Coverage. Reliability. Availability.
Sound familiar? These industry buzzwords get tossed around pretty often. Every carrier claims they have the “#1 network for coverage and reliability,” or “less than 1% difference” (ahem, Sprint). But not everybody can be the real winner– so who has the best cell phone coverage?
Well, we’ll ruin this guide right off the bat: when it comes to national service, Verizon Wireless has the best coverage for getting calls, text, and data… even in the middle of nowhere.
Although T-Mobile had actually pulled ahead of Big Red in previous years, Verizon has once again claimed the top spot according to both OpenSignal and Rootmetrics. T-Mobile comes in a close second when it comes to things like download speed, but AT&T actually gives both top carriers a serious run for their money when it comes to network availability across the country.
In this guide, we’re going to do a little cell phone coverage map comparison for all major carriers, discuss current nationwide studies that have shown who has the most coverage, and talk about how to find the best wireless service for you.
We’ll also make brief mention of the smaller carriers you can choose instead while still getting decent coverage, as well as answer a few frequently asked questions at the end.
How to find the best wireless network for you:
- Review cellular coverage maps
- Confirm coverage - check later in the article for links to do so
- Grab recommendations from friends/family if possible
The best: Verizon Wireless
Verizon Coverage Map
One look at the coverage map above (and maybe a quick scroll to scan the other carriers’) shows you one fact: Verizon is still king.
Not only does Verizon have the best 4G LTE coverage in all 50 states, but it’s reliably fast, regardless of your use. So whether you’re just browsing, or you’re streaming video or music, or you’re playing games– you’ll have top-of-the-line speeds.
Don’t believe us? Just check out the reports from OpenSignal or Rootmetrics. They’re #1– at least for now; there has been some shifting at the top of the rankings at times throughout the past few years. Only the future will tell if or when that changes.
Of course, no one can promise without lying that you won’t hit any dead zones, but with Verizon, it’s much less likely. The big downside to them? Price. Verizon has some of the highest-priced plans– you pay for that coverage.
|Unlimited Plan||Features||Price (1 line)||View Plans|
|Go Unlimited|| || ||View plans|
|Beyond Unlimited|| || ||View plans|
|Above Unlimited|| || ||View plans|
Verizon: best for the everywhere-user
So if the cost is a big downside, who is Verizon worth it for?
- Rural coverage – If you live in, or travel to, rural areas often, Verizon is much more likely to give you a reliable signal (Darn it! Now we are using the buzz words.).
- Business travelers – If you travel a lot for work, or own a business where you send others traveling, then you’ll need a reliable signal for your business. You can’t go wrong with Verizon.
- Rural, suburban, and city users alike – Finally, if you fit any of these 3 categories and simply want the best in coverage — Verizon is king.
Check out our full Verizon review to find out more.
AT&T Coverage Map
Wait, you say, AT&T? What about T-Mobile? Isn’t the “Uncarrier” just behind Verizon in rankings?
Well, when it comes to speed, that is true: T-Mobile is faster than AT&T. But when it comes to coverage— the thing this article is all about– AT&T actually has a more available network than T-Mobile. Simply put, AT&T is more rurally available than T-Mobile is, thus a better rank from us.
In fact, there is actually one study that was performed in September of 2018, the “largest ever mobile performance evaluation,” that found AT&T to be the “best network overall.” But, that’s just one study, and in most others, AT&T comes up a bit short in surpassing Verizon’s speeds (although AT&T has won for latency— reliably getting your texts through fastest).
So the best way to think about the comparison between AT&T and Verizon is: AT&T will have your back most of the time, giving you solid coverage across the nation with good speeds; Verizon has just a little more oomph for a little more money.
|Unlimited Plan||Features||Price||View Plans|
|AT&T Unlimited &More|| ||$70/mo.**||View plans|
|AT&T Unlimited &More Premium|| ||$80/mo.**||View plans|
*4G LTE speeds are slowed to max of 128Kbps once limit is reached.
**Price includes autopay and paperless billing discount.
AT&T: best for the TV fan
So, if AT&T costs only a little bit less than Verizon’s plans, and has only a little bit less-comprehensive network, then who is AT&T best for?
- The coverage-prioritizing, but… – People who want good coverage across the country, but for whom Verizon’s price are a bit too high.
- TV fans – Since AT&T owns DIRECTV NOW, you can bundle and stream the service without using any of your data allotment– free data.
- Some rural users – Although not quite as widespread in rural areas as Verizon, AT&T is still typically better than T-Mobile and Sprint in non-city regions.
You can find out more details by checking out our AT&T review.
T-Mobile Coverage Map
T-Mobile comes in 3rd place for the simple reason that we’ve alluded to a few times already: rural coverage isn’t that great. But, that said, if you live in a city or area just outside of one, you’ll do just fine with T-Mobile– and for cheaper prices than either Verizon or AT&T.
Plus, you won’t just get 4G LTE speeds, you’ll get those speeds for up to 50GB of use each month before getting throttled down. Both Verizon and AT&T offer just a 22GB data deprioritization threshold on their mainstay unlimited plans.
You also get some of the best perks in the biz: Netflix with unlimited plans over 2 lines, mobile hotspot data, and in-flight Wi-Fi on GoGo-enabled flights, and more, like T-Mobile Tuesdays.
|T-Mobile One|| ||$70/mo.||View plans|
|T-Mobile One Plus|| ||$80/mo.**||View plans|
T-Mobile: the best for city folks
If you mainly live and/or travel in cities and the surrounding areas– T-Mobile is probably going to be best for you. You’ll get solid coverage, great speeds, awesome perks, and all at reasonable prices.
- Live in the city – T-Mobile works great for you.
- Need fast speeds – T-Mobile has taken first for several years, and is now only barely behind Verizon according to OpenSignal and RootMetrics.
- Data super-users – 50GB is a lot of data to go through in a month, so unless you’re a super-user, you won’t even come close to touching that, giving you 4G LTE speeds longer.
Take a look at our full T-Mobile review to find out more.
Sprint Coverage Map
Sprint brings up the rear when it comes to coverage, unfortunately, but with cheaper prices, nice perks, and good city coverage, they’re not a bad option. The downside is that performance trails behind the other 3 big carriers: Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint.
That includes coverage: leave the city to enter a more rural area, and your bars will drop.
But, you get a free Hulu and Tidal music subscription with Unlimited Plus, so that’s cool, right?
|Unlimited Kickstart|| ||$70/mo.||View plans|
|Unlimited Basic|| ||$80/mo.**||View plans|
|Unlimited Plus|| ||$60/mo. limited time; $70/mo. regular||View plans|
|Unlimited Premium|| ||$80/mo. limited time; $90/mo. regular||View plans|
Sprint: best for budget-minded city folks
Major versus minor carriers
When you’re considering switching to a different cell phone carrier, you may have done what we did: jumped to the Big 4: Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint. That’s okay– there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are literally dozens of smaller carriers that you can use to get decent coverage for considerably cheaper rates.
Called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), these carriers purchase network service– talk, text, data– from the major providers for wholesale prices. Then, they sell them to customers for cheaper than the big carriers can, giving you savings.
Since there are so many MVNOs, there’s no shortage of options for customers. You can hop onto the #1 network (Verizon) or #2 (AT&T) for much cheaper just by switching to one of the MVNOs that buy network-space from one of them.
For example, Total Wireless, CREDO Mobile, and GreatCall run on Verizon’s network. Cricket Wireless and FreedomPop run on AT&T’s network.
The downside to using an MVNO for your cell phone service is that you will face data deprioritization more often than if you go directly with one of the Big 4. The major carriers give precedence to their direct customers during congested periods. Of course, if you don’t use a lot of 4G data, then that won’t be a problem for you.
Other than that, these are completely viable alternatives. It’s also worth noting that a lot of these carriers don’t have some of the same fees, or contracts, that you’d expect from the Big 4.
|MVNO||Network (runs on)|
|Consumer Cellular||AT&T, T-Mobile|
|Metro by T-Mobile (MetroPCS)||AT&T, T-Mobile|
|TracFone||Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint|
|StraightTalk||Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint|
|Net10||Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular|
How to check your coverage
Now that you’ve checked coverage maps and seen the studies, you’re onto the next step: confirming coverage for your area for each carrier you’re considering. It’s pretty simple, oddly, just click through one of the links below to go a coverage checker. Most will have a spot to enter your address, state, or ZIP code and see how good coverage will be for you.
If you know the information for places you travel to often, you can also enter those in to see if you’ll have service in that area. (If you can’t remember the specific address, then use Google Maps to find it or something close.)
Using an older phone can decrease your coverage, too. Newer phones can tap into faster radio spectrums that carriers periodically roll out. An iPhone X will have better coverage than an iPhone 4 in most cases.
When you’re looking for the best coverage, price has to take a back seat.
When it comes down to determining the best cell phone company, there are a lot of things to look at. Luckily coverage is only one aspect to that, though, so it is a lot easier to isolate. In this context, when you’re looking for the best coverage, price has to take a back seat.
As I think we have confirmed through our review of the various wireless coverage maps, Verizon has the best coverage across the U.S. But if you don’t need quite that much, then:
- AT&T will give you next-best coverage, for a little cheaper; but
- T-Mobile will give you faster speeds than AT&T in more city and suburban areas; and
- Sprint is a good budget-option for people living in cities and surrounding regions.
Although having the best network coverage is definitely a big concern, price will always play a strong role. If you’ve got Wi-Fi most of the time or are in a city a lot of the time– well, your best coverage will cost less than the farmer in Iowa or the cross-country trucker with a Gilmore Girls problem.
What’s the big deal with coverage?
Coverage is a pretty big deal. If I live in Tulsa, Arizona, I don’t care that T-Mobile gives the greater Manhattan, New York area a signal 100% of the time. I want coverage where I am.
You need coverage for your area and the areas you travel to. The better coverage you have, the less you have to wonder, “Am I going to have a signal/do [whatever] when I go to [XYZ location?]”
Some of those locations can be:
- Your home
- Your work
- Your school
- Your commute
- Business travel
- Hiking, camping, skiiing, etc.
- Family vacations
Just to name a few. Do you have coverage in all those places? What would it be like if you did?
I live in the city and don’t leave it often. Do I really need Verizon or AT&T?
No, not necessarily. The other options– T-Mobile and Sprint– can actually be better in cities and metro areas. So, you might consider saving some cash and grabbing some great extra perks (hello, T-Mobile) if you primarily stay in the city area.
Use the coverage checkers available above for your area to see which one is most likely to be best for you. And of course, don’t be afraid to ask coworkers and loved ones about their experience with a certain service if you’re unsure.