The best phone companies of 2021
Joe Supan Last updated: January 6, 2021
The best phone companies provide a combination of affordable plans, discounted phone deals and reliable coverage. We graded 30 of the top cellphone carriers to find the best ones for every situation. No matter what your budget or phone needs, these providers will have you covered.
- T-Mobile — Best coverage
- AT&T — Best phone deals
- Verizon — Fastest 5G speeds
- Mint Mobile — Cheapest phone plans
- Google Fi — Best for international travel
- Consumer Cellular — Best customer service
Which wireless carriers have the best coverage?
Almost every phone company in the U.S. runs on one of the “big three” wireless networks: AT&T, T-Mobile (which now includes Sprint) or Verizon. The network you’re on will affect things like call quality, text performance and your connection to the internet.
For the past decade or so, Verizon has topped most independent tests for coverage, reliability and speed. It won RootMetrics’ awards for reliability, speed, data performance and call performance every year since 2013. Not every test has been as unanimously in Verizon’s favor, but most of them have put its network at the top, with T-Mobile a close second.
After T-Mobile absorbed Sprint’s network in August 2020, customers have gradually been gaining access to both networks. For the first time, T-Mobile has taken a narrow lead on Verizon when it comes to coverage and speed. Here’s how each network graded out:
|Ookla Speed Score™||41.65||33.49||31.40|
|Ookla Consistency Score™||81.4%||80.8%||76.9%|
|RootMetrics Overall Performance||94.1||86.7||95.2|
|OpenSignal Download Speed Experience||32.6 Mbps||28.2 Mbps||27.4 Mbps|
|OpenSignal 4G Coverage Experience||9.5||8.8||9.8|
|Consumer Reports Data Score||Fair||Very good||Good|
|Consumer Reports Reception Score||Poor||Good||Good|
The one area Verizon has struggled lately? Consistency. According to Ookla’s Speedtest metrics, Verizon’s speeds dipped below 5 Mbps more often than AT&T and T-Mobile — even though Verizon covered more of the country.
Of course, the coverage you’ll experience is highly dependent on where you live. To check how each carrier compares in your town, click the links below to access their coverage maps:
Which network does each cellphone company use?
There are more than 50 mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) available in the U.S., and all of them run on one of the main cellular networks. Some, like Net10, Red Pocket, Straight Talk and Tracfone, even let you choose which network you want access to, while others can access multiple networks. Most of them only offer prepaid plans, while some have contracts similar to the bigger carriers.
If you’re considering switching to a smaller MVNO, check the carriers on this list to see what kind of coverage you can expect.
|Carrier||Unlimited data price||Network||Data throttling||5G||Sign-up bonuses|
|Mint Mobile||$30/mo. (12-month renewal rate)||T-Mobile||After 35GB||✔||✘|
|Ultra Mobile||$39/mo.||T-Mobile||After 50GB||✘||✘|
|Xfinity Mobile||$45/mo.||Verizon||After 20GB||✔||✘|
|Spectrum Mobile||$45-$55/mo.||Verizon||After 20GB (on $45/mo. plan)||✔||✘|
|Boost Mobile||$50-$60/mo.||T-Mobile||After 35GB*||✔||Six months of TIDAL Hi-Fi|
|Metro by T-Mobile||$50-$60/mo.||T-Mobile||After 35GB||✔||Amazon Prime, cloud storage|
|Simple Mobile||$50-$60/mo.||T-Mobile||After 40GB (on $50/mo. plan)||✔||50GB cloud storage|
|Page Plus||$55/mo.||Verizon||After 60GB||✘||✘|
|Straight Talk||$55/mo.||AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon||After 60GB||✘||✘|
|U.S. Cellular||$55-$65/mo.||U.S. Cellular||✘||✔||1-2 free Redbox rentals per month|
|Red Pocket||$60/mo.||AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon||✘||✘||✘|
|Consumer Cellular||$60/mo.||AT&T, T-Mobile||After 35GB||✘||✘|
|AT&T||$65-$85/mo.||AT&T||✘||✔||HBO Max ($85/mo. plan only)|
|T-Mobile||$55-$80/mo.||T-Mobile||✘||✔||Netflix or Quibi (2+ lines required)|
|Credo Mobile||$70/mo.||Verizon||20GB*||✘||Donations to progressive causes|
|Google Fi||$70/mo.||T-Mobile||22GB||✔||100GB of cloud storage, free data and texts abroad|
|Verizon||$70-$90/mo.||Verizon||✘||$80/mo. plans and up||Disney Plus, Hulu, ESPN+, Apple Music, cloud storage|
All plans include unlimited talk and text. Pricing for one line plus taxes. Auto-pay discounts included. Additional fees and terms may apply. As of 11/10/20.
*Data lowered to 2G speeds (0.128 Mbps) after cap is reached.
Best phone companies for 5G
There’s been a 5G arms race over the past several years, with each wireless carrier jostling for position as the leader in the new technology. 5G wireless promises much faster speeds than the 4G technology most of us experience now. For example, it would take about six minutes to download a two-hour movie on a 4G connection. A phone connected to 5G could do the same in about 3.6 seconds.
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have all rolled out their 5G service in select areas, but we’re probably still a couple years away from the technology being as ubiquitous as 4G. So far, Verizon has led in terms of 5G speed, while T-Mobile has the edge in coverage.
|Carrier||Ookla 5G Speed Score™||Ookla 5G Time Spent||OpenSignal 5G Download Speed||OpenSignal 5G Availability|
Why is the gap so big between Verizon’s speed and availability? It’s the only network that uses millimeter wave spectrum, which produces much faster speeds, but you generally need to be within 1,000 feet of a tower to get them. It’s currently available in 35 U.S. cities, but if you don’t live in an urban area, you may not be able to use Verizon’s 5G network for a while. If you want 5G access immediately, T-Mobile is your best option — it just won’t be quite as fast.
Compare wireless carriers
If you’re not sure which cellphone carrier is right for you, our experts have written extensively on how they compare on pricing, phone deals and coverage. Compare some of the most popular carriers below.
Hopefully, you won’t be spending too much time contacting your phone company’s customer service department, but issues inevitably arise. When they do, it’s good to know you’ll be able to get a hold of an actual person without too much trouble. On that front, T-Mobile is the clear leader out of the big four networks.
|Carrier||ACSI customer satisfaction score||Consumer Reports customer support score||J.D. Power customer care score|
If you don’t mind going with one of the smaller carriers, Consumer Cellular has the best customer support scores by far. It received an 83 from the ACSI, “Great” from Consumer Reports and 881 from J.D. Power — the wireless equivalent of a perfect SAT score.
Wireless carrier FAQs
Yes. Unless you’re moving to a different area entirely, you’ll probably be able to keep your phone number when you switch. Even if you are moving, chances are good you’ll be able to keep it if you’re going from one major carrier to another. FCC rules state that ports must be processed in one day. Just make sure you don’t cancel your old service until it’s complete.
Mobile data is what your phone uses to connect to the internet when you’re away from a Wi-Fi connection. Wireless companies offer two types of plans: ones with limited data allowances and ones that let you use as much as you want. That said, unlimited data plans typically throttle (lower your speeds) after you’ve used a certain amount of data in a month.
Yes. You can use your phone’s cellular data to connect devices like a laptop or smart TV. All you need to do is set up Wi-Fi tethering or a mobile hotspot on your phone. Keep in mind, your phone’s connection isn’t necessarily built to connect multiple devices at once like a broadband connection is. Average home internet speeds in the U.S. are currently around 143 Mbps, while mobile connections only get 45 Mbps.
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all offer some deals that let you get a new phone for free when you switch over. But you’ll usually have to check a lot of boxes to take advantage of them. They often require trading in a relatively new phone, opening a new unlimited data line and committing to a two-year contract. Check out our cellphones page for the latest deals available.
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Written by:Joe Supan
Senior Writer, Wireless & Streaming Content
Joe oversees all things wireless and streaming for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by McAfee, Fox network and more. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users n… Read more
Edited by:Shannon Ullman
Editor, Broadband & Wireless Content
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