Cell Phone Providers Review

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The top performers in our review are Verizon Wireless, the Gold Award winner; T-Mobile, the Silver Award winner; and Sprint, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a cell phone provider to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the 10 providers.

The best cell phone providers offer excellent coverage, flexible plans, and a great selection of top- and mid-tier phones, all at a reasonable price. At least, that's how it works in theory. In practice, the companies with the best networks usually have the highest prices. If you find a great deal on a plan, you probably have to suffer slow download speeds once you sign up. So which do you choose?

After diligently comparing all four national carriers and their innumerable mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), providers that don't operate their own towers, we've identified the 10 best cell phone companies in the country. Picking a carrier is all about making tradeoffs, but if you know your budget and usage patterns, you can use our mobile comparisons to find your best fit.

The best cell phone provider in the nation continues to be Verizon Wireless. Its extensive coverage, speed and reliability are unmatched. For pure bang for your buck, though, a formerly lackluster carrier has risen to the forefront: Sprint. Its network has seen significant improvements in recent months, and it offers the best prices over the course of two years.

How We Evaluated the Carriers

Top Ten Reviews analyzes the state of the cellular industry every couple of months. Unlike most of our reviews and comparisons on other products, we consider price when ranking cell phone providers because how much you pay each month is a significant factor in your buying decision. It's not, however, the main factor – if you're in the market for the cheapest service you can get, we strongly recommend you look at our reviews of prepaid cell phone providers.

Indeed, the most important factor we consider is quality of service. Unfortunately, providers can't be counted on to accurately report their coverage quality and speeds. Crowdsourcing options such as Ookla's Speedtest and the popular OpenSignal both let you test download speeds, but for an accurate, independent impression of coverage quality and reliability, RootMetrics is the gold standard. We use RootMetrics' RootScores to guide our analysis of network quality, aggregating them with crowdsourced data and our own tests and experience to arrive at the final grades.

The Best Cellular Service Provider: Verizon

For those in search of the best of the best, the list begins and ends with Verizon. Expensive though it may be, Verizon is the unequivocal king of mobile, offering up the most comprehensive, dependable connectivity you can buy. With the fewest dropped calls, the most expansive coverage in both rural and metropolitan regions, and average download speeds that far exceed what you get anywhere else, there's simply no better service available.

The sole complaint we have with Verizon is financial: Its prices are prohibitive. You can expect to pay up to twice as much at Verizon for similar service from other providers. Granted, with that bill comes a slew of features like subsidized flagship phones, a superb device selection and the dependability of the best network in the country. If you can afford it, there's no better option.

The Best Value Cell Phone Plan: Sprint

After long trailing the rest of the Big Four, Sprint has finally worked itself back into the running with some overdue improvements to its network. Though it continues to lag behind Verizon and AT&T, Sprint's reliability in both metro and rural areas pulls it ahead of T-Mobile. You still can’t connect if you're in the middle of the Nevada desert, but you get service in any decently populated area.

What makes Sprint notable is its pricing. The company only has one tier for individual lines: $60 for unlimited talk, text and 4G LTE data. Granted, Sprint's speeds remain glacially slow, with the LTE network rarely breaking the 10 Mbps mark – barely fast enough to stream HD video. Given that you never have to worry about watching your streaming habits, at that price it is easy to accept a few speed hiccups.

The Budget-Hunter's Pick: Ting

If you're willing to watch your usage and are after rock-bottom monthly rates, our provider pick is Ting. An MVNO that runs on either Sprint's or T-Mobile's network depending on your phone, Ting's pay-for-what-you-use pricing structure is a budget-hunter's dream. Minutes, texts and data are all tallied separately, so if you never use mobile data or are a light texter, your monthly bill will reflect those tendencies.

We may be fans of Ting's low prices, but we're even more taken by the company's customer support. Easily the finest in the business, Ting's team is attentive, easily accessible and unfailingly helpful, as our staff have experienced firsthand.

The Best Family Plan: T-Mobile

Though it's usually cheaper than buying individual lines and plans, purchasing cellular service for an entire family can be painfully pricey. It's not uncommon for a single line to cost upwards of $2,000 over a two year contract and for family plans to reach almost $8,000 over the same period. Luckily, it doesn't have to be that expensive; one of the cheapest family plans you can find is offered by T-Mobile, costing just $5,000 over those same two years.

As we point out in our T-Mobile review, there's a tradeoff for getting such cheap service: The company's rural coverage is incredibly weak, so if you don't live in or around a major metropolitan area, it doesn’t serve you well. Should rural coverage be important to you, consider the AT&T-powered Cricket Wireless. You lose out on device selection and many of the other benefits major carriers bring to the table, but you save even more money each month – Cricket only costs the average family of four about $4,760 over two years.

Picking a Cell Phone Provider: What Else to Look For

The providers we outlined above suit many people, but they aren't for everyone. If you're trying to find cell phone plans that fit your lifestyle, there are a few things to watch out for along the way.

Coverage & Quality
As we've mentioned, the quality of a provider's coverage is the most important factor you should consider as you compare cell phone plans. Verizon claims the top spot in terms of performance, ubiquity and speed. AT&T is a close second, suffering a little more in rural regions. T-Mobile's download speeds are superb, but the carrier can feel useless once you leave metropolitan areas. Sprint's network, meanwhile, is unimpressive but sufficient for most people's needs.

With the exception of U.S. Cellular, which operates a regional network in the Midwest, every other provider is an MVNO of one of the Big Four carriers, piggybacking off of their networks. The better ones offer service on AT&T's towers, but most operate on Sprint's infrastructure.

There's one last consideration to remember when picking a quality network: the communications standard that's used. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, a cellular standard common in the U.S. but rare internationally. T-Mobile and AT&T, on the other hand, use the international GSM standard. Unless a device is very specifically made with both types of antennas, GSM phones won't work on CDMA networks and vice-versa. If you plan on buying an unlocked phone and carting it around from carrier to carrier, keep this in mind.

Pricing & Fees
For many years, carriers would do everything they could to obscure their prices, and it made comparing providers quite difficult. Today, most companies offer unlimited talk and text by default, with varying data allocations at different rates. The confusion comes when you try to compare contract plans with no-contract plans. After all, paying $80 a month for Verizon service gets you a subsidized phone, while paying $40 at a competing provider nets you similar service, but you have to pay the phone's full, retail cost up front.

To take the guesswork out, we've included a line item in our comparisons that lets you see how much two years of service plus the cost of a new, flagship phone is at each provider. This shows you what to expect to pay over two years and makes comparing the true cost of providers easy, regardless of whether they charge more up front or over time.

Plan Features
Beware lest you be drawn in by claims of "unlimited" data; the vast majority of providers that promise it will throttle your speeds once you hit a predetermined data cap. There are just three exceptions to this rule: Sprint, T-Mobile and the T-Mobile-owned MetroPCS. Far more common, though not yet ubiquitous, is unlimited talk and text, a feature offered by all four carriers and most MVNOs.

They haven't spread to MVNOs, but early upgrade plans are growing in popularity at the major carriers. Whether it's Verizon's Edge, T-Mobile's JUMP, AT&T's Next or Sprint's Easy Pay, all early upgrade programs let you do the same thing: get a new phone about once a year, instead of once every two years. You always pay extra month over month for the privilege of upgrading more often; we've broken down just how much if you're interested in the prospect.

Device Selection
With all of the focus on cell phone plans, it can be easy to forget that different providers have different device selections. We all want to own the latest mobile phones, and the carriers know it. Between exclusive partnerships and bundle deals, they do everything they can to entice us to switch.

You can all but guarantee that the latest phones from Apple, Samsung and HTC will be available at every carrier. Verizon has the exclusive on Motorola's Droid line, and AT&T carries more Microsoft Lumia phones than anyone else. T-Mobile tends to carry quirky international phones like the Sony Xperia line and the new YotaPhone 2, while Sprint's exclusives tend toward affordable, midtier devices.

Wrapping Up

Finding a decent cell phone provider can seem hard, but it doesn't have to be. Looking for cheap cell phone plans that still give you room to stretch? Sprint has you covered. On a tight budget and are willing to watch your usage? Ting's plans fit themselves to you, and the company's customer service is unbeatable. And of course, there's always Verizon if you're willing to pay top dollar for a top-quality experience.

Whatever you choose, we're here to help. Scan our comparison chart above, use our grades to guide your choices and you'll be delighted with the cell phone plan you find.

 
 
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Rank #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8#9#10
10-9  Excellent
8-6    Good
5-4    Average
3-2    Poor
1-0    Bad
Verizon Wireless T-Mobile Sprint AT&T Cricket Wireless U.S. Cellular Ting Consumer Cellular Boost Mobile MetroPCS
Verizon Wireless T-Mobile Sprint AT&T Cricket Wireless U.S. Cellular Ting Consumer Cellular Boost Mobile MetroPCS
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Ratings
8.00
7.85
7.75
7.60
7.20
6.70
6.60
6.48
6.20
5.98
10
9
8
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
10.00
6.25
5.50
9.50
8.00
6.25
8.00
9.25
8.50
8.75
6.50
8.00
10.00
9.75
5.50
9.25
5.75
5.50
10.00
7.00
9.25
10.00
2.75
2.00
8.00
4.25
6.50
7.00
9.00
9.25
6.00
8.50
3.25
4.50
10.00
9.25
7.00
2.75
2.00
8.25
6.50
9.50
2.25
3.50
6.75
6.25
9.50
4.00
0.50
7.00
 
Coverage & Quality
Network Provider Verizon T-Mobile Sprint AT&T AT&T U.S. Cellular Various AT&T Sprint T-Mobile
Urban Coverage A+ C+ B A A D+ B- A B C+
Rural Coverage A D- C- B+ B+ D D B+ C- D-
Speed A A- D A- A- N/A C A- D A-
Reliability A+ C+ B+ A A N/A B- A B+ C+
Average-Use Pricing
Individual Plan $75 $60 $60 $80 $40 $75 $49 $50 $45 $40
Family Plan $260 $100 $90 $260 $100 $260 $219 - $140 $150
Cost Over Two Years (Individual) $2,120 $1,970 $1,540 $2,120 $1,550 $2,000 $1,773 $1,850 $1,680 $1,549
Cost Over Two Years (Family) $7,040 $5,000 $6,200 $7,040 $4,760 $7,040 $7,852 - $5,560 $5,956
Fees
Data Overage Policy $15/GB Throttled Throttled $15/GB Throttled Throttled $15/GB $15/GB Throttled Throttled
Early Termination Fee $350 None $350 $325 None $350 None None None None
Restocking Fee $35 $50 $35 $35 $25 $35 None None $25 None
Activation Fee $35 $35 $36 $40 $25 $30 None None None None
Plan Features
Unlimited Talk & Text
  
Unlimited 4G LTE Available  
      
Early Upgrade Plans
 
    
Phone Payment Plans  
    
  
Subsidized Phones
 
 
    
Early Termination Assistance  
  
   
Business Plans
 
   
International Calling Plans
Maximum Phones on Plan 10 5 10 10 5 6 20 7 1 5
Days to Return Phone 14 14 14 14 30 15 Varies 30 14 7
Device Selection
Flagship Phones A A- A A+ D- A C- D- D+ D-
Midtier Phones B+ B+ A- B+ C B C D+ D+ F
Budget Phones B D B B B B A C A D
Help & Support
Customer Service Score B- B+ D- C B- A- A+ A+ B B+
Telephone
Social Media
Live Chat
   
FAQs