If you’re buying an iPhone 12, you probably have considered switching to a 5G plan to enjoy, as Apple calls it, “accelerated wireless speeds and better performance on congested networks.” All three major carriers offer some version of 5G on their network, but you might not have to switch to a higher tier to get it. In fact, you might not have to change plans at all. Here’s how it all breaks down.
Earlier this year, T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint was approved, so anyone who had a Sprint plan now has access to T-Mobile’s network. New subscribers can no longer sign up for a Sprint plan, as T-Mobile is now the combined companies’ flagship brand.
But whether you’re an old Sprint customer, an existing T-Mobile subscriber, or a switcher, you’ll get access to T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G sub-6GHz network no matter what plan you have. T-Mobile promises that “All T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile plans include access to 5G at no extra cost,” and all existing Sprint customers also get access to the network, which reaches some 250 million Americans.
T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G network is the broadest of three carriers, but it’s also the only one the doesn’t have a millimeter-wave or ultra-wideband component. Your 5G speeds won’t be anywhere near the mind-blowing multi-gig speeds promised on billboards. But it’s still a bit better than the carrier’s LTE speeds. In my testing, I got around 150Mbps using T-Mobile’s 5G network versus about 110Mbps under LTE. Of course, your mileage will vary greatly, but as long as you’re in a coverage area, you should see a speed boost.
If you’re switching, there are three plans to choose from. Essentials starts at $60 a month per line and offers unlimited talk, text, and data (which may be throttled) as well as unlimited 3G mobile hotspot data and a few other T-Mobile features, such as scam-blocking protection. The Magenta plan costs $70 and removes the throttling while adding 3GB of LTE hotspot data, while Magenta Plus ($85) ups hotspot data to 20GB. Prices per line get cheaper per line, topping off at $24 (Essentials), $32 (Magenta), and $20 (Magenta Plus) for five lines or more.
Our recommendation: T-Mobile doesn’t offer the speediest 5G yet, but its nationwide network is the fastest and most expansive that we’ve tested. It’s also the cheapest, so if you’re looking to get started with 5G, this is an excellent option.
AT&T’s network features both sub-6GHz, which it calls 5G, and a mmWave UWB component called 5G Plus. AT&T claims its nationwide network reaches some 200 million Americans, but looking at the coverage map it’s largely concentrated in major cities. We haven’t tested it with the iPhone 12, but according to tests we’ve seen, it’s not much faster than the carrier’s 4G LTE network.
AT&T’s 5G Plus network, which promises speeds of up to 2Gbps is even more limited. As it stands, 5G Plus is limited to less than three dozen cities in 18 states, and it’s not entirely clear what AT&T’s plans for building it out are. AT&T hasn’t offered much in the way of new information since earlier this year when it announced that it would be rolling out 5G Plus “in parts of 35 cities.”
AT&T doesn’t separate its 5G “flavors,” so if you get a 5G plan, you’ll have access to both nationwide 5G and 5G Plus. Like the other carriers, you’ll need to be on one of AT&T’s newest unlimited plans to access any part of its 5G network, so you might need to switch from an older plan, even if you have unlimited data.
There are three tiers: Starter, which starts at $65 a month for one line, Extra for $75 a month, and Elite for $85 a month. Like T-Mobile’s plans, the lowest plan may be throttled, while the higher tiers include hotspot data and other bonuses, such as a subscription to HBO Max.
Our recommendation: AT&T has very good LTE speeds, but its 5G speeds don’t offer much of a speed boost so we’re not sure it’s worth the extra money right now if you’re not already on an unlimited plan.
Verizon is the newest member of the nationwide 5G club, having only just unveiled its sub-6GHz network alongside the iPhone 12 in October. However, since it’s built on top of Verizon’s existing 4G LTE bands, the speeds you get are likely in the same ballpark as LTE.
The good news is that every Verizon subscriber has access to nationwide 5G. Whether you’re on one of the newer unlimited plans or an older capped plan, you’ll be able to access the new 5G network on your iPhone 12 as long as you’re within range. Coverage is pretty decent, though there are some inexplicable dead zones, like the entire state of Connecticut, where I live.
If you want the fastest possible speeds, not just on Verizon but on any 5G network—better than 1.5Gbps in our testing—you’ll need to be on one of Verizon’s top-tier unlimited plans: Play More, Do More, or Get more. Starting at $80 a line, Play More and Do More are basically the same aside from a couple of minor perks, offering unlimited text, talk, and data, 15GB of mobile hotpot 4G/5G data, and a few exclusive benefits such as six months of Disney+ and Apple Music. Get More starts at $90 per line for a single line with 30GB of hotspot data and 600GB of cloud storage.
Our recommendation: If you live near a 5G UWB hub, Verizon’s mmWave network is incredibly fast. It’s extremely limited by location so you’ll need to consider how much more a month it will cost you, but if you can take advantage of it, you’ll get better-than-Wi-Fi speeds.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.