With this handpicked selection of the best cell phone providers, finding a new carrier will be a breeze, with options that excel when it comes to coverage, customer service and essential tech upgrades, such as 5G. And with this round-up of established, well-regarded providers, you’ll have all the information you need to make your switch.
Cell phone providers explainer
MVNO: MVNO stands for mobile virtual network operator. This is the name for cell phone providers who don’t actually own their own networks. Instead, these companies pay to use the networks of the larger providers.
There are a few factors to consider when it comes to making your move, including ensuring that coverage is assured for the area you live in. While predominant networks such as AT&T can offer attractive 99% coverage packages, it’s worth noting that you might need to double-check the areas covered with smaller companies to avoid any frustration in the future.
Buffering internet is painful at the best of times, but if fast internet speed is crucial in order for you to work or stream content, then you should also check just how fast your new connection will be, and look for deals that can offer you unlimited data too, if you often go over your current allowance. Plus, there are newcomers on the market that are looking to entice new customers with a deal that also includes your home internet package.
If you’re looking for an upgrade to a 5G-enabled smartphone (opens in new tab), then look for a network that can offer you the coverage you need, and bear in mind that plenty of the options here still offer 4G options, if you don’t want to take on the extra expense just yet. Find the right network to suit you with 5G and plenty of other factors in mind with our extensive round-up below.
The best cell phone providers
1. Verizon Wireless: Best cell phone provider
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Verizon Wireless is our best cell phone provider for 2021, and has been at the top of our guide for the past three years. Why? It’s one of the biggest, sure, but it gets superior scores for reliability, speed, and network coverage. With solid coverage throughout the majority of the country (although there are few patchy zones in the north west and mid-west), and a large 5G network, Verizon will suit anyone looking for a strong signal and consistent data service. It rates a little lower for customer service than others, but it does have a larger customer base too, so we’d expect a variance of opinions and satisfaction ratings.
Verizon isn’t a cheap carrier: in fact it has some of the most expensive plans on the market, but they do offer decent value if you are happy to invest in your cell phone. Pricing starts at $30 (for multiple lines) and run up to $90 per month. You do get what you pay for, but not everyone can afford to commit to such expensive cell phone plans each month.
If you want to pay as little as possible and still enjoy the benefits of such a strong network, you can pay $30 per month and get about 500MB of data. International calling can be bolted on for an extra $5 per month for unlimited calls to Mexico and Canada, or $10 for calls to 185 countries worldwide.
Given the reliability of Verizon’s 5G network, you can look to offset costs with your home internet provider by getting an unlimited 5G plan from Verizon and using it for the majority of your home broadband needs. If you find yourself out of the home more often than in it, this is a good way to get a fantastic cell service and save a little money elsewhere.
2. T-Mobile: Best cell phone provider for video
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T-Mobile, having merged with Sprint, offers some of the fastest 4G LTE in the US as well as 5G nationwide coverage. T-Mobile’s unlimited plans are great value when compared side by side with similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Again, if you’re looking to downgrade your home fibre and go completely 5G with unlimited data, T-Mobile is an excellent choice.
The plans offered by T-Mobile are clear and simple with three tiers of unlimited pay monthly offerings starting from $60 per month and several prepaid plans that start at $40. There are also specific plans for those over 55, veterans and first responders, each with great deals. T-Mobile also offers banking with savings to be made for those wireless customers that use both services from the provider.
What’s more, T-Mobile actually scores higher than other big carriers on customer satisfaction, which is a real advantage. Smaller cell companies often achieve better satisfaction ratings, but here you get the perks of a larger provider with a big network, and the customer service of a smaller one. If you’re looking to balance reliability, speed, and a carrier that cares, T-Mobile is a good bet. It’s also highly rated for video streaming so is ideal for anyone that uses their data network for this regularly.
3. Visible: Best prepaid cell phone carrier
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Visible is a great option if you want to go prepaid. It’s a simple, streamlined offering that is designed to be easy to use and flexible, for those who don’t want to worry about end of month bills. For $40 per month you get unlimited data, calls, and texts. Your data speeds are capped between 5-12 Mbps, depending on where you are in the country, which is enough for basic streaming, social media, emails and internet access. Sure, hardcore data-hogs will want quicker speeds, and a 5G plan (which Visible doesn’t offer) but most users will be fine with these speeds.
The range of phones on offer is impressive – you’ve got most of the latest iPhones, including the SE and 12, and Samsung’s flagship models too, like the S21. There are some good mid-range options, and a handful of budget handsets too. If you go pre-paid, you need to factor in the cost of financing a handset or buying one outright, which will add monthly cost. If you already own your phone, you can bring that across with you, which definitely saves cash.
Visible uses Verizon’s network, which is the best in the US, so coverage is the best of all the MVNO carriers. While priority is always given to Verizon customers, you’ll struggle to notice slow-down in data speeds or network availability. Other benefits of Visible is that you can manage your account entirely via the Visible app, you can add additional people to your ‘Party’ and you both save money every month.
4. AT&T Wireless: America’s most popular network
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AT&T is one of the big three cell phone companies and that means it owns and operates its own network of cell towers. That means it’s coverage is better than most, and so is its reliability. Depending on where you live, it might be the best cell network bar none. However, this also makes it expensive, so be warned. AT&T bests Verizon when it comes to plans for veterans and those still in the military, which they can extend to their families, so this is where it truly excels.
Plans range from a selection of unlimited pay monthly options to data restricted as well as unlimited prepaid options. Pricing starts at around the $30 per month mark and savings can be made for multiple lines on one contract.
There are currently over 230 million AT&T customers in the US, so it’s a popular choice. It has decent, but not the best customer reviews, and a good rating on the BBB. It can’t best T-Mobile for customer satisfaction, and doesn’t outperform Verizon for coverage, but it’s still a solid choice.
5. Xfinity Mobile: Best for combining phone and Internet
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One thing our service providers love is loyalty. So, if you’re an Xfinity customer – or plan to be – for your home internet, then you get a damn good deal on your cell plan too. Xfinity gives you unlimited 5G network access (so, data, calls, texts etc) for $45 per month, which is far lower than most plans on the big three networks. Sure, you’re adding it to your fiber bill, so the total at the end of each month may seem eye-watering, but you’re probably saving money overall on two essential services.
What’s even better is that Xfinity runs on Verizon’s network, so you get access to the quickest and broadest-covering network in the US. Verizon was rated as the best for 5G this year making this a big draw here. It’s such a small downside but, honestly, it’s tough to fault Xfinity’s offering on the Verizon network.
The range of phones is good and, if you don’t want to go for the unlimited data option, you can choose to pay for your cell plan on a download basis – starting at $15 for 1GB of data. You still get the unlimited calls rolled into that. For anyone currently with Xfinity, it’s a no-brainer, and if you’re planning to sign up for your internet, you really should consider adding your cell plan too.
6. Mint Mobile: Best value 5G
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Mint Mobile has recently launched a staggeringly good plan that gets you unlimited 5G (or 4G LTE if you’re out of range), unlimited texts and calls, and free calls to Mexico and Canada for… $30 per month. That’s a fantastic deal, and you may want to know what the catch is. Well, there kinda isn’t one, although this deal isn’t quite perfect. Mint only offers the $30 rate for the first three months, and it rises to $40 per month after that. Not quite as good, but still fantastic for what you actually get. Most other providers charge $70+ for unlimited 5G.
The other drawback is that Mint sits on the T-Mobile network. Technically, it’s one of the best for 5G in the whole country, which is good – you’re more likely to get a 5G signal that most other networks. The problem is that Mint users will suffer from deprioritization on this network, which means that in periods and areas of heavy usage, speeds will slow to allow regular T-Mobile customers priority access to data and cell signal. Again, though, this really isn’t a massive deal because this only tends to happen at large-scale gatherings.
Overall, we think Mint is a serious value proposition. It has a large range of brand new handsets, it offers a free sim card for each plan, and you can go even cheaper (down to $15 per month) if you want to limit yourself to 4GB of data.
7. Google Fi: Best for Google Pixel users
A lot of cell phone providers try to be all things to all people, but Google Fi takes a different approach. It sets out to be the absolute best network for some people. This means it might be the absolute top choice for you, but many others will find it lacking.
Google Fi is an MVNO provider, meaning it doesn’t have its own network and so it relies on others. While many companies do this, Google Fi takes things a step further by using multiple other networks and switching you between them depending on which gives you the best coverage at any given time. This sounds great in theory, and it is, providing you’re using one of the very limited number of smartphones that support this feature.
If you can take full advantage of what Google is offering here though, you’ll get a lightning fast service with unlimited data and exceptional nationwide coverage at a very reasonable price. These savings can go even further if you sign up for a family plan, but good luck convincing your entire family to ditch the iPhone life.
8. Metro by T-Mobile: Best carrier for families
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Metro by T-Mobile is a prepaid cellular provider that uses its parent company’s great high-speed network. Its prices are lower, and it has more clarity on pricing than T-Mobile. The most expensive plan costs $60 per month, and in addition to having unlimited data, it allows you to use 15GB on hotspot tethering and comes with Amazon Prime. If you don’t need that much hotspot data, you can save yourself $10 by signing up for the $50 unlimited plan, which only includes 5GB of hotspot data.
We like that Metro includes its Music Unlimited feature with plans that cost $40 or more. Music Unlimited lets you stream music from over 40 services, including Pandora and Spotify, without deducting from your data allotment. This is particularly nice since you can’t add data mid-cycle. It can also help you stay under the unlimited plans’ 35GB high-speed data threshold.
However, its unlimited plans have a max video streaming resolution of 480p. DVD-quality streaming is fine and consumes less data than HD streaming, but it would be nice to have the higher-quality option, especially since phone screens now support high resolutions.
Because it is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that runs on T-Mobile’s network, Metro customers sometimes experience data deprioritization to direct T-Mobile customers. If a lot of people use data on T-Mobile’s network in the same place at the same time, Metro customers could see their speeds slow down.
9. US Mobile: Best customized cell plans
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US Mobile is an MVNO that lets you customize nearly every aspect of your plan, from the network down to the amount of talk, text and data. It uses Verizon and T-Mobile networks, two of the best and fastest networks in the US. These networks span both types of cellular technologies used in the US, which is great if you want to bring your own phone to the service. Though it does offer unlimited plans, they’re expensive compared to other carriers.
US Mobile’s value lies in its customization: you only pay for what you use. This approach can save usage-conscious customers a lot of money compared to an unlimited everything plan from a big three cell phone company. If, for example, you only want unlimited texting, it costs just $9 a month. You can also always add minutes, texts or data onto your account, should your needs change.
One downside is that you are limited when it comes to the actual selection of phones, so if you have your eye on a particular handset, you do need to check whether or not US Mobile stocks it.
10. Cricket: Best for text and talk
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Cricket Wireless is a prepaid carrier that’s owned and operated by AT&T, and it uses its parent company’s extensive cellular network. The prepaid provider offers plans ranging from $30 to $60 per month: a 2GB plan, a 10GB plan and two unlimited-data plans.
Cricket is generally a good value, with prices on a par with those of other carrier-owned prepaid services and much lower than the prices of similar plans on its parent network. Cricket offers group discounts and a $5-per-month autopay discount on plans starting at the $40 tier. The carrier often features new-customer promotions, such as discounted or free smartphones when you switch from another carrier.
The biggest downside of Cricket’s service is the data-speed caps. The top unlimited plan won’t cap download speeds, while all other plans cap download speeds at 8 Mbps, up to the data allotment. But overall, Cricket is one of the best choices for plan savings and great customer care.
What to look for in the best cell phone providers
Your ideal cellphone provider will depend significantly on your personal preferences when it comes to customer service, whether that’s the ability to visit a retail store in person to check a problem, or completely virtual consultations. More prominent providers with great reputations will likely have their customer service interactions working on a larger scale, meaning the experience tends to be a little more streamlined. Whilst smaller providers can often offer enticing deals, you may experience longer waiting periods when a problem arises.
In order to isolate which provider is a match with your needs, make sure to read independent customer service reviews and get an idea of wait times, as well as establish if you can visit in-store advisors if that’s important to you.
Here are some key considerations to make to help you choose the right cell phone provider for your individual needs…
1. Cell Phone Plan Price
Cell phone plan prices vary depending on the amount of data and number of lines you add. An individual line costs between $30 to $60 for a limited-data plan or $60-$90 for an unlimited plan with mobile hotspot tethering. Family plans with four lines can cost $150 to $220 for unlimited or $115 to $150 for limited-data. In many cases, however, family unlimited plans are a better value, as many carriers offer discounts for multiple lines.
2. Big Three Cell Phone Companies Vs. MVNO
You may have heard us, or other websites talking about the big three when it comes to cell phone providers, but what does this mean and who are the big three? Well this term refers to Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile, which are the three largest cell phone providers in the US (it actually used to be the big four with Sprint taking the last spot, but T-Mobile and Sprint merged back in 2020).
Almost all other cell phone providers use the networks of these companies, so while your contract might be with Visible or Mint Mobile, in truth you’re actually using the cell network of one of these companies.
Smaller companies that piggyback off a larger network are called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO). These companies have an arrangement with the larger networks that lets them use their networks, which they then give you access to. These networks set their own prices, so you can end up getting a cheaper deal with an MNVO.
The benefits to an MNVO are that these companies often offer cell phone plans at cheaper rates than the larger providers, so you can get a great deal while still getting access to a premium cell network. The downside is that the parent network operator will usually give preferential treatment to its own customers first, so if the network is busy then you’ll be first in line for slower download speeds.
3. Check your area’s cell phone network coverage and service
Though Verizon Wireless has the best-performing network across the U.S., it may not be the best option in every part of the country. When you shop for a new plan, you should first check which carriers perform well in your area.
Doug King, director of business development at RootMetrics, stressed the importance of looking beyond simple coverage, “Consumers need to understand not just how fast a network is in terms of uplink and downlinks, but it is critical to look at how reliable a network is based on its ability to initially connect and stay connected.” All carriers have their own coverage maps, but we recommend checking out RootMetrics (opens in new tab) and OpenSignal (opens in new tab) for insights like network reliability, speeds and call performance in your area.
4. Shop cell phone companies, deals and the features they offer
The competition between cell phone providers is fierce, and services are constantly changing their plans and prices in attempts to one up each other – something comparison shoppers can take advantage of. Most providers have an unlimited data option now, but each company’s definition of “unlimited” is a little different.
Allan Samson, senior vice president of customer acquisition at T-Mobile, told us: “As all carriers have rushed back to the unlimited plan, I think it’s increasingly important to truly understand the service you’re getting. People should really evaluate, ‘How am I using my phone?’ If you’re streaming a lot of video, ask, ‘Am I getting the premier quality in terms of HD, and am I getting that consistent experience with all my stuff included?’”
Shopping for the features you use seems like obvious advice, but with so much hidden in fine print, it’s easy to miss the fact that all download speeds are limited to 8 Mbps on Cricket or that video streams at a max resolution of 480p on T-Mobile’s Metro.
Do you need unlimited data?
Every year, more people get smartphones, smartphones get smarter and, no surprise, we use more data. Most cell phone companies push their high-priced unlimited data plans, but most people don’t use enough data to necessitate the extra cost.
A few years ago, the average American used 5.1GB of mobile data per month, but that has increased with more and more streaming and video content coming online. Some use much more, but most people only need about 10 to 20GB, accounting for Wi-Fi use.
To find out how much data you need, track your data usage for a few months using your online account through your carrier’s website. If you have a family plan, do this for everyone on the account, as some plans count your data in aggregate, while others count data per phone line. If you use less than 10GB per line on average, you can probably find a better deal that fits your needs.
If you often use your data plan to stream content, especially at high resolutions, you probably need an unlimited plan, as streaming applications are notorious data hogs. But if you only use slightly more data each month than your carrier’s next best data plan, you may be able to shave off that excess by turning off background app refresh, setting lesser-used applications to Wi-Fi only and using your default viewing and listening quality to conserve data. You can also turn off Wi-Fi assist for iPhones and background data usage for Android, use free public Wi-Fi and disable video autoplay on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Current cell phone deals
How we tested the best cell phone providers
We’ve been reviewing cell phone carriers for a long time now and we know what to look for when it comes to finding the best choices on the market. We’ve tested all the biggest names in cell phone plans, and quite a few of the smaller companies you might not have heard of too. In the end, we’ve narrowed this list down to the ten best cell phone carriers out there.
When testing a cell phone provider, we look at LTE and 5G network coverage, download speeds, plan variety and flexibility, price, smartphone selection, customer service, and extras to provide comprehensive reviews of the service that you can expect from each company. We also analyze user reviews to pull in experience from thousands of people who have been using these cell phone providers for years to find out what people like about them, and where people think each company could improve.