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How To Pick The Best Wireless Carrier For You

Single-line plan? Family plan? Roaming? Choosing the right wireless carrier is not easy. The Wirecutter magnifies the small print.

How To Pick The Best Wireless Carrier For You
[Verizon Image: Gil C via Shutterstock]

If you’re in the U.S. and looking for a carrier with good coverage, fast bandwidth and–this may surprise you–affordable single-line plans, you should consider Verizon Wireless. We found it has the widest coverage map, the fastest network, and the lowest costs for individuals. But it’s not the only answer for everyone: Some situations call for other carriers, and we discuss that below.

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How We Decided

We reached that conclusion after a good 70 hours poring over the large and small print of wireless plans, checking coverage maps, and calculating the cost of smartphone service: 500 MB of data per month, 2 GB and 4 GB. We did the math for all those scenarios with expensive and affordable phones, ran the numbers for two and four phones on the same plan and recalculated again for those who want to use their own device not purchased through the carrier. Finally, we inspected prior research and testing from a host of reputable sources and publications and consulted experts from around the industry.

If you take a phone out of your pocket, your odds of getting a usable signal anywhere in America are highest on Verizon.

Why Verizon is best for most people on an individual plan

Our endorsement rides on some assumptions: coverage where you need it trumps all else;
then the lowest total cost of ownership for your typical usage; and that tethering and a wide choice of Android phones aren’t necessarily deal-breakers. (Though we have other recommendations if they are deal-breakers.)

Verizon has the widest coverage map, the fastest network, and the lowest costs for the medium solo-usage scenario–analysts estimate that this ranges between less than 1.5 GB a month and 1.2 GB. Its “Single Line Smartphone” plans limit the two-year total cost of a new iPhone with 2 GB of data a month to $1,640, versus $1,680 at Sprint (that’s an iPhone 6/6 Plus exclusive lease deal, while non-Apple high-end phones cost $2,090), $1,730 at T-Mobile, and $2,120 at AT&T.

Coverage Maps

Those numbers, except for T-Mobile’s, assume a standard two-year contract in which higher monthly rates recoup a lower initial phone price. That deal traditionally entails getting gouged on international roaming (hi, AT&T!), but Verizon’s numerous “world phones” with internationally compatible devices all come unlocked, allowing you to pop in cheap prepaid SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards while overseas.

Back in the U.S., Verizon’s deployment of “XLTE” LTE service sped it ahead of AT&T in PCMag.com’s latest tests, with LTE downloads across the country averaging 19.6 megabits per second. RootMetrics’s tests over the first half of 2014 also favored Verizon in overall performance and speed.

Flaws (but not deal-breakers)

Reading this on a laptop away from home? Verizon’s Single Line plans exclude tethering, or sharing a smartphone’s bandwidth over Wi-Fi. Adding it with a “More Everything” plan balloons two-year costs to $2,360 in a 2 GB/month iPhone scenario, above comparable costs at T-Mobile ($1,730) and AT&T ($2,120).

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Want an Android phone? Subsidized or not, Verizon’s Android phones come loaded with apps you can’t remove and then must wait for Verizon to deliver system updates. And as with Sprint, its use of CDMA wireless technology instead of the more open GSM standard relied on by AT&T and T-Mobile obstructs buying a new phone from somebody besides the carrier, like a manufacturer or Google.

If you’re an Android user, T-Mobile offers a much better choice than Verizon…

The Best Selection of Android Phones

For the widest choice in Android phones, look to T-Mobile. By pricing service separate from hardware, it frees you to buy hardware directly, with less unwanted software and faster updates. Even its subsidized, locked phones come with free international low-speed data and cheap overseas calling and texting–and if you need faster service, its roaming rates still mop the floor with the competition. And its Wi-Fi-calling-capable phones can get free in-flight texting and voicemail reception on planes with Gogo Wi-Fi.

What if I want a wider selection, but need coverage in a less populated area?

T-Mobile’s coverage often fades in rural areas. If that’s an issue, and you also want unlocked phones or devices that aren’t available through Verizon, consider AT&T: It provides coverage that our sources saw about as good as Verizon’s and offers a wider selection of phones. But while you can buy a compatible phone from another place, AT&T’s pricing favors getting a subsidized-phone contract–and then accepting its control-freak locking policy that prevents using other carriers on your phone until your contract concludes.

Both AT&T and T-Mo support simultaneous voice and data on any phone (though some Android phones at Sprint and Verizon provide that with an extra antenna).

Why we don’t recommend Sprint

Sorry, but Sprint’s LTE coverage still suffers from earlier detours with the failed 4G standard “WiMax” and its acquisition of Nextel. Most of its plans don’t include tethering, you have to wait 90 days into a contract to get a world phone’s SIM card unlocked. If you’re set on a new iPhone, you may want to consider its “iPhone for Life” option: Unlimited data for $70 a month with an iPhone 6 or $75 for an iPhone 6 Plus, with a replacement every two years. But bear in mind that other smartphones don’t allow this deal, and that Sprint’s subsidized-phone deals quickly change from its cheapest to its priciest option as your data appetites increase.


No clear winner among family plans

Sprint and T-Mobile offer the best deals for most multiple-line plans, but the coverage for each can be a deal-breaker. And mastering how discounts for extra data can intersect with those for buying a phone unsubsidized can be a brain-breaker.

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  • In a 500 MB-per-line scenario, AT&T’s unsubsidized deal is the cheapest way to get two lines, while T-Mobile is your lowest-cost option for four lines.
  • With 2 GB of data per line, Sprint unsubsidized is the cheapest route to two lines (although Apple users will do better by pairing two “iPhone for Life” leases), T-Mobile for four.
  • At 4 GB per line, Sprint’s unsubsidized options take the lead all around–but if you need two but not four iPhones, get two “iPhone for Life” leases, while for two other high-end devices, take its handset subsidy.

If you can’t deal with either Sprint or T-Mobile’s coverage, Verizon’s multiple-line pricing isn’t bad but requires a spreadsheet to grasp (as in, it’s cheaper to share 10 GB of data among four unsubsidized phones than to buy less data). If you wanted shopping for wireless service to feel more like confronting the tax code, this is the corner of the market for you.

In Closing

Verizon is not the “best carrier” for every single person–your location, your travel habits, and your taste in phones can make it a poor choice. But for most people needing only one line, it’s the safest recommendation we can make, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s the cheapest either.

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