The Best Mobile Carrier for You: Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile?
Buying your first phone in the US? Looking to switch carriers? Want to know which phone carrier is the best? The number of options available may seem overwhelming, but looks can be deceiving.
In actuality, there are really only three nationwide networks to pick from: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile. So, here’s what you need to know to pick the best phone carrier in the US for you.
Verizon Wireless used to be the phone carrier with the largest network since its towers covered the largest land area. This meant that this network was your only option in many rural parts of the country.
That story has completely changed. Following T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, Verizon has competition in areas where it used to exercise a monopoly. Yet Verizon continues to have the most subscribers, partly because this change among the competition is such a relatively recent phenomenon. It takes a while for people to become aware of shifts among mobile networks.
Because of its size, Verizon Wireless long charged the most for its services. The company has a vast infrastructure to support, from towers to retail stores, technicians, and sales representatives. With Verizon’s monopoly in some areas, it knew many customers were willing to pay more to have the largest network.
That has somewhat changed too. Verizon’s plans cost similar to other carriers, though do not be surprised if you see more fees and surcharges on your bill.
Prior to its transition to 4G LTE and 5G, Verizon was a CDMA network instead of a GSM, preventing you from swapping a SIM card between devices. That said, Verizon still remains one of the more restrictive carriers, limiting which phone models can access their network.
T-Mobile is the second-largest carrier in terms of subscribers. T-Mobile’s network used to be very spotty, limited primarily to cities and densely packed suburbs. You could expect excellent speeds and performance in cities, but you wouldn’t be able to place a call if you ventured to places that interstate highways don’t pass through.
Following T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, that story has changed. T-Mobile is now competitive with Verizon in many rural parts of the country. In some places, its network is even stronger. In 2022, PCMag rated T-Mobile the strongest network in the US. It began the transition to 5G sooner than the other two, allowing it to offer faster speeds to more customers sooner.
T-Mobile used to compete with Verizon and AT&T by trying to undercut them on price. That has changed. As T-Mobile’s network is now comparable to the other two (or better, depending on the state of affairs where you live), the carrier’s prices are now roughly the same. You can snag a Verizon unlimited plan for less than T-Mobile’s,
You’re free to take your SIM from one phone to another, and T-Mobile has long been one of the best options for people who prefer to buy unlocked phones (though if you buy your phone directly from T-Mobile, it will still be carrier locked). It has a less stringent approach to whitelisting and is welcoming to Mobile Virtual Network Operators like Google Fi and Red Pocket, where you can access T-Mobile’s network for significantly less money.
T-Mobile bakes international travel to over 210 countries into its current non-prepaid plans. They land you plenty of data and unlimited text, with calls at 25 cents per minute. If you need international calling, T-Mobile’s plans are significantly cheaper than those of Verizon and AT&T. If you leave the country regularly, T-Mobile is the way to go. Keep phone calls to a minimum, and your wallet will barely suffer.
AT&T is the third-largest phone carrier in the US in terms of subscribers. While its reach isn’t as broad as Verizon’s, the network still does a good job of serving many smaller towns and rural counties. As the carriers transition to 5G, AT&T sits somewhere between T-Mobile and Verizon. In some parts of the country, it’s the best option, but that’s not the case if you look at the country as a whole.
AT&T’s unlimited prices aren’t particularly competitive, but AT&T has long offered competitive prepaid plans, and that hasn’t changed. With the fewest subscribers, price is one way AT&T can hope to compete for less demanding customers who aren’t looking for blazing speeds.
Like T-Mobile, AT&T tends to be a good choice for people who prefer to shop for unlocked phones. The story is different when it comes to international travel, as its prices are comparable to Verizon’s.
What About Other Mobile Networks?
You may live within range of a regional carrier like US Cellular. It’s the fifth-largest carrier and serves 23 states across the country. Or you may be in one of the areas where Dish Wireless, a newer player, is available. Dish’s network isn’t particularly large but roams to AT&T when its own service isn’t available.
Most other carriers are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). They provide cell phone connectivity without having to build and maintain their own infrastructure. Instead, they lease a nationwide carrier’s network.
Ting is a popular MVNO that connects to the T-Mobile and Verizon networks. Google’s Project Fi uses T-Mobile and US Cellular infrastructure. So, if you like the sound of Google’s mobile service, here’s everything you need to know about Project Fi.
MVNOs are often cheaper if you aren’t a heavy data user. On the downside, these services lack carrier stores, so you have to be comfortable heading online and troubleshooting yourself.
Which Mobile Carrier Is the Best for You?
There are so many factors to consider when answering this question. Where do you live? How often do you travel? Do you stream music and movies over mobile data? Do you buy unlocked phones?
No company can claim to be the best carrier in the US for all purposes and in all areas. But hopefully, you have enough information now to make an informed decision. If you’re after an unlimited plan, be sure to check out the cheapest phone plans with unlimited everything, too.