Strongly recommended carriers
Mint Mobile (T-Mobile’s network)
Mint Mobile operates on T-Mobile’s network and offers some of the best prices in the industry. While T-Mobile’s network is mediocre in terms of nationwide reliability, the network is great in many regions. If you spend most of your time in areas where T-Mobile’s network offers good coverage, Mint Mobile is worth considering.
Mint’s standard plans all include unlimited texts and minutes along with 3-12 gigabytes of high-speed data. My own experience with Mint’s customer support has been quite good, but I have the impression that a meaningful portion of Mint subscribers have had less positive experiences.
In my view, Verizon has the best nationwide wireless network. If you value reliability, travel regularly, or live in an area where other networks are lackluster, there’s a good chance you’d be well-served by a carrier that uses Verizon’s network.
While Verizon’s postpaid service is expensive, Verizon’s prepaid options are much cheaper. With the double data promotion Verizon is running on it’s prepaid plans, the service is a great deal for moderate and heavy users of data. For light users of data, I expect it’s possible to get cheaper service with an MVNO that runs on Verizon’s network.
Verizon’s prepaid subscribers won’t be prioritized as highly as postpaid subscribers, so individuals that spend a lot of time in areas where networks are congested should be cautious. Unlike some other prepaid services, Verizon’s prepaid service appears to offer domestic roaming capabilities similar to those received by postpaid subscribers.
Weakly recommended carriers
Total Wireless (Verizon’s Network)
Total Wireless is a Verizon-based MVNO owned by TracFone. Total Wireless offers some of the best prices for moderate to heavy data use on Verizon’s network. For single line plans, Total Wireless often has prices that are quite similar to those offered on Verizon’s own prepaid plans. However, Total Wireless may offer substantially better prices than Verizon on multi-line plans.
Ting (T-Mobile or Sprint’s network)
Ting’s offers subscribers their choice of service over either T-Mobile or Sprint’s network. The service is incredibly user-friendly, and my limited experience with Ting’s customer support has been more positive than the experience I’ve had with any other carrier.
Ting is built around a pay-for-what-you-use model. Monthly bills are calculated at the end of each period with a price of $6 per line plus additional charges that depend on the quantity of texts, minutes, and data used across all devices. Ting may be an excellent option for families that don’t use their phones intensely and live in areas where Sprint or T-Mobile’s networks perform well. However, heavy data users may find that charges add up quickly. In my opinion, Ting is rarely the best option for single-line access.
US Mobile (Verizon or T-Mobile’s network)
US Mobile is an MVNO that offers service on Verizon’s network and T-Mobile’s network with flexible plan options. Service is the same price regardless of the network subscribers select. While I don’t think the pricing is unusually good for service over T-Mobile’s network, US Mobile may be a cost-effective option for those looking for plans with minimal allotments of texts, minutes, and data on Verizon’s network. Heavy users of data can probably get better deals on Verizon-based service with Total Wireless or Verizon’s own prepaid service.
Consumer Cellular (AT&T or T-Mobile’s network)
Consumer Cellular is an MVNO that offers service over either AT&T or T-Mobile’s networks. The company goes out of its way to make its service especially simple and appealing to senior citizens. Consumer Cellular may be a good option if you want access to AT&T’s network and value the senior-friendly aspects of the service. Other MVNOs offer significantly cheaper access to T-Mobile’s network.
Before choosing a carrier
I recommend investigating the service quality each of the “Big Four” networks (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint) offer in areas where you use your phone before choosing a carrier. I walk through this process in How to Evaluate Wireless Service Quality.
If you’re in the market for a new phone, I strongly recommend buying a nearly universal unlocked phone. These devices should work well on all four of the major networks in the U.S. I’m a particularly big fan of the Motorola G7 Play and G7 Power. Both of these phones perform awfully well given their low price points.
I don’t make broad recommendations or rank carriers numerically. That approach rarely works well. Since cell phone users differ substantially in how they use their phones, where they use their phones, and what kind of budgets they have, I recommend carriers that I think are a good fit for several common scenarios people find themselves in.
- I am not impartial since I receive commissions from some cell phone carriers. For details about monetary relationships (or lack thereof) see the “Relationship disclosure” sections.
- I’ve tried to prioritize investigating carriers that are likely to be good options for many consumers, but it’s possible there are good carriers I haven’t tried or listed.
- When assessing network quality, I draw on information collected by other evaluation companies. I’ve written about the methodologies used by many of these companies: RootMetrics, Opensignal, Tutela, Consumer Reports, and Nielsen. I have non-trivial concerns about every one of these companies’ methodologies.
- Consumers vary in what they’re looking for from a cell phone carrier. While I try to cover a number of common situations consumers find themselves in, there are consumers with use cases I don’t cover.
- Expand the “Plans and pricing” section below for more information.
- Here’s my rough, high-level assessment of the four nationwide networks in terms of network reliability:
- Verizon (best)
- AT&T (2nd place)
- T-Mobile (3rd place, significantly behind AT&T)
- Sprint (worst)
I go into far more more detail about the reliability of nationwide networks here.
If you tend to spend time in a limited number of areas, coverage quality in those areas will be more important than nationwide coverage quality. For an explanation of how you can assess coverage quality in small regions, see The Ultimate Guide to U.S. Wireless Service Quality.
- By high-speed data, I mean 4G LTE data. Once all of the 4G LTE data allotted in a plan is used, Mint subscribers have access to unlimited data at 2G speeds. Expand the “Plans and pricing” section for more information.
- I go into more detail in the “Support experience” section of my Mint Mobile review.
- Mint Mobile offers another affiliate program with commissions of $20 per order. I’m not currently a member of that program. See Mint Mobile’s affiliate program web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019) for additional details on that program.
- I discuss this in some depth in my article Reliability of Nationwide U.S. Wireless Networks.
- Scroll down on the linked page to get to the section with a coverage map.
- “DVD-quality streaming (up to 480p) on smartphones.”
From Verizon’s Prepaid webpage on 5/23/2019 (archived here).
- “Once high-speed data is used (including Mobile Hotspot), you will have 2G speeds the remainder of the month. Your data experience and functionality of some data applications such as streaming video or audio may be impacted unless you purchase additional data.”
From Verizon’s Prepaid webpage on 5/23/2019 (archived here).
- If purchasing lines with different data allotments, it looks like the total discount can be maximized by designating the line with the least data as the “initial line.”
- This is based on information found within my account on FlexOffers.com. I believe the commission structure Verizon offers via CJ (Commission Junction) is different.
- See Ting’s Coverage web page (archived copy as of 4/18/2019). As of 4/18/19, that web page mentions that subscribers have their choice of either Sprint’s network or an unnamed, nationwide GSM network. That is T-Mobile’s network. At the time of writing, users can have a single plan with some devices on Sprint’s network and other devices on T-Mobile’s network.
- For more information, either expand the “Plans and pricing” section below or take a look at Ting’s Rates webpage.
- Expand the “Plans and pricing” section below for more details on data pricing.
- “You can set alerts and hard usage caps in your Ting Dashboard. You can even set custom alerts and caps for different phones under your account. That means one phone can have access to data while another can be restricted to talk and text.”
From Ting’s Rates page on 4/21/2019 (archived here).
- See Ting’s Partnerships web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019).
- As of April 2019, Consumer Cellular’s prices don’t appear to vary based on the network used. Mint Mobile is an example of an MVNO that offers access to T-Mobile’s network at lower prices.
- I believe Consumer Cellular allows more than two lines on an account, but it looks like additional lines must be purchased over the phone rather than online.
- Consumer Cellular does have a sort of referral deal for existing customers that offers bill credits when subscribers are referred via email. As of 4/22/2019, I am not making use of that deal.