When it comes to call quality, data speed and coverage, Verizon Wireless (Est. $25 per month and up) wins awards in nearly every test and survey we spotted. It's simply the best performer in most regions that it serves. However, when it comes to costs and customer satisfaction, things aren't as rosy, and some other carriers perform just as well, if not better, in some locales, especially in metropolitan regions. Still, for rural and suburban dwellers, those who travel to different parts of the country, or those who want to be as sure as they can be (given the patchwork nature of U.S. cell service) that they'll have a phone that works wherever they are, Verizon gets the nod.
In August 2015, Verizon blew up its pricing structure in favor of a no-contract, no subsidized phone model that largely mimics T-Mobile's offerings (more on T-Mobile can be found in our discussion of best-value cell phone plans, elsewhere in this report). This new pricing structure applies to all new customers; existing customers are not required to switch, but may not be able to receive a phone subsidy if they want to upgrade their device. While contracts and subsidized devices are gone for smartphones and basic phones, they are still an option for tablets and hotspots.
The end of subsidized phones means that you'll either need your own compatible phone (see our report on smartphones for some recommendations), or you'll need to purchase a phone from Verizon. If you buy from Verizon, you can choose to pay the full price up front or the carrier offers a Device Payment Plan that lets customers finance the phone at 0 percent interest over a 24-month period. If you do finance the phone and decide to discontinue service, the balance owed on the phone has to be immediately paid off.
Plan pricing has been streamlined to some extent. Every line of service is subject to a $20 access line. To that you add a shared data pool (all devices on your account use the same data pool) that starts at 1 GB for $30 per month, and goes up to as much as 100 GB per month for $750. Unlimited talk and text are included in these plans. For basic phone users, a $5 per month plan with 700 minutes of talk is offered, but texts are an additional 20 cents each.
In terms of performance, Verizon shines. It sweeps all six regions in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of user satisfaction with network quality. That's buttressed by testing by PCMag.com and RootMetrics, which reveals that Verizon delivers top performance in more regions than any of its competitors (though some are closing the gap). In limited regions, Verizon performance has been enhanced by its XLTE service, a new wireless band that allows for increased capacity and data speeds with compatible phones (most newer devices are compatible).
Phone selection is excellent as well. Nearly all flagship phones and a good number of mid-priced and budget devices are offered. Verizon also has a handful of carrier-exclusive devices, though none that experts say would be compelling enough on their own to tip the balance toward choosing Verizon as a service. International travelers should note that Verizon uses CDMA technology, one of two wireless technologies in use in the U.S. CDMA is not used in most other countries, however; instead, GSM, also used in the U.S. but by other carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile), is the prevalent worldwide technology. To get around that, some Verizon devices are world-ready with built-in GSM radios for use internationally. That includes most flagship phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 (Est. $600 and up) and the Apple iPhone 6 (Est. $650 and up), but not all mid-priced and budget phones.
The downside to Verizon is that it's customer service and satisfaction don't rate as highly. Despite finishing at the top of the charts in terms of network performance criteria in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice survey, it's ratings in other areas were enough to pull the carrier down to mid-pack, and slightly below average among all carriers surveyed. That's confirmed in surveys that measure user satisfaction with customer service and with the buying experience conducted by J.D. Power and Associates; in those surveys, Verizon Wireless earned below average scores.
Comments from unhappy users reflect a variety of complaints, though fees come up fairly frequently. Costs for international calls, and use abroad, are another issue, though texting to international destinations is now free. Also, watch your data limit carefully. You can exceed that without losing service, but any overage will be billed at a relatively high price of $15 per megabyte on most plans.
Fairly or not, AT&T (Est. $40 per month and up) has taken some knocks over the years for the quality of its service. However, recent testing says that those interested in a cellphone plan that covers most of the country with good to great performance should give that carrier a second look.
When it comes to performance, AT&T still trails Verizon, but the gap isn't that large. In the J.D. Power and Associates survey of network performance satisfaction, AT&T finishes second to Verizon in all regions, but with scores that are at or better than average in each case. Qualitative testing mirrors that. PCMag.com calls Verizon the winner overall, but AT&T (along with other providers) carries the day in some cities in most regions, and wins the performance title outright in the South Central region. In RootMetrics' testing, AT&T was judged to be the best carrier nationwide for texting performance, and finished a close second to Verizon in other categories. "In short, although Verizon led the way in the majority of categories at the national level, AT&T wasn't far behind," says Dave Andersen at RootMetrics.
In terms of customer satisfaction, surveys are a mixed bag. AT&T doesn't fare particularly well in the Readers' Choice poll conducted by PCMag.com, but shines in two surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. In terms of customer care, AT&T ranks just a couple of points behind T-Mobile, but both carriers are well above the industry average among postpaid carriers -- and AT&T finished first in the previous edition of this survey. It's the clear winner in J.D. Power and Associates survey of satisfaction with the buying experience (among postpaid carriers).
If you are unhappy with the end of subsidized phones at Verizon and other carriers, AT&T still offers traditional two year contracts and discounted and even free phones -- but you'll pay for that privilege in the form of higher fees for cellphone service. Buy the phone at its full retail price or on the AT&T Next program (discussed below), and you will qualify for a reduction of $15 to $25 per month on your line access charges. Over the two year span of a contract, that adds up to $360 to $600 in lost line access discounts -- so that "free" or "low-cost" device really isn't in most cases.
Like Verizon, all plans are shared data plans and include unlimited talk and text. Pricing starts at $20 for 300 MB of shared data and goes up to $375 for 50 GB of data per month. Line access charges are $40 per month per smartphone for those who opt for a contract and a discounted phone. Otherwise, they are $25 per month for data plans of 5 GB or less, or $15 for plans of 15 GB or more. Access charges for other devices include $20 for all basic phones and $10 per month for tablets. One nice value perk not available with Verizon is rollover data that will cycle any unused data from the current month to the next month (after which it expires). You still need to watch your usage, however -- if you go over the cap and don't have any unused data from the previous month as a backstop, you'll get hit with a $15 per GB surcharge. Newly added pluses include free unlimited calls to Canada and Mexico on plans with data pools of 15 GB or higher. International texting to those and other countries is free on all plans.
AT&T Next is the carrier's equipment financing plan. The length of the term can be set by the user for between 20 and 30 installments. For frequent upgraders, the plan allows you to turn in your device early (for example, after 12 months for a 20 month plan, 24 months for a 30 month plan), pay a $15 upgrade fee, and purchase a new device on the Next plan. For those trying to develop credit, a down payment option lets users pay 30 percent of the device cost up front, spread the balance over 28 months, and upgrade after one year.
AT&T's phone selection, like Verizon's (and most postpaid carriers, for that matter), is first rate. All flagship phones are available or supported (AT&T makes it easy to bring your own compatible device to the service), as are many budget and mid-range devices. AT&T also has some exclusive devices, but, as was the case with Verizon, none that wowed critics to the point where it might be the deciding factor in your selection of providers. AT&T uses a GSM network, the type that's prevalent in most of the world -- a plus for those who travel internationally.