Best Cell Phone Providers

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Important Things to Know Before Choosing a Cell Phone Provider

McCall Martin
McCall Martin | Senior Editor

As communications technology has evolved and advanced over the past couple of decades, cell phones have become ubiquitous in day-to-day life.

Many families now forego a landline in favor of individual devices for each family member. Employees answer emails on the go. Grandparents video chat with faraway relatives. Young children utilize GPS safety watches. Users of nearly all age demographics correspond with connections on social media apps, stream their favorite music, take photos, find places to eat, and, of course, talk and text.

So what are the most desired features of these must-have wireless devices and their accompanying cell phone plans? It depends on your needs and preferences. Before making a phone purchase or signing up for a cell phone plan, consider the pricing, coverage, data, and devices offered by the cell phone provider.

Contract pricing

Mobile phone contracts and accompanying costs can vary widely. Cell phone providers offer pre-paid options, monthly plans, yearly plans, single-line plans, and friends and family plans with multiple phone numbers. Most providers offer data plans and text and call plans including unlimited texts and unlimited calls for a set price, or they may charge per text, per minute, or per gigabyte of data.

Before deciding on a provider, find out if there are early termination fees in the contract. On the other end, find out how long the agreed-upon pricing will list. Are the advertised prices good for a year, only to get jacked up after that?

Supported devices

As you try to pin down the best deal, be sure to take into account the cost of a phone if you need to buy a new one or applicable device-transfer fees if you plan to use your current phone. Not all providers accept all device transfers.

If your heart is set on a certain brand, model, or operating system, determine which providers sell and support your device of choice. Currently, smartphones run on either Android or iOS operating systems. The following are some of the most popular phone brands:

  • Apple
  • Samsung
  • Nokia
  • Blackberry
  • Sony
  • Motorola
  • Asus
  • LG

There are a number of reasons some users may prefer basic phones, sometimes called flip phones, instead. If that applies to you, look into cell phone providers that offer talk and text only plans and don’t charge you for features that only smartphone users need.

Network coverage

When it comes to cell phone use, there’s not much worse than needing to get in touch with someone but not having enough bars for your calls to go through. What’s the point in having a mobile phone if it doesn’t give you the peace of mind that it’s dependable? Reliable, fast network coverage is a crucial factor in choosing a cell phone provider.

Some of the biggest mobile network operators in the United States are Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Each of these networks provides nationwide coverage, but they vary in coverage quality in certain areas and regions.

As you shop for a cell phone provider, identify cell towers near your city or region to determine which network can give you the best cell phone service. When a phone is too far from a cell tower, it must transmit a stronger signal to connect to the tower, which drains your battery. Therefore, good connectivity to a cell tower improves call success and quality and also saves your device’s battery life.

If you plan to use your device internationally, look into plans with international text and data roaming allowances that suit your needs. It's not uncommon to be able to access data allowances for Mexico and Canada. Certain carriers include unlimited international texting to over 210 worldwide areas within their premium unlimited plans.

Data amounts and speed 

When a smartphone is not connected to Wi-Fi, it requires data to run many of its applications. But data generally costs more than talk and text-only plans. Most carriers charge a set monthly cost for unlimited data plans rather than charging overage fees as was the norm in the past. But be aware that unlimited data plans refer to unlimited total data, not necessarily high-speed 4G LTE data. When you exhaust your high-speed data allowance, you can keep using data but at lower speeds. It’s in your best interest to pay for exactly what you need in high-speed data allotments, plus a little extra.

  • As you decide on your needs or preferences for data amounts and speeds, consider these questions:
  • How often do you use HD streaming for high-definition video?
  • How long does it take to load pages while you surf the internet? Do you wish it were faster?
  • Are your photos, videos, and other files stored on device-only or could you be utilizing cloud storage?
  • Do you need hotspot data for hotspot tethering?
  • How much are you willing to pay for a bigger data allowance?
  • Are you willing to pay more for faster data delivery for video streaming and other purposes?

Customer satisfaction 

Of course, a cell phone provider can display all the bells and whistles you’re looking for but still fall short if the cell phone performance and customer service don’t measure up. That’s where Best Company comes in. Browse our real, verified reviews for all of the top cell phone providers to get the scoop on the customer experience of hundreds of customers who have had first-hand experience with the companies you’re considering.

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Cell Phone Providers Frequently Asked Questions

Do any cell phone companies offer free phones?

Yes. Many carriers offer promotions that include free or heavily discounted phones when you sign a yearly phone service contract. Make sure you calculate the overall costs of the device and plan when comparing providers.

Which cell phone companies are best for seniors?

Cell phone needs and preferences vary within every age demographic, including senior citizens. GreatCall features a simple, senior-friendly basic phone model (Jitterbug Flip) as well as a smartphone (Jitterbug Smart). T-Mobile also offers Unlimited 55+, a plan specifically catered to seniors. Consumer Cellular offers AARP member benefits including 5 percent off monthly fees and usage chargers.

How can I get a cheap cell phone and an inexpensive plan?

Here are some basic strategies to spend less on a phone plan:

  • Avoid payment plans that charge interest
  • Join as an extra phone line on an existing family of friends' plan
  • Minimize data usage by using apps requiring Wi-Fi or data when you are connected to Wi-Fi
  • Get a prepaid voice and text only monthly plan and use your existing phone

AT&T, Ting, and T-Mobile offer plans with a base price starting at less than $10 per month, but most do not include data. Some of these plans include pay per day you use your phone or allow you to pay for very limited amounts of minutes, text, or data.

Do I have to buy a new phone if I switch carriers?

Not necessarily. Most cell phone providers allow you to transfer a carrier-compatible device. However, if you haven't yet paid off your current phone, you may need to do that, unlock the device, put in a new SIM card, and pay an activation fee before switching to your new carrier. And sometimes early termination fees and restocking fees from your previous carrier apply. On the other hand, some companies offer trade-in deals that incentivize purchasing a new phone by paying off your old one.

Which cell phone provider is the best?

Verizon is currently ranked #1 based on our Best Rank algorithm, but the best provider for you depends on your unique needs and preferences. Read through top company profiles to assess each provider’s price, speed, and coverage, and read reviews to gauge the customer experience from real people who have been where you are now. 

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