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Buying your first phone in the US? Looking to switch carriers? The number of options available may seem overwhelming, but looks can be deceiving. In actuality, there are only really four nationwide networks to pick from: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.
Here’s what you need to know to make a decision about your mobile carrier.
Verizon Wireless: The Nation’s Largest Carrier
Verizon Wireless is the largest cell phone carrier in the United States. It has the most subscribers, and it covers the largest land area. In many rural parts of the country, this network is your only option.
Because of this size, Verizon Wireless tends to charge the most for its service. The company has vast infrastructure to support, from towers to retail stores, as well as technicians and sales representatives. Yet Verizon does have a monopoly in some areas, and it knows many customers are willing to pay more to have the best network.
Verizon is a CDMA network, so you aren’t free to swap a SIM card between devices. You can only use phones that Verizon approves to operate on its network, and you have to contact the carrier to activate your line whenever you switch devices.
If you’re traveling abroad, Verizon may empty out your bank account. The company currently charges $5 a day for trips to Canada or Mexico and $10 a day to other countries. That’s in addition to your existing monthly bill.
AT&T: The Nation’s Largest GSM Network
AT&T is the second largest network in both subscribers and coverage. 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.
AT&T’s prices are comparable to Verizon, though slightly lower. On the other hand, the carrier’s prepaid plans are very competitive compared not only to Verizon, but Sprint and T-Mobile as well.
Unlike Verizon, AT&T is a GSM network, so you won’t have to pay the carrier store many visits unless you run into problems. Once you activate your SIM the first time, you can move it from one phone to the next. If you have multiple phones and need to swap between them regularly, you’re going to want a GSM carrier. You can also pick up a prepaid SIM card at a store and activate a device yourself at home the same day.
While AT&T is cheaper than Verizon when traveling abroad, it’s still a costly option. The carrier offers an international package that includes over 200 countries, but you’re looking at an additional $60 charge per month. That number goes up if you want more data.
You can use the AT&T network and save money by checking out Cricket Wireless instead. It’s a subsidiary of AT&T that offers cheaper, no-contract plans.
T-Mobile: The Traveler’s Friend
T-Mobile is the third largest carrier in terms of subscribers, but its network is very spotty. You can expect excellent speeds and performance in cities, but you may not be able to place a call if you venture to places that interstate highways don’t pass through.
If you spend most of your time in urban areas, T-Mobile offers the best bang for your buck. You’re likely to walk away with a higher data allotment and other perks such as unlimited streaming.
Like AT&T, T-Mobile is a GSM network. That means you’re free to take your SIM from one phone to another. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up a T-Mobile prepaid SIM card in a convenience store and hit the ground running.
T-Mobile bakes international travel to over 210 countries into its current non-prepaid plans. The top plan lands you unlimited 2G data and unlimited text, with calls at 25 cents per minute. 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 all.
Want a cheaper plan? Consider MetroPCS, a subsidiary of T-Mobile that doesn’t cost as much.
Sprint: The Best for Your Budget
Sprint is the fourth largest carrier. It has a somewhat broad network, but you will also encounter the slowest speeds of the nationwide carriers. On the flipside, Sprint sometimes does a better job supporting smaller metropolitan areas than the big cities. If you live in one of the country’s many small-to-mid-sized cities, Sprint may serve your needs just fine.
Since Sprint isn’t able to compete with network speeds, it often comes out with lower-cost plans and deals. Sprint can thus be the cheapest way to get an unlimited data plan.
Sprint is a CDMA network, so you need to contact the carrier whenever you’re ready to activate a new phone. This also limits which phones you can purchase.
The unlimited data plans on offer here include unlimited talk and text, plus an allotment of LTE data in Canada and Mexico. In over 185 other countries you get 2G data and unlimited text, with calls charged by the minute. Rates may vary by country. While not as nice as T-Mobile, this is still a much better deal than Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
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.
Most other carriers are actually 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.
Google’s Project Fi (our experience with Project Fi), Ting, and Republic Wireless are three popular MVNOs that use both the T-Mobile and Sprint networks. There are more MVNOs that can slash your monthly bill in half.
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 Network Is 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 one carrier is the best for all purposes and in all areas. But hopefully you have enough information now to make an informed decision.