U.S. Cellular (*Est. $40 per month and up) is a regional but still fairly large carrier, with about six million customers in 26 states spreading mostly southeast and northwest from Chicago, where the company is headquartered. If you live in one of these states, U.S. Cellular scores as well as -- and sometimes better than -- Verizon Wireless (*Est. $40 per month and up for basic phones; $100 and up for smartphones).
Good selection of competitive plans. U.S. Cellular offers a wide variety of plans at competitive prices. The standard plan offers 450 talk minutes per month for $40. In addition, U.S. Cellular customers roam for free on the Verizon Wireless network. The standard 450-minute plan has one very important extra that other carriers don't have: free incoming calls, texts and picture/video messages, so you only get charged (or use minutes) for those you send. You can gain additional benefits by joining U.S. Cellular's rewards program, a free program in which you can earn loyalty points that can be used for various perks.
Top in the North Central United States. U.S. Cellular contracts with the Verizon network for roaming, so 3G coverage blankets the nation. U.S. Cellular rivals Verizon Wireless for nationwide coverage and call quality, with competitive prices and better cell phone plans. While Verizon Wireless ranks highest overall nationally, reviewers say U.S. Cellular is a particularly strong carrier in the 26 states it serves, mostly in the Midwest. It boasts the best call quality in its home area -- the North Central region of the United States -- for the 13th straight survey period at J.D. Power and Associates. U.S. Cellular's 4G network is being rolled out to select cities in several states.
High level of customer service. Consumers lavish praise on U.S. Cellular's excellent customer service, and the carrier ranks at or near the top for customer service in expert reviews. PCMag.com's Ben Gottesman states that U.S. Cellular has the best customer support in the business, and the carrier earns a Readers' Choice award. The contributors to a major customer survey agree, awarding U.S. Cellular first place overall and the highest possible ratings for customer service, problem-free calls and value.
Not much of a choice. U.S. Cellular
offers fewer handset choices than the national carriers -- although
latest Android BlackBerry and Windows smartphones, it's no slouch,
either. In PCMag.com's readers' survey this carrier ranks last for
choice of handsets -- well below
average. It also earns the bottom place for phone selection in TopTenReviews.com's 2012 roundup of cell phone service providers. User contributors at Viewpoints.com agree that the selection is limited. Like Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular operates on a CDMA network, so its phones won't work in other countries.
1. J.D. Power & Associates
Review Credibility: Excellent U.S. Cellular is the top-ranked wireless service provider in the North Central United States, according to the more than 27,000 wireless users who responded to J.D. Power and Associates' annual survey. U.S. Cellular has fewer customers reporting problems than the regional average, but it loses to Verizon in each of the five other geographic regions.
Review: 2012 U.S. Wireless Network Quality Performance Study, Editors of J.D. Power and Associates, Feb. 28, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent ConsumerReports.org polls more than 66,000 of its subscribers, asking them to rate their cell service for value, voice/text/data service and customer support. Each carrier, including U.S. Cellular, gets an overall score and a separate rating in each of 26 major cities.
Review: Overall Cell Phone Service Ratings, Editors of ConsumerReports.org, January 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good U.S. Cellular earns a Readers' Choice award here, along with Verizon Wireless. PCMag.com readers rank U.S. Cellular at or near the top for customer support, plan options, coverage and call quality when compared with the four national carriers. However, it ranks almost last for choice of handsets.
Review: Readers' Choice Awards 2011: Mobile Phones and Carriers, Ben Gottesman, May 23, 2011
Review Credibility: Good This site's best feature is its detailed comparison chart, examining the features of 10 cellular service providers. Editors highlight the company's big selling feature -- free incoming calls -- but the short review is not very critical.
Review: 2013 Best Cell Phone Provider Comparisons and Reviews, Editors of TopTenReviews.com, As of December 2012
Review Credibility: Good CNET doesn't actually review U.S. Cellular, but the site provides a good overview in this buyer's guide, which outlines the pros and cons of several major nationwide and regional carriers.
Review: Quick Guide to Top Cell Phone Carriers, Kent German, Jessica Dolcourt, July 31, 2012
Review Credibility: Good With over 100 reviews, U.S. Cellular receives an average of 3 out of 5 stars. Contributors praise the carrier's service and coverage, but complain about its out-of-date phones and its poor customer service.
Review: U.S. Cellular User Reviews, Contributors to CNET, As of December 2012
Review Credibility: Fair About 70 people have rated U.S. Cellular here, giving it an average of 78 out of a possible 100 points -- the highest for any contract cell phone carrier. Most say the connections are clear, but some complain that the phone selection is limited.
Review: U.S. Cellular Reviews, Contributors to Viewpoints.com, As of December 2012