There’s almost no way to own a smartphone and not have a business or professional relationship with one of the four largest wireless carriers in the United States. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint are the only networks in town, the only companies that offer coast-to-coast nationwide coverage with the best phones and competitive plans. Verizon is the biggest network around and Sprint has the least amount of subscribers. Sandwiched between those two are the GSM carriers, T-Mobile and AT&T.
T-Mobile and AT&T often offer the same smartphones and use the same GSM technology for their networks. Lately, that’s been all that they’ve had in common. AT&T’s bigger network offers nationwide coverage on a grand scale, but their monthly plans aren’t considered the industry’s most competitive offerings. T-Mobile has settled on quickly building out its network infrastructure and rolling out Wi-Fi calling to fill in gaps when it’s absolutely necessary. An ever-changing line-up of customer-friendly deals, world-wide roaming and killing data overages have made it the carrier to be on for frequently travelers and data hogs.
Here’s how AT&T and T-Mobile compare based on plans, device line-up and pricing.
AT&T vs T-Mobile: Plans & Pricing
AT&T sits at the top of the wireless network heap alongside Verizon Wireless. The network has millions more users than the smaller two national carriers. In recent years, the company has focused on offering widespread coverage and the best line-up of smartphones available of any American carrier.
Purchasing a smartphone on contract from AT&T requires that you have a Mobile Share Advantage Plan. Like modern plans from other carriers these voice, text and data bundles focus on internet access instead of the amount of time users spend talking on their smartphone. Every plan has unlimited calling and texting. Differences in data are what make up the differences in price. A recent upgrade to the carrier’s plans means that users don’t have to worry about data overages any longer.
AT&T Mobile Share Advantage plans start at $30. That gets users 1GB of data, unlimited talk and unlimited texting. 2GB of data is $40. 5GB is $60. The plan maxes out at 30GB of data for $155 a month.
AT&T Mobile Share Advantage Plans
- Separates cost of devices from monthly bill.
- Unlimited Calling & Texting.
- Activation fees apply. $20 for Bring Your Own Device & AT&T Next plans.
- Upgrade fees of $20, even if you own the phone already.
- $325 ETF with contracts.
- Device Access Charges can add up.
Mobile Share Advantage Plans can be used for an entire family of devices, not just a single device, saving some users a bit of money, minus the charge. AT&T charges for each device that is added to a Mobile Share Advantage Plan.
Adding a tablet or smartwatch to a Mobile Advantage Plan costs at least $10. Adding a notebook PC is $20.
AT&T has Early Termination Fees of $325 for users that are still on contracts. This fee decreases by $13.54 each month the contract is paid. Those that take advantage of AT&T Next users aren’t charged an ETF but do need to pay the remaining balance left on their phone purchase.
It was T-Mobile that inspired AT&T’s Share Advantage Plans, it’s believed. Certainly the carrier was the first of the larger four to split the cost of buying a phone from the cost of having services. On T-Mobile, users pay for the smartphone and service separately, at any time they can pay the remaining balance due on their smartphone and end up with a lower bill.
T-Mobile recently threw out its Simple Choice plans for offerings that, it says, are more convenient for customers. Actually, there’s just a single plan for smartphones going forward. It’s called T-Mobile One.
T-Mobile One gets users unlimited phone calls, text messaging and LTE data. It also packs unlimited music streaming and video streaming. Of course, the catch with the unlimited video streaming is that users need to keep their data usage reasonable or risk getting slowed down. For example, those that consume 26GB of data or more in a month may get slowed down. According to T-Mobile, this may depend on how congested the local network is.
T-Mobile says in its advertising that it doesn’t offer contracts with termination fees. Technically, that’s true. Users who decide to leave T-Mobile aren’t charged for breaking their wireless contract because they’re free to leave at any time. Users are charged the amount of payments left on their smartphone though, which some say amounts to a contract breaking penalty. In Early 2017 T-Mobile announced that it would include taxes and fees in the price of T-Mobile One service charges. The announcement was big news as these fees can sometimes account for an extra $10 on a monthly plan.
The unlimited video streaming comes at a cost too. T-Mobile pairs high-definition video down to just 480p, or what’s considered DVD quality video. With T-Mobile 1, tethering is included, but only up to 3G speeds. To get 4G LTE device tethering and international high-speed 4G LTE data, users need to add T-Mobile One+.
Another new service called KickBack gets users a $10 bill credit for every line on their T-Mobile One plan that doesn’t use more than 2GB of data. Unfortunately, the carrier maintains that this is a limited time offer.
One+ is an additional $25 charge on top of the $65 T-Mobile One costs already when users setup auto-payments.
AT.&T vs T-Mobile Phones
AT&T Next allows users to skip the Early Termination Fee and pay for their device in installments. What’s more, users get to update to their devices, if they’re prepared to trade-in their current one. Shorter AT&T Next terms push the monthly payments higher.
- iPhone 7 with 32GB of storage: $0 Down Monthly Payments of $21.67 for 30 Months, $27 a month with AT&T Next Year.
- Samsung Galaxy S7 with 32GB of storage: $0 Down, Monthly Payments of $23.17 for 30 Months, $28.96 a month with AT&T Next Year.
AT&T Next Year is still new. Through the program, users may be required to pay a 30% down payment on their device, but they’re able to upgrade once half of the remaining value on their device is paid off. That happens within a year thanks to the payments. To keep their monthly payments down, the carrier gives users the option to pay for a large portion of their smartphone upfront. The bigger the payment, the smaller the monthly charges you can expect on top of your wireless plan.
T-Mobile’s situation requires some investigation. It splits things between its Jump On-Demand plans and what it calls EIP or Equipment Installation Plan.
Equipment Installation Plan examine credit scores, then assign a down payment based on that score. Regardless of down payment, what users are doing is financing the total cost of their smartphone. The balance of an EIP can be paid in monthly installments with a bill or whenever a subscriber is ready. The phone is then there’s to keep.
With a Jump On-Demand, T-Mobile owns the device that you’re paying monthly payments on. When you’re finished with the allotted monthly payments, you can then choose to pay the phone off completely or trade-in the device for something newer. Jump On-Demand offers 3 upgrades to subscribers a year. When users cancel their service with T-Mobile and have signed up for Jump On-Demand their remaining payments become due, according to T-Mobile. As long as they’ve paid, they get to keep their phone.
- iPhone 7 with 32GB of storage: $0 & 24 monthly payments of $27.09. Save $100 with qualified trade-in and T-Mobile One plan sign up.
- Samsung Galaxy S7 with 32GB of storage: $0 down payment and 24 monthly payments of $28.75.
T-Mobile is placing a very, very heavy emphasis on Jump On-Demand in its stores and EIP program online. Right now, its website isn’t capable of offering Jump On-Demand purchases. For that, users have to go to a store or call in.
It’s also pretty straight forward about down payments. Those with rough credit can expect high down payments. For example, users with rough credit can expect to pay $486 on the iPhone 7 up front.
Restocking fees long disappeared from retail stores, but they are still around in the wireless industry. Both T-Mobile and AT&T will charge you a restocking fee if you should decide to return a device that you just purchased.
AT&T only charges a maximum of $45 per device. It also waves a restocking fee if it’s an Apple device that hasn’t been opened. T-Mobile’s bizarre return policy has you paying more for what it calls “advanced devices.” Buy a smartwatch, smartphone, tablet or netbook and you can expect a $75 restocking fee. Smartphones only have a $50 restocking fee.
Bring Your Own Device
Both AT&T and T-Mobile are required to unlock their phones for use on each other after the terms of a contract are fulfilled. Both carriers also allow users to skip purchasing new phones and stick a new SIM card in a compatible phone.
T-Mobile charges $20 for SIM Cards. AT&T still gives them away for free.
AT&T vs T-Mobile What You Need to Know
T-Mobile is most widely known the world over from making consumer-friendly moves. On older plans that are still in use, the company’s Uncarrier moves still apply. Streaming music from Apple Music, Groove Music, Google Music, Spotify and Pandora doesn’t count against user’s data-caps. Streaming from Netflix and other popular video services doesn’t count against data caps either. DataStash lets users keep the LTE data they’ve paid for a year, up to 10GB. The carrier dives into that data when subscribers have used up their monthly allotment of high-speed data on older plans. With T-Mobile One plans, all of this is included.
T-Mobile Tuesdays lets users login to a special app for weekly freebies and extras.
AT&T doesn’t offer any of these extras besides being able to hang on to unused data for two months. What they do offer is a huge selection of devices with lower up front costs than what T-Mobile is offering online right now.
They also offer better coverage in remote areas. Coverage wise, T-Mobile is improving a lot, but it’s still not as good as AT&T, which had a huge head start. T-Mobile partners with other carriers in areas where its network is lacking. AT&T also offers something else that T-Mobile can’t match yet; it’s part of a large conglomerate that allows users to bundle services for lower deals.
AT&T Vs. T-Mobile: Which Should You Buy?
T-Mobile is clearly the carrier to keep an eye on. In situations where the carrier has great coverage, it’s the obvious choice.
Other times, it’s more complicated than that. Users that aren’t comfortable with leasing a phone from their carrier won’t be too happy with the relatively high cost of buying a phone with any carrier. Unlocked, flagship smartphones are expensive. To customer’s benefit, T-Mobile often offers temporary sales and credits for switchers, but that savings counts as a bill credit, not actual cash that users can keep in their pockets.
AT&T and T-Mobile both offer high-profile devices, but T-Mobile loses out with some less well-known devices. Everyone’s situation is unique, but T-Mobile wins out I’d say.
An earlier version of this piece indicated that T-Mobile Jump-On Demand users couldn’t keep their device even after paying the balance of their least when deciding to leave the program. That was inaccurate.