I am not impartial. I receive commissions from many wireless carriers. That said, I’m willing to recommend services that don’t offer commissions, and I try not to pull my punches when discussing negative aspects of services I recommend. Information about the specific financial arrangements I have with carriers can be viewed here. Details about my evaluation approach and its limitations can be found towards the end of the page.
Mint Mobile (T-Mobile’s network)
Mint’s standard plans include unlimited texts and minutes along with 3 to 12 gigabytes of high-speed data. All plans include unlimited data at substantially reduced speeds if subscribers use all of their allotted high-speed data. My experience with Mint’s customer support has been good, but some Mint subscribers have less positive experiences.
While Verizon’s postpaid service is expensive, Verizon’s prepaid options are usually much cheaper. Unlike some other prepaid services, Verizon’s prepaid service appears to offer domestic roaming capabilities similar to those received by postpaid subscribers. With the double data promotion Verizon is running on its 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 a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that runs over Verizon’s network.
Total Wireless (Verizon’s Network)
Tello (Sprint’s network)
Ting (T-Mobile or Sprint’s network)
Ting operates with a pay-for-what-you-use model. Monthly bills are calculated at the end of each period. Service comes with a base price of $6 per line plus additional charges that depend on the quantity of texts, minutes, and data used across all devices on a plan. 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.
Ting plans to begin offering service over Verizon’s network and cease offering service over T-Mobile’s network in the near future. If Ting’s prices do not chance with that switch, I expect I’ll strongly recommend Ting’s Verizon-based service.
US Mobile (Verizon or T-Mobile’s network)
Consumer Cellular (AT&T or 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.
Prioritization policies govern how wireless networks handle traffic during congestion. In many cases, data use by subscribers using mobile virtual network operators and other prepaid services will have lower priority than data use by other subscribers using the same network. In most areas, congestion is relatively rare. That said, if you find that you’re experiencing lackluster data speeds while you have a strong LTE connection, you may be experiencing deprioritization. I discuss prioritization policies on the major networks elsewhere.
Most of the services I recommend don’t have particularly high priority. If you think you’d benefit from high priority, you may want to consider looking at my alternative list of recommended carriers with higher priority data access.
On this page, I list carriers that I believe are (a) high-quality and/or well-priced today and (b) likely to be especially high-quality and/or well-priced in the future. I do this because I expect most people stick with their carriers for a little while without reassessing their options every month. That said, if you’re happy to switch carriers frequently in search of the best deal, I have a list of short-term deals on another page.
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 try to understand the wireless industry from a number of different angles. I regularly:
- Dig into the methodologies and results of third-party evaluations
- Track plan offerings and prices
- Trial wireless services
- Learn about technology and hardware behind wireless networks
- Keep up on developments in wireless devices
- Follow community forums
- Dig into network management procedures
- Interact with industry insiders
- 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.
- “High-speed data” refers to typical data use (usually 4G speeds). Once all of the high-speed 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.
- See Mint Mobile’s affiliate program web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019) for additional details.
- 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.
- “Coast-to-coast wireless coverage is provided on Nationwide Sprint® Network.”
From the Why Tello web page as of 4/21/2019.
- Based on Tello’s pricing as of 8/13/2019 (see Tello’s plans page). Taxes and fees may not be included in the $10 figure.
- 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.