Chances are, you already own a cell phone. The slim marvels of technology we keep in our pockets and purses have become ubiquitous to modern life. They keep us in constant contact with our loved ones and let us post to social media. They're at once pocket-sized cameras and mobile libraries, music players and streaming TVs. But a cell phone is nothing without a good provider, one that will give you solid reception and fast download speeds at a decent price.
Whether you're buying your first mobile phone or are looking to switch carriers, picking the right cell phone company is no easy feat. First, you'll have to choose between contract plans or prepaid options. Contracts get you discounted prices on brand-new phones but lock you into a carrier for at least two years. Prepaid plans, on the other hand, let you pay for your service month-to-month and switch at any time, but you'll have to shell out the full price of a phone up front or bring a device you already own.
The best cell phone providers will give you a choice of plan type: contract or prepaid, single-line or family share. They'll offer superb reception across the country, speedy 4G LTE download speeds and a service team that's a pleasure to work with. No doubt, you've heard of many of the names atop our rankings. Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T all provide reliable coverage coast to coast, but which is best for you? Read our reviews, compare prices, and should you still have trouble deciding, our articles on cell phone providers will help you find the perfect match.
Finding the best cell phone plan is all about finding the right balance. If you go with a contract, you'll have to balance a moderate monthly bill against your desire to have the latest and greatest smartphones in your hand. If you live in a rural area, you'll have to decide between paying a low price and getting service without spotty reception. Whatever your needs, keep the following criteria in mind and you'll find making the decision much easier:
Plans & Pricing
Cell phone plans vary greatly from one service provider to the next. Thankfully, providers are defaulting to unlimited talk and text plans far more frequently these days, so unless you go with a budget, prepaid service, you probably won't have to worry about paying for your individual texts and minutes.
Data, on the other hand, is very much a factor in pricing. Depending on which service you go with, those gigabytes can add up. At some providers, exceeding your allocation will incur additional charges; at others, it will simply throttle your speeds, making it much less practical to stream audio and video to your phone. A handful of carriers offer truly unlimited data, letting you stream video all day long without ever having to worry about overages.
Of course, if you don't want or need a smartphone, data allocation becomes much less important. For people who barely use their phone for phone calls, much less downloads, it's more cost-effective to go with a provider that offers small bundles of minutes.
When you're looking for a cell phone provider, check how well it covers the areas you frequent most. Few things can be as frustrating as dropped calls or a No Service alert, whether you're at home, at work or on the road. Most providers offer excellent coverage along the coastlines and around major cities, but many are spotty in rural areas.
4G LTE is the latest, fastest form of mobile broadband. Feature phone users don't need to worry about it, since it's only used by smartphones. If you're a heavy smartphone user and like to stream multimedia, make sure the carrier you're considering has 4G LTE towers in your area.
Devices & Features
If you're only interested in a basic phone, you can find affordable options from just about every carrier. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a smartphone, tablet or mobile hotspot, be sure to check our comparisons to see what each company offers. Most providers offer Android phones, for instance, but fewer sell iPhones.
Everyone hates hidden fees, and cell phone bills are notorious for showing up with extras you didn't budget for. Roaming fees are quite rare these days, especially if you only travel domestically, but they can rack up quickly if you're not careful. Activation and early-termination fees can increase the cost of starting a new plan or switching to a different provider well beyond what you expected. And if you have a data plan, it's not uncommon to see overage charges tacked onto your monthly statement. Before you sign up for any plan, know exactly what to expect.
Help & Support
Great customer service can mean the difference between a provider you hate and one you love. No matter how simple your plan or infrequently you use your phone, you're bound to have to speak to a representative at some point. Look for companies with great telephone and email support and FAQs pages to answer your questions. If your phone dies and you don't have a way to make a service call, Live Chat can help you find solutions with someone over the internet. And if you're a fan of social media, Twitter- and Facebook-based service and support can mean less time on hold waiting for answers, and more time going about your life.
Picking a new cell phone provider is a big decision that can affect you, your finances and your quality of life for years. Take your time and think about what matters most to you in a carrier, and you'll end up with a phone you can rely on wherever you go.