
Cricket's plans are more appealing than its network performance, and it upped the data limit on its most popular plan after we posted our rankings in May 2017. Plans start at $30 a month for 1GB of LTE data and climb to $60 for an unlimited plan. You can knock $5 off every Cricket plan save for its 1GB offering by enrolling in autopay.
MetroPCS offers more data (2GB) for $30 a month, while the $35 (with autopay discount) you'd spend for 4GB of LTE data at Cricket would get you 5GB with Virgin. Both Boost and MetroPCS offer less expensive unlimited plans, too, though with restrictions on video streaming.
MORE: Best Prepaid Phone Plans
Cricket's pricing is much more appealing to families, as the carrier offers escalating discounts the more lines you add on a plan. Cricket takes $10 off the second line of data, $20 off the third line, $30 off the fourth and $40 off the fifth. Under this pricing, a family of four pays $100 for 4GB of data on each of their four lines.
Customer Service (15/20 points)
Cricket fared the best of any prepaid carrier on our undercover customer-service testing. We even ranked Cricket higher than Sprint, largely because of some inaccurate answers we received when using Sprint's phone-support lines.
We were impressed by the amount of detail Cricket's online support resources provide. Calls to the carrier's phone support line were handled quickly, even after we had to navigate through a phone tree at the beginning of each call. Posting questions to Cricket's Twitter and Facebook accounts produced quick responses that could have been a bit more detailed.
Phone Selection (5/10 points)
Nothing particularly stands out about the phones available through Cricket. You can find the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7, with Cricket largely focusing on phones that cost $300 or less. Only Virgin offers fewer models among prepaid carriers.
Cricket embraces a no-frills approach to its service, as customer-friendly extras are few and far between.
Special Features (1/5 points)
Cricket embraces a no-frills approach to its service, as customer-friendly extras are few and far between. Cricket's 8GB and unlimited data plans include unlimited calls and texts to Mexico and Canada. For other countries, you’ll need to add a Cricket International Plan, which tacks $5 to your bill for unlimited landline calls to 36 countries; a $10 option adds unlimited texting plus 1,000 minutes of mobile-to-mobile calls.
In April, Cricket added a new Stream More feature that caps video streams at 480p, so you'll consume less data when catching up on your favorite Netflix shows. You have the option of turning off Stream More if you prefer to watch higher-resolution video on your phone.
Cricket has a Refer-A-Friend program that gives your a $25 service credit for referring a new customer who stays for 60 days.
People who turn to Straight Talk for their wireless coverage probably have good reasons for doing so. We'd just be hard-pressed to imagine what those reasons are. The carrier had the slowest LTE speed in our network testing and turned in the worst grade in our customer service tests. Plus, Straight Talk offers the fewest options in its wireless plans. It's little wonder, then, that this carrier has the lowest score of all in our reports.
Carrier Performance (24/40 points)
The unavoidable things in life now include death, taxes and Straight Talk bringing up the rear in our LTE testing in six U.S. cities. Straight Talk had the lowest national download and upload averages: 5.1 and 2.2 Mbps, respectively. It also tied Cricket for the slowest app-download speed, taking 2 minutes and 43 seconds to download Pokémon Go on average. That's 1:39 slower than speed champ Verizon's time. Straight Talk finished last in every city where we tested.
Plans (14/25 points)
Straight Talk's best plan is one of the more expensive prepaid options: a $60-a-month offering that now gives you 8GB of data along with unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to Mexico, Canada, China and India. (That's a higher data allotment than before, as Straight Talk revamped its plans after we published our May 2017 rankings.) Remove that international component from your Straight Talk plan, and you can pay either $45 for 8GB or $55 for 12GB. In addition to expanding the size of its current plans, Straight Talk also added a 2GB for $35 a month to appeal to customers who don't need a lot of data. Straight Talk offers autopay discounts, but at $1 off each month, they're pretty meager compared to the $5 its rivals will take off your monthly bill.
About the only portion of Straight Talk's customer service that stood out in a positive way was the online chat feature.
Customer Service (9/20 points)
It is impossible to stress how badly Straight Talk missed the mark during our customer service testing. One of our questions posted to Twitter went unanswered, and our phone calls to Straight Talk's customer-support line produced frustrating and unclear answers. About the only portion of Straight Talk's service that stood out in a positive way was the carrier's online chat feature. But that wasn't enough to stop the provider from landing at the bottom of our customer service rankings.
Phone Selection (5/10 points)
You are not going to turn to Straight Talk if you want the latest and greatest smartphone models. Apart from the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S8, few leading flagship phones are available through Straight Talk. The carrier really excels at offering low-cost handsets, particularly older models; we counted six dozen models at $300 or less. Straight Talk also offers bring-your-own-device options if you can't stand to part with your current phone.
Special Features (1/5 points)
Special features are few and far between at this discount carrier. Apart from the aforementioned international calling package, Straight Talk's biggest claim to fame is a Remote Alert security system that costs $10 a month, plus $50 for the equipment. Remote Alert will notify you when sensors detect motion in your home.
Straight Talk is among the companies that developed the CallDetector app for Android to prevent scam calls. It's free for seven days before Straight Talk charges you $15 for an annual subscription.