There are more mobile phone carriers on the market than you can shake a stick at right now. However, not all carriers are created equal. You’re no doubt familiar with the big three in Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, but they’re just a small fraction of the US-based options. Carriers like Mint Mobile, Boost Mobile, and US Cellular are considered MVNOs, but what does that really mean?
We’ll break down the definition of an MVNO, as well as some of the pros and cons, and finally what your best options are if you’re tired of the giant carriers.
What is an MVNO?
Let’s start with the basics — the abbreviation MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. Essentially, it’s a fancy way to describe a small carrier that pays one of the big three to provide service. For example, Mint Mobile operates on T-Mobile’s network, so the smaller carrier pays a wholesale rate and passes the service on to you.
In the example above, T-Mobile can be considered a host operator because it’s supporting the smaller carrier. Host operators highlight the idea that MVNOs can take on a variety of structures. Some, like Mint, are independent companies, while others are owned by their host operator. Verizon is behind Visible, T-Mobile is behind Metro, and AT&T is behind Cricket Wireless to name a few.
These examples also highlight the fact that many MVNOs rely on a single network for service, but a few special cases give you the ability to choose between networks. Take Google Fi — it regularly switches between T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular for the strongest signal available.
What are the pros and cons of an MVNO?
It’s not too hard to grasp the basics of MVNOs, but definitions and networks don’t tell the whole story. There are perks that come with smaller carriers but there are also drawbacks that you must consider.
Starting with the positives, MVNOs often cost less than the big three networks and they target a no-contract, prepaid market. That makes it very easy to switch carriers and grab the best prices available. Some carriers, like Boost Mobile, offer special plans that reduce costs the longer you stick with them — so the freedom to choose is a valuable incentive.
Unfortunately, the fact that MVNOs piggyback on other networks can be one of the biggest problems. It’s beneficial in terms of cost, but when the host operator is under stress the MVNO may suffer. T-Mobile’s first obligation is to its direct customers, so you might find yourself deprioritized until the load lightens.
You might also find that you don’t get quite as much nationwide coverage on an MVNO. This is because not all carriers are subject to the same roaming agreements, so your signal may cut out where another option would rely on roaming instead.
What are your best options?
So you have the basics, as well as pros and cons, so it’s time to dig in and check out some plans and deals. Luckily, we’ve done much of the research already and compiled information for a few of our favorite MVNOs. These are far from your only options, but they’re some that we find to offer the best plans and prices.
We’re big fans of Mint Mobile for a few reasons — first, it operates on T-Mobile’s network which is now even stronger thanks to the Sprint merger. You can give Mint a shot for three months at just $15 per month, and simply walk away if it’s not for you. Mint Mobile is even owned by Ryan Reynolds, and how many other carriers can say that they’re owned by a superhero?
Like we mentioned above, Google Fi blends multiple networks together to give you the best coverage. Of course, Fi supports the most features on Google’s Pixel devices, but you can bring just about any device to the carrier without much trouble. You’ll also get cell coverage in 170 countries with Google Fi, and plans start at just $20 per month for the first line without data. Google Fi has an unlimited plan you can try too, and that starts at $70 per month for one line.
US Mobile is a go-to MVNO if you value customization and flexibility above all else. You can build your plan from scratch, and US Mobile even lets you pause service for a month if you’re headed abroad. Plans start at just $4 per month, and you can go all the way to an unlimited plan with no speed limit for just $50 per month. US Mobile even has hotspot options, and you choose between Verizon for the largest LTE network or T-Mobile for the best device compatibility.
There aren’t too many choices to make with Visible, but sometimes simplicity is bliss. There’s just one plan, and it costs $40 per month for unlimited everything — talk, text, and data. Visible supports many of the latest Verizon devices, so you’re hardly starved for your choice. You can also enroll in Party Pay, which can slash your price to just $25 per month if you partner up with three other friends. Our own Andrew Grush even gave Visible a try, and you can read about his experiences here.
Those are our favorite MVNOs, but there are even more options you can check out. Try these other options if you haven’t found the right carrier quite yet: