You should always do your homework before you switch carriers. Start with the online coverage maps, even though you know they can be a little optimistic — especially at the fringes, but a better option is to ask the people you know and trust what they think. There's only one problem with that: what if you don't know anyone using the carrier you're thinking of switching to? If you're thinking about jumping to T-Mobile, or any carrier, really, you need to make sure you know what to expect.

Forums and blog comments can be helpful to get an overall picture of things. If everyone says T-Mobile has great coverage in Miami, FL. north to Pompano and west to Opa-locka, it probably does. (It really does.) What you won't know is where those pockets of bad service are and if the places you spend time in are one of them. Sometimes, you just have to check for yourself.

Thankfully, that's actually pretty easy to do.

An MVNO to the rescue

There's a lot of talk about T-Mobile's unlimited One plan, but T-Mobile also does the same thing every other U.S. carrier does — it sells service to MVNO providers. One of those providers is Walmart, and they have just the ticket if you need a cheap way to try out T-Mobile service through their Walmart Family Mobile plans.

For $25 you'll 1GB of LTE data (ignore that "unlimited" bit because they mean 2G data there) and unlimited talk and texting. A SIM card will cost you $1.68. Walmart Family Mobile uses T-Mobile's network for 100% of their service so you'll know exactly what T-Mobile is like where you are.

A gigabyte of LTE certainly isn't a lot of data, but it's more than enough to do a handful of speed tests in different places or try streaming some video. T-Mobile still offers prepaid service, but its plans start at $45 and a SIM card costs $25 on its own before any discounts, so using Walmart Family Mobile to take a test drive is a complete no-brainer. You can buy both a SIM card and the $25 starter kit at any Walmart store or you can order them online. Walmart also has a selection of inexpensive phones if you're looking to buy a budget model once you know things work.

See at Walmart

You'll need a compatible phone, of course. The good news is that most unlocked phones will work just fine, and all phones made for T-Mobile will work even if they aren't SIM unlocked. You'll even be able to test Wi-Fi calling routed through T-Mobile's service and using the Walmart Family Mobile number.

More: The best unlocked phones

You can, of course, continue to use Walmart Familt mobile if you like the pricing, but they don't offer some of the extras you'll get from T-Mobile or other T-Mobile MVNO partners. But you don't need international calling or bulk discounts to test things.

We always say that having the right service is the most important part of enjoying your phone; maybe even more important than the phone itself. Knowing what to expect before you port out your number and sign into any financing agreement or contract means one less surprise down the line.

Alternative carriers (MVNOS)


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