Until early 2013, T-Mobile was known for its disappointing coverage and slow data speeds. After spending a year rolling out a brand-new nationwide 4G LTE network, though, that coverage has broadened considerably. Its data speeds haven't merely improved; they've skyrocketed, to the point that T-Mobile now boasts the fastest 4G LTE speeds in America. And its plans are far cheaper than the competition's, sometimes by as much as $100 a month for comparable service. It's not a perfect cell phone provider – the network is still growing, and far too many smaller cities and towns only have 3G connectivity. But if T-Mobile offers 4G LTE in your area, you needn't look further. For its great plans and ridiculous value, it earns our TopTenREVIEWS Silver Award.
It sounds corny, but T-Mobile's "un-carrier" campaign is aptly named. It offers a mobile experience quite unlike what you'll find at any of the other major providers. Like prepaid services, T-Mobile 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. Instead, it makes buying brand-new phones affordable by offering two-year payment plans. Switching out a two-year contract for a two-year payment plan might seem like trading apples for apples, but after breaking it down, we found T-Mobile's approach to be surprisingly fair.
First, among the four major carriers T-Mobile's plans are, hands-down, the cheapest. For a smartphone plan with unlimited minutes, texts and 2.5GB of high-speed data, you'll pay only $60 a month, compared to $95 or even $100 at competing carriers. If you want unlimited, un-throttled data, it's just $10 more per month – still cheaper than competing unlimited plans. A family of four can get a plan with unlimited talk, text and 10GB of data for just $140 every month. That's over $100 less than the next carrier's plan.
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 5s from a prepaid provider, for instance, you'd have to shell out $650 for the privilege. Contract carriers 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 it'll still be cheaper. 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 six months, even if you haven't finished paying it off – the remaining price tag is nullified, and you can start fresh with a new phone.
T-Mobile's biggest weakness has long been its coverage, which has a history of spottiness. Over the past year, the company has put a lot of effort into rolling out a new 4G LTE network across the country. That rollout isn't finished, and T-Mobile still offers LTE in fewer markets than anyone else, so it's worth stopping by the company's website to check whether you have coverage. Fortunately, the network is growing every day.
The other big concern, historically, has been T-Mobile's data speeds. Until this past year, it relied on an older type of 4G network, called HSPA+, which tends to get about half the speeds of LTE. Ever since T-Mobile began the new rollout, however, its speeds have increased dramatically. Even though it's still the smallest of the major carriers, the areas that do have LTE coverage now enjoy speeds averaging 18Mbps – the fastest in the country. Plus, T-Mobile is working on rolling out new technology to certain cities that will let you hit speeds of over 100Mbps.
From brand-new iPhones to classic flip phones, T-Mobile's device selection offers something for everyone. BlackBerry fans can buy the company's classic Curve or its touchscreen Q10 model, while Windows Phone users can choose from two different Nokia Lumia models. There are also plenty of Android phones to pick from, including Google's Nexus 4, Samsung's Galaxy S4 and the impressive HTC One.
Sony's recently released Xperia Z1s is exclusively available from T-Mobile, so you can get a brand-new, waterproof, flagship phone with a 20.7MP camera for $22 a month. 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 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.
T-Mobile's support has long had a bad reputation, but it's seen tremendous improvements in the last year. 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.
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 big carriers and prepaid phone companies and combined them, at prices far below the competition. 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.
T-Mobile's prices are as good as they come, its download speeds are faster than anyone else's, and it offers truly unlimited data.
Since its network is growing, some cities still don't have access to 4G LTE service.
Check to see if your town is covered. T-Mobile's prices blow away the competition, and if you can access its 4G LTE network, you'll be able to enjoy unlimited data and the fastest mobile speeds in America.