Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint vs T-Mobile: Which iPhone 5c/iPhone 5s carrier should you choose?

Speed vs. reliability vs. value: Which iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c carrier should you get?

2013 iPhone buyers guide: How to choose between Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint for you iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c!

Have you decided to to get a new iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c? The Big Four: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, will all be carrying both new iPhones on day one. Regardless of whether this is your first cell phone or you're eligible for a phone upgrade on the plan you have, it's worth considering what each carrier brings to the table, to find out if you can get a better deal. To that end, your considerations might include factors like price, coverage area, features and functionality. After all, the phone is only as good as the network it's on. Here's the deal!

Shared Plans

Many of us have spouses, significant others and kids with whom we're pooling our cell plans. For households with more than one iPhone user, all four carriers offered shared data plans that merit some comparison. All four carriers also use pretty different rules to calculate how much their plans cost, which can make for some tough comparisons.

The U.S. cell phone business has largely moved to an "all you can eat" plan for talk and text. Where they get you is in data transmission. So for simplicity's sake, we're doing as "apples to apples" a comparison as possible here by looking at each carrier's unlimited talk and text plans, and we'll try to make sense of how they break down data charges. We'll do our best to unravel this Gordian Knot for you.

Let's look at the "big two" first - Verizon and AT&T Wireless.

Verizon and AT&T compared

There are certainly some differences: AT&T, for example, has a 300MB plan for its phones that run even less than what you see here. But at their most direct points of convergence, AT&T and Verizon's plans are similar, with Verizon edging AT&T out most of the time on price, and once you get above 10GB per month, AT&T will charge you a lot more for the privilege - and that goes for single users too.

Sprint's pricing is pretty comparable to AT&T and Verizon:

Sprint prices

Sprint also has an unlimited talk, text and data plan they call "My Way, All In." It's for single lines, and it costs $110 - that includes 5GB of mobile hotspot usage per month, as well. Sprint makes a big deal out of how they're the only carrier in the business doing truly unlimited data plans, and now they're pitching an "Unlimited for Life" promotion that guarantees you'll have unlimited data for as long as you have an account with them.

T-Mobile has shaken up the mobile industry with its "Un-Carrier" plan, which gets rid of long-term contracts and also stops device subsidies. You can still buy a phone and finance it through T-Mobile, paying it off over time, but T-Mobile has broken out the cost of actual coverage separately. This makes T-Mobile a lot easier to understand if you already own your phone - for example, if you bought an unlocked version.

T-Mobile prices

The interesting thing to note here is that those data amounts are not caps. T-Mobile's service is actually unlimited, but they throttle your phone's data speeds if you exceed your cap. And like Sprint, you can mix and match the plan to each phone. Bear in mind also that T-Mobile's Unlimited plan implements a hotspot cap - you can pay for more if you need it.

The important thing to understand about Sprint (and T-Mobile) is that the data allowances are per line. So while AT&T and Verizon are providing shared plans that pool everyone's data together in the increments you see in the table above, each phone on Sprint's plan has its own allotment of 1GB or unlimited speed. And you can mix and match - so if one phone in your group isn't going to be used for a lot of data, you can pay for 1GB for that one.

LTE availability

LTE is the fastest you can get on a cell carrier at the moment, and each of the four major carriers is making a major push to increase their LTE footprints in major markets. Verizon has deployed LTE the fastest: they claim that 99 percent of their 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.

Verizon coverage

AT&T is building out their LTE network as fast as they can. Right now they have LTE available in almost 400 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 coverage

Sprint is playing catchup here - the company has LTE available in more than 151 markets nationwide, and made a strong push this summer to grow that further.

Sprint Coverage

And while T-Mobile may be in last place, it's catching up quickly. 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 is also aggressively "refarming" its network to improve its 4G footprint.

T-Mobile coverage

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.

Simultaneous voice and data

If being able to make a phone call and access the Web at the same time is important to you, you should stick with either AT&T or T-Mobile. iPhones operating on those carriers' networks can do so because they use GSM technology to communicate.

Verizon and Sprint use a different technology called CDMA. iPhones operating on those networks can't talk and chew gum online at the same time. While other phone makers have released devices that provide that capability, they did so by incorporating two seperate antennas (one for voice and one for data) a design compromise Apple is unwilling to make.

International roaming

If you're traveling internationally and need to use your phone, make sure you have an international plan active. You can activate these through your carrier for the duration of your visit abroad and pay a lower rate than the exorbitant roaming fees you'd otherwise get dinged with.

Alternately, you can use a local carrier's pre-paid SIM card once you land at your destination (you can usually buy them right at the airport), which might save you a bundle. There's an important caveat, however: your phone needs to be "unlocked" from its network back home. Phones bought on contract with individual carriers are typically locked to that carrier's network until you've paid it off and requested the phone to be unlocked.

If you bought the phone off-contract for the full retail price (starting at $549 for the iPhone 5c; $649 for the iPhone 5s), the sim tray should be unlocked. And in an interesting twist, Verizon - which locks the iPhone's CDMA hardware for use on its network - leaves the SIM tray unlocked, so you can travel abroad with that phone and use a local pay-as-you-go plan. Best of both worlds!

Who should get the iPhone on Verizon?

Verizon has a reputation for reliability, and it's well earned. They got the iPhone in 2011 and have been doing gangbusters with it ever since, and their LTE rollout was and is the first and fastest in the U.S. If you don't need simultaneous data, and making calls and staying connected is more important than raw money or speed, go with Verizon.

Who should get their iPhone on AT&T?

AT&T is the original iPhone carrier and while it's taken a lot of ribbing for dropped calls and broken data connections over the years, they've been investing heavily in rolling out their LTE network quickly. If they have good coverage in your areas, simultaneous voice and data is important to you, and you value speed over cost, go with AT&T.

Who should get their iPhone on Sprint?

Sprint made a wrong turn with WiMax and it's cost them years. They have the same simultaneous voice and data problem as Verizon, and their LTE rollout is far, far behind. Still if they're the best in your area, and their plans appeal to you, go with Sprint.

Who should get their iPhone on T-Mobile?

T-Mobile is in fourth place, and that's causing them to take risks. They were the last of the big four carriers to get the iPhone, but they're not wasting time pushing interesting and potentially cost-saving plans. Their LTE is far behind, 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.

Making the choice

Still undecided?

If you're still not sure about which US carrier to get for your iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, or iPhone 4s, jump into our iPhone discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out. Then let me know - which one did you go with and why?

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

Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint vs T-Mobile: Which iPhone 5c/iPhone 5s carrier should you choose?

26 Comments

If I had my choice? I wouldn't choose any. Carriers are pure evil. The only comparison would be the cable companies.

I love t-mobile a lot because they don't dupe you i to contracts or separate data/talk&text. T-mobile gives you one price. Not many prices to add together. I bought my phone on Ebay, i can cancel my t-mobile service any time with no cancellation fee, and did on my old phone so i could get onto my Dad's family plan. I am about to get another phone (verizon & sprint can't do this.) and all i have to do is take my sim card out of the phone and put it into the new one. T-mobile doesn't even need to know what phone i am using. Their customer service is great too. Their coverage is spotty (i lose data every time i go to my grandmother's house) but it usually just slows down instead of cutting off. T-mobile is great in my opinion. If you don't want a wireless carrier or don't like carriers then go with t-mobile. They're not even a carrier. You are the carrier because you cary your own phone. It is not bound by a contract. T-mobile just sends me my service and they do it well. But that's just my opinion. ;)

Been with all the Carriers, still have accounts with Verizon and T-Mobile. Saying that I put my Verizon account on a suspension for the last 3 months because my T-Mobile data speeds just blow Verizon away. Getting over 15mb down and 3mb up on HSPA+, my LTE speeds are on average 25mb down and 5mb up. These are my daily speeds and get faster at night. Verizon in my area is so bogged down, download speeds are under 5mb and the upload is barely readable. I have unlimited data with both Carriers. I live in a suburb of Boston and T-Mobile is just fantastic. I have real unlimited data, unlimited talk and test with a allowance for tethering for $70.00. If I want to add unlimited tethering it would be another 20 bucks. If you are in an area with good T-Mobile coverage give them a try, you just may be surprised. I don't travel from state to state, I'm a custom home builder in my area and stay close to the Boston area. T-Mobile has never let me down.

Wow! T-Mobile has expanded greatly since March! They are fast looking like I could switch back and save a ton of money on my cell bill every month. I like the looks of it, I'll be keeping my eye on them.

Sent from the iMore App

Check out RootMetrics. Actual users run thousands of tests daily, see how the providers *actually* perform in real world testing by real customers... No carrier hype - just actual test results. I have been testing on my phone for 4 years, on AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. I run tests everywhere I go... :)

http://rootmetrics.com

I have sprint and Network vision is definitely noticeable. I get LTE and at least 3 bars everywhere. Unlimited too so I guess you can say I'm the few happy sprint customers!

Sent from the iMore App

I had to laugh at the part where the carrier coverage maps were offered up. My experience has been that those maps are far from accurate or realistic. For example: VZW shows a map that is red EVERYWHERE yet where I live in Southern Massachusetts I get 1 BAR OF VOICE SIGNAL if I'm lucky and I can pretty much forget about accessing 3G DATA while at home. It's been that way for at least 20 years now.

Right now I'm married to Sprint. Their service has been terrible lately. I basically need a microcell to use their service at home. Truthfully though AT&T and T-Mobile also have their ups and downs. Must be my area. Sprint did tell me that the towers in my area are legacy, meaning they have not been upgraded under Network Vision yet. I've agreed to give them until December 31st to upgrade. After that I probably walk away contract or not.

I live in southeastern Mass and my experience has been much the same, regardless of which carrier I'm with. I've used Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile - their coverage in this region all sucks. ;) Verizon arguably sucks the least, but that's damning with faint praise.

T-Mobile actually throttles to 2g if you exceed your high speed data limit on the non-unlimited plans. It says something like "throttled to speeds up to 2g." I just read it in the fine print today.

" with AT&T edging Verizon out most of the time on price" ???
I must have been looking at different chart because I only saw 3 cross points where AT&T had better pricing. Verizon beat them at 6 points up through the 6GB and then AT&T didn't even offer an 8GB you have to jump to 10GB where VZW is cheaper 3 of the four spots.

Yeah, you're right - that was an artifact of an earlier version where I was comparing single user plans. I've reworked it to make more sense - sorry about that.

Wasn't trying to be an ass, I just have a math background and do a fair amount of data collection and analysis so it jumped out at me.
Thanks for the quick response!

I'm not positive but I think Sprint and Verizon can have data and voice at the same time if you are on LTE. I know my Evo LTE can do both simultaneously.

Nope. iPhone 5 (and 5c/5s) use a single antenna design. Your Evo LTE does it because it has separate antennas for data and for voice.

I would love to go with T-Mobile or Sprint to get more for my money but their service is horrible in our area. I was with Sprint/Nextel for years and their phone selection was great and so was their customer service but if the coverage ain't there, all of that is a no go. Guess I'll be sticking with Verizon.

So I went to the Verizon store on Saturday to return something and asked them if they had any 5S's still which they did but 64GB but I'm not due for an upgrade until December been with Verizon since altel was around. So the directed me to a store west Kellogg in Wichita KS that had 32gb left. After driving 15 minutes and waiting 20 minutes they said their "big wigs" said they could sell me one unless it's a new contract. So I told Louis the store manager that the other store on Maize was going to sell me the 64gb 5s, so I put them on the phone an asked right in front of them, still he denied me my right to upgrade at full price. So to the other store I went to pay the extra $100 for the 64GB. 15 minutes driving and 20 minutes late an again I am told the district manager of the verizon store said not to sell unless it's a new contract. So no new phone. I called customer service and reported it. They said that's grounds for termination to deny a customer the right to upgrade. It's not that I dislike verizon I just think that it is good business practice to deny someone the right to upgrade full price or new contract. So in December when my contract is up I'll be reminding them of their sells tactics. Please share my story as I write the truth case number on hand and I have all the names I need thanks

Good, as far as you went. You, like all reviewers, fail to remember that these are TELEPHONES.

So, tell me, how well do these devices function as TELEPHONES?
-- Voice quality
-- Reception quality
-- Call dropping

Tell me which product to buy or carrier to choose if I want the best TELEPHONE experience.

I think you get the idea. You're forgetting the PHONE part of smartPHONE.

SPRINT IS HORRIBLE! worst service I have ever had! It takes an hour for anything to load up, and forget trying to even make phone calls. I cannot complete a call without having to call the person back 5-10 times, which is extremely embarrassing.... and I live in a large city. Tried to call and cancel service which they said they would waive the fee but I had to return my phones without getting my money back that I paid for them. They told me multiple times that the service would be better in "a week" but it is still the same horrible coverage. Good luck trying to do anything on your phone unless you live directly under one of the very few 4G LTE updated sprint towers.

i just made the switch from Sprint to T-Mobile and the speeds are night and day between the two companies. T-Mobile in my opinion is the up and coming carrier and Verizon and AT&T have better be checking there 6 because T-Mobile is on there heels..

I've been with T-Mobile since 2006, and when they got the iPhone in April 2013 I immediately bought the iPhone 5 on their network. In my area their service is near-flawless, I almost always have LTE (and when I don't have LTE, I have 4G). Not to mention the fact that their service is much cheaper than Verizon's, AT&T's, and Sprint's.