With its unreserved CEO John Legere and 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 its competitors’. The magenta carrier backs up its claims of superiority with some of the fastest 4G LTE speeds, lowest prices in the nation and a truly unlimited data plan that never throttles your download speeds. 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.
Coverage & Quality
T-Mobile's weakest attribute is its network coverage. 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 the company's rural coverage is untenable. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you're probably safe, but stray too far into the suburbs and you lose connectivity.
If you do have coverage, you can enjoy some of the fastest download speeds of any provider. Although Verizon and AT&T have better speeds on average, those numbers take into account the entire country, much of which doesn't feature decent T-Mobile coverage. In those areas where the self-proclaimed uncarrier offers 4G LTE service, you can't beat them for sheer speed.
Pricing & Fees
T-Mobile offers a mobile experience quite unlike what you find with 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 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, unthrottled 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 Verizon and AT&T.
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 have to shell out around $650 for the privilege. The best cell phone carriers 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 find at other carriers, but once your phone is paid off, your bill goes back down. Should you choose to buy yourself a last-generation phone, you 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 owe whatever is 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 have 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.
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 easy 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 are only be responsible for buying a new $10 SIM card so your phone can access the network.
Help & Support
T-Mobile's support has long had a bad reputation, but it's seen tremendous improvements in the last couple of 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, but 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 stream every day.
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. Its balance of price and performance, as long as you're covered, is tough to beat.