How Do I Choose the Right Wireless Carrier?

If you’ve ever shopped for a new phone, you know how overwhelming the whole process can be. Between the constant commercials, deals and newest plans, it can be pretty intimidating trying to sort all that out for yourself. While it seems complicated, you can make an informed decision that will give you the best experience with a little general phone industry know-how.

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make when wireless phone shopping is no doubt picking a carrier. Considering there are dozens of different carriers to choose from, how do you decide which one is right for you?

In this article, we’re going to break down the differences between different types of carriers so you can shop with the peace of mind that you know exactly what you’re looking for.

Things to Consider

There’s a myriad of different reasons why you might want to switch carriers. Maybe you’re paying too much, maybe your coverage is lackluster or maybe you just want a better price on a new phone. Regardless of the reason, there are a few things to consider before we dive into the various options you can choose from:

Put Coverage First

You’ve probably noticed that the overwhelming majority of wireless carriers’ commercials showcase coverage maps. That’s because good coverage is arguably the most important factor you should take into consideration when choosing a carrier. Sure, you might have the latest and greatest smartphone in your pocket; and the unlimited data and super fast download speeds that make it great, but all that goes out the window if you don’t have coverage where you frequent most.

Are You Getting a New Phone, or Keeping Your Existing One?

If you’re happy with the device you have but want to change networks, unless you’ve paid off your device (usually for a 24-month period), your phone is most likely still locked. Locked phones have software code that prevents you from using that device on a different carrier’s network. So if you are a Verizon customer and want to switch to T-Mobile, you won’t be able to use a T-Mobile SIM card on your phone. Once your phone is paid off, all you have to do is ask your current carrier to unlock your device. When it’s time to switch carriers, you just pop in the new SIM card and you’ll be good to go.

Consider Your Data Usage

Before you start worrying about data plans and data speeds, it’s helpful to have an understanding of just how much data you’re actually using. Not only will this help you find the plan you need, but it’ll also help you avoid paying more for data that you may not be likely to use. To find your data usage, take a look below:

  • iPhones: Go to Settings > Cellular or Settings > Mobile Data.
  • Androids: Go to Settings > Network & Internet > Data Usage

Choosing a Carrier

Now that you have a few considerations in mind, let’s dive into what you need to know to make the best choice for your needs. There are plenty of wireless carriers out there for you to choose from, but at a high level, there are four different types:

National Carriers

Collectively known as “The Big Three,” the national carriers are Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile (which now includes Sprint). These three brands, also known as Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), have radio spectrum, end-to-end service, cell phone towers, and SIM cards. Essentially, they independently own everything needed to deliver reliable network services, and as a result, will generally cost more for that reliability and service.

Budget Carriers (MVNOs)

While virtually all cell phone coverage in the US uses the big three’s networks, MVNOs use the exact same ones while offering cheaper or more tailored pricing plans. Choosing from MVNOs like Cricket Wireless, Republic Wireless, Ting, Straight Talk have a number of potential benefits that could save you money:

  • Cost: MVNOs are often more affordable alternatives to major networks as they target a prepaid market—making it easier to switch carriers at the best prices.
  • Service for Price: Because budget carriers rely on larger, more established carriers for their coverage networks, for the money you spend, coverage can be good.
  • Flexibility: MVNOs offer prepaid and postpaid options that make it easy to find the right payment plan for your needs.

Cable Carriers

Xfinity Mobile, Consumer Cellular, and GoogleFi offer great postpaid prices while Boost Mobile, Cricket, and Mint Mobile all have extremely affordable prepaid plans. One of the best switching opportunities that saves big while still providing premium data are the cable MVNOs like Xfinity Mobile, Altice, and Spectrum Mobile.

They offer amazing prices, especially for single line and unlimited plans, but come with a big caveat. You must already have them for home internet in order to add-on wireless service. So, you’re out of luck if you have Verizon FiOS, WOW! or RCN.

What Kind of Data Plan Do You Want?

After you’ve narrowed down the list of potential carriers you’re considering, it’s time to start thinking about data plans. At a high level, there are four kinds of data plans and which one you pick is really dependent on what you need. Here’s a quick summary to get you started:

There are three basic pricing approaches to how carriers charge for data:

  • Unlimited Data Plans: Unlimited data means you can access what you want, as often as you want to. Depending on the unlimited plan, you may be able to access everything at top speeds all the time, or what’s called an “initial cap” where your data speed is capped after you reach a certain data limit.
  • Capped Data Plans: A data cap is the service provider-imposed limit on the amount of data you can use on a monthly basis. If you go beyond your data limit, either your download speed will be severely reduced until the start of your next bill cycle, or your provider will automatically charge you a flat-rate for additional data usage.
  • Pay-As-You-Go Data Plans: Pay-As-You-Go plans are no contract phone plans where you purchase a large number of minutes to use over weeks or months, or choose billing on a daily rate, only when you use data.

First, it’s important to know that carrier service pricing (your data plan bill) is different from the payments you make on your phone or device. If you buy a phone through your carrier, you can either pay the device off outright, or pay it off in monthly installments. Either way, this will be a separate bill from monthly service.

Monthly service pricing is all about how many devices or lines you have (covering phones, tablets, wearables, etc.) and how much data you use across all these devices. Carriers typically charge a fixed amount per line for smartphones and a smaller amount per line for wearables and tablets.

Sometimes these fixed charges include the cost of data and sometimes they don’t, however, most carrier plans include unlimited voice calling and text messaging at no extra charge. There are a variety of add-on features like insurance, visual voicemail and other options which are additional costs (we’ll go over this shortly).

Unlimited Data Plans

There are unlimited plans for people with only one line—there are also unlimited plans for families with 4 or more lines—but despite the word unlimited, these plans are not really unlimited with the exception of T-Mobile’s Magenta Max plan.

Most carriers slow down your data speeds or deprioritize your data after you’ve reached a certain amount of total usage. Some carriers slow you down by wireless technology, meaning they move you from 4G to 2G (or from very fast to very slow). Some carriers slow you down because your data isn’t at the front of the line relative to other customers.

If you’re considering an unlimited plan, there are three tiers of unlimited data plans depending on what you’re looking for:

  • Premium Unlimited: These plans are great if you’re a high-data user and want the best of the best. They include the largest data amounts and all the extra features like hotspot and streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, etc).
  • Mid-Level Unlimited: Similar to Premium, Mid-Level offers great speed and data amounts while giving you specific features like hotspot and/or some streaming services.
  • Entry-Level Unlimited Plan: These plans are great if you’re looking for unlimited plans but are not interested in extra features like hotspot or streaming services. They offer great data and speed at a lower price without the additional perks and features.

Capped Data Plans

Capped data plans used to be the norm but now are relatively unusual. These plans do offer a cheaper alternative to unlimited, especially since the vast majority of wireless customers use less than 5G of data per month. For example, Verizon offers capped data plans with limits of 5 and 10GB, while AT&T offers the option to choose 3 or 9GB plans.

Pay-as-You-Go Data Plans

Last but not least, there are pay-as-you-go data plans. These plans are ideal if you use very little data (like using their cell phone to check email every now and then). Only certain carriers like XFinity Mobile, offer pay-as-you-go plans. With XFinity Mobile, you can get service with 1GB of data for as low as $15/month, without paying overage fees if you exceed that allotment (each additional GB is $15, with volume discounts at 3 and 10 GB).

How Do You Want to Pay?

All service plans fall into two categories: prepaid or postpaid, which refer to how you pay for your wireless service. Just like it sounds, prepaid plans are paid ahead of time and postpaid plans are paid at the end of the month based data usage.

Originally the reason wireless carriers made the distinction between prepaid and postpaid service plans was to differentiate their customers by credit risk—like credit card companies do. Some people get credit and pay afterwards, some don’t and need to pay ahead of time.

There are many carriers like Mint Mobile, Tracfone, Boost, and StraightTalk that offer only prepaid plans (and, as a result, are sometimes referred to as prepaid carriers). Their plans are very compelling—but you have to be willing to pay one month ahead.

The “big three” also offer prepaid plans. They do it through brands created to look like carriers that run on their networks. In the case of Verizon, its prepaid carrier brand is called Visible; AT&T’s prepaid carrier brand is Cricket; and T-Mobile’s prepaid carrier brand is MetroPCS.

Today the distinction between prepaid and postpaid is not only about credit risk but, instead, about trying to create two price points for the same basic wireless service to satisfy two different groups of customers.

Choosing a Carrier Based on Monthly Service

When it comes to choosing a carrier based on monthly service price, there is an often overlooked, but highly attractive, savings opportunity: mixing and matching plans. Some carriers, like Verizon, AT&T, Spectrum, and XFinity Mobile let family plan subscribers choose a different service plan for each line.

If your family has uneven usage across your account (maybe you mostly use data for internet browsing and email, but you have a child who constantly streams Netflix), this can be a great way to narrow down your carrier options.

Do You Want 5G Technology?

Each carrier has a network evolution plan that involves the deployment of 5G technology. 5G has the potential to revolutionize how we use wireless services, but it is early in the 5G deployment life cycle for all carriers. Most analysts estimate that 5G will not be fully deployed in the United States until 2030.

Right now, some carriers like Verizon have limited deployments of super-fast 5G and other carriers, like T-Mobile, have larger deployments of a different type of 5G which is a lot faster than 4G LTE but slower than Verizon’s 5G). Also, remember that in order to get 5G service, your phone must be 5G-enabled. This means that you have to purchase one of the latest phone models from Apple, Samsung, Google, etc.

What Kind of Network Experience Do You Want?

How many times have you gotten frustrated by your carrier’s network quality? How many times have you thought of switching carriers because of it? But you don’t... because you have no idea if the carrier you might switch to has a network that will be any better. Current resources, like coverage maps and speed testing apps don’t meaningfully help with this decision process.

The reality of carrier network quality is that it varies dramatically. A family in one house can have a great network experience and a family in the next house over, on the same carrier’s network, can have a lousy experience. Why? It’s mostly about signal strength. If signal strength is strong, then other elements of network quality like download / upload speed and latency are very likely to be good too.

Signal strengths vary because of your proximity to a carrier’s nearest cell tower. Distance to that tower, obstructions in-between (like buildings), forest density, certain types of windows in your house, and the thickness of your home’s exterior walls all affect signal strength. Signal strength can drop if there are lots of subscribers on your carrier’s network at the same time. Good luck finding a coverage map to help you with these kinds of things!

The only way to figure out whether the network quality of a new carrier might be better than your current carrier is by testing the signal strength of both carriers over the course of an entire day (or more!) in the places where you spend most of your time (e.g. your home, at work, at the local mall, at your favorite coffee shop, etc.).

Deals When You Switch Carriers

Whether you’re looking for a great deal on a new phone, or just looking to save on service and keep your device, you should know that carriers offer some of the best deals in the market to those willing to switch. The best deals in this category typically come from postpaid plans on the big three carriers.

If you want to save on one of the latest phones, you’ve probably noticed that carriers dangle compelling promotions on new phones as a way to get you to switch to them. This has been a part of the wireless landscape for many years. Typically, carriers offer the best promotions to people who switch to them.

So the good news is that there are plenty of deals out there for people willing to switch carriers. The bad news… you need to be a CSI detective to understand and uncover all the promotional opportunities that are out there.

Just at Verizon, for example, there are thousands of combinations of phones, deals, and plans that change all the time. But, don’t worry, we’ve made it easy for you! Navi continuously analyzes all of the promotions in the market whether from a carrier, a phone manufacturer like Apple, or from a major retailer like Walmart.

If you want to keep your device but lower your bill, you can often find carriers that are eager to lower your bill with account credits if you switch to them. For example, Verizon is currently offering $450 in credits to subscribers who join their network and bring their own device. These credits can make a huge dent in your bill, but they change all of the time.

Credit Offers

When you purchase a new phone with a new carrier, it typically runs a credit check on you to determine whether it wants to allow you to pay back the cost of the phone over some period of time. This is important because a new phone can cost over $1,000. Customers with acceptable credit scores can pay the carrier back for the phone over 24 or even 30 months … so, in this example where the phone costs $1,000, the phone payments add $41.67 per month to a customer’s bill over 24 months. If your credit score is too low, a carrier will require that you pay up front for some or all of the value of the phone.

Which Carriers Have the Best Customer Service?

We all have a horror story about dealing with carrier support, so even if you do your best to avoid interacting with your carrier, it’s worth considering customer service when making your decision.

Although we caution readers against making broad generalizations (support quality can come down to which rep you happen to speak with), JD Power found some trends that could help you finalize your carrier decision.

  • The biggest winner by far is Consumer Cellular, a postpaid MVNO built on AT&T’s network.
  • Among the big 3, T-Mobile emerged as a clear winner compared to Verizon and AT&T.
  • Although you might think that MVNOs have fewer resources and therefore worse support, that’s not always the case: Metro PCS and Cricket both beat Verizon and AT&T in terms of customer care satisfaction (although it’s worth noting that Tracfone, Boost, and Straight Talk subscribers are much less satisfied with their care).

What Perks and Add-On Features Do Carriers Offer?

Each carrier tries to lure in customers with a different bundle of free perks and optional add-on services which can help narrow down your carrier decision.

Perks often come in the form of free streaming services—like Hulu, Netflix, or Apple Music—but carriers also offer benefits like free cloud storage. The best perks are generally found with postpaid plans from the big three carriers, but perks vary widely across carriers and plans, so it can be hard to factor them into your carrier decision. See below for a breakdown of the perks offered by each carrier and how much they’re worth.

Carriers also offer various add-on features and services for an additional charge. They include international data and roaming, wearables and other connected devices, hotspot data allotments, phone insurance, visual voicemail, and more.

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