When the iPhone was introduced, if consumers wanted the hot new smartphone, they had one choice of what phone company to buy it from: AT&T. But as the years have passed, options have expanded and now U.S. users have a variety of iPhone carriers to choose from. Whether you want to use your iPhone with a standard monthly plan, pre-pay for your usage, or get a discounted model from small regional carriers, now you can.
With the mix of carriers and plans now available, understanding all the options can be tough. To make it easier, here's a round-up of all the U.S. iPhone carriers, broken down by their type.
National iPhone Carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
National carriers are the major companies that you probably think of first when you think of who offers the iPhone: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. These companies offer service that's designed to serve the largest number of customers across the country. Here you'll get phone, data, texting, personal hotspot, and related services, as well as the latest iPhone models. You'll also get attractive pricing: carriers subsidize phone prices in exchange for users signing two-year agreements.
To learn more about the national carriers, read these articles:
- Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint: Which to Choose For iPhone
- 5 Things To Do When Switching iPhone (This was written for users switching from AT&T to Verizon, but it applies generally no matter what companies you're switching between)
- iPhone Rates--Voice and Data--for Individuals
Advantages: Fullest set of features, national coverage, latest models, discounted prices for phones
Disadvantages: Most expensive services, limited upgrade options, two-year contracts, Early Termination Fees (ETF)
Pre-Paid National Carriers: Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk, Virgin Mobile
Pre-paid national carriers are similar to the major carriers (in fact, Virgin Mobile is a subsidiary of Sprint) in terms of the services they offer with one major difference: instead of paying a fixed monthly fee for your phone and data use, you pay for your use as you go. Often with these carriers, the money you pay is credited to your account and is debited as you use your phone. When you exhaust the money you've paid, you have to recharge your account. The pre-paid carriers that offer the iPhone are a little different: generally speaking, they offer flat monthly fees for iPhone calling and data.
The price you'll pay monthly is less than with the major carriers, but there are a few drawbacks. For one, monthly plans aren't truly unlimited (data used above a certain monthly limit is slowed down, for instance). More seriously, though, to get a pre-paid phone, you don't get the subsidized discount that the big carriers provide, meaning that you'll pay more for the phone--around US$200 more.
The four national pre-paid companies are Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk, and Virgin Mobile. Here are links to those companies' rate plans for the iPhone:
- Boost Rate Plan
- Cricket Rate Plan
- Straight Talk Unlimited Plan
- Virgin Mobile Rate Plan (Virgin iPhone users will get a special $50/month plan. More info here)
Advantages: Competitive monthly prices vs. national carriers, flexibility on monthly cost
Disadvantages: Phones cost closer to full price, often no top-of-the-line phones, "unlimited" plans aren't really
Unless you live in certain, mostly rural, places, you've probably never heard of most of the regional iPhone carriers. These companies offer two crucial things that their larger competitors don't: coverage in rural areas and discounts on some models.
The larger providers tend to cover the largest population centers since that's where the most customers are, but that means that people living in rural locations sometimes won't have service from them. These smaller providers serve those customers with coverage and plans suited to their area. Besides just getting coverage, customers of these companies also see discounts on devices--iPhones are about US$50 less on these providers than the larger companies (though this is offset by monthly plans sometimes being a bit more expensive).
To get a sense of what these carriers charge, check out iPhone Rate Plans for Regional Carriers.
Regional carriers by state:
Golden State Cellular
Advantages: Lower price on phones, service in rural locations that national carriers don't serve
Disadvantages: Higher plan prices, fewer features