From its unreserved CEO John Legere to free music streaming that doesn't count toward your data, T-Mobile stands out among the best cell phone providers in America. Its network doesn't have the broadest coverage, nor is its phone selection as diverse as you'll find elsewhere. But the magenta carrier backs up its claims of superiority with the fastest 4G LTE speeds in the nation, some of the lowest prices of any of the major providers, and a truly unlimited data plan that will never see your downloads throttled. If T-Mobile had broader 4G LTE coverage, it would be our number-one pick; as it is, it rightfully earns our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award.
T-Mobile offers a mobile experience quite unlike what you'll find at the competition. Like prepaid services, the company lets you pay for your plan on a monthly basis – it doesn't have two-year contracts, so you can leave whenever you like and won't be charged early termination fees. To make buying brand-new phones affordable, you can instead make use of a 24-month payment plan. Switching out a two-year contract for a two-year payment plan might seem like trading apples for apples, but after comparing cell phone plans at all the major providers, we found T-Mobile's approach to be surprisingly fair.
For a smartphone plan with unlimited minutes, texts and 3GB of high-speed data, T-Mobile charges just $60 a month, compared to $80 or even $90 at competing carriers. If you want unlimited, un-throttled data – something only offered by T-Mobile and Sprint – it's just $20 more per month. A family of four can get a plan with unlimited talk, text and 10GB of data for just $130 every month. That's half the price of what Verizon or AT&T offers.
T-Mobile can charge such low prices because it doesn't subsidize its phones. A brand-new, off-contract smartphone usually costs more than we're willing to pay. If you buy an iPhone 6 from a prepaid provider, for instance, you'd have to shell out around $650 for the privilege. The best cell phone carriers will often eat much of this cost, reducing a $650 phone to just $200 but locking you into a two-year plan. If you leave early, you have to pay up to $350 to cut the contract. T-Mobile doesn't lock you into contracts, but it does let you space the $650 price tag out over 24 monthly payments. If you decide to leave early, you just owe whatever's remaining on the phone.
Thus, at a contract carrier, you pay a much higher monthly bill and risk an early termination fee. At T-Mobile, you pay a lower monthly bill, plus the monthly cost of your phone. Yes, this increases the total T-Mobile bill to something closer to what you'd find at other carriers, but once your phone's paid off, your bill goes back down. And should you choose to buy yourself a last-generation phone, you'll start seeing savings immediately – with the other carriers we reviewed, your monthly bill always stays the same.
Granted, if you leave T-Mobile early you'll owe whatever's left on your phone, but you can always buy a cheaper phone and pay it off immediately, or take advantage of T-Mobile JUMP!, the company's early-upgrade option. For $10 more per month, you get the ability to trade in your phone after just half of its price is paid off – the remaining balance is nullified, and you can start fresh with a new phone.
T-Mobile doesn't have a traditional early termination fee because it doesn't have traditional contracts. If you're financing your phone over two years and choose to stop service before those two years are up, the balance on your phone becomes due. However, if you've paid off your phone early, bring your own or pay the full cost of it up front, you can cancel your service with T-Mobile at any time without penalty.
There are no charges for data overages or roaming with T-Mobile. Even if you don't pay for an unlimited data plan, going over your monthly limit will merely throttle your data speeds. You won't incur an extra charge, and you won't be cut off altogether. On the other hand, T-Mobile's $50 restocking fee on returned phones is the highest around, and when you start a new plan you'll have to either buy a $10 SIM card or pay a $35 activation fee, depending on the phone.
Unfortunately, T-Mobile doesn't have the best cell phone coverage around. The company has put a lot of effort into rolling out a new 4G LTE network across the country, but that rollout isn't finished, and T-Mobile still offers LTE in fewer markets than almost anyone else. Fortunately, the company's network is growing every day, but it's worth stopping by its website to check whether you have coverage.
If you do have coverage, you'll be able to enjoy the fastest average download speeds of any provider. We surveyed the download speeds of America's 24 most populous cities across all four major carriers. On average, you can expect to get download speeds of approximately 8.3Mbps – the highest we found. Granted, those are average speeds; you'll often be able to hit far quicker highs. Put simply, you won't have to worry about streaming HD video to your new smartphone when you're on T-Mobile. The experience should always be buttery smooth.
From brand-new iPhones to classic flip phones, T-Mobile's device selection offers something for everyone. There are plenty of Android phones to pick from, including Google's Nexus 5, Samsung's Galaxy S5 and the impressive HTC One, while Windows Phone users can choose from two different Nokia Lumia models.
If new phones are too expensive for you, T-Mobile offers refurbished options that are easier on your wallet. You can even bring your own SIM card-compatible phone to the carrier, transferring your existing number and taking advantage of T-Mobile's rates. You'll only be responsible for buying a new $10 SIM card so your phone can access the network.
T-Mobile's support has long had a bad reputation, but it's seen tremendous improvements in the last couple years. Its customer service representatives are quick to help solve issues, and transferring both into and away from the carrier is a joy. A few years ago, if you had a bizarre phone bill come in the mail or made a mistake and owed more than you expected, T-Mobile would hold you responsible for paying it off, whatever the amount. Today, the company will work with you to fix such issues, something our own staff has happily taken advantage of on more than one occasion.
It used to be the weakest of the top four nationwide cell phone companies. Today, T-Mobile stands with the strongest. It can't match the breadth of LTE coverage other carriers enjoy, but its speed blows them away. Its unlimited data plan, meanwhile, is truly unlimited – your smartphone need never face throttled speeds again, no matter how much video you want to stream every day. And its prices, quite simply, are fantastic.
With no contracts or termination fees and the ability to pay for your expensive new smartphone over time, T-Mobile has taken the best elements of the cell phone plans at both big carriers and prepaid phone companies and combined them. If you're looking for a new cell phone provider, check whether T-Mobile offers 4G LTE in your area. It did for us, and we were hard-pressed to find a faster, simpler, more affordable option.
Flexible payment options and assistance that will get you out of your old contract make T-Mobile appealing, but its low prices seal our affection.
Its network still suffers next to Verizon and AT&T. You'll get great coverage in major cities, but rural areas can be far spottier.
So long as your town is covered, T-Mobile is a no-brainer. Its prices are superb, and you can enjoy truly unlimited data on the fastest network in the country.