Choosing an iPhone 5 carrier

Now that T-Mobile is offering the iPhone 5, CNET breaks downs all the nuances and offerings of each of the handset's major four U.S. carriers.

AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint will carry the Apple iPhone 5 with 4G LTE. CNET

One of the most important aspects of a handset's overall user experience is which carrier it's operating on.

Now that T-Mobile is offering the device , the iPhone 5 is finally available on all four major U.S. carriers. (Regional networks like U.S. Cellular, Cricket Wireless, and C Spire sell the handset as well.)

Each of these four networks -- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- have different plans, prices, and bundles. In addition, T-Mobile's iPhone in particular comes with a number of differences compared to the others. However, with all the little nuanced phone plans offered by these companies, it can get confusing for those of you who are free agents looking for a new carrier contract to sign.

To make it clearer, we broke down some of the basic but important facts worth considering when shopping for the new iPhone. Keep in mind, however, that network performance depends on a number of factors that individual users must look into, especially when it comes local coverage. If you have more questions about the device itself, be sure to check out our FAQ and our full iPhone 5 review.

Editor's Note: This piece originally published on September 18, 2012 and has been updated April 11, 2013, 3:06 p.m. PT.

AT&T

  • 4G LTE network coverage: Launched September 18, 2011. Currently available in 161 markets with 300 million people covered by the end of 2014..

  • Unlimited or tiered data plans?: AT&T offers no unlimited data option for new users. However, customers can enroll in a Mobile Share plan that ranges from $30/month for 4GB to $335/month for 50GB.

  • Talk, text, and data plan price range (for Individual): $59.99 to $119.99/month. Senior plans start as low as $29.99

  • Monthly plan breakdown: If you're under 65 years of age, the cheapest nationwide talk plan is $39.99/month for 450 minutes. Unlimited talk is $69.99 a month. Adding data will be at least an extra $20/month for 300MB. The most expensive is $50/month for 5GB. For unlimited text messaging, that's an extra $20/month.

  • Hardware costs: With two-year contract: 16GB, $199.99; 32GB, $299.99; and 64GB, $399.99. Without: 16GB, $649.99; 32GB, $749.99; and 64GB, $849.99.

  • Overseas use: AT&T's GSM unit will function overseas, and customers will need to get a unique PUK code to unblock their SIM cards.

  • Simultaneous voice and data: Just like AT&T's iPhone 4S, customers will be able to talk and surf the Web at the same time on the 5.

  • FaceTime over cellular network: iPhone's video-calling service, FaceTime, works over a cellular connection with iOS 6.

  • Release date: September 21, 2012.

  • Other considerations: Though AT&T neophytes won't get an unlimited option, those who've been grandfathered in with its $30/month unlimited data plan a long, long time ago, will still be able to keep it when purchasing the iPhone 5. Just keep in mind that after reaching 5GB, you'll get throttled .

  • Conclusion: The carrier is ideal for the ultimate multitasker, since you can carry on conversations and use data simultaneously.

Verizon Wireless

  • 4G LTE network coverage: Launched December 5, 2010. Currently available in 486 markets with 273 million people currently covered.

  • Unlimited or tiered data plans?: Verizon doesn't offer an unlimited data plan for new customers, but it does have Share Everything Plans that start at $50/month for unlimited talk and text with 1GB of shared data, and maxing out at $375/month for 50GB.

  • Talk, text, and data plan price range (for Individual): $69.99 to $169.99 a month.

  • Monthly plan breakdown: If you want unlimited talk and text, the cheapest rate is $99.99/month for 75MB of data (the other options are $119.99/month for 2GB, $139.99/month for 5GB, and the most expensive is $169.99/month for 10GB).

  • Hardware costs: With two-year contract: 16GB, $199.99; 32GB, $299.99; and 64GB, $399.99. Without: 16GB, $649.99; 32GB, $749.99; and 64GB, $849.99.

  • Overseas use: Verizon users will be able to roam GSM networks overseas, and the company will unlock global SIMs for customers who are in good standing and have stuck with the carrier for 60 days.

  • Simultaneous voice and data: Unfortunately, Verizon customers need to be on Wi-Fi if they want to surf the Internet and place a call simultaneously. While there are plenty of Verizon 4G LTE phones that allow talk and data at the same time, Verizon's iPhone 5, however, won't be able to do this due to a lack of a third antenna .

  • FaceTime over cellular network: Verizon offers FaceTime over its cellular network.

  • Release date: September 21, 2012.

  • Other considerations: The Big Red is a little confusing with its unlimited plan for existing users, but here it is in a nutshell: Once upon a time, customers had unlimited data for $30/month. At the time of its launch, users who wanted to keep this unlimited plan and get the iPhone 5 had to purchase the phone for the full, unsubsidized price , which ranged from $649.99 for the 16GB model to $849.99 for the 64GB.

  • Conclusion: One of Verizon's biggest incentive is the breadth and availability of its 4G LTE network. Given that, customers should always research carrier coverage for their prospective towns, but with 486 networks under its belt, chances are that Verizon will have you covered.

Sprint

  • 4G LTE network coverage: Launched July 15, 2012. Currently available in 100 markets

  • Unlimited or tiered data plans?: Sprint offers unlimited talk, data, and messaging for $109.99/month.

  • Talk, text, and data plan price range (for Individual): $79.99 to $109.99 a month.

  • Monthly plan breakdown: Sprint's most bare-bones plan is its "Basic" option, which offers 200 anytime minutes for $29.99/month (450 minutes and 900 minutes cost $39.99/month and $59.99/month, respectively). If you want unlimited messaging, that's an extra $10/month (though, there is no unlimited messaging option for just the 200-minute plan). If you're cool with these talk limitations but want unlimited data, that'll be an extra $30 a month stacked on top. That means if you start out with the 450 minutes a month plan, it'll be $79.99/month for unlimited text and data.

  • Hardware costs: With two-year contract: 16GB, $199.99; 32GB, $299.99; and 64GB, $399.99. Without: 16GB, $649.99; 32GB, $749.99; and 64GB, $849.99.

  • Overseas use: Similar to Verizon, Sprint users can't switch to a GSM network in the U.S., but can do so overseas. And if you've paid your bills on time and have been with Sprint for 90 days, it will unlock your SIM for global usage.

  • Simultaneous voice and data: Sprint confirmed that customers will not be able to access voice and data capabilities simultaneously. Similar to Verizon, this is because Sprint's iPhone 5 doesn't have a third antenna that would make this feature possible.

  • FaceTime over cellular network: There will be no restrictions on cellular usage for FaceTime over Sprint's network.

  • Release date: September 21, 2012.

  • Other considerations: The iPhone 5 features wideband audio (or HD Voice), which lends to better call quality. Sprint offers HD Voice, but confirmed that it won't be available on the iPhone 5.

  • Conclusion: The carrier trails behind Verizon and AT&T in terms of number of 4G LTE markets covered, but it's the only network aside from T-Mobile that offers unlimited data.

T-Mobile

  • 4G network coverage: Launched March 26, 2013. Currently available in seven cities and projected to reach 200 million Americans by the end of 2013.

  • Unlimited or tiered data plans?: T-Mobile has an unlimited talk, text, and data plan for $70/month.

  • Talk, text, and data plan price range (for Individual): $50 to $70 a month.

  • Monthly plan breakdown: T-Mobile offers unlimited talk and text and 500MB of high-speed 4G data for $50/month. For an extra $10/month, you can get an extra 2GB of data, and if you want unlimited high-sped data, you'll need to pay $70 a month.

  • Hardware costs: Without two-year contract: 16GB, $579.99; 32GB, $679.99; and 64GB, $779.99. A $20/month for 24 months payment plan is also available, with down payments starting at: 16GB, $99.99; 32GB, $199.99; and 64GB, $299.99.

  • Overseas use: The phone will operate on a GSM network. The carrier will unlock your SIM if your account is in good standing and you paid off your handset. If you have yet to pay it off, T-Mobile requires that you stay in active service for at least 60 days before it unlocks the SIM.

  • Simultaneous voice and data: Customers will be able to chat and use data at the same time.

  • FaceTime over cellular network: There will be no restrictions on cellular usage for FaceTime over T-mobile's HSPA+ and 4G LTE networks.

  • Release date: April 12, 2013.

  • Other considerations: We caution current iPhone 5 users who want to port their unlocked device over to T-Mobile because the existing model won't be able to fully support T-Mobile's entire network . If you want to take full advantage of the carrier's data speeds, we suggest purchasing the phone directly from the carrier, or from Apple on and after April 12.

  • Conclusion: If you want the iPhone off-contract, T-Mobile is your most economical bet. But keep in mind that while its 4G LTE speeds are impressive for now , its fledgling network is only available in a handful of cities.

Read the full CNET Review

Apple iPhone 5

The Bottom Line: The iPhone 5 completely rebuilds the iPhone on a framework of new features and design, addressing its major previous shortcomings. It's absolutely the best iPhone to date, and it easily secures its place in the top tier of the smartphone universe. / Read full review

About the author

Lynn La is CNET's associate editor for cell phone and smartphone news and reviews. Prior to coming to CNET, she wrote for the Sacramento Bee and was a staff editor at Macworld. In addition to covering technology, she has reported on health, science, and politics.

 

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