Best mobile phone services in DC
December 19, 2019 3:38 AM   Subscribe

My niece is moving to DC to attend uni at GWU and needs a good mobile service.

She's moving from Australia. I've been tasked with learning something about her options for mobile phone services. She currently has a iPhone 6s. The parents are open to an upgrade with a contract as a part of setting her up. Her main needs are likely to be data, facetime, texting and some calls.

She will be travelling as a part of the waterpolo squad for GWU. She has no experience with the concept of roaming within one country.

Can the collective Ask Me community give me some starting points for services so I can do more research, as well as heads up on what / who to avoid.

She will need to be set up by mid January.
posted by michswiss to Technology (11 answers total)
Cricket wireless. Uses AT&T towers (they are a subsidiary of the giant) and is significantly cheaper. I have used them for 5 or so years and no issues. They occasionally give data use upgrades without additional charges. I have a 5GB plan with unlimited texts etc for $35/month.

When I travel to Canada I can simply log in to the app and adjust my plan to allow my phone to work there and then set it back when I leave and I only pay for the time I had the slightly more expensive service.

Good luck.
posted by terrapin at 4:16 AM on December 19, 2019

Is money a factor? Verizon will give her the best service, but it’s not the cheapest.
posted by mccxxiii at 4:37 AM on December 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

I (based in DC, with travel around USA) use Virgin Mobile, I think it's unlimited everything for $50, service is certainly good enough. I may be wrong but I don't think that intra-country "roaming" is really much of a concept here anymore is it?
posted by sheldman at 6:14 AM on December 19, 2019

Cell coverage is pretty solid in DC. I had good luck with T-Mobile there, and it covers international travel very well. You may lose coverage in some smaller areas if traveling for school, but that will be the case with any provider (except for Verizon, likely.)

Roaming isn't really a thing anymore, in my experience.
posted by Vhanudux at 7:23 AM on December 19, 2019

Given the team travel part, I would spend a bit more on Verizon to reduce the chance of having to deal with dead spots. Roaming within the US is thankfully something that isn’t really an issue anymore.
posted by brilliantine at 7:38 AM on December 19, 2019

Cell coverage in DC is very good among all the big carriers. You don't need to pay for VZ unless you drive out into rural areas frequently (and I don't mean "Tysons Corner", I mean actual rural areas, away from Interstate corridors).

There used to be an advantage to ATT because it had service in the Metro tunnels, while TMO didn't (it had stations but not tunnels? I forget)—at any rate, it doesn't matter anymore, because they've worked out some deal where all the major carriers work in the tunnels where there is infrastructure.

Each service has its own dead zones due to tower placement, which can be annoying if you regularly walk through them. I would strongly recommend getting an unlocked/unsubsidized phone and buying a la carte cell service, that way if you find yourself in a building or location where service is bad, you can switch. But it's going to be hard to tell a priori which service is going to be best without actually trying it.

I recently switched from TMO to ATT and I think they are basically a wash in terms of coverage area; all that I noticed is the one dead spot on my commute disappeared, but instead I lost a bar of coverage inside my work building. Win some, lose some.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:54 AM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are four major providers in the US: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. There are also many smaller (and usually cheaper) subsidiaries and virtual providers that operate on those big four networks. A couple of the better-known subsidiaries are Cricket (which belongs to AT&T) and Boost (belonging to Sprint). Some of the better-known virtual providers are Virgin Mobile (which operates on Sprint's network), Mint (on T-Mobile's network), and Google Fi (on Sprint's and T-Mobile's networks).

Living in DC, your niece can choose any of these providers or their subsidiaries and be assured of having good mobile service (Americans usually call it 'cell' service). She should be able to bring her iPhone 6s to any of these providers, but she may also find some good deals on a new phone when signing up for new service. Roaming fees within the US aren't a thing with any of these nationwide services and virtual providers.

When it comes to rural areas and smaller cities & towns, Verizon's network has historically had the best reputation and T-Mobile's the worst, but I doubt your niece will be visiting any truly remote areas with the water polo team so this may not really be much of a concern.
posted by theory at 8:49 AM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take a look at Google Fi. $20 a month plus data that you use. Advantage in that it works in every country at the same price. Assume lots of her data use would be over WiFi at school. Also, no contract and she can probably use her existing phone. Unlimited SMS.
posted by Al79 at 9:24 AM on December 19, 2019

Coverage on all major providers is fine in DC.

If she'll be bringing a phone or plans to return to Australia with one, At&t or T-Mobile may be better choices because of the whole CDMA/GSM problem.

Less of a big deal as LTE and 5G become more prevalent and virtual Sims become more common.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:39 PM on December 19, 2019

I'm in Alexandria and go to reston and have worked in DC. I've had Straight Talk for years. Works great, even in select spots in Shenandoah NP. Google Fi might be an option too.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:22 PM on December 19, 2019

I never liked giving everyone a best answer, but it's all been helpful. Money won't be the biggest issue, but the parents and she always search for best value. Thanks.
posted by michswiss at 12:16 AM on December 20, 2019

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