AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Which iPad carrier should you choose?

AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Which iPad carrier should you choose?

If you're in the U.S., Apple's new iPad Air and Retina iPad mini bring with them new choices for carriers. In addition to AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, T-Mobile is offering iPad service now. Coverage and cost are your two major factors, as well as LTE footprint, since all cell-equipped iPads support the technology. Which carrier is right for you?

Let's get down to business, looking at prices first.

iPad mini and iPad Air: Contract-free plans

All four carriers offer data plans for iPads with month-to-month, contract-free pricing. So if you are interested in choosing a different provider than you have for your cellular service, you can. You may also be interested in one of these plans if you are not on a "share everything" plan on AT&T or Verizon.

Quite frankly, each carrier has done their best to totally muddle the waters, so rather than break it down in charts, let me try to summarize:

  • AT&T's basic plan is $14.99 a month for 250 MB. $30 gets you 3 GB, while $50 a month gets you 5 GB.
  • Verizon offers 1, 2, 5 and 10 GB plans for $20, $30, $50 and $80 respectively.

Sprint offers a wide range of plans starting at a scant $5 (for a measly 25 MB per month - suitable for "emergency" e-mail use, but little more) and running up to $80 per month for 12 GB.

T-Mobile also accounts for tablets independently of phones. But the company's doing its best to be disruptive here, just as it has been in the smartphone market. When T-Mobile announced plans in late October to carry the iPad Air and iPad mini for the first time, the company also announced "Free Data for Life," which guarantees T-Mobile customers 200 MB of free data every month for as long as they own their iPad, even if they aren't yet a T-mobile customer.

T-Mobile's "always on" plans for iPad start at $10 per month for 500 MB of data. You can up your data limit in 2 GB increments for $10 a pop. T-Mobile is also introducing daily and weekly passes for customers who only occasionally need cell access on their devices - 500 MB for a day for $5, and weekly passes of unlimited data with 1 GB of 4G/LTE speeds for $10.

iPad mini and iPad Air: AT&T vs Verizon add-on plans

If you already have a "share everything" plan with AT&T or Verizon, you can add a tablet to your plan for another $10 per month. That's $10 per month more than you're paying now, plus the iPad draws from the pool of data you're already paying for. If you have an individual plan, this is not an option and you must use one of the above prepaid plans.

Neither Sprint nor T-Mobile will bundle your tablet with your smartphone plan. Tablet data plans are accounted for separately - see above for details.

iPad mini and iPad Air: LTE availability

In addition to price, you must also consider where each carrier offers coverage and if you're within that area. When it comes to coverage, the first thing you want to consider is LTE availability. LTE speed makes such a difference in data performance, this factor should weigh heavily on your decision.

Verizon has deployed LTE the fastest: they claim that 99 percent of their former 3G network now receives LTE coverage. However, customers in some areas are already complaining about network slowdowns, so Verizon has to stay on its toes by building out more capacity.

AT&T is building out their LTE network as fast as they can. Right now they have LTE available in almost 450 markets nationwide, with more to come. So if you're on AT&T and don't have LTE already, you should have it soon. AT&T also claims that their is the most reliable network, in terms of successful delivery rate of high-speed content.

Sprint is playing catchup here, but the company has spent 2013 accelerating its 4G LTE buildout as fast as it can. Sprint now has LTE available in 230 markets nationwide, and made a strong push this summer to grow that further. See those red dots on the map? They represent Sprint's 4G LTE footprint.

T-Mobile is in fourth place, but it's nipping at Sprint's heels. The company plans to have 200 markets with LTE coverage by the end of the year; and it only started to build out LTE coverage this past March. The company has also aggressively "refarmed" its network to improve its 4G footprint.

Obviously, all of this nationwide stuff is irrelevant if the coverage isn't good in your market. So here are some links to individual service providers' coverage maps. Check them yourself, and talk with friends, family members, coworkers and others about their experience with different services.

iPad mini and iPad Air: International traveling

The iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display both include support for GSM and CDMA, the two dominant network types in the US. GSM is used throughout Europe and CDMA exists in some parts of Asia, Mexico, parts of Latin America and elsewhere.

Check with your individual carrier to find out their international plan rates. In general, it's going to cost you quite a bit to get your iPad working abroad. One exception to that is T-Mobile - customers who have their "Simple Choice" plans now get unlimited data in more than 100 countries.

Depending on where you're traveling, how the duration of your trip, and your carrier, you may find that it's less expensive to buy a local carrier SIM once you get to the country you're visiting and buy a prepaid data plan instead.

Who should get their iPad Air or iPad mini on Verizon?

Verizon has the most ubiquitous coverage of any of the four major carriers. They've successfully transitioned the vast majority of their network to LTE. The company has its sights focused on improving capacity and reliability now that its transition to LTE is mostly complete. The adage "you get what you pay for" applies - you may pay a bit more to use Verizon, ultimately - however, if you're already a Verizon customer and you're using a shared data plan, you'll be able to add your tablet for $10 a month.

Who should get their iPad Air or iPad mini on AT&T?

AT&T has been investing heavily in rolling out their LTE network quickly. If they have good coverage in your area, they're a good option. And like Verizon, if you have a shared data plan with AT&T now, it's just $10 more per month to add your iPad to that pool.

Who should get their iPad Air or iPad mini on Sprint?

Sprint made a wrong turn with WiMax - a 4G networking technology that hasn't worked out very well - and it's cost them years. Now they're doing the same thing as everyone else, transitioning their network to 4G and LTE. But that rollout is far, far behind Verizon and AT&T. Still, if they're the best in your area, and their plans appeal to you, go with Sprint.

Who should get their iPad Air or iPad mini on T-Mobile?

T-Mobile is in fourth place, and that's causing them to take risks and cause as much disruption in the market as they can - hence their decision to give iPad customers absolutely free data, and to provide international travelers with free data access abroad. Their LTE is far behind their competitors, but the HSPA+ is very fast anyway. If you have great service with them, and like the plans they're offering, go with T-Mo.

iPad mini and iPad 5: Making the choice

So which carrier are you going to choose? Will you be ditching one carrier for another or sticking with the one you already have? Sound off in the comments below!

Retina iPad mini

Retina iPad mini
The world's most popular tiny tablet goes Retina. Features include:

Complete review >

Released
November 12, 2013

Alternatives
iPad mini (original), iPad Air, iPad 2

Replacements
iPad Mini 3
Fall, 2014

Resources
Buyers guide
Help forum

iPad Air

iPad Air
Apple's full-sized iPad gets slimmed down. Features include:

Complete review >

Released
November, 2013

Alternatives
Retina iPad mini, iPad 2, iPad mini (original)

Replacements
iPad Air 2 (iPad 6)
Fall, 2014

Resources
Buyers guide
Help forum

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint vs. T-Mobile: Which iPad carrier should you choose?

37 Comments

Sprint actually has a really good deal going on, there current offering is $15/month for 2GB. If you have Sprint LTE in your area, this could be a good fit for you.

I have T-Mobile service for my iPhone 5s. However, I'm getting the Verizon iPad Air..

Why? 2 reasons, carrier options and hotspot with prepaid.

1] Carrier Options.

The iPad Air is unlocked.. So if I buy a Verizon iPad Air, I can get a t-mobile sim and use it on t-mobile here in the states. Why would I do this? because I can pop in the Verizon sim any time I want if I don't have coverage and fill up the prepaid with $20 or $30 and get service if I'm in a pinch in an area that t-mobile doesn't work well. Then I can let the prepaid laps once done, if I want. Either way.. I'm not bound by any contracts and I can have access to the largest LTE network in a pinch if I need it.

IMO thats best of both worlds.

Conversely, you cannot go the other way around.. You can't get the t-mobile iPad Air and get a Verizon sim.. Verizon will not let a non-provisioned CDMA device on their network.. it has to be originally sold for their network. I know, I tried about a year ago.. :(

2] WiFi HotSpot is only on Verizon and T-Mobile's Prepaid. Sprint and AT&T will not let you use the iPad Air or Mini as a mobile hotspot if prepaid!

With Verizon and T-Mobile, you can share that data with any device. The only way you get HotSpot with AT&T is if you put it on an existing Share plan.. Sprint you have to pay extra.. last I checked it must be on a post paid plan and it's an extra $30 to enable hotspot.

Anyway.. Thats my plan, and I'm sticking too it! :)

This is a great explanation and exactly what my plans are. I currently own an iPad 3 Verizon LTE. I suspend my data on Verizon until I travel and then I use it for either hotspot or data as needed. Now, I can possibly pop a tmo sim in when traveling and eat thru the first 200 M of data and if I need more or hit a bad coverage area I can use the Verizon sim to add additional data.
Do you think this plan will work on the iPad3 Verizon LTE?

Mixed bag with older iPads. It will work with re-farmed areas on their HSPA+ Network.. not their LTE..

You'd need to get the new iPad Air or Retina Mini to have access to both LTE networks as that has a World Chip and can work on any of the networks in the USA.

You are not correct. I bought t-mobile iPad and got tired of them screwing me around with the 200mb. I bought it on the 0% payment plan. Just went to Verizon and had them give me a new sim (granted I had them activate it on a Verizon iPad mini). But I took the Verizon sim out after activation, put it in my T-Mobile iPad Air, and I get four bars of Verizon LTE.

V. I like it to work indoors and still have full bars att can suck ba

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I was hoping the article would talk more about if you buy a Vzw or sprint ipad how you can still do Att or tmobile with it etc. I am not sure choosing an Att or tmobile one makes a lot of sense since it won't work on sprint or Vzw but you should be able to put a Vzw or sprint ipad on tmobile or Att.
If you check the apple forums you will see lots of talk about this discussions. apple. com/message/23602603#23602603

Buying the iPad from T-mobile, take advantage of their Free Data for a few Months, then take it to AT&T afterwards. I'll admit, they are making moves that are sure attracting a lot of attention. However, everywhere I go (even the boonies), it's AT&T service over T-mobile (of which I'll be lucky if I even get Edge outside of the city).

I'm going to buy an iPad and take it with me when travel to Colombia (carriers offers data over 3GSM): which carrier should I pick to make it work on my travels?

They are all unlocked/same model. It just a question of which one it's prepaid configuration is setup for.

I'd pick Verizon personally, as you can pop it on AT&T or T-Mobile Sim at any time you want then, pop in the prepaid SIM for Verizon back in and use it too if need arrises. It's the most flexible of the 4. Only reason to do Sprint IMO is if you're hooked to them.. You cannot wifi hotspot with Sprints prepaid though, unless its post paid and you pay the tethering fee to specifically allow it.

Is there an iPad that supports all four carriers? I thought that was mentioned during the recent keynote.

That was my impression as well. I thought that the only difference between the cellular versions is simply what nanosim comes pre-installed. I think that if you change your mind afterwards, you just need to get a different nanosim card (which you can usually get for free, or worst case a small charge).

If I'm right, it is a very nice feature of the new iPads (and minis as well).

Apples LTE site seems to confirm this:

http://www.apple.com/ipad/LTE

It is possible that the devices are carrier-locked, or that there is some sort of firmware difference between the models. But I don't think this is the case.

There is no activation fee, as there is no contract. Data plans are completely optional, and they are handled directly on the iPad. iPads that support cellular service also come with a dedicated GPS chip like iPhones do.

What about Canada re these IPad only data plans? Can Rene Ritchie offer his fellow Canadians some advice? DJJC

Here is my take.

I have an iPhone 5 and a data plan that allows me to use it as a hot spot. Why would I pay the extra money for the iPad to have LTE and extra to AT&T to add that iPad to my plan when I can make a connection to the phone and use the data via WiFi?

Just saying.

Depends on if you want to use battery/data on your phone that way. Usually you want the phone to be available as a phone, and don't want to blow through it's battery that fast.

For me, I don't have that option since I have a grandfathered AT&T unlimited plan.

Wouldn't it be a better deal and make more sense to use your phone as a hotspot for web access with the iPads rather than pay an additional $130 for an LTE radio in your device?

Sent from the iMore App

Depends on how much you travel, I guess. Honestly, having a tablet with LTE is just a heck of a lot more convenient.

Is it really an extra $10 a month for t-mobile to be on their flexibility plan? I just want the free data no other extra charges.

the first 200mbs is free with Tmobile. There is no extra fee unless you decided to finance the iPad thru Tmobile. I believe for that you will be paying $20/Monthly.

Quite honestly save the extra money and skip the LTE version altogether and get the WiFi only. I have had the Verizon iPad 3 and I have never activated it and use it at home with WiFi or in coffeehouses when needed outside. Other than that I love the iPad and I use it a lot more than I had thought I would. My poor Toshiba laptop is collecting dust.

I've been both Verizon and AT&T. Im personally on AT&T which works great (Arizona & California) for me. Besides I carry a work Verizon phone and it works great in the same areas. No big woop on either one.

Tmobile's free 200mb deal requires signup for $20/2.5gb/month plan. So the free 200mb is added on to the 2.5gb. The main benefit with going tmobile is that you can walk out the door with a 16gb iPad air for $62 and pay the rest off in monthly installments. I did, but still feel mislead. It's not very "uncarrier-ly" of tmobile to be vague about their promotion. Was I misinformed and up-sold by my tmobile store or is this the company policy?

If you are financing the iPad then yes there is a monthly but I believe it's just around $20. If you buy it in full (which I decided to do), the 200mb is completely free.

Your right. The store location I go to is starting to slowly become familiar with setting up this free data plan. I've since brought in an ipad 2 and ipad 3 and was able to activate the free data plan with no money down.

Hopefully someone can confirm this. I'm traveling to the U.S. and plan to get an iPad Mini Retina. While I may use cellular in the U.S. once in a while, a majority of my use will be international. From what I can see, there is only one model, so which carrier I pick doesn't seem too important since they're all unlocked and they all support all carriers. Am I missing something, is there a difference or an advantage of picking one carrier vs. another? Since these are highly constrained I'm thinking I'll just get what's available.

I'll sure appreciate any help or thoughts on this. Thanks!

i also have the same question, this is what i have found so far
"iPad mini with Wi-Fi + Cellular can roam worldwide on GSM/UMTS networks. In countries without compatible LTE networks, iPad mini will operate on GSM network technologies such as HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA. When you travel internationally, you can use a nano-SIM card from a local carrier." From what i can get from that, it says you can buy anyone just switch SIM and you are good to go.

I'm sticking with AT&T . I tried T-Mobile out for a week and the signal coverage was horrible. I love their prices and plans, it's their signal that eludes me ( literally ).