This page is a work in progress. I anticipate making substantial updates in the near future.
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 likely a great, cost-effective option.
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. (Mint’s website | Coverage map | Full review)
In my view, Verizon has the best nationwide wireless network. While Verizon’s service tends to be expensive, the cost may be acceptable for consumers that value reliability, travel regularly, and don’t have tight budgets. Purchasing service directly from Verizon rather than service from an MVNO that runs over Verizon’s network may provide better roaming abilities and superior prioritization when the network is congested. Verizon’s prepaid service offers decent prices and appears to offer domestic roaming capabilities similar to those received by postpaid subscribers. (Verizon’s prepaid plans | Verizon’s postpaid plans | Coverage map | Partial review)
Sometimes recommended carriers
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. (Ting’s website | Coverage map | Partial review)
Red Pocket (T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon’s network)
Red Pocket offers service over subscribers’ choice of any one of the four of the major wireless networks. Red Pocket’s plans on AT&T and Verizon’s networks are particularly well-priced. Customers who are willing to purchase 360 days of service upfront may be able to get especially good deals via Red Pocket’s eBay store. That said, I’m hesitant to recommend the service too strongly due to a negative experience I had with customer support and issues that came up during the activation process. (Red Pocket’s website | Red Pocket’s eBay store | Review)
Tello (Sprint’s network)
Tello is a well-priced MVNO running on Sprint’s network. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but the service looks like it might be a good option for those who live in areas where Sprint’s network performs well. (Tello’s website | Coverage check)
Google Fi (T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks)
If you have a Fi-enabled device, Google Fi’s service will run on T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks simultaneously. For devices that are not Fi-enabled, the service will run over T-Mobile’s network. The service starts with a base price of $20 per month for unlimited talk and text. Data cost $10 per gigabyte, but Fi only bills for data that actually gets used. Google Fi may be a phenomenal option for international travelers thanks to roaming access at no extra charge in over 200 countries and territories. (Fi’s website | Coverage map)
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. Plans are decently priced for access to AT&T’s network, but other MVNOs offer significantly cheaper access to T-Mobile’s network. (Consumer Cellular’s website, Full review)
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.
- See Mint Mobile’s affiliate program web page (archived copy from 4/18/2019).
- 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.
- At the time of writing there is a promotion that bumps the data allotment on the 8 GB plan up to 15 GBs. My impression is that the bonus 7 GB of data will continue to be allotted to existing customers each month even after the promotion ends. It looks like the promotion is slotted to end on 5/20/2019.
- 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).
- “Red Pocket Mobile offers services on your choice of any major US networks!”
From Red Pocket’s What networks does Red Pocket offer? page as of 4/21/2019 (archived here).
- As of 4/21/2019, Red Pocket charges essentially the same rates regardless of the network used for plans with relatively small data allowances. For plans with moderately large data allowances, plans on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint’s networks all appear to have the same prices. Plans with a moderately large amount of data on Verizon’s network offer less data than plans with the same price points on other networks.
- See my review of Red Pocket for more details. I experienced these issues when trying to activate service that used Verizon’s network. It’s possible the issues I experienced were network-specific.
- “Coast-to-coast wireless coverage is provided on Nationwide Sprint® Network.”
From the Why Tello web page as of 4/21/2019.
- “Unlike other phone plans, Google Fi offers cellular coverage across three leading networks (T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular) and Wi-Fi hotspots, with a phone designed for Fi.”
From the Google Fi FAQ page as of 4/21/2019.
- “Phones that are not designed for Fi but are still compatible with Fi have nationwide access to the T-Mobile network.”
From the Google Fi FAQ page as of 4/21/2019.
- At the time of writing, the base price of service was $20 with a $10 per gigabyte fee and a cap that limited data charges to $60 per month. For the latest pricing information, see Google Fi’s Plan web page.
- While roaming, users pay the same rate for data that they would pay in the United States.
- “Data is slowed (but still free) for the rest of the month for anyone who uses over 15 GB on your plan.”
From Google Fi’s Plan page as of 4/22/2019 (archived here).
Users wanting large amounts of high-speed data can pay to avoid the slow speeds after 15GBs are used. As of 4/22/2019, a section on Google Fi’s FAQ (archived here) states the following:
“If you need significant amounts of high speed data, you can opt to pay $10/GB for the data you use past 15 GB in a given cycle.”
- 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.