If you're not an AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon customer, but the iPhone is tempting you in that direction, you've got two decisions: which model do you buy (the iPhone 4S, 5C, or 5S) and which phone company do you buy it from?
While the four major carriers sell the same iPhone, they don't offer the same plans, monthly prices, or experiences. So, to help you decide between the Sprint iPhone, T-Mobile iPhone, Verizon iPhone, and AT&T iPhone, here's how the companies stack up on a number of key issues. The chart at the bottom of the article provides the same information in an easy-to-compare format.
Costs and Contracts
Cost of Phone: Apple tightly controls the pricing of its products, especially flagship ones like the iPhone. As a result, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T charge the same amount for the iPhone, with a two-year contract: US$99 for the 16GB iPhone 5C up to $399 for the 64 GB iPhone 5S. The small regional carriers all charge about $50 less for the same models, with a two-year contract. T-Mobile, however, is very different. Rather than offering a discounted phone in exchange for a two-year commitment, it doesn't require contracts and sells iPhones on monthly installment plans. Those plans include some money down and then a small monthly payment ($15-$20) for 24 months. Pre-paid carriers have you buy the phone upfront starting around $450, but charge less per month.
Advantage: Depends on your needs. Fine with a two-year contract? Then AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon are good. If you'd rather have flexibility, T-Mobile or a pre-paid carrier's contract-free option is appealing
Cost of Monthly Plan: When you buy an iPhone, you'll need to buy both a calling plan and a data plan to use wireless Internet. You may also want to get a text messaging plan. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon's calling plans are roughly similar, while T-Mobile's is a bit different. AT&T, and Verizon also structure their plans around how much data you use and how many devices you have on your account, basically giving you calling and texting for free. Sprint unlimited talk, text, and data and modifies it plans based on how many devices you have. T-Mobile offers unlimited calling and texting, but relatively small amounts of data on its low-end plans. Its unlimited plan costs less than all other companies', but data speeds are slower, too. Determine what you'll use more of, calling or data, and that can help you make a decision.
Advantage: AT&T for the combination of price and service; T-Mobile on price alone
Length of Contract: To get the subsidized prices noted above, all companies require a two-year contract. Because it doesn't subsidize prices, T-Mobile and pre-paid carriers don't require a contract, which makes them an appealing option
Advantage: Pre-paid or T-Mobile
Service, Network, & Data
Coverage: AT&T is notorious for its poor service in major cities like San Francisco and New York, and Sprint is generally seen as having less coverage than either competitor. Unlike its competitors, T-Mobile has very little 4G LTE coverage as of this writing. Besides that, Verizon is generally heralded for a network with fewer dead spots and problems, though its network is slowing in major cities
Advantage: Verizon, for now
Network Quality: Verizon takes the title here, too. A good indication of the company's network quality is that its dropped-call rate is 1.4%, while Sprint's is 2.7%, T-Mobile's is 2.3%, and AT&T's is 4.6% (Source: ChangeWave Research). I was unable to find data on regional carriers' dropped calls.
4G Speed and Coverage: Despite what the other carriers claim, Verizon has the largest and most robust 4G LTE network of all the major iPhone carriers. This means that it offers the widest coverage of the new high-speed wireless networking standard used on the iPhone 5.
3G Speed: Another area that is influenced by the robustness of a phone company's network is the speed at which its users can surf the Internet over 3G, the older standard that the iPhone 4 and 4S use, and that the iPhone 5 defaults to when 4G isn't available. In this area, AT&T generally tests out at a bit less than 10% faster than Verizon (Source: PC Mag). AT&T's lead grew with the iPhone 4S, since it's the only U.S. carrier that supports the faster 14.4 Mbps data speeds that the 4S offers.
Use Data/Voice Simultaneously: This is a major differentiator. Imagine needing to look something up online using a maps app or email program while talking to someone on a phone call. Users of the AT&T and T-Mobile iPhones can do this, but Verizon and Sprint users can't. With the Verizon or Sprint iPhone, you can use voice or data, but not both at the same time (even on the latest models).
Advantage: AT&T and T-Mobile
Insurance: Since it's a somewhat pricey device, you may want to insure your iPhone against theft, loss, or damage. If so, AT&T is the clear the winner. Its iPhone insurance costs $6.99/month, while Verizon charges $10.99/month (though there are many other options for iPhone insurance, too). T-Mobile charges $7.99 for its premium insurance. Sprint doesn't seem to offer its insurance plans on the iPhone at all, instead suggesting that customers buy Apple's $99 AppleCare Plus extended warranty. (NOTE: AT&T offers Asurion insurance, which readers of this site strongly dislike)
Early Termination Fee: Every cell phone company charges customers an early termination fee, or ETF, if they leave the company before their two-year contract expires. Both companies charge pretty high prices (though both reduce their ETFs by $10 for every month you're under contract; i.e., if you're under contract for two months before you break it, your ETF is reduced by $20), but AT&T's ETF is $325, a small savings compared to Sprint and Verizon's $350. T-Mobile, because it doesn't require its customers to sign a contract, does not charge an ETF--a major difference.
AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint iPhones Compared
|iPhone 5S Costs
16 GB - US$199
|16 GB - US$199
32 GB - $299
64 GB - $399
|16 GB - US$579
32 GB - $679
64 GB - $779
|16 GB - US$199
32 GB - $299
64 GB - $399
|Monthly Plan Costs
(Price for Unlimited Calls + Unlimited Texts + 3 GB Data)
|Contract Length||Two years||Two years||None||Two years|
|Service Coverage||Advantage Verizon|
|Network Quality||Advantage Verizon|
|4G Speed||Advantage Verizon|
|3G Speed||Advantage AT&T|
|Data & Voice Use Simultaneously||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Early Termination Fee||$325,
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