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. But here’s how the rest of the Big 4 national carriers stack up, according to the latest OpenSignal report:
- T-Mobile ties with Verizon for fastest speed, but suffers in coverage;
- AT&T gives both Verizon and T-Mobile a run for it when it comes to actual nationwide availability and comes close behind T-Mobile for speed;
- And Sprint brings up the rear, trailing behind Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
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.
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.
So even if you’re in the middle of Wyoming, chances are you’ll still get that GPS signal.
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|
Verizon: best for the everywhere-user
So if the cost is a big downside, who is Verizon worth it for?
That’s an easy answer: anybody who can afford them.
But seriously, if you need a reliable, fast connection wherever you go – Verizon can’t be beat.
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?
Yes. AT&T appears to win in only one of OpenSignal’s categories. However, AT&T has better coverage – and if you can’t get a signal? Your cell carrier just became useless to you.
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 even though T-Mobile has faster overall speeds, you’re more likely to have a signal with AT&T. And anyway, the difference in speeds isn’t that great – so we’ll take that tradeoff.
|Unlimited Plan||Features||Price||View Plans|
|AT&T Unlimited &More||
|AT&T Unlimited &More Premium||
*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?
Aside from the obvious – great coverage for cheaper than Verizon – AT&T is great for people who love TV. AT&T’s WatchTV app is great and their DIRECTV bundling provides solid savings.
You can find out more details by checking out our AT&T review.
T-Mobile Coverage Map
Let me ask you a few questions: do you use a lot of your monthly data (say, more than 22GB)? Do you like a speedy data connection?
Answered yes? Then T-Mobile just might be the right carrier for you.
We ranked them 3rd-place for less-than-ideal nationwide coverage – it can be spotty outside the city – but in all other categories T-Mobile gets a double thumbs-up. All taxes and fees are included in the price, OpenSignal has T-Mobile tied with Verizon for speed, and a 50GB data cap virtually ensures you won’t run be throttled down before your next cycle starts.
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 Plus||
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.
Take a look at our full T-Mobile review to find out more.
Sprint Coverage Map
Live in a city? On a budget? Have a vendetta against Verizon? Sprint just might be the right carrier for you.
So long as you stay out of the country – you’ll see poor performance – Sprint delivers great speed and a data cap of up to 100GB. And you won’t have to sign over your first-born child to get it.
Plus, Sprint’s multiline discounts are second to none – so if you need 5 lines, your monthly bill won’t cost the same as leasing a $60,000 car.
||$60/mo. limited time; $70/mo. regular||View plans|
||$80/mo. limited time; $90/mo. regular||View plans|
Sprint: best for budget-minded city folks
Who Sprint is for should be pretty clear: people looking to save some dough. But Sprint’s perks and multiline discounts make them a great option – so long as you don’t live too far out of the city.
Check out our full Sprint review to hear more.
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?]”
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.