How to Pick the Best Carrier for You
Remember how picking an iPhone carrier used to be a straightforward decision? Three years ago, you would’ve been thrown under the dominion of AT&T, which had exclusive rights to the iPhone. It was kind of like being a peasant in feudal 17thcentury Europe. Luckily, we have more freedom now, but with freedom comes responsibility. It's up to you to figure out which carrier to choose, and this guide will help you weigh your options. We’ll cover all the major considerations when checking out offerings from national, prepaid, and regional carriers, based on your location and commitment level.
FOR THE CITY DWELLER
Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are the big dogs in the US telecommunications industry, and they come with many perks—the newest iPhone models at a discounted price, the largest set of features, and of course, national coverage with 4G networks in many areas of the country. Yet all of this comes at a cost. National carrier services often have the most expensive monthly fees, bind you into two-year contracts, and often have outrageous early termination fees. But the upside to the costliness is convenience; if you live in a reasonably populated area and aren't strapped for cash, a national carrier is probably the way to go.
WHICH CARRIER IS THE CHEAPEST?
While the top carriers' most basic plans now feature unlimited talk and text, some make you pay dearly for data, which most of us need for surfing the web, streaming music and videos, and using apps online when out of range of a Wi-Fi network.
When it comes to reasonable pricing for plans with data restrictions, T-Mobile and Sprint take the cake. If you're a light data user, you can pay just $50/month for 1 gigabyte of data with T-Mobile as well as with Sprint, which is significantly cheaper than the $80 you’ll pay for the same service if you go with Verizon or the $65 you’ll spend if you opt for AT&T.
If you’re dying to stop budgeting your data use and are leaning toward getting an unlimited plan, T-Mobile is the carrier to beat. Its $80-per-month plan is $30 cheaper than Sprint’s unlimited offering. AT&T and Verizon don’t offer unlimited data plans, so if you’re a heavy data user, you’ll find purchasing higher-gigabyte plans with either carrier to be a pricey prospect.
While T-Mobile has great prices, there is a catch. Most contract plans subsidize your iPhone, meaning they charge you a discounted price for the device (roughly $200) but lock you into a two-year contract. T-Mobile, on the other hand, doesn’t subsidize its phones, meaning you have to pay the full retail price, which ranges from $600 to $900. If you can’t afford the upfront cost of the device, you can finance your phone with T-Mobile for an extra monthly fee. This fee, which ranges from $20–$30 a month, isn’t included in T-Mobile’s service plans.
BUYING FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
If you're looking for a family plan, a good place to start is with Sprint's Family Share Pack, which lets you split up to 40 GB of data between up to 10 lines—an unparalleled deal for big families.
T-Mobile lets you specify how much data you want for each individual line. When shopping for a family of four, you can purchase 3 GB each for only $140/month (not including phone financing charges if you haven’t paid off your device).
Verizon and AT&T charge $160/month for families sharing 10 GB of data. But with Verizon, only customers who qualify for the company’s Edge program, which lets you upgrade your device more frequently and get discounts on service, get the $160 price; for everyone else it costs $260/month.
For ultra-connected families, T-Mobile and Sprint offer unlimited data plans.
THE TWO-YEAR COMMITMENT
In 2013, T-Mobile completely did away with contracts, so you can quit the service at any time at no charge. No other national provider offers this. In fact, other providers charge you a stiff early termination fee of as much as $350 if you quit their service before your contract is up.
How about activation and data overage fees? Well, each national carrier's activation fee is about $35. However, most Verizon and AT&T plans also charge an extra $15 per GB when you exceed your data allowance. T-Mobile and Sprint, on the other hand, have no data overage fees at all; instead docking your connection speed when you exceed your limit.
AVOIDING FAULTY CONNECTIONS
In the battle for coverage and quality, AT&T and Verizon are neck and neck. So while T-Mobile and Sprint have inexpensive plans and unlimited data offerings, depending on where you live, it might be worth coughing up the extra cash for a fast and reliable connection. A great way to see which carriers have the best coverage in your area is to simply check the street-level coverage maps on each carrier’s website.
AT&T typically provides the fastest download speeds, but Verizon is the largest wireless carrier and its massive 4G LTE network covers more urban and rural space than any other provider. According to a March study by mobile analytics firm RootMetrics, Verizon beat out every other major carrier in the categories of reliability, data, calls, and texts, while AT&T came out on top in speed.
In June, Verizon announced that it would be upgrading its LTE network to a system dubbed “XLTE,” which it says will deliver faster peak speeds at double the bandwidth of the company’s current network.
CONCERNS OVER CREDIT SCORE
Although all the national carriers provide a full set of features, T-Mobile and Sprint rank among the highest in terms of special services. What makes these two carriers slightly better than others? They don't run credit checks for some plans. If you're currently building your credit, Sprint and T-Mobile can get a phone in your hand quicker than any other carrier.
In this day and age, you should be accustomed to the battle between price and quality. If you value frugality or have an unstable source of income, you'll probably find a friend in TMobile or Sprint. On the other hand, if you're willing to shell out the extra bucks for the highest quality service and speed available, you'll likely be happy to sign a contract with Verizon or AT&T.
FOR THE COMMITMENT-FREE LIFESTYLE
Prepaid plans are great if you're strapped for cash, need a burner phone for work, or just don't plan on using much data. While all of the top carriers offer prepaid as well as contract plans, mostly smaller subsidiaries of larger national carriers tout their prepaid options. These plans let you pay as you go, thus giving you total control over how much you spend.
Short on cash this month? No problem, just use your phone less. Typically, prepaid carriers will allow you to credit a dollar amount to your account, which will be debited as you use your phone. Some of the most popular prepaid carriers for iPhone are Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Cricket, Net10, H20 Wireless, and U.S. Cellular.
DON’T ALREADY OWN AN IPHONE?
If you don't already own an iPhone, you may want to avoid getting one through a prepaid carrier. Since prepaid carriers can't offer you a subsidized discount like national carriers can, they usually cost two to three times as much. You can get an iPhone 6 on a two-year contract from national carriers for about $200, but the same phone on a no-contract deal with Cricket costs around $650.
SEARCHING FOR THE BEST PLAN
Most prepaid iPhone carriers offer similar monthly plans, so to determine which one is best for you, consider both daily plans and pay-as-you-go plans.
Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Cricket all offer monthly plans ranging from $40 for 500 MB of data to $60 per month for 5 GB. If a month is too much of a commitment, Boost Mobile offers daily prepaid plans at a rate of $3 a day for unlimited talk, text, and data.
For those who don't plan on using much data, Virgin Mobile offers a $20 monthly pay-as-you-go plan that includes 400 minutes of talk time and charges you an extra $0.15 per text and $1.50 per MB of data you use.
FOR WILDERNESS AND COUNTRY
If you live in Alaska, rural Wyoming, or the Appalachian area, you probably know who your regional carrier is. Since major carriers tend to focus on large population centers, regional carriers have stepped in to provide service to those who live in rural settings. This is definitely something to consider if you live far away from a city.
Your options for a regional carrier are limited, and obviously they are confined to a certain region, but a few large regional carriers like U.S. Cellular, Alltell, and nTelos cover several states in the US. Others like Golden State Cellular (California), Strata Networks (Colorado), and West Central Wireless (Texas) are limited to single states.
WHAT IPHONE MODELS ARE AVAILABLE?
Just because regional carriers cater to life in the country doesn't mean they're low-tech. Although most regional carriers do offer the iPhone 5s, the prices vary widely. For example, nTelos offers a 16 GB iPhone 5s for $150 with a two-year contract, while Appalachian Wireless offers the same for only $75.
HOW MUCH DO REGIONAL PLANS COST?
The biggest drawback of regional carriers is that they're usually more expensive than national ones. For example, T-Mobile's unlimited talk and text plan with 5 GB of 4G LTE is priced at $70/month, while Appalachian Wireless's most analogous plan is priced at $99.99/month.
Before signing on with a regional carrier, ask around to find out how national carriers perform in the area. If dropped calls are common, and you use your phone on a regular basis, you may want to consider paying a little extra for a reliable regional service.
At the end of the day, the best carrier is the one that fits your personal needs. If you're financially stable and live in an urban or suburban area, Verizon and AT&T are going to offer you great service. If you're a young professional still building your career and credit score, T-Mobile has inexpensive but quality options that you can opt out of at any time. If your income is a little shaky and you don't plan on using much data, a prepaid phone is going to be a good choice. Finally, if you live in an area beyond the reach of big national carriers, a regional carrier might be worth the slightly higher cost. Nick Miller is a digital journalist and writer in Nashville, Tennessee. He currently reports on technology startups and creative mobile applications for VentureBeat. com and writes tech and psychology how-to guides for WonderHowTo.com. You can follow Nick on Twitter @nicalexmiller.