Best Wireless Carrier in the U.S. Android Central 2021
Finding the best wireless carriers in the U.S. can be a bit daunting because they all have a different approach to the same goal. Luckily for the consumers, this competition helps drive these companies to make a better product. No matter your needs, there is a carrier for you. For most people, all of these carriers are likely to have some coverage for you. Overall, T-Mobile has great network performance and looks likely to continue to improve in the next few years in both 4G and 5G.
- Best Overall: T-Mobile
- Best mmWave 5G Footprint: Verizon
- Best Overall Speeds: AT&T
- Best Family Value: Walmart Family Mobile
- Best for International Users: Google Fi
- Best Unlimited Prepaid: Visible
Best Overall: T-Mobile
T-Mobile has continued to improve its network consistently over the past few years with some of the biggest improvements coming in its 5G network. T-Mobile has used to start its 5G network as well as improve its LTE network, with a focus on a wide range of 5G spectrum. Thanks to its purchase of Sprint, T-Mobile has added even more spectrum in the mid-band adding significant speed improvements in the hundreds of markets currently deployed. You should always make sure you have coverage now before signing up but T-Mobile's 5G plan looks promising.
T-Mobile has three main unlimited plans on its postpaid network. All of them include 5G support and an unlimited 3G speed hotspot. The baseline Essentials plan comes with unlimited talk, text, and LTE data. Prices start at $60 for one line and care discounted for each line added up to six lines. A family with four lines will be able to get connected for $105 per month thanks to a current promotion with a free third line.
The next plan, Magenta, offers 3G of LTE-speed hotspot data, Netflix on one screen if you add two or more lines, and international 2G data as well as 5GB of high-speed data in Mexico and Canada. Prices start at $70 per month for the first line with discounts for each additional line up to eight lines. A family with four lines will pay $140 per month and with this plan, taxes and fees are included.
The most expensive plan is Magenta Plus and brings LTE-speed hotspot data up to 20GB and upgrades Netflix to HD on two screens. International data speed is upgraded to 256kbps and video streaming comes in at HD resolutions compared to SD on the other plans. Starting at $80 per month for one line, this is a plan geared more towards heavy users that need more hotspot data. Still, taxes and fees are included and a family of four can get connected for $170 per month.
- Tons of spectrum
- Large 5G network
- Competitive unlimited plans
- Cheap prepaid options
- mmWave 5G expansion is slow
- Rural coverage isn't great
Biggest mmWave 5G Footprint: Verizon
While Verizon isn't always the top scorer in terms of pure download speed, the size of its LTE network and the consistency of the connection makes it one of the best options for a lot of people. While other carriers have been making great strides to keep up, Verizon hasn't slowed down. Data from sites like speedtest.net backs this up, showing Verizon speed tests on LTE hit acceptable speeds more often.
While Verizon's 5G deployment hasn't been hitting coverage milestones as fast as other carriers, it has kept its focus on a super-fast mmWave Ultra Wideband network that can deliver great speeds to the few currently covered areas. If you have a 5G Ultra Wideband plan and connection, you get truly unlimited data, 4K-quality video streams, and an unlimited hotspot. This is in addition to a nationwide 5G network that shares spectrum with its LTE. Verizon's nationwide 5G network is catching up quickly to the others.
Verizon has a huge number of plans available, ranging from a B plan for basic phones with unlimited talk and text with 500MB of data. Most smartphone users will be more interested in the range of unlimited plans that start at $70 per month for the Start Unlimited plan. The price per line comes down with more lines up to five. A family of four will pay $35 per line with this plan excluding taxes or fees. This plan comes with unlimited talk, text, and LTE data. You can also get Disney+ for one year however this plan only streams at 480p quality with no hotspot data.
The three larger Play More Unlimited, Do More Unlimited, and Get More Unlimited all come with hotspot data and Premium Network Access. Premium Network Access enables video streaming up to 720p on LTE or 5G Nationwide as well as 50Gb of premium data. Play More Unlimited comes with 15GB of hotspot data and a Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ subscription. Do More Unlimited trades the streaming perks for 600GB of cloud storage and a discount on connected device plans. Get More comes with all of the above as well as Apple Music and 30GB of hotspot data.
All plans come with access to Verizon's 5G Nationwide network. 5G Ultra Wideband is included with the three largest plans. While connected to Ultra Wideband, you get completely unlimited data, hotspot, and streaming quality.
- Consistent LTE performance
- Large LTE footprint
- Wide range of plans
- Nationwide 5G coverage is improving quickly
- Expensive plans
- Not all unlocked phones supported
- 5G coverage is still spotty
Best Overall Speeds: AT&T
There's no question that the AT&T LTE network, sometimes called 5GE, is delivering great performance. Of course, it's always a good idea to make sure you have coverage, but chances are that you do. AT&T has also been pushing forward with its real 5G network as well with a low-band in addition to an mmWave network with nationwide coverage.
AT&T starts with a 4GB data plan for $40 per month. With that, you get a mobile hotspot as well as unlimited talk and text. Streaming is limited to SD quality but you do get unlimited texting to more than 120 countries.
Moving up, AT&T has three unlimited plans starting with the Unlimited Starter plan coming in at $65 per month for one line. The price comes down per line up to four lines with four lines coming in at $140 per month. This plan comes with no hotspot but comes with unlimited talk, text, and data with video streams at SD quality. It goes all the way up to Unlimited Elite, which gets you video streams in HD, and free access to HBO Max for $85 per month for the first line. All three unlimited plans come with 5G access. You can check out the full plan information on AT&T's website.
- Fast data speeds
- Large coverage area
- Low-band and mmWave 5G
- Works with most unlimited phones
- Expensive plans
- 5G isn't available on the 4GB plan
Best Family Value: Walmart Family Mobile
Walmart Family Mobile is a prepaid carrier that uses T-Mobile's network. The main draw here is that each additional line you add comes in at just under $25 whether you have the base 2GB plan or the Truly Unlimited plan. If you have four or five lines and need unlimited data, you won't find a much better price. You still get the benefits of T-Mobile's network, including 5G access. Check the coverage map to be sure you're covered.
Family Mobile has four plans each with unlimited talk and texting. The cheapest plan coming in at $25 per month has 2GB of high-speed data. Moving up, the $30 and $40 plans come with 5GB and 20GB of high-speed data, respectively. Finally, for $50 per month, you can get the Truly Unlimited plan, which also upgrades video streaming from the base SD quality to 720p. All plans come with hotspot data with the unlimited plan getting 20GB.
- Each additional line is $25 on all plans
- Hotspot data is included with every plan
- Great phone compatibility
- International calling and roaming are available
- T-Mobile network won't work for everyone
- Single-line prices are high
- SD video streams on most plans
Best for International Users: Google Fi
Google Fi is a prepaid MVNO carrier, which means that it doesn't build its own towers but uses the towers of other carriers. What's different about Google Fi is that it makes use of three different U.S. networks to create a unique coverage map compared to any other MVNO or carrier. While the price is a little steeper than most other carriers and fewer phones take full advantage of the service, it provides one of the best and most reliable wireless experiences.
Google Fi makes use of Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular's networks, picking which towers provide the best connection automatically and seamlessly switching your phone to it without you even knowing. Google Fi also has access to networks all around the world and roams internationally effortlessly in over 200 countries. For all this to work properly, you'll need an approved phone.
If you have an unlocked 5G phone that works with the T-Mobile network, you can access it with Google Fi.
Google Fi isn't likely to be the best fit for many people, but if you travel often and need a network that will work not only in the U.S. but nearly anywhere in the world, there are no substitutes. A flexible plan is available alongside an unlimited plan. If you use only a few gigabytes per month, the flexible plan will be a better deal. Unlimited is only for the people that need fast speeds over 15GB.
- Big combined network
- International data roaming is included
- Bill protection prevents excessive overage
- Unlimited available
- Most GSM phones supported
- You need specific phones for full network
- Expensive for heavy data users
Best Unlimited Prepaid: Visible
Another interesting prepaid carrier is Visible, which makes use of Verizon's LTE network to provide unlimited data for $40 per month. There is no 5G access here yet but it does come with unlimited hotspot data at 5Mbps. It's worth keeping in mind that Visible only uses the LTE network, meaning no access to roaming or 3G if the signal gets weak. For most people this is fine, but it does mean you should double-check the coverage map before signing up.
Visible has announced that it will be adding 5G capability to its network in the coming months though it has yet to deploy it even in areas where Verizon has nationwide 5G coverage. Still, you are free to buy and use a 5G phone with Visible, though for now, you'll be using LTE.
There are no direct multi-line discounts but you can join a group of other people to participate in Party Pay. This can bring your cost all the way down to $25 per month with four people in the party. Each person is responsible for their own bill and account with Party Pay. Visible is a good option if you want a lot of data for a low price with no frills.
- Unlimited data
- Vast Verizon LTE network
- Nationwide 5G support coming soon
- Unlimited hotspot (5Mbps)
- Savings with Party Pay
- SD video streams
- No roaming or 3G
- Limited phone support
Should you go with prepaid?
An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a carrier that provides service by reselling service from one of the big carriers. This allows a greater range of plans on the same networks that may work better for you. Some of the best MVNOs can offer additional savings with longer terms or even just by cutting out things you don't need like video service subscriptions. You can even get MVNOs that allow advanced features like tethering (hotspot data). If one of the big carriers isn't a good fit, it's worth it to check out an MVNO.
Most Americans will be covered by any of these networks so the biggest questions are which plans are the best fit for you and how eager are you to get 5G. Nationwide 5G is available on all three of the big carriers but you'll need a 5G phone to use it. Verizon and AT&T are more comfortable charging a premium for service thanks to a good reputation for having a strong network. Most of the time, the best choice isn't the cheapest carrier but the one with the best coverage for you. Luckily, switching is reasonably easy and you can even keep your phone number when you do.
For most people, T-Mobile is a great fit with solid speeds and great coverage. While not everyone is ready for 5G just yet, T-Mobile's rapid progress and already-deployed three-tiered 5G network are promising for continued growth. It's also refreshing that T-Mobile doesn't try to force customers onto more expensive plans just to access 5G.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Samuel Contreras When Samuel is not writing about networking and carriers, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.
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