Few purchase decisions are as stressful as picking the best cell phone provider. Every carrier subtly varies itself from the competition, making direct comparisons annoyingly difficult. Does this company's unlimited talk and text plan include international minutes? Which is better, unlimited texting and data but only 100 minutes, or unlimited talk and text but only 500MB of data?
The numbers can quickly overwhelm, but it's a decision we'll all face. Whether you're a smartphone fanatic or you rely on your trusty flip-phone, cell phones remain 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-size 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.
The easiest way to choose a carrier is to know what you need going in. Are you in the market for cheap prepaid service, or do you want a top-of-the-line phone at subsidized prices? Do you only need one phone, or are you getting service for your whole family?
We've done our best to simplify the selection process by giving you all the data you need, and we've figured out which cell phone carriers will be best for most users. No doubt, you've heard 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 moderately sized monthly bill against your desire to have the latest and greatest smartphones in 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:
Cell phone plans vary greatly when you compare 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 price. Depending on which service you pick, 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.
Features & Fees
Everyone hates hidden fees, and cell phone bills are notorious for showing up with extras you didn't budget for. Activation and early termination fees can raise 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.
Coverage & Quality
When you're looking for a cell phone provider, always be sure to 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, however, and you like to stream multimedia, you'll want to make sure that the carrier you're considering has the best cell phone coverage and 4G LTE towers in your area.
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 Androids and iPhones, but few have BlackBerrys on hand.
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 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.