AT&T vs. T-Mobile: All The Things That Matter

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. At least, they weren’t until the company introduced plans with unlimited data. T-Mobile has settled on an ever-changing line-up of customer-friendly deals, worldwide roaming and killing data overages. It’s also giving away freebies in its effort to snatch customers from other networks.

T-Mobile Times Square store opening, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.

Here’s how AT&T and T-Mobile compare based on plans, devices and pricing.

  • AT&T and T-Mobile: Plans and Pricing
  • AT&T and T-Mobile: Phones
  • AT&T and T-Mobile: Coverage & What You Need to Know
  • AT&T and T-Mobile: Which Should You Buy

AT&T vs T-Mobile: Plans & Pricing

AT&T sits at the top of the wireless network heap behind 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.

Mobile Share Advantage plans used to dominate AT&T’s postpaid line-up. They’re gone now, replaced by AT&T’s new Unlimited Data Plans. Like T-Mobile, the company is betting that users will appreciate the stability and speed of its network if they are allowed to enjoy it for as long as they want.

Rob Wilson / Shutterstock.com

Rob Wilson / Shutterstock.com

AT&T Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Choice plans are available to anyone signing up for the carrier today. Unlimited Plus offers unlimited talk, text and 10GB of mobile hotspot data. Calling and texting in Mexico and Canada are included too. A single Unlimited Plus line starts at $90 and users can add a second line for $145 a month. Any additional phone lines cost $20. Adding a smartwatch costs $10 more.

AT&T Unlimited Choice includes unlimited talk, text and data. It limits the speeds that users can expect to 3Mbps per second, meaning it’s slower than the data offered in the Plus plan. This plan drops the 10GB of free data for tethering to your smartphone or tablet. It also limits you to standard definition video streams from YouTube, Netflix and other partners. A single Unlimited Choice line costs $60. Two lines cost $115. Extra lines for smartphones and wearables match the Unlimited Plus Plan.

AT&T Unlimited Plans

  • Separates cost of devices from the monthly bill.
  • Unlimited calling & texting and data
  • Activation fees apply. $20 for Bring Your Own Device.
  • Upgrade fees of $20, even if you own the phone already.
  • $325 ETF with contracts.
  • Device Access Charges can add up.
  • Slows down after 22GB of data usage.
  • Have to turn Stream Saver feature off to get HD video with Unlimited Plus.

AT&T Unlimited Plus plans are great for data hogs, just as other unlimited plans are. They keep monthly prices predictable. What users have to take into account is that “unlimited” doesn’t mean without all limitations. Subscribers that blow past 22GB of data usage will find themselves slowed down big time.

Subscribers get $5 a single plan and $10 off when the use paperless billing and autopay on their accounts, though only check and debit payments apply.

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.

T-Mobile Times Square store opening, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.

T-Mobile Times Square store opening, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.

T-Mobile 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-one-plan

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 payments left on their smartphone, 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.

Read: Binge On Makes T-Mobile the Best Place to Buy an iPhone 6s

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 One, 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 Plus. Even still, they only get 10GB of LTE tethering before T-Mobile slows them down.

T-Mobile One plans start at $70. For a limited time, the company is offering two lines with T-Mobile One for $100. 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 Plus is an additional $5 charge on top of the $65 T-Mobile One costs already when users set up auto-payments. T-Mobile One Plus International is $25 extra a line. It unlocks calling internationally, introduces free Wi-fi on flights and includes Unlimited 4G LTE hotspot data.

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 their devices regularly, provided that they are prepared to trade-in their current one. Shorter AT&T Next terms push the monthly payments higher.

AT&T Phones

  • 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 Plans.

Equipment Installation Plan examine credit scores, then assigns 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.

t-mobile-phones

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.

T-Mobile Phones

  • 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.

Apple Care at No Additional Cost

In early March 2017, T-Mobile confirmed that it would add a huge new benefit to anyone paying for its Premium Handset Protection services. That’s its insurance program. Those that have the add-on for their plane no longer need to make separate arrangements with Apple directly for Apple Care. T-Mobile says that it is included in the cost of the insurance program going forward, which means that those with insurance and JUMP members get cheaper screen replacements and more for the $12 that they were already paying.

Restocking Fees

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 for 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.

Read: T-Mobile Tuesdays App: 5 Things to Know About Free Stuff

T-Mobile Tuesdays lets subscribers use a special app for weekly freebies and extras.

T-Mobile Coverage Map

T-Mobile Coverage Map

AT&T Coverage Map

AT&T Coverage Map

AT&T has caught on. They do offer a huge selection of devices with lower upfront costs than what T-Mobile is offering online right now. They also have unlimited data plans and 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 on video and home phone service.

AT&T Vs. T-Mobile: Which Should You Buy?

iPhone-T-Mobile

T-Mobile is clearly the carrier to keep an eye on. In situations where it has great coverage, it’s a good 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. T-Mobile has made a name for itself with unlimited data, but AT&T is learning quickly. In situations where you don’t care much about the extra perks, AT&T is the better deal. You don’t have to worry about reception or network coverage. If cost is a concern and you travel, T-Mobile’s perks are worth looking into.

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.