Buying your first phone in the US? Looking to switch carriers? Want to know which phone carrier is the best? The number of options available may seem overwhelming, but looks can be deceiving.

In actuality, there are only really four nationwide networks to pick from: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

Here’s what you need to know to pick the best phone carrier in the US for you.

Verizon Wireless: The Nation’s Largest Carrier A screenshot of the Verizon Wireless homepage in September 2018Image Credit: Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless is the phone carrier with the largest network in the US. It has the most subscribers, and it covers the largest land area. In many rural parts of the country, this network is your only option.

Because of this size, Verizon Wireless tends to charge the most for its service. The company has a vast infrastructure to support, from towers to retail stores, as well as technicians and sales representatives. Yet Verizon does have a monopoly in some areas, and it knows many customers are willing to pay more to have the best network.

Verizon is a CDMA network, so you aren’t free to swap a SIM card between devices. You can only use phones that Verizon approves to operate on its network, and you have to contact the carrier to activate your line whenever you switch devices.

If you’re traveling abroad, Verizon may empty out your bank account. The company currently charges $5 a day for trips to Canada or Mexico and $10 a day to other countries. That’s in addition to your existing monthly bill.

AT&T: The Nation’s Largest GSM Network A screenshot of the AT&T wireless plans page in September 2018Image Credit: AT&T

AT&T is the second-largest phone carrier in the US, both in subscribers and coverage. While its reach isn’t as broad as Verizon’s, the network still does a good job of serving many smaller towns and rural counties.

AT&T’s prices are comparable to Verizon, though slightly lower. On the other hand, the carrier’s prepaid plans are very competitive compared not only to Verizon but Sprint and T-Mobile as well.

Unlike Verizon, AT&T is a GSM network, so you won’t have to pay the carrier store many visits unless you run into problems. Once you activate your SIM the first time, you can move it from one phone to the next. If you have multiple phones and need to swap between them regularly, you’re going to want a GSM carrier.

You can also pick up a prepaid SIM card at a store and activate a device yourself at home the same day. And if you want maximum coverage, AT&T is the best GSM network carrier in that regard.

While AT&T is cheaper than Verizon when traveling abroad, it’s still a costly option. The carrier offers an international package that includes over 200 countries, but you’re looking at an additional $60 charge per month. That number goes up if you want more data.

You can use the AT&T network and save money by checking out Cricket Wireless instead. It’s a subsidiary of AT&T that offers cheaper, no-contract plans.

T-Mobile: The Traveler’s Friend A screenshot of the T-Mobile homepage in September 2018Image Credit: T-Mobile

T-Mobile is the third-largest carrier in terms of subscribers, but its network is very spotty. You can expect excellent speeds and performance in cities, but you may not be able to place a call if you venture to places that interstate highways don’t pass through.

If you spend most of your time in urban areas, T-Mobile offers the best bang for your buck. You’re likely to walk away with a higher data allotment and other perks, such as unlimited streaming.

Like AT&T, T-Mobile is a GSM network. That means you’re free to take your SIM from one phone to another. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up a T-Mobile prepaid SIM card in a convenience store and hit the ground running. T-Mobile is the best GSM network carrier for people who live in cities and are on a tighter budget.

T-Mobile bakes international travel to over 210 countries into its current non-prepaid plans. The top plan lands you unlimited 2G data and unlimited text, with calls at 25 cents per minute. If you leave the country regularly, T-Mobile is the way to go. Keep phone calls to a minimum, and your wallet will barely suffer at all.

Want a cheaper plan? Consider Metro, a subsidiary of T-Mobile that doesn’t cost as much.

Sprint: The Best for Your Budget Sprint mobile network carrierImage Credit: Sprint

Sprint is the fourth-largest carrier. It has a somewhat broad network, but you will also encounter the slowest speeds of the nationwide carriers. On the flipside, Sprint sometimes does a better job supporting smaller metropolitan areas than the big cities. If you live in one of the country’s many small-to-mid-sized cities, Sprint may serve your needs just fine.

Since Sprint isn’t able to compete with network speeds, it often comes out with lower-cost plans and deals. Sprint can be the cheapest way to get an unlimited data plan.

Sprint is a CDMA network, so you need to contact the carrier whenever you’re ready to activate a new phone. This also limits which phones you can purchase.

The unlimited data plans on offer here include unlimited talk and text, plus an allotment of LTE data in Canada and Mexico. In over 185 other countries, you get 2G data and unlimited text, with calls charged by the minute. Rates may vary by country. While not as well-respected as T-Mobile, this is still a much better deal than Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Sprint owns brands such as Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Both can provide you with a phone on Sprint’s network for even less money.

T-Mobile and Sprint Merger T-Mobile Sprint MergerImage Credit: Sprint

One thing to know going forward is that T-Mobile and Sprint are in the process of merging. If the process doesn’t hit any roadblocks from the federal government or the courts, then the two phone carriers will become one. This will combine their resources to provide better coverage than either can currently provide separately. On the flip side, the larger carrier’s prices may also change. All we can do right now is wait and see.

What About Other Mobile Networks? A screenshot of the Ting homepage in September 2018Image Credit: Ting

You may live within range of a regional carrier like US Cellular. It’s the fifth-largest carrier and serves 23 states across the country.

Most other carriers are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). They provide cell phone connectivity without having to build and maintain their own infrastructure. Instead, they lease a nationwide carrier’s network.

Google’s Project Fi, Ting, and Republic Wireless are three popular MVNOs that use both the T-Mobile and Sprint networks. If you like the sound of Google’s mobile service, here’s everything you need to know about Project Fi.

MVNOs are often cheaper if you aren’t a heavy data user. On the downside, these services lack carrier stores, so you have to be comfortable heading online and troubleshooting yourself.

Which Mobile Carrier Is the Best for You?

There are so many factors to consider when answering this question. Where do you live? How often do you travel? Do you stream music and movies over mobile data? Do you buy unlocked phones?

No company can claim to be the best carrier in the US for all purposes and in all areas. But hopefully, you have enough information now to make an informed decision. If you’re after an unlimited plan, be sure to check out the cheapest phone plans with unlimited everything, too.

Read the full article: The Best Mobile Carrier for You: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint?

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